Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trading Bosses

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1985.)

IT’S HARD enough when a parent says good-bye to a child voluntarily, such as when the kid leaves home for college. It’s much harder when the parting isn’t by choice, as when being forced to give up the child for adoption.

Runner’s World was Bob Anderson’s baby. He conceived, birthed and then nurtured his magazine through its late teens. Now came time for a parting that he didn’t seek.

Bob’s personal secretary called me in early 1985 to announce a company meeting. “It’s mandatory for the office staff and strongly recommended for you,” she said.

This was one of very few command appearances since I’d gone on contract with the magazine eight years earlier and had moved away from its home city. “We’ll book flights for you so you can come down that morning and fly back to Eugene the same day,” said the secretary. This sounded serious.

The meeting was rather bizarre: buffet lunch at a country club, swimsuit models (from Bob’s new business called Ujena) parading, then a speech by the boss himself, dressed in one of the three-piece suits that were his business uniforms at the time. He spoke at length, betraying emotions that he usually kept well hidden, about the hard choice he now faced.

Bob faced a divorce from his wife Rita. She owned half of the business and wanted cash for her portion. The only way that he could raise that money was to put his “baby” up for sale.

He wasn’t ready to name the bidders but said “there is interest.” The staff grew increasingly somber, if not stunned.

“I hope to stay with the magazine in some capacity,” Bob said. “And I’ll do whatever I can to keep as many of you as possible working here.”

I didn’t hear about the sale from anyone in the Runner’s World offices but from a point man for the buyer. Chuck McCullagh called from Rodale Press in Pennsylvania.

“We have a verbal agreement to buy RW and will be out in California to sign the papers in a couple of weeks,” he said. “We want you to stay on our editorial team.”

He told me that Bob Anderson would have no future role. Only a pair of editors from Mountain View, Marty Post and Bob Wischnia, would move east. Amby Burfoot, my contract-writer counterpart on the East Coast, would continue in that role.

“Have you named an editor?” I asked. Chuck said, “We’re hoping it will be you. Interested?”

Not if it required relocating, which it did. “I’m now a single father to two children who live with me, and I have the third here every other weekend,” I told him. “Their mom wouldn’t think of them going across the country, and I couldn’t stand being separated from them.”

Chuck said he understood, then made the backup pitch that he’d already expected to use. “Well then, how about you staying with us under the same terms as before?”

Done, just like that. Only later would I see how lucky I’d been to get this call at all, at a time when most jobs at the magazine had ended abruptly.


TWO EVENTS in 1971 introduced me to the Rodales. First, Rodale Press sent me its newest magazine, Fitness for Living. It was born prematurely, before enough readers craved this type of publication, and died young.

That same year company founder J.I. Rodale, 73, was taping Dick Cavett’s TV interview show when Rodale said something like, “I’ll live to be at least 100.” Then he collapsed of a heart attack and died right there on the set.

Rodale’s son Bob took over the company and set about expanding it. He tried in 1983 to buy Running magazine, but Nike chose to let it go under instead of selling. Then in 1985 Runner’s World became available, and it joined Rodale Press’s growing lineup.

I first met the new boss soon afterward. Rodale Press called its first RW meeting at a downscale hotel in the Bay Area. He wore khaki pants and a blue shirt with no tie or jacket.

He let a junior officer, Chuck McCullagh, conduct the meeting. New Bob mostly listened.

When he spoke, it was to ask a question or to take a philosophical stroll that no one could quite follow. His dress, his wispy beard and his cerebral manner would have better fit a college professor than the former Olympian (1968, in shooting) and ultra-successful executive that he was.

Yet Bob’s beliefs and practices made Rodale Press all that it had become – a company not just selling publications but on a mission to save the world’s environment, as well as the individual’s health and fitness. Not everyone in the United States would practice what he preached. But most Americans now would agree, “That’s a good idea.”

In September 1990 Bob traveled to Moscow to export his ideas in the form of a Russian-language edition of New Farm magazine. Before leaving home he had said to one of his editors, “What worries me about this trip is the driving over there. It’s quite risky.”

His worries were almost over as he rode to the airport in a hotel van for the flight home. A city bus swerved across the centerline of a highway and struck the van head-on. Bob Rodale, 60, died in the crash.

Bob Rodale is gone, but his good work survives him. That’s the best one-line obituary that anyone could hope to receive.


Photo: Bob Rodale brought Runner’s World (and me) to the company that bears his family name.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]




Wednesday, May 10, 2017

1984 Headliners

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1984.)

RACES AREN’T just won and lost on race day. They are as surely decided in the spaces between races, by the right and wrong moves made then.

This is never more true than before an Olympic Trials. I happened to see the fastest marathoner out training in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, before the first qualifying race for women in 1984.

The sturdy little figure clad in a dark blue jacket and tights slipped onto the bike path two steps ahead of me without noticing I was there. I said nothing to her, preferring to watch rather than talk this Monday morning.

What I saw was heartening. The runner put two minutes between us in one mile. And she didn’t hint at a limp.

Ten days after knee surgery, one week after returning to running, a few days after feeling hamstring pain, Joan Benoit was back. I was happily eating my published words that she wouldn’t be recovered in time for the Trials. She looked ready.

Joan’s race against time didn’t begin on the morning of May 12th but the evening of April 25th. Still drugged with pain-killers after her arthroscopic surgery, Joan asked coach Bob Sevene, “Can I start tomorrow?”

Meaning could she begin running. Sevene said a firm no, but they agreed that she could pedal a redesigned exercise bicycle with her arms.

This makeshift training continued until the following Monday. Joan ran that day: 45 minutes in the morning, 55 more in the afternoon. She totaled 80 miles for the week but at the price of a sore hamstring from favoring the knee. That injury was treated by spending most of her waking hours under an electronic muscle-stimulation device to speed the healing.

One final test before deciding whether or not to run at Olympia: a 17-mile run on the Tuesday before her Saturday race. She passed it.

“I’ll be running strictly to make the team,” she said at a pre-race news conference in Olympia. “I’m aware of my problem, but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could handle it.”

Handling it meant going right to the lead, dropping her final challenger in the 23rd mile. Joan ran on alone from there, and not easily.

After averaging 5:38 miles through 20, she slipped to 6:11s for the remaining distance. She looked a bit wobbly at the finish, and more relieved than joyous.

“Cardiovascularly I felt great,” she said. “But my legs just wouldn’t go, and I was lucky to hold on. I knew with six miles left that if the pack came on me I was in trouble.”

Three months later, I would watch the Los Angeles Olympics from home, less than a mile from where I’d seen the rehabbing Joan Benoit in May,  as she broke free of the pack early in the first Olympic Marathon for women. Catch me if you can, she challenged the field that included world record-holder Grete Waitz. No one could.


YOU NEVER want to hear news like this. You never expect to hear it first as a national news bulletin.

The noon report on my car radio led off with: “The man who wrote the book on jogging has died while jogging…” Two names flashed across my mind before the reporter could give a name: George Sheehan and Kenneth Cooper.

“Fifty-two-year-old James Fixx…” Then came sketchy details about the heart attack that had killed Jim as he was on vacation in Vermont.

He had told me when we met eight years earlier that he never expected to earn anything more than that modest amount of upfront money for the yet-unnamed book. When The Complete Book of Running came out a year later, it made Jim Fixx rich and famous beyond his imaginings. It seemed to put him on easy street, in a neighborhood where he would never have to work again.

The trouble was, he wanted to keep working. He didn’t want to let fame and fortune change his life. But they did anyway.

We talked at the 1978 Boston Marathon. He shook his head at all the fuss being made over him, and complained that writing this book about running had taken away his time to write and run.

His time was never again completely his own. For the next six years Jim was forced into a celebrity’s life.

He took a bemused view of it in his book Jackpot, but you could read some pain into those pages. He claimed to have slipped quietly back into obscurity after his books fell from the best-seller lists, but that wasn’t true.

Jim Fixx, a private man perfectly suited to the solitary existence of a writer/runner, remained a public figure who died a celebrity’s death. He would be remembered for many of the wrong reasons.


Photo: Joan Benoit will always appear first on the list of women’s marathon winners at the Olympics.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Two Ends

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1983.)

A CONCEIT among runners is that someone has to be a runner to understand us and our sport. Rob Strasser understood, though his running was limited to sporadic and brief attempts at girth control. He had the look and manner of a defensive tackle who in retirement had gained some weight but not lost his competitive fight.

Rob fought Nike’s early battles with Tiger as an outside attorney. He then joined the new company shortly before we met in 1980.

Nike thought then that it had been wronged by the Runner’s World shoe ratings, and Rob came to California to investigate. He called me to his hotel in Palo Alto. There I found an open door, a tabletop littered with cash and an empty room.

Rob returned to find the money untouched. Later in the meeting he offered me a job at the new magazine that Nike was funding.

Maybe the loose cash had been a test of my honesty. More likely it symbolized Nike’s attitude back then toward its new riches.

The money was meant to be spent, and Rob was charged with spreading it around. His staff dealt it out freely to clubs, athletes, coaches and events. He joked that Nike’s business plan at the time was “ready, fire, aim.”

One of his fire-first, aim-later projects was Running magazine. Nike reacted to perceived insults from Runner’s World by starting a competing publication. It produced some of the sport’s finest writing.

Running magazine was an artistic success but a financial sinkhole. Nike poured millions of dollars into it before bailing out in early 1983.

Rob called with news of the closing. He reached me at a Portland hospital, where my baby daughter Leslie had undergone heart surgery.

“We want to make sure you’re taken care of,” he said. “Do you want another job with the company?”

I turned down that offer but told him, “There is one way you can help. You can underwrite my newsletter for a while to make sure it keeps going.”

Running Commentary was a year old then and still not paying for itself. “Consider it done,” he told me.

By 1983 my non-contact (by letter, phone or in person) with Runner’s World publisher and my ex-boss Bob Anderson had stretched almost three years. Neither of us had made any move to restore diplomatic relations.

Bob acted first, at the 1983 Boston Marathon. With me there were my wife Janet and our daughter Leslie, still recovering from her heart surgery two months earlier. In her first trip away from the Pacific time zone, Leslie fought off sleep the first night until one o’clock.

The next morning a phone call woke the parents but not the little girl. (We didn’t yet know she was deaf.)

“This is Bob… Bob Anderson. Can we get together for breakfast?”

 Bob’s style was to cut right to the point.  Before we ordered food, he said, “I talked this week to Rob Strasser at Nike. He has agreed that his company will advertise in Runner’s World again.

“Also he told me about your daughter also said you need a job. I told him I was willing to set aside our differences if you were.”  I was, and did.


WHEN YOU hit a bad patch in a long run, the temptation is to cut your losses by dropping out. This isn’t taking the easy way out. Stopping short hurts more and haunts longer than slogging on to the finish line would have.

In my worst failure, which would haunt me longest, I didn’t quit voluntarily. I was pulled off the course – of a marriage.

My wife Janet’s frustration and depression had built to this breaking point. My job change had moved her away from her native California two years earlier, and away from her family that still lived there, the same year that her mother had died.

Our second child, Eric, was hearing-impaired and not yet speaking sentences at age six. Our baby, Leslie, had been born with Down syndrome and a faulty heart. She had survived surgery, barely, in early 1983.

I had lost a job. Now I either worked at home or traveled far and often to bring home paychecks for speaking.

Janet had to find reasons that justified what she was about to do. “You fly off to be famous,” she charged, “leaving me stuck here with the kids.”

I’d just come back from the latest trip, a long weekend in Kansas City. Fame wasn’t the reason for going; financial need was.

But attention – even brief moments of adulation – came with these appearances. I didn’t dislike or discourage it.

Even at home I often wasn’t really there, but instead was holed up in my bedroom office and lost in writing thoughts. I didn’t shoulder my share of the family load, but left too much of the child- and house-care to Janet.

Her growing discontent moved to action in the 13th year of our marriage and on the 13th of November 1983. Her flood of tears and forcefully voiced grievances ended with, “Either you leave or I will.” I left, never to live again in this family’s home.


Photo: Rob Strasser at Nike took care of me best in the year when I needed his help the most.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Running Commentary

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1982.)

THINK OF TRAINING up for competition but then having no place to race. Before long you’d wonder: Why train at all?

That’s how I now felt, except this was about writing rather than running. I did the “training” (the private writing) but had little chance to “race” (go public with the best of it).

This wasn’t happening at Running magazine, where my writing style and subject choices didn’t match the editorial philosophy. Running had positioned itself as the literary journal of the sport, and my plain-spoken words and phrases didn’t fit that image.

As 1982 dawned, I had nowhere else to place my writings while keeping my job as an editor at Running magazine. Running Times and The Runner were competitors, as was Runner’s World – where I’d broken diplomatic relations anyway, apparently permanently.

A writer wants to be read, even more than to be paid. No matter how humble the outlet or how small the readership, I needed someone to say, “I saw what you wrote.” The only way to do this was to build a writing home of my own.

This never would have happened without help. My first push came from Jon Anderson, a 1972 Olympian and 1973 Boston Marathon winner. He now published, with his father, a weekly lumber-industry newsletter and advised me on creating a similar publication on running.

Next came an essential assist from Tom Mills. He worked as an agent in the music business but was branching into sports when we met, during my lobbying efforts to win acceptance for a women’s marathon in the Los Angeles Olympics.

With that event now in place, Tom said, “I’d like to work with you on a writing project.” My reply: “Your timing is good. I’m thinking about starting a running newsletter.” Tom: “Let me see what I can do.”

He contacted Ed Fox, the Track & Field News publisher. Ed was willing to test-market what was now known as Running Commentary. Only 170 people liked it well enough to pay in advance for a publication that didn’t yet exist.

Ed said, “This isn’t enough to make it worth our while. But if you want to go ahead on your own, we’ll send you the checks to get you started.”

The newsletter started as a twice-monthly (and would later go monthly, then finally settle at weekly). It started at $24 a year (would peak at $30 and eventually become free). It started at eight printed pages (would drop to four, then a single web page, which I’d call a “column,” never a “blog”).

What started in January 1982 would become the outlet for my more of my writings than any other site.


SOME THINGS never change, even after almost three decades of issuing Running Commentary. Names and products have changed, and so have the numbers of runners and races. But our favorite topics are the same now as they were when RC stood at its starting line in 1982.

We talk about our times, our mileages, our shoes, our injuries, our diets. The first advice column in RC #1 touched on mileage and its role in weight control.

Reading it now, you might think I haven’t come very far in my writing since then. I choose to think that some themes never grow old. Here’s that column:

Whatever the criticisms of mega-mileage training that has been the style since the 1960s, one positive fact is beyond dispute: This type of running has had a profound effect in making the sport more democratic.

Emil Zatopek ran high mileage in a low-mileage era of the 1950s. He explained that he had limited talent, and this was the only way he could correct nature’s oversight – by gaining speed through endurance. (The four-time Olympic gold medalist mainly practiced interval training, but ran so much that it qualified as endurance work.)

Peter Snell ran then-unheard-of mileage for a miler. He trained like a marathoner in the early 1960s (and won three Olympic gold medals on the track).

One reason this worked so well for he might have been that he was heavy. He gained weight easily if he wasn’t running a lot. The 100-mile weeks gave him his raw-boned look.

Some runners have gone too far in the direction of slow distance training in recent years. The abuse of distance parallels the abuse of speed 20 years earlier, which had then sent the pendulum swinging toward marathon training.

The pendulum has swung back toward speed again. In most ways this is a welcome change. But built into it is a sneaky bias, a kind of elitism that hasn’t been part of the sport in a long time.

Athletes from Olympic 1500-meter champion Sebastian Coe and world marathon record-holder Grete Waitz on down brag that they only run “quality” miles and that they “never take long runs.” (Coe’s father and coach Peter adds that “long, slow training only makes you a long, slow racer.”)

This is fine if you happen to be born with great speed and lean genes, as Coe and Waitz were. But what of the Zatopeks and Snells who aren’t naturally fast or aren’t natural ectomorphs?

If they have serious racing thoughts, they have to make up with strength for what they were shorted in speed. They have to burn off more calories than they consume. Nothing does this better than healthy doses of distance.


Photo: The newsletter Running Commentary wasn’t much to look at but had a lot to say.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]