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  At 38, Plisk knows his pace

Local runner does level best

By Tony Chamberlain, Globe Staff, 4/14/2004

Running 5-minute 45-second miles for 26.2 miles is pretty quick by most people's standards.

In fact, to underline just how fast the leaders run, consider that 5:45 is a 2-hour-30-minute pace for a marathon, and represents the time of the fastest runner from Massachusetts in last year's Boston Marathon.

But Ken Pliska, 38, who represents the Whirlaway Racing Team in Littleton, readily acknowledges that his time does not gain him entry into the "elite" club, now dominated by international runners in the post-Rodgers/Benoit era.

"They're on a whole different level," said Pliska. "I'm a good local runner. I used to watch [Bill] Rodgers and [Alberto] Salazar, and they're just in another league. I never would have been with that competition."

While Americans -- particularly locals -- once dominated Boston, Pliska's 2:30:12 last April was the second-best US finish (18th overall), behind Eddy Hellebuyck, who finished in 2:17:18.

Part of the difference is simply training, said Pliska, not to mention the amount of pounding one's legs can take. Ten weeks ago in the Olympic trials in Alabama, Pliska's time of 2:29 placed him 56th in a field of 86, not good enough to qualify, but a performance he was pleased with.

The real problem is that while he is recovering from one marathon, he is not able to build the mile base necessary for the next one, which for him is Monday in Boston.

"I would never tell anyone to do what I'm doing," said Pliska. "Ten weeks isn't enough. But, you know, I'm getting older and I don't have that many more fast races in me. This is my 15th Boston and I just want to keep the streak going."

Training time is the key to marathon running, said Pliska, who went into the Olympic trials with a 90-mile-per-week base and ran up against some competitors with bases of 140 miles.

"First you have to be able to do that kind of mileage," he said, "and then be able to benefit from it and be able to get the performance from it. It's another notch up."

In a little over a year -- not in time for the next Boston -- Pliska will turn 40, putting him in the masters division, which opens up a whole new field of competition.

"I will be gearing against other 40-year-olds and won't have to gauge myself against the open field that much," he said. "But still, in Boston last year, Hellebuyck, who is a far better runner than I ever was or will be, was the first American even though he's 42. So he's winning a lot of masters money and he's still ranking up high even in the open field. He set a US masters record of 2:12 at the Twin Cities Marathon, so it opens a whole new world for you at 40."

New Englanders who run Boston face one of the most hostile climates during the 12 weeks needed to build up to a marathon. According to Pliska, more runners are moving to warm climates to train, and there are many days he resorts to the treadmill in his basement.

"You can't really train through the winters here," he said. "It helps a little bit to train on the treadmill on the really bad days. But it's different. It's not as hard because you're not moving your full body weight the way you are on a road. The treadmill is doing some of the work in that respect. But the leg turnover is there. A treadmill definitely gives you some workouts even though it's a little different."

One of Pliska's base-building 20-milers was on the treadmill this winter.

"The nice thing is, it forces the pace," said Pliska. "You have to keep up with it or you'll fall off it. So you can push yourself pretty hard, where on the road you can kind of slack off and slow down."

Gaining momentum
Like many career runners, Pliska got into the sport because of a combination of athletic ability and small size. He showed up at Bedford High School in 1979 as a 5-footer, weighing 95 pounds -- hardly grist for the hockey or football teams. But his older sister was a runner, and the school running coach was Jake Sullivan, a veteran of several Boston Marathons, who took Pliska onto the cross-country and track teams. On the track, he ran the mile and 2-mile races.

After graduating, Pliska went to Westfield State College in the Berkshires.

"It was a really nice area to run," he said. "And for a Division 3 school, we had a great coach and a great team. So that experience helped foster my love of running."

His coaches were wise enough to keep him from trying longer distances until later in life. In 1990, he ran his first Boston Marathon, and so far, he says, the body has held together without major injuries.

"It's so easy to get injured," said Pliska. "Our bodies weren't made to put these kinds of miles in on the road the way we do. I always say my left knee is the thing that will probably give out on me, because in New England the roads kind of slant. We're always running against traffic, so our left leg is always a little lower and taking a lot of the pounding. So the years of running definitely take a toll.

"But still, even now, there are 70-year-olds setting records."

Looking ahead
As a master, Pliska hopes to enter a fall marathon after next year's Boston -- either Chicago or New York, races that allow runners in Northern climates to train through the warm season. With the new world open to him, he hopes to win some prize money on the over-40 tour.

"It's not a lot of money," he said. "Even with sponsorship, it's hard to make a living at running. It's not that easy to do. But to win some prize money here and there, it makes it kind of fun."

Monday, Pliska expects his legs to be a little tired, and he may be mentally tired as well.

"I'm still going to try to hold around a 5:30 or 5:35 pace," he said. "That, for me, is a very good pace and will give me a 2:25 marathon, and that should still rank me pretty high in the field."

And if the legs are a bit tired this year, it's not Heartbreak Hill that worries him.

"Usually you go up Heartbreak and that's OK," he said. "But when you come down over BC, that's when the legs just kind of stiffen up and don't want to go anymore. The last 5 miles of the course is pretty flat and pretty fast. But your legs are pretty dumb at that point. Mile 22 -- that's what I've got to watch out for."

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