Prologue: No one has ever asked me why I interview the folks I do, or even where I find them. Suffice it to say I love runners and their stories. In the hierarchy of running lore, my runners may appear ordinary. But I assure you, they appear larger than life to me. Take for example one Frank Nightingale. Mild mannered business man by day, but by night a cohort to painted revellers known to disturb the peaceover hundreds of miles in a single weekend. They call themselves Ragnar.
It was Frank who suggested that our interview be conducted at the Village Tavern in Scottsdale. It was a lovely October afternoon and my arrival was met with a mellow piano riff. Inside some pictures I looked at reminded me of the giant Marine Corpse Marathon poster I had recently seen in Frank’s office. With the luck of the Irish, I was able to activate my digital recorder just as Frank joined me at the bar.
RFYL: Hi Frank. As I said earlier, I have some standard runners’ questions, but you seem to have so much fun with your running, why don’t you just spread the joy and share some of your stories? If I think of a question, I’ll throw it in.
Frank: Well, here’s one that I get a kick out of. I run with Phoenix Fit on Tuesday and Thursday nights and there’s a girl in our group and she’s very competitive. And it’s one of those nights when you just don’t have it. We were done with our exercises and our goal was to run to the fish, it’s a landmark in Scottsdale. I think it’s maybe on Goldwater and Indian School. There’s this stupid ass fish on the wall that they spent millions of dollars on. But that’s our turnaround. And we went out really fast. When we turn at the fish I’m totally out of gas. So this girl I’m telling you about, she just takes off ahead of everybody. But then I look down across 60th street and I look down the canal and I see she’s walking, so I think to myself, “I think I can catch her!” So I sprint, which for me is a crawl, and I’m sure she saw me trying to catch her so she takes off again. So another mile goes by, she gets further out and she starts walking again. So I run up to catch her and she takes off again. This happens three or four times. Finally we get down to 56th street and Indian school and she’s walking. This time I crawl in and we have maybe a quarter another quarter of a mile to get to where we started. So I’m walking with her and she goes” “Hell of a tough run tonight”, and I’m “Oh yeh, it really was.” Then I realized how close we were to the end. So I took off and I sprinted home ahead of her and I can hear she’s calling me every name in the book. But the funniest part was everybody said, “Frank beat you in? Oh, wow! Are you slow!” I know I’ll pay for it but that was really fun.
Frank (Continued): Here’s a scary one. I was doing a long run you know one of your 20’s you do right before a marathon. And you know how on the long guys you get kind of delirious? So it’s about six thirty on a Sunday night and I’m running up the canal towards the freeway, maybe 17th Ave and the freeway. And I look up and see I’m about to run through about ten guys in a big circle. The first thing that comes to my mind is there is some kind of drug deal going on. Then I thought, “Whoa, I’m going to get my ass kicked.” But I have to run past them and there are lots of them. So I slog by and get to the freeway unharmed. But then it hits me. I have to run back past them again to get to my car. I’m thinking, this time they’ll get me for sure. It was all I could do to turn around. But I turn around and they are all gone. I really picked up the pace on the way back in case they were hiding, waiting to jump me. Then later I thought maybe it was all a mind thing because I was so tired. But you do see some scary looking people on the canal.
RFYL: Tell us about one of your marathons.
Frank: Ok, this one turned out good but it was crazy too. It’s right after 9 11. The stock market was closed for a couple of weeks so all I could do was run. So I was in really good shape, and I’m doing the Chicago Marathon. When I got to the halfway point it seemed like the race just started. It was just one of those days. I just went faster and faster and faster. And so I got to the tunnel; there’s a tunnel before the end of the race in Chicago. I guess it’s where the Convention Center is. I tried not to look at the clock the whole race but I looked up then and I couldn’t believe it. I was like thirty-five minutes ahead of schedule. I was in total shock. I says, “Is that clock right?” And I just stopped. I started laughing. I had to tell myself to get running again. Like the clock was going to change its mind. And then I chugged it on in and had my PR.
RFYL: Why did you start running?
Frank: I was about 260 lbs on New Years day, 1998. I was at the Wigwam restaurant and a great pal of mine and his girlfriend were down from Utah. They were going to do a marathon. My pal was going through a divorce and had talked the girlfriend into doing the Marine Corps Marathon. So we’re celebrating all that. We’re sitting around a dinning table having some snacks. The centerpiece was like this big round bowl of green gelatine. My friends see how chunky I am so they say, “I’ll betcha a hundred bucks you won’t do a marathon with us.” Well you know how guys are with a challenge. I’m like “Yeh, yeh. I’ll do it. No problem.” And just as I said that the top button of my blazer flew off into the pile of green goo. So I’m looking around like it didn’t just happen. I mean what’s the etiquette for extracting a button from the ordourves? Finally, I get this napkin and fish out my button and we’re all cracking up. Long story short, I thought they’d forget about the challenge.
But about a month later Galloway’s Book on Running showed up in the mail. They hadn’t forgotten, and I was about to begin training for my first marathon.
RFYL: How did your other friends react to this decision?
Frank: Well several of my friends saw me losing weight and having a good time with it. There’s probably twenty people in Phoenix that I was running around with who started running because of that decision. One of them just qualified for the Boston Marathon. And he was a fellow couch potato. Maybe not as big. I was huge.
RFYL: You seem to be a great student of running; who are some you really admire?
Frank: You know I’ve always thought Steve Prefontaine was an awesome guy. Just because he pushed himself so hard. We’ve all been there and It’s like, “Ok, I’ll just push till I puke. But I’ll recover. And I’m gonna leave it on the field.” That was his thing
The other guy is Louis Zamparina. What a story! The book Unbroken. I just get horrible chills when I think what he went through. The coolest part of the book to me was when his wife talks him into going to the Billy Graham event. It’s years after the war and Zamparini is still pretty much lost. He’s about to lose his wife and kids. But he says to his wife, “Ok, ok I’ll go.” So he goes to listen to Billy Graham and something must have happened because he went back two more nights. The second night, Graham says, “You’re here again.” And Zamparina says, “What do I have to do?” and Graham says, “Just believe.” So Zamparini softens his heart and all of a sudden his life takes off; he finds out what he’s supposed to be doing. He goes on to establish the famous Camp Victory for kids. But the coolest thing, I truly believe the toughest thing in life is forgiveness. I know a lot of people carry it in their hearts. But here’s this guy (a sadistic POW warden nicknamed “The Bird”) beats Zamparini up, almost everyday for two years and Zamparini travels to Japan to forgive him. Talk about guy who walks the walk.
RFYL: Let’s talk training. Some of your likes and dislikes.
Frank: I love long runs when you’re all trained up. When you’re in shape you can really enjoy those. When you’re not in shape they kill you. But a very nice, successful long run is great. I mean it makes your whole week.
But I think, like everyone else, I hate speed work. It’s just hard as hell. It makes you a lot better. I think I’m probably kind of lazy. But you gotta do that stuff.
RFYL: Do you think there is a runners’ personality type?
Frank: Runners in general are pretty loose cats is my experience. Like we have a group in the summer that gets up and we meet at four in the morning around Paradise Valley and run. I think you gotta be a little bit off to be a runner anyway. But you know I’ve never met any creepy runners. I’m sure they’re out there, but for the most part people are pretty nice. It’s probably cause running takes the edge off negative things. But I think the people that run for fun and try to get better, not mega hardcore but just people who want to get better. Those are the ones for me.
RFYL: Those are the good ones. What about the bad ones?
Frank: Well I think, kinda like humanity. Nobody really likes to hang around selfish people. And I think the ones that are totally self-absorbed are kind of a pain in the ass. But you don’t hang with them anyway cause they’re usually so much faster than everybody else. I would say the folks on the google team at the Arizona Ragnar Relays are like that. Those guys are so far ahead of everybody, you couldn’t talk to them if you wanted to.
RFYL: Can you share some really good and really bad running experiences?
Frank: Ok, I was running on the canal on a Friday night and I pulled a hamstring and you know, injuries hit. It’s just part of the deal. So I’m peg-legging back to my car, it’s a Friday night after work and all these runners are going down the canal having a great time and I’m dragging my wheel. And you know, at my age, a hamstring, you’re out three to four months. That means 20 pounds. That was the worst.
A really good experience? I would say finishing my first marathon.
RFYL: Just finishing?
Frank: Yeah, it was the marine corpse in ’98 and all my friends said, “You know, God bless you but there is no way you can ever run a marathon. And I weighed almost 250. I had to drop like, geeze, about 60 pounds.
And it was the Galloway’s book that got me through it. Galloway had a book out called Galloway’s Book on Running. And it was just a hardcore, hard-ass training schedule. After that he went to his walk/run program. But this was way back and you ran everyday. And like your long runs, I think there was a 28, a 26 and a 20. It was nuts! But finishing that first Marathon was incredible. I got to the finish line, and it was really weird, I started crying, I was so amazed.
RFYL: I’m beginning to think crying is a theme for first time marathoners. I cried when I ran my only marathon. Jeff Hall cried when he did his first and now you.
Frank: Well It’s a pretty big deal. And everybody says you can’t do it and then you do it. And you just thank God you set a goal out there and you persevered and you got it done. It’s huge. Well it’s like life, 98% of its mental. So you get to a jam in life and your loop says, “you can’t do it, you can’t do it, you can’t do it”, and you just say “Bullshit! I finished a marathon. I’ve had worse things thrown at me, and bigger hills I’ve run up and I’m going to get through this.
RFYL: Families usually play a big role in the important things. What is your family’s reaction to your running?
Frank: My family they think I’m nuts. It’s interesting, my oldest brother’s wife’s father, he’s a famous track coach in Southern California. For high school kids. He thinks adults doing marathons is just absurd. It just beats you up too much. And my dad, he never exercises and he’s 82, a medical marvel. He’s been on Lipitor for 40 years. The funniest thing though, our family has high cholesterol, so everybody’s on Lipitor. So we’re trying to get Pfizer to sponsor our Ragnar Team. No, no I’m kidding but the family thinks I’m nuts for real.
RFYL: Ok, I guess it’s time for the universal question: Why do you run?
Frank: Well, you know none of us are going to win an Olympic medal and it’s a weird sport because you’re competing against yourself. If you run, you’ll have friends that are fast, and friends that are slow. I think the biggest thing about running is it’s a great work out. I have a lot of friends who are set for speed, but I think it’s nice just getting out and exercising and maybe pushing yourself a little. I guess I just like hanging with runners.
RFYL: What would you do if you couldn’t run?
Frank: I guess probably hike as fast as I could. I hate gyms, being inside. I mean I go to the gym but I think it’s sterile. But as long as I can walk, I think I keep running.
Frank: I think the trick is, ok like the last thee years I’ve slowed down a lot and I’ve pulled several calf muscles. In general you get chicken. You start favoring things. Like me shortening my stride. Then I’ve got kind of an asthma thing. So you stop pushing yourself. Mentally you pull it back. I was running with a buddy on Mockingbird and we’ve done about ten miles and he says, “Your stride’s really short.” It’s kind of like when we were on Mt. Shasta and the guide kept saying “natural stride, natural stride” because when you short step it you’re blowing energy. The deal is to be as efficient as possible.
And then your core has to be strong. We do a lot of core strengthening stuff at Phoenix Fit. I’ve always thought that stuff was all BS, but since I started doing it I’ve noticed a big difference. Before I would slump over when I got tired. Having a weak core makes you wobbly. The trick is to just get down the road as efficiently as possible. And you want to run as tall and efficiently as possible. It’s like being a singer. If your core doesn’t support your diaphragm, you can’t project.
RFYL: I’m going to do the New York City Marathon in 2012. I’ll be 70 years old. I’ve been told that it’s a crapshoot, that I have zero margin for error.
Frank: I disagree. You know, a marathon, mega miles? Well, what I was told, you should treat a marathon like five five-mile runs, so they’re segments. It’s kind of like that whole “living in the now” concept. So you’re e running on the canal and you’re ready to puke and you say if I can just get to that telephone pole, that’s my goal, my short term goal. Then you get there and it’s oh, there’s the SRP truck. And then an overhanging tree and so on. Just five five-mile problems. And If you can think of them as opportunities, it will go even better.
RFYL: Got any advice for this geezer doing a marathon at 70?
Frank: You know, a lot of it is just saddle time. You’ve got your base, you’re doing your training. So first week in November? You’ve got thirteen months to get ready. It’s a lay-up. You got tons of time. Keep raising the bar on your mileage and you’ll be golden. I wouldn’t worry about the time. I’d just say, “ I’m going to finish the SOB.” I think your goal should just be negative splits in New York. You’ll have family there. But you know how fast time goes. Make doing something extra every day your goal. Like an extra ten sit-ups. That kind of drill.
RFYL: What was your New York Marathon like?
Frank: It’s a crazy race because you start on this bridge and all the celebrities take off. Everybody’s fast in this race. The last time I did it, I don’t think I ever passed anybody. And then the 59th Street Bridge its like running up Camelback. And finally you crest and make this left turn and people just yell their brains out. It’s one of the coolest moments of your life.
RFYL: Any advice for our readers?
I would encourage any runner new to the sport to find a group to run with. I fell in with this group called Phoenix Fit. And I urge anybody who is hasn’t done a half or a full marathon to hook up with them. I think they have about 120 members. And they work with all types of runners. There’s one guy weighed about 350 lbs and he’s out there running and losing weight. They have great coaches. The workouts are very structured. They meet on Saturdays and during the week there is a deal called ATP, an advanced program for folks who really want to improve on their race times. They really helped me with all kinds of exercises and different runs. I’ve seen a big difference this year. And when you run with a group you meet a lot of new friends hang out with some awesome people.
Epilogue: The interview is over. The recorder turned off. “I’ll see you at Ragnar”, says the painted reveller to the old man. “If not sooner,” replies the old man.
hundreds of miles in a single weekend.