Running: It’s about time

By Doug Snover

People have been running since prehistoric man or woman learned to stand upright. The question is, have we learned anything since then?

Dean Hebert says he has. His goal over 35 years of competitive running and coaching is to optimize the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.

Hebert, a Kyrene Corridor resident, may be someone worth listening to. He’s had a lot of time to think about things. Approaching his 49th birthday this month (Feb. 20) he has almost 49,000 miles under his feet. That’s about twice around this Earth the rest of us walk on.

“I actually have every mile documented,” Hebert said during a recent coffee break at Starbucks. He pauses a few seconds to do the math. “As of this morning, 48,889.”

“I wanted to get 49,000 miles by my 49th birthday,” he smiles. “I’m going to come up a little bit short.”

Hebert (pronounced “A-bear”) is founder of RxRunning, a Tempe-based running club that uses the track at Marcos de Niza High School two evenings a week to stretch its members’ legs and maybe change their way of thinking about running.

“Running is a natural thing,” he says. “I don’t believe there’s a certain form. In fact, I’ve seen runners who were faster than I am, and I wonder how the heck they do that.”

So why does anyone need a running coach? “To optimize this bio-mechanism,” Hebert says. It’s the first time of many that the word “optimize” works into the conversation.

Hebert describes “this musculo-skeletal system” that we call the human body as “a series of levers upon which, basically, physics acts.” The enemy, it turns out, is gravity. Simple gravity.

Without gravity, we’d all be skipping along effortlessly through our daily--well, maybe weekly--workouts.

“It’s gravity that does all the pounding when you run,” he says.. “It (gravity) is our enemy in some ways because it’s often due to gravity that we are injured. It’s the pounding. The good side to gravity is it also causes resistance.”

Clearly, Dean Hebert has had a lot of time to think about these sorts of things.

He estimates that 25 percent of his running time is spent thinking about running. The mechanics and technique. The breathing. The surfaces. Pace. The elapsed time on his mental clock. That sort of thing, which he calls “associative” thinking because it is all about the running.

The other 75 percent of his time on the track is spent on “disassociative” thinking, he says, meaning he thinks about other things.

“There isn’t any limit. I problem-solve. It’s great problem-solving time. Sometimes, I totally disassociate and fantasize about getting away, to my mountain top.”

Sometimes, of course, he has more immediate problems to solve. For example, cars, trucks, motorcycles, skateboarders and dogs along the route.

“I appreciate courteous people,” is about all he will say on that subject.

Nor will he criticize those who get their exercise by bicycling or rollerblading. “My attitude towards it all has matured. Anyone out there being active … I respect that. For the running side of me, however, I see runners as participating in a very pure sport. There’s an elegance to it in its simplicity.”

Hebert grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Arizona to study for his bachelor’s degree in education. He followed that with a master’s in higher-education administration, and did some work toward a doctorate in sports psychology.

His studies put him on an academic career path while his feet took him to 5K and 10K races, marathons and dualatons (running and bicycling) around the nation. Including two appearances in the famous Boston Marathon. He ran its 26-mile course in 1989, finishing in three hours and two minutes. He ran again in 1996 with a time of three hours and eight minutes.

Hebert is planning to run in Boston again this April 18. “It’s about that time,” he said. “I might do a 3:10 or 3:20. It’ll be under three-and-a half, that’s all I really know.”

For those keeping score, John J. McDermott of New York won the very first Boston Marathon on April 19, 1897, in 2:55:10. But the course was just under 25 miles in those days. The record, set in 1994 by Cosmas Ndeti of Kenya, is 2:07:15, so it seems runners have indeed learned a thing or two over the years.