Book review: Bill Collins and ‘The Ageless Athletic Spirit’

Do lots of sit-ups — every day. Establish a base in the off-season with 3-mile runs three times a week. Add some simple weight training twice a week, and eventually fold in stadium stair runs and track repeats of no faster than 90 percent effort. Be patient. Know what you want. Have a plan. Commit yourself to carrying it out. And that, dear reader, is the core of Bill Collins’ ACALA training program down in Houston. It’s sensible and tested. But even with charts and sample week-by-week workouts, it’s barely enough for a book. But I still enjoyed “The Ageless Athletic Spirit: Training with a World Champion,” published this week as promised.Written with help from M55 sprinterRick Riddle, a national-class teammate and architect friend of Bill’s, the book offers a glimpse of what goes on inside that quiet superstar’s noggin. Bill Collins, now 58, is no longer “the world’s fastest man over 50.” But his softcover book (Theatron Press, 168 pages, $15) quickly covers a lot of ground. And it cements Bill’s reputation as a champion “giver” to our sport.

Rick Riddle, trailing Bill at right, helped produce a chatty, amusing work.


The title was chosen with care. The “ageless athletic spirit” is Bill’s way of explaining why he (and many of his fellow masters tracksters) still compete well beyond our prime years.

“When I look into the mirror,” Bill writes, “I might see an older person, but I’m free to choose the age I wish my soul or spirit to be on that day. . . . I believe those who participate in masters athletics do that every day.”

Moreover, he writes in Chapter 0.01: “One of the reasons that masters athletes can and do perform at levels that astound observers is because we intuitively understand that our athletic spirit in undiminished by physical aging.”

The hard part for masters athletes, Bill contends, is “bringing the physical age into harmony with our spirit age.”

But don’t worry. Bill speedily finds his way out of this metaphysical maze to tackle concrete issues rarely addressed. Such as: How do you deal with the naysayers? You know, the friends, relatives and acquaintances who think you’re nutso for trying to a be geezer track star. Bill has several tips, including: Drop the friend. (Several of my friends have gone a step further: Drop the wife.)

He also spends time talking to novices, especially men who attack their masters comeback foolishly by going balls-out without a proper foundation. (Bill goes easier on women, praising their tendency to be systematic.)

“Whether it’s a flag football game or a 400-meter race,” Bill writes, “your body is going to have a say in this matter. . . . It’s going to talk its own version of trash. . . . You are going to feel pain in parts of your body where you didn’t think pain could exist.”

At one point in Chapter 0:03, I hear Bill talking directly to Henry Rono, whose letsrun.com message board thread devoted to breaking the M55 world mile record is famous. (Henry’s name isn’t used in the book, of course.)

In drawing a distinction between “wants” and “goals,” Bill writes: “If you tell me your goal is to set a new age-group world record for running 1500 meters, yet you are 125 pounds overweight, it may not be wise to think of owning the world record as a mere goal. In this specific case, owning a distance racing world record is what you want (emphasis mine). Your first goal is to lose weight.”

Thanks to Rick’s conversational writing style, the book’s 19 chapters go down easy — it took me about an hour. They supply lots of smiles and an occasional laugh.

Example: “Men need to understand that seven Advil pills in one gulp cannot be deemed a thoughtful cool-down plan.”

Extra pages are devoted to illustrating core muscle groups (abdomen, side and related muscles) and sharing inspirational stories of some of Bill’s ACALA clients (which amount to heartfelt but gratuitous advertisements of Bill’s business.)

The most revealing part of the book pointed up its main weakness, however.

Bill spends nine pages detailing a horrific injury he suffered March 30, 1996, at the USATF National Masters Indoor Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. After running a 60-meter-dash heat in which the padded wall came up way too fast after the finish line, Bill resolved to get up to speed in the final, assure his victory, and then put on the brakes. Hard and fast.

The result was a pop that shocked and silenced the crowd, followed by a trip to Moses Cone Memorial Hospital, where he learned he had torn the biceps femoris at its attachment point to the right knee. He did a major number on his hamstring.

“It was not completely ruptured, but was being held in place by the slenderest thread of remaining ligament,” Bill writes.

More awful was a doctor’s diagnosis: “He told me I would never run in any manner again.”

To the hundreds who’ve eaten Bill’s dust in ensuing years, of course, that’s the biggest howler of them all. But Bill tells the story not to brag about his rehab (he started safe jogging after only three months) but to make a point: “I want you to understand that I have proven in my own comeback that the concepts of commitment and patience can overcome the most dire prediction.”

The book’s biggest weakness? Having shared gruesome details of his lowest moments in track, Bill fails to chronicle his highest.

A chapter is devoted to ACALA acolytes Will Wojciechowski, 39; Mark Hastings, 53; Jean Vander Cruyssen, 61; and Sherry Nash, 32. Their profiles include detailed lists of national titles and times. But where is a chapter documenting Bill’s own track career?

We see a smattering of photos (Bill at Penn, masters nationals, World Masters Games, etc.). We see scrapbook shots of him from his TCU heyday and elite career. But nowhere do we learn how many world and national masters titles he’s won, how many USATF and World Masters Athletics “Athlete of the Year” honors he’s been awarded, or how many world age-group sprint records he’s set.

This omission is startling, given the self-promotion he permits from the four “Inspiring Stories of Success.” It’s probably a reflection of Bill’s native modesty. But Rick and their publisher should have pushed for an appendix giving a year-by-year account of Bill’s track life, from high school to Spokane nationals.

And why not? The book frequently assumes readers are new to track — and presumably new to Bill Collins. (In fact, Bill throws in references to tennis, golf, volleyball and basketball to widen its potential masters market.)

But Bill’s base — his fellow masters sprinters — will be the most interested in his training tips and psychological advice. So why not satisfy their curiosity about him as well? One hopes a second edition will remedy this flaw.

Another improvement would be adding photos of athletes doing the specific weight drills Bill advises. The book has none.

Although many of the training tips in “The Ageless Athletic Spirit” are old hat to many, Bill and Rick do a great job explaining their necessity and value. (Sometimes, that’s more important than simply saying; “Do it.”) There’s little novelty to anything Bill asks would-be track stars to do. But it’s still cool to see what he does to maintain that incredible physique.

I’m no coach or exercise expert, however. So don’t take my word on the book’s contribution to the growing library of masters training tomes. Instead, listen to what some of the best masters track minds have to say.

After getting a review copy of Bill’s book (in the form of a PDF), I emailed the file to a few friends in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Earl Fee of Ontario, Canada — whose own book on masters running remains the best of the genre — writes:

Here are some of my thoughts on Bill’s great book, which has also a large spirit and spiritual component: It is a valuable contribution to the sprint knowledge applicable to master sprinters. Bill is to be congratulated for revealing all his secrets and helping and guiding others for many years. His method — which incorporates four days of recovery between the three running training days — is one of the good features of his program.

The pyramid idea of building a strong initial base of core work, mileage and weight training, followed by less and less weight and strength training, leading up to the major competition, is no doubt a powerful fundamental method.

Bill’s phenomenal success is proof of the effectivenss of his pyramid training, the adequate recovery, and the specialized workouts.

The specific workouts and run times in many cases are more suited to an athlete of Bill’s speed and endurance. Very few could be capable of these impressive workouts. But by taking into account the differnence in Bill’s race times and your own race times, the workouts can be suitably adapted. Many of the workouts can then be used for 400/800 runners also.

And finally comes this comment from Dr. Stephen Peters — a psychologist who counseled Britain’s Olympic cycling team (and for most of this decade challenged Bill as World’s Fastest Man Over 50):

This is a warm and friendly book that makes you feel welcome and part of Bill’s circle. The fact that it is full of Gems of Wisdom will not come as any surprise when we know the author. Written from both the heart and the head, and it shows. Thanks, Bill.

Bottom line: “The Ageless Athletic Spirit” won’t add much to an experienced sprinter’s bag of tricks, but it certainly gives the rest of us the tools to join Bill on the track. It satisfies our curiosity about Bill’s philosophy if not his biography.

The price is reasonable, for sure. And even if the payoff doesn’t include needed stats and photos, it’s a book worth adding to your collection.

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May 15, 2009

7 Responses

  1. Burr Daly - May 15, 2009

    Looks like a great book. I had the opportunity to congratulate Bill for his National Championship performance at Landover when he was signing in for the Penn Relays. Where can I buy the book?

  2. Shemayne Williams - May 15, 2009

    Just click on the title highlighted in the above article. Or you can contact Bill at acala1@att.net

  3. simpdog - May 15, 2009

    He forgot to mention he’s a one in a ten million genetic blessing from God..
    Great, Classy Man!

  4. lez - May 15, 2009

    A TRUE ,CLASSIC,HUMBLE RUNNER[GODSPEED]

  5. Jonathan Littman - May 24, 2009

    Bill Collins’ book is about inspiration as much as running fast. I first met Bill nearly 3 years ago. I was going on 49, an old college soccer player with a bad back, fifteen extra pounds around the middle and chronically tight hamstrings. I wrote a story about Bill for Rodale’s Best Life Magazine and became hooked on his training. I went on to write other stories about great sprinters for Playboy and Yahoo Sports about Jeremy Wariner, Willie Gault and others — and lost those fifteen pounds and got a heck of a lot faster.
    But there is only one Bill Collins. He is a whole man. And he taught me that it’s more than fast intervals, plyometrics and core. It’s about the beauty and joy of running fast. It’s about honoring that movement. About finding that challenge that connects you with other talented men and women. Read The Ageless Athletic Spirt and you get a sense of what makes Bill Collins unique in the world of sport.

  6. Anonymous - June 27, 2009

    If you’re looking for a book to help you run faster, I would say that this is NOT that book.
    Other than “build a base and then run shorter/faster,” and “do core work every day” there’s not much in the way of practical suggestions.
    I’m more than a bit surprised that his weight training protocol has only leg extensions and leg curls for the lower body, and has some core exercises that work the shoulders more than the core.
    Anyway, if anyone wants the book, be on the lookout for my copy at Amazon.com

  7. Jezza - September 23, 2009

    I think I’ll wait for Steve Peters’s – thanks all the same!

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