(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from June 1997.)
Giving a two-minute speech is harder than talking informally for two hours. The latter, like a long training run, leaves time for correcting mistakes. The former, like racing 800 meters on the track, allows little margin for error.
Most of my talks run long. But when the Road Runners Club of America presented me with a journalism award at the latest RRCA convention, I had only a couple of minutes to respond. Here’s what I wish I’d had time to say from the stage in Colorado Springs:
You did me this great honor once before, in 1979. I’d recently left the Runner’s World office by mutual agreement with my boss at the time, who’d said, “You writers spend too little time working and too much time staring out the window.”
My daughter Sarah was five years old then. A friend of hers noticed that I didn’t go to an office as her own father did.
The friend asked, “What does your dad do for a job?” Sarah said, “Oh, he doesn’t work. He just writes.”
Now Sarah works as a journalist. I still do what I did when she was little – staring out the window, daydreaming on the road and jotting down the thoughts that arise on the run.
I put some effort into my writing, but it doesn’t seem like work. In George Sheehan’s words I “try hard to make it look easy.”
Readers still say, “I know you write, but what’s your real job?” This is as close as I come. I’m still lucky enough to make my living telling personal stories, repeating other people’s words and cheering from the sidelines for those who do the hard work in the sport.
You RRCA leaders are the real workers – the ones who volunteer your efforts to keep runners running locally to nationally. I owe everything to you.
My running started the same year as the RRCA, in 1958. Several of your founders – Ted Corbitt, Hal Higdon and especially Browning Ross, who invented the modern running magazine with his Long Distance Log – taught me how to write.
Here tonight is Gar Williams, a former RRCA president. Gar and Arne Richards showed me through my first long race. And they started teaching me that running was too good to stop at two miles – and that a running career was too important to end before I could vote or take a legal drink.
Far better, though, the RRCA taught the country how to run. Your group was responsible for all the major advances in U.S. road running – the organizing of races for all, the forming of clubs for distance runners, the welcoming of women, the certifying of courses, the keeping of road records, the publishing of magazines.
All the great movements traveled from the grassroots upward. They were adopted later by governing bodies and businesses that were originally indifferent or resistant to these efforts.
I thank you for this wonderful award. But mainly I welcome this chance to applaud you in person for all you’ve done and will do to keep running running.
UPDATE FROM 2014
Above, I dropped the name Gar Williams. We have often crossed paths in the years since we first met more than a half-century ago. He was a 2:25 marathon then, when very few Americans ran faster.
Gar is one of the rare RRCA Hall of Fame members to be inducted equally for his running and for his service to the sport (including the RRCA presidency). When we talked at that 1997 convention, had had retired from his work as a geologist but not from active life.
“I’m teaching English to immigrants,” he said, “and I’m learning to play the cello. That’s a challenge, because I haven’t touched a musical instrument since playing the clarinet in high school.”
He now lives in my home state of Oregon. Last time we met, he told of playing in an orchestra.
Gar Williams was a running hero of my youth. He could now serve as a model for aging well.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Latest released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]