Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Pen-Friend


(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)

2004. We met in person only once, and then for less than an hour a long time ago. Yet I count Jack Foster as one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had. Like all the great ones, he has never stopped giving.

Measured by the most said in the least words, one of the best books ever written about running was really just booklet length – Foster’s Tale of the Ancient Marathoner. Its first words, and far from its best, aren’t his but mine that introduce him to readers.

“If a friendship can be measured by the number of letters two people exchange,” I wrote in the Foreword, “then I can count Jack Foster among my best friends. On my desk here now is an inch-thick folder of lightweight blue aerogrammes postmarked ‘Rotorua, New Zealand.’ I feel I know Foster about as well as I know any runner.”

At the time, we hadn’t yet met. We tried at the Munich Olympics, before the marathon that he ran there at age 40. I wormed my way into Olympic Village, found the New Zealand compound and knocked on the door that I’d learned was his. No one answered.

Oh well, I thought at the time, I’ll try again later in the Games. But a few days later everything changed for that Olympics and for all to follow. No intruder sneaked into the Village again.

Our writing back and forth continued, peaking during his writing of that wonderful little booklet (which I edited for publication in 1974). He handwrote it in tiny script across almost 100 pages of aerogrammes.

By then the sport knew him as the world masters marathon record-holder. His mark of 2:11:19, set at age 41 while silver-medaling at the 1974 Commonwealth Games, would stand until 1990.

We finally did meet, briefly, at the Boston Marathon in 1976. The meeting began awkwardly, as we tried to reconcile the person imagined from written words with the one now standing before us, speaking.

Though his measurements (about 5-feet-8 in height and weighing in the 130s) were known to me, I was surprised by how small he looked. We expect people who’ve done big things to be bigger than life.

Jack and I didn’t say much that night, at least not to each other. We stood together at a question-and-answer clinic, where he wowed the crowd with his simple wisdom. He did the same for me as he now gave voice to what he’d told me by letter over the years. Though we never talked again, I would never stop repeating his words.

Other runners feel that way too. Jack’s booklet was a treasure when published 30 years ago and is much more so now. Originally priced at $1.50, a copy sold recently on E-Bay for more than $100. I wouldn’t part with my one tattered copy for 100 times more.

WHERE HE CAME FROM. Running humbled Jack at first, which might be why he retained humility about his later successes in the sport. He remembered where he came from, and knew that by stopping running he would soon return there.

His first sport was bicycling. After taking long, hard rides with friends in his native England, Jack “drifted into racing” on the bike. This continued through most of his 20s, until he settled into family and working life in New Zealand. Biking only to work and back, and playing some soccer, he imagined himself to be fairly fit at almost 33.

“Surely a half-hour run would be no trouble,” he said of his first try. After going what seemed to be several miles, Jack arrived back where he’d left his wife Belle.

“What’s wrong, have you forgotten something?” she asked. “You’ve only been gone for seven minutes.”

Jack’s reaction: “Impossible. I was sure I’d run at least six or seven miles. I was soaked in perspiration and felt tired. Now I was worried. If I felt like this at 33, how would I be when I was 40?”

We now know that by 40 he was an Olympian, with his best marathon time still to come. But he couldn’t have known that lay ahead when his began running “only every second day, and I was working to maintain that 20-minute jog even on alternate days. I kept at it. 

"I liked the feeling after the run, feeling the glow which comes after exercise. Sometimes the glow was a whole fire, in fact a real burnt-out feeling!”

Running led to racing. “I noticed I was still very competitive,” he wrote. “A hangover from my cycling days perhaps, or maybe my nature. My competitiveness might better be described as a desire to excel, for I have no ‘killer instinct’ at all, no real will to ‘win at all costs.’ Getting my times down was the motivation to do more and more running.”

Better times led to more training, to better times and... You now know where the repeated cycles led.

Other runners have climbed as high, but none was a later starter. Jack Foster wasn’t like the young superstars who seemed to drop in from another planet, bringing with them apparent immunity to the limitations imposed on us mere mortals. He was more like one of us, one who made very good.

He ran while raising four children and working fulltime. He knew the feeling of starting to run as an adult, and of recovering from hard runs slower than the kids of the sport did. And he wrote for us.

We lacked his late-blooming running talent. (His son Jackson, himself a competitive bicyclist, called Jack “a white Kenyan – an oxygen-processing unit on legs.”) But he spoke a language that any older, part-time runner could understand.

WHAT HE TAUGHT. The highest form of flattery for a writer isn’t imitation. It’s repetition – quoting the writer’s words as better than any you could make up – or better yet, adopting his or her recommended practices as your own.

Jack Foster left me with three lasting lessons for enjoying a long and happy running life. I’ve repeated them often in writing and speaking, and practiced all three myself:

1. The one-day-per-mile rule. Jack could race as hard and fast as runners little more than half his age. He just couldn’t race that way as often as those that much younger. Watch-time doesn’t necessarily slow with age, he said, but recovery time usually does.

He outlined his recovery needs in the Ancient Marathoner booklet: “The after-effects [of a hard race] vary, with me anyway. Sometimes I feel fully recovered in two or three days. Other times I have a drained feeling for as long as three weeks.

“My method is roughly to have a day off racing for every mile I raced. If I’ve run a hard 26-mile road race, then I don’t race hard again for at least 26 days. I’ll go for daily runs okay but no really hard effort.”

One easy day per racing mile. That’s the Jack Foster Rule – my term, not his.

2. Not training. “A reporter once asked about the training I did,” wrote Jack. “I told him I didn’t train. The word ‘training’ conjures up in my mind grinding out 200- and 400-meter intervals. I refuse to do this.”

Nor did he run “the 150 miles a week that some of the top marathoners are doing. I rarely did more than half that. I believe it is possible to achieve results in a less soul-destroying way.”

He concluded, “I don’t train; never have. I don’t think of running as ‘training.’ I just go out and run each day, and let the racing take care of itself. It has to be a pleasure to go for a run, looked forward to while I’m at work. Otherwise no dice. This fact, that I’m not prepared to let running be anything but one of the pleasures of my life, is the reason I fail by just so much.”

3. Timeless racing. Jack added to the paragraph above that “failing” didn’t bother him. Nor did “the prospect of running 2:30 or even 2:50 marathons in the future.”

This would have almost unthinkably slow to him at the time he penned this line, but “slow” is a relative term. Jack’s times would slip to levels that were slow only to him – a 2:20 marathon at 50, and to six-minute miles for 10K’s in his 60s.

He claimed not to let the old times haunt him. “The dropoff in racing performances with age manifests itself only on timekeepers’ watches,” he wrote. “The running action, the breathing and other experiences of racing all feel the same. Only the watch shows otherwise.”

Jack chose to define a good race by the effort, not by the numbers of a watch. He said, “All the other experiences of racing that attracted me initially are the same as they have always been, and they still appeal to me.”

Later. Jack Foster’s first sport, bicycling, and his last. He was struck and killed by a car in 2004 while riding near his home in Rotorua, New Zealand – the same place he’d started to run almost 40 years earlier. He was 72.

He wasn’t the first friend I’ve lost to a bike accident. It’s a riskier sport than running. But Jack wouldn’t have wanted anyone to speak ill now of his favorite sport, any more than Jim Fixx would have wanted to tarnish running by dying of a heart attack on the run.

Jack went quickly, doing what he loved. That’s not all bad.

(Photo: Jack Foster, the master of all masters marathoners.)


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


Monday, February 11, 2019

The Silver


(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)

2004. That publicity-crazed idiot who invaded the men’s Olympic Marathon hurt all three medalists, not just the one he tried to tackle. The saddest part of this bizarre incident is that we’ll never know what their order of finish might have been.

The guessing game involves the gold medalist and the one who might have been. If Vanderlei de Lima’s rhythm and concentration had gone uninterrupted, could Stefano Baldini have caught him?

The man in the middle wouldn’t have won but would have medaled regardless. He doesn’t figure in most of the media frenzy about this race, which spilled over from sports reports to the front pages and the news shows.

He’s Mebrahtom Keflezighi, a name as hard to say as it is to spell. For convenience the reporters call him “Meb.”

I don’t know him and have never heard him speak on television, but he strikes me as a quiet man. From Marathon to Athens he ran quietly with the leaders or first group of chasers, never leading himself.

He performed no dramatic acts at the finish and shed no visible tears. He subtly crossed himself, then patted Baldini on the back and walked away.

Meb gave no post-race interview on NBC. Commentator Marty Liquori explained that the runner was “in drug testing” (which is routine for medalists), then spoke to the other two American men.

Meb’s running spoke as loudly, though, as Deena Kastor’s did a week earlier as the bronze medalist. He stayed with the leaders while she came from behind, but both ran about four-minute negative splits in the second half.

Both finished within a minute of the winner. Both bettered their times from the much cooler Trials.

Yet of the two Americans, Meb ran a distant second in attention received. You could say this was because Deena made her breakthrough first, and then came the de Lima affair and Meb’s own quiet finish.

I hope the relatively light praise for Meb wasn’t because Americans think of him as not quite a “real” American. True, he immigrated to this country (from Eritrea in East Africa), but this happened at age 10.

As much as any native-born Olympian, Meb is a product of the U.S. system. He went to high school in San Diego, college at UCLA and has stayed with his coach from the latter, Bob Larsen.

Like Deena Kastor, Meb trained in the Running USA program, formed after the nation’s Olympic marathoning hit bottom in 2000. Only one man and one woman qualified for the Sydney Games, and they finished far out of the medals.

When Meb did finally break his silence on marathon day, he all but shouted his reaction to the silver medal: “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!”

Then he added, “USA distance running is back. There should be no question about that.”

No other country had both a woman and a man medal in Athens. The U.S. never before had scored such a double at an Olympics or World Championships.

Later. Meb’s record for coming through at the big races grew from there: New York City winner in 2009, fourth at the 2012 Olympics and then his Boston title in 2014. After Boston I wrote that it couldn’t have happened to a better guy, in a better way (leading nearly every step), at a better time (in that year of healing, by an immigrant American-by-choice).

Let me tell a story that has nothing to do with him being the first U.S. men’s winner at Boston in 31 years, or him approaching his masters years. This is more local and personal.

Two years earlier Meb came to the Eugene Marathon as featured speaker. That Sunday he arranged his training run so he could cheer on the marathoners.

That night he called me to ask, “How did your runners do today?” Not many pros would do that. And after he did, none would stand taller in my eyes.

(Photo: Meb poses with me on a return trip to Eugene, for the 2012 Track Trials.)


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



Monday, February 4, 2019

The Bronze


(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)

2004. My viewing of the latest Olympics peaked on the third day of the running events. Nothing that would come after that Sunday could top one woman marathoner’s race. Nothing in at least the last 20 years had topped it.

Deena Drossin Kastor did everything perfectly. Her training peaked at the right time, she paced herself the right way, and her first emotional and verbal reactions to what she had done were just right.

A friend of mine said on that Sunday night, “If she had gone out faster, think of what she might have done.” My guess is that a faster start would have handed Kastor the same fate as Paula Radcliffe. The world record-holder dictated much of the pace before dropping out, overheated and exhausted, four miles short of the finish.

Two other runners finished ahead of Kastor. None ran smarter.

The scheduling of this race (along with the men’s marathon a week later) was almost criminal. Everyone knew that Athens in August would be hot, and the late afternoon hottest of all.

So when did the marathon start? At six P.M., in the heat of the day, on a day when the official Athens temperature peaked at 103.

And why this hour? For the convenience of officials and the prime-timing of television. If the safety and performance of the athletes had been of any concern to schedulers, the race would have started at six o’clock that morning.

Kastor, more than anyone else, took what she was given and made the most of it. She simulated the expected heat by seriously overdressing in training. She planned her race as if the faster starters would come back to her.

And they did. At 5K she stood 28th. At halfway she was 12th.

I don’t have midway times for the other women but can’t imagine many of them running negative splits. Kastor did, by four minutes.

Her U.S. teammates, Jen Rhines and Colleen DeReuck, lagged 14 and 19 minutes behind the Trials times they’d run in near-perfect weather. Kastor bettered hers by 2:18, which showed both the wisdom of her Olympic pacing and of her training between April and August.

Now she was the first American marathoner (woman or man) to medal since 1984. In fact, she was the first with a single-digit finish since Joan Benoit Samuelson won at the Los Angeles Games.

These facts are impressive enough. But they alone don’t explain why Deena Kastor’s finish was my peak moment of these Olympics.

The stoic look of her running on the roads broke down into a tearful lap of the track as she learned from the stadium announcer that her place was third, not fourth as she’d thought. Those tears were contagious to viewers everywhere, including one watching TV in Oregon.

Her post-race comments were uncommonly gracious and articulate. These interviews too often fall somewhere between “God is great” and “God, I’m great.”

Kastor’s words echoed those of Benoit 20 years earlier. Joan had given credit to the pioneers of women’s marathoning who’d opened up this opportunity for her.

Deena said, “We might look like we’re alone out there, but we aren’t. Many people made our race possible.” Then she thanked some of them by name – her coach Joe Vigil, her husband Andrew.

Three months earlier I’d heard similar remarks from her. We sat at neighboring tables during the banquet that ended the Road Runners Club of America’s convention at Lake Tahoe.

The Kastors had driven several hours from their training base at Mammoth Lakes, California. “I really wanted to be here,” she said, “to thank the RRCA in person for supporting me when I was a struggling young runner. Your Roads Scholar grant allowed me to do the training necessary to reach the next level.”

Deena spoke first on the program. I came last, two hours later. Afterward a crowd surrounded her, wishing her well on the road to Athens.

I missed meeting her that night and telling her good luck at the Games. She wouldn’t need luck, only a plan that could and did work.

Later. A week later Kastor’s U.S. teammate Meb Keflezighi did her one better by taking the men’s marathon silver medal. Like Deena, Meb trained in the Running USA program at Mammoth, formed after the nation’s Olympic marathoning hit bottom in 2000. Only one man and one woman qualified for the Sydney Games, and they finished far out of the medals.

In Athens just four years later, no other country had both a woman and a man medal. The U.S. never before had scored such a double at an Olympics or World Championships.

A decade further on, these two still ran inspiringly. Deena, now the mother of a daughter, set masters records. Meb, at almost 39, won the 2014 Boston Marathon.

(Photo: Deena Kastor’s tears flow when learning she’s an Olympic bronze medalist.)


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