Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Distant Looks at Olympics


(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

October 2000 (retitled in the magazine). How much do you care about the Olympics? How much should you care?

The Olympics are entertaining if you watch them as that – an entertainment spectacle. But if you yell at the television for not showing enough distance running and for overexposing Americans at the expense of the world’s majority, or if your running suffers as you use that time to glean every last crumb of news from cable and computercasts, you probably care too much.

My caring peaked a long time ago, at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. This was partly the result of my job, my first Olympics with Runner’s World, and partly a function of age. The runners that year were my age-mates and many of them, from Doris Brown to Francie Larrieu and Jeff Galloway to Mike Manley, were – and still are – friends.

My caring about the Olympics didn’t end at Munich. But it took a healthier turn, thanks in large part to the example of my hero from those Games.

It wasn’t Frank Shorter, the first American to stand atop the marathon victory platform in 64 years. It wasn’t Lasse Viren, who jumped up from a fall to set a world record in the 10,000 and later won the 5000.

My hero from Munich was a gentle man named Tom Johnson, who attended the Games only as a tourist with the Runner’s World group that I helped lead. Before that trip, Tom had never been flown. He’d never ventured far his home in Washington, DC, where he worked as an editorial artist for the Post.

When Tom boarded the plane, he was dressed for running. He carried a small backpack holding everything he’d need for the next two weeks.

The tour group saw little of him after we arrived in the tiny village, 100 kilometers from the Olympic city, that served as our headquarters for these three weeks. His second home became the trails through the “Sound of Music”-like hills and along the trout-rich local river. Here he ran-walked for hours on trails.

Buses took the tour group by autobahn to Munich each day. Tom skipped most of these rides.

German TV, with commentary he didn’t understand, would show him all of the Olympics that he wanted to see. When asked how he could be this close to the Games and not watch them in person, he either didn’t have the words or the need to explain. He just smiled and shrugged.

I watched too closely and cared too much at Munich. The athletic and real-world events there exhausted me emotionally before the Olympics ended.

The last three days of running went into history without my help. By then I’d sold my tickets and quit taking the daily bus rides from the village to the city. I’d arrived at a place where Tom Johnson had been from the start.

On the day Frank Shorter ran for his gold medal on the streets of Munich, I ran along a river so clear that the trout looked like they swam under glass. Families walked the trail, stepping aside and mouthing German greetings as we met. I spent most of the run smiling.

On our last day in Germany some tour members told of being tired of the travel and crowds, and haunted by memories of the non-athletic events of Munich. I asked Tom how he’d liked his trip.

He called it “the greatest experience of my life.” He himself, and not the Olympic Games, had made it that way.

My Olympic-watching didn’t end at Munich. I went to Montreal and have watched all subsequent Games (except Moscow, blacked out in the U.S.) on television. Free of illusions about what the Olympics are, I can enjoy the spectacle from a safe emotional distance.

Having come to this place, I can tell you to watch the current incarnation of the Olympic Games if they interest you. Just don’t let good news take you too high or the bad sink you too low.

If you feel that happening, turn off the TV and computer, close the newspaper and go for a run. That’s more important to you than any of the running happening in Sydney.

2018 Update. After this column first appeared, I heard from a niece of Tom Johnson. Kathy Clarke wrote, “Your article perfectly describes my Uncle Tom, who died in 1993.

“He frequently visited us when I was a child. He always ran the 15 or so miles from Washington, DC, to our house in Rockville, Maryland. Then he gathered up his six nieces and nephews and took us running in the neighborhood with him.

“I am so glad that you saw him as your hero, because he was mine too. That was the impact he had on people.”


[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, Next Steps, 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.]





Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Don't Ask Me


(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

October 1998. My favorite part of going on the road to talk is listening. That is, hearing the questions that runners ask of me at the end of my speeches.

I don’t have all the answers, or even a majority of them, but the pondering the unanswerable is still a worthwhile exercise. While flying recently to a race, I filled the time by listing sentences, each ending with a question mark.

Why, if people who run beyond 26.2 miles are called “ultramarathoners,” aren’t those who run less called “submarathoners”? Why, if we have triathletes and duathletes, aren’t running specialists called “monoathletes”?

Why are older runners called “masters” in this country, a term that denotes skill and not age, instead of the international “veterans”? Why does the public persist in calling runners the despised J-word, which is like referring to skiers as “sliders” or golfers as “swingers”?

Why haven’t we coined a better name than “half-marathon,” the only one known as a portion of another distance and by implication inferior to it? Why can’t we replace the half-marathon with a 20K, and maybe call it a “double-10” or “ultra-10”?

Why do we race by kilometers but still take splits and average our pace by miles, which sound slower and come up less often than the K’s? Why do we train by miles when kilometers would add up faster and sound like greater totals?

Why can’t we find a classier term for walking breaks than “run/walk” — such as “interval racing” or “Gallowalks”? Why, if walking breaks are so beneficial, do runners still run in circles while waiting for stoplights to change?

Why do so few races fall into the great gap between the half-marathon and marathon, when these in-between races are great training for either event? Why does cross-country remain a sport for school kids, when adult legs need the break from the roads more than young legs do?

Why do watches give times in hundredth-seconds when official times always round up to the nearest full second in off-track races? Why, if watches split times into hundredths, do runners talk of their own times by rounding them down to the full minute?

Why is your favorite shoe the one that just disappeared from the marketplace because it wasn’t popular enough? Why do so many of today’s finest running shoes come with the fat, round laces that don’t stay tied?

Why don’t more running shorts come with bigger pockets for carrying gel and bar snacks? Why do overdressed runners not remember that they’ll warm up during the run and then end up with extras clothes draped around their waist?

Why do runners who profess a belief in “listen to your body” take pain-killers to quiet the body’s messages? Why does the body lie about how good or bad it feels right before the run, or especially the race, begins?

Why, if male athletes are “jocks,” aren’t women athletes named for an item of apparel? Why, if women are equal to men in the races, the men’s results are almost always listed first in news reports?

Why, if “to finish is to win,” do finishers risk bodily harm to themselves and others to move up from 1002nd to 1001st place? Why, if “everyone’s a winner,” do races still keep score and give prizes to a few of the winners?

2018 Update. Twenty years later, half-marathons have proliferated. So why is the plural of that distance commonly called as “halfs” instead of the grammatically proper “halves”?


[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, Next Steps, Pacesetters, 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.]


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Who's Cheating Whom?


(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

October 1997 (retitled in the magazine). When I hear of runners cheating in a race, pretending to do what they didn’t, stealing an honor that wasn’t theirs, I’m as amazed as I am appalled. This crime is foreign to everything most runners believe. If we run mostly to improve and impress ourselves, then the person most cheated is the cheater.

Thousands of runners honored the pledge to themselves to run an honest race last spring at the Boston and Pittsburgh Marathons. A few deviants couldn’t accept the elemental honesty of a certain time over a specific distance.

A husband-wife couple “won” their age-groups at Boston, and a man snuck into seventh place in Pittsburgh’s national-championship division. John Murphy, 61, and Suzanne Murphy, 59, from California claimed to have run 2:43 and 3:12 at Boston. Scott Stakich, a 23-year-old from Pennsylvania, briefly got away with breaking 2:20 at Pittsburgh.

I could have refused to type their names, treating them as the non-finishers they were and anti-runners they are. But greater good may be done by naming them. This might shame them permanently from the sport and deter others tempted to try the same dirty deeds.

If the Murphys and Stakich really believe what they did, they have simple recourse. They can clear their names without going to court but by running another carefully monitored race and coming anywhere near their claimed time.

History says they won’t. Others caught cheating in some of America’s biggest races – Rosie Ruiz, Candy Dodge, Frank Grey, John Bell, Oscar Miranda and their ilk – all protested their innocence. But all failed to make amends in the one way that any runner would accept.

I won’t overstate the problem. Cheaters are as rare in this sport as sub-2:20 American marathoners. But one scofflaw per thousand honorable runners is too many, and surveillance must be vigorous and punishment harsh to root out that one.

When the Murphys and Stakich were nabbed, they raised further suspicions: How often had they gotten away with this before? And how many others do the same and avoid detection?

If secret on-course videotaping or computer-chip technology catch cheaters, what is fitting punishment? A lifetime ban from racing, certainly (though this is usually voluntary, since the exposed seldom show their faces at races again).

Banishment isn’t enough. My friend Geoff Pietsch, once the victim of a cheater at the New York City Marathon, says, “I’d personally favor drawing and quartering, but would settle for jail time. Why shouldn’t someone who steals another’s achievements – honors which matter far more than worldly goods – go to jail?”

Maybe the real age-group winners at Boston, Anthony Cerminaro and Susan Gustafson, should have sued the Murphys. Or maybe officials in Pittsburgh should have charged Stakich with trying to make off with $2500 that wasn’t his (including temporarily picking $500 from the pocket of the real seventh-placer, Michael Dudley).

I’d settle for the cheaters sitting down with a tough interviewer who asks how they would explain themselves to the runners they defrauded, or to their families, or to themselves. They’d have excuses, of course, that let them live with their lies. A shriveled conscience separates the short-cutters from you and me.

Imagine if you were running an out-and-back course... at night... with no other runners and no spectators in sight... no official or video camera at the turnaround... no computer chip in your shoelace. Would you turn back anywhere from a block to a mile early? No one else would know, but your knowing would be punishment enough.

2018 Update. The best catch-a-cheat story I’ve read is Mark Singer’s in New Yorker magazine, 2012. Scott Hubbard did much of the detective work that revealed runner Kip Lipton’s dirty deeds.


[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, Next Steps, Pacesetters, 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.]


Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Run Softly, Run Tall


(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

September 2003. Stand beside a road sometime and watch a race instead of running it. You will see in the passing parade what you might not have noticed from the middle of it, focusing only on yourself and the runners within sight.

If you wouldn’t have been one of the lead runners, you’ll now see how wide the gap is between their pace and where yours would have put you. You’ll notice also how different the frontrunners look than most of those in your group.

The faster folks typically run smoother, quieter, taller and prouder. The slower ones pound the ground harder, and slump forward more and stare at their feet.

The differences in pace dictate some of the differences in appearance, but this doesn’t have to be so. Slow runners may never be able to keep up with the fast, but can look more like them.

I don’t need to watch a race to see these contrasts in action. I view them daily at my favorite runner-watching spot, where I’m part of the parade but still can observe it in a leisurely way.

The Amazon Trail is a one-mile sawdust course in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Runners come here by the dozens at all hours of the day and night. This trail brings together some of the world’s fastest runners with many of the slowest, who run one lap in the time it takes the speedsters to go two.

As they lap me, I see the faster ones gliding over the surface, brushing it quickly and quietly with each footfall. They run proudly, with back straight and eyes forward. Faster running almost demands that they carry themselves this way.

Slower pace doesn’t make such demands, and bad habits can take root in these runs. Many of the Amazon Trail runners, with their hunched backs and downcast eyes and scraping footplants, run as if slightly embarrassed to be seen here.

Pace places me firmly in the second group, but I still try to model myself after the first. Faster runners hold up a picture of what the best running form can and should be at any pace.

Slower runners naturally take shorter and lower strides, but we still can model ourselves after those who look the best. This isn’t just advice about looking pretty, since running isn’t not a beauty contest and no style-points are awarded.

If form were purely an aesthetic concern, I wouldn’t bother write about it here. It’s worth mentioning because running lightly over the ground, in good head-to-toe alignment, is easier on the body than landing heavily and out of balance, a thousand times every mile. It’s also a little faster for the same level of effort.

I don’t claim picture-perfect form. But having started fast as a young runner (racing from the first week onward), I did learn habits that have stuck with me even while the runs have gone into slow-motion.

If you come from a similar background of speed, remember how you looked then and try to retain it. If you’ve never run fast, or if your form has deteriorated, start taking corrective action.

Add some faster running to your routine by way of short runs, steady or repeated, at a pace one to two minutes per mile faster than you typically go. This up-tempo running almost automatically forces you to run more efficiently.

The habits learned here transfer back to your normal running. In all runs, fastest to slowest, check your form with two tests:

Where do you look? The back follows the lead of the head. If you watch your feet hit the ground, you’re hunched over. But if you raise your eyes to the horizon, your back naturally straightens and you come into more efficient alignment. Good running is straight-backed, tall running.

What do you hear? The feet announce how well you absorb shock. If you hear slap-slip-scrape-shuffle, you’re hitting the ground too hard by not making full use of ankle-flex and toe-off. The less you hear at footplant, the less likely the ground is to hurt you. Good running is springy-stepped, quiet running.

Whatever your pace, run softly and run tall. Look like you’re quietly proud of what you’re doing.

2018 Update. Two of the best guides to running form reached me after this column appeared: first, Chi Running, where I received introductory lessons from certified instructor Keith McConnell. Second, Good Form Running, introduced to me by Curt Munson and Grant Robison at a running camp. Abundant info on both methods is available online.


[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, Next Steps, Pacesetters, 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.]