Thursday, November 26, 2015

Harry Cordellos

(This piece is for my latest book titled Pacesetters: Runners Who Informed Me Best and Inspired Me Most. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from September 1992.)

BLIND AMBITION. In the oddest of pairings, running campers shared a Park City, Utah, hotel with rock-music fans. This summer morning one group was getting up and going out to run, while the other was coming indoors to sleep.

Two middle-aged runners left their hotel room together, walking arm in arm. Two long-haired rock fans met them in the hallway. One young man motioned to the other, and they shook their heads and rolled their eyes.

One of the older men was blind. But it was the younger men who could not see what was really going on here.

They were passing a greater talent from our world than they’d seen the night before in theirs. If they had come out later and poked their heads into a nearby meeting room, they could have heard Harry Cordellos tell his story.

How he was born blind 58 years earlier, gained sight briefly as a child, then lost it again. How he lived a sheltered and inactive life into his 20s, then had it all change when he was introduced to sports through waterskiing. How he started running races at San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers in 1968, and went on to break three hours in the marathon and to finish the Ironman Triathlon.

I was Harry’s roommate at Park City. I was the guy who linked arms with him in the hotel hallway, though he hardly needed help.

When we checked into the Radisson, he said, “Describe to me the lay of the land here.” One guided pass through the entire hotel was enough to let him navigate it alone with his cane.

Our room didn’t have raised numbers. “That’s no problem, he said. “I’ll just reach into my bag of tricks.” He marked the doorknob with a rubber band.

Harry runs by bumping elbows and sometimes linking arms with a partner. This teamwork carried him through his 25th straight Bay to Breakers this spring, and the San Francisco Marathon will be his 12th there.

“Running is about the easiest thing I do,” Harry told the Utah campers. He meant this several ways.

Running is easier than making his way through San Francisco each day. “I had to take two buses, the subway and another bus to reach the airport to fly here,” he said.

Running is easier than trying to earn a living as a blind man. His last steady job ended 10 years ago in a dispute with his bosses over working conditions. Speaking and writing (his second book is in the works) now supply his income.

Running is easier than his non-athletic hobby. He rides every roller-coaster he can find, and he builds intricate miniature carnivals complete with movement and sound.

Running a race is easier than finding a partner for training. Dr. Kenneth Cooper gave Harry a treadmill for running alone, but the lack of consistent road miles still limits him.

Running races is easier than any of his other sports, most of which involve risk-taking. He wind-surfs, dives from a 10-meter platform, downhill skis and jumps on water skis.

Harry was recovering this summer from a ski-jumping accident. An arm tangled in the rope as he went over the ramp, and his shoulder was dislocated and several muscles were torn.

His artificial eye once jarred loose while he wind-surfed. He thought the costly orb had sunk to the bottom of San Francisco Bay but found it lying on the wind sheet.

“The moral of this story?” he said. “Keep your eye on the sail.”

Harry doubts he’ll ever realize his dream of skydiving. But he’d like to try the next-best adventure: bungee jumping.

Harry Cordellos is one of the wonders of our world.

UPDATE. Harry Cordellos’s book, No Limits, was originally published in 1993 and updated seven years later. The latter edition remains available.

When last I heard from him, he was still running the Bay to Breakers and participating in other amazing adventures. He turned 80 in 2014.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Latest released was Memory Laps. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, 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, November 25, 2015

Book Preview: Miles to Go

(2003) JOBS, LIKE RACES, have finish lines. These seldom come at exactly the time you expect or hope. But whatever the result, you accept it and move on because the only other option is to give up for good.
My job as a columnist for Runner’s World lasted much longer than I ever thought it would. But I knew that it would end someday.
Now, in Christmas week 2003, I’d reached my final finish line there. This may not have been a good time – could there ever have been a good one? – but I accepted it and prepared to move on to whatever came next.
David Willey, the new editor, was charged by his bosses at parent company Rodale with redesigning Runner’s World. We can argue whether the choices were the right ones or not, but they came anyway.
He called to say that my RW column had “run its course” and would breathe its last in the March 2004 issue. This wasn’t simply an out-with-all-old step. The remaining columnists – Amby Burfoot, Jeff Galloway and John Bingham – weren’t far behind me in age and were also long-timers with the magazine.
The new editor offered to let me keep writing occasionally in other parts of the magazine, such as in feature articles and in how-to columns with multiple contributors. I declined, so in that sense the decision on my leaving was mutual.
I said no to the new role because I’d been trained and spoiled by columns, which read as personal letters from writer to reader. That style isn’t a good fit outside the boundaries of the column.
My last RW column went to the editors before this parting came. I didn’t get to say good-bye to readers there but only on the magazine’s website, with these lines:
“I never took my page for granted and always felt honored to talk to so many of you this way. Thanks for lending me your eyes and thoughts, and for sometimes sharing your agreements and disagreements, through the past 250 straight months of columns.”

MY LONG STAY at Runner’s World ended with a phone call lasting just a few minutes. I might have retired then and there from published writing if editor David Willey had said no more than thanks; it’s been a good run for you.  
Instead he added words that goaded me to press on as a writer.  He suggested that my column ideas had run dry; that I was mailing in pieces that fell well short of my old standard – and the magazine’s new one.
I’ll show him what I can still do, I thought at the time. I’m not nearly ready for the retirement pasture.
I would write for another magazine, Marathon & Beyond, for the next seven years. I would write a big book and a smaller one for Barnes & Noble, write a three-book memoir series, write guidebooks on marathon training and on walking for runners, write for a weekly newsletter (whose columns would grow into two more books).
Quantity, of course, doesn’t automatically equal quality – in training or in typing. It isn’t for me to say how good this late-career writing has been. The ultimate judgment rests with readers like you, who choose to spend some time with me.

THIS LATEST book travels through my post-Runner’s World years. When the editor cut me loose in late 2003, I still had many more miles to go – on foot and as coach, as well as in print. These are stories about some of those miles.
Miles to Go was written without really trying to write a book. This isn’t to say I didn’t work at the writing. It just that this book came together while I worked on something else.
Between 2008 and 2011, I wrote the personal histories Starting Lines, Going Far and Memory Laps. This trilogy ended with a report on my “retirement” from Runner’s World.
Meanwhile my column had moved to Marathon & Beyond. Most of those pieces continued to tell, in serial form, what I kept doing after RW said I was done. When the M&B column finally ran its course in 2011, I realized that another book had taken shape incidentally.
This is it. The book rests heavily, though not exclusively, on those magazine columns. Some of the originals were dropped to keep the page count manageable, some are trimmed to avoid repetition from earlier books, some are added from other sources, and all are updated to this book’s publication date.
With the column writing ended, I’m thinking again that Miles will be my last book. But I know better now than to promise this is the end. The miles go on.

The M&B columns were published earlier in a book titled Joe’s Journal, which was organized differently from Miles to Go. This one replaces that first book, and is supplemented and updated here.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Ted Corbitt

(This piece is for my latest book titled Pacesetters: Runners Who Informed Me Best and Inspired Me Most. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from December 1994.)

GRANDPA TED. If Fred Lebow is the father of the New York City Marathon, then Ted Corbitt is one of its grandfathers who was starting races in that area long before Lebow started running. This marathon was only one among many of Corbitt’s proud descendants.

One of my very best moments at my 1994 run through the five boroughs came at the start. There I lined up beside Corbitt, who stood almost unnoticed at the back where he could see all that he’d helped create.

Pioneers seldom receive much of the later glory, but that’s okay with the soft-voiced Corbitt. He never sought attention for himself.

Ted let his contributions speak for him. They reach far beyond his own running, in which he was a 1952 Olympic marathoner and U.S. record-holder at several ultradistances.

In 1958 Ted helped found the Road Runners Club of America, which would give the sport a framework when it exploded more than a decade later. He served as the first president of the New York Road Runners, which would grow into the world’s largest club, and edited the publication that would become New York Running News. He set up this country’s first course-certification program and watched it become the world standard.

John Chodes asked me to introduce his book, Corbitt (published in 1974 by Tafnews Press). “Among us runners,” I wrote there, “Ted Corbitt is admired and envied not because he has run so well, but because he has run so well for so long. Corbitt is amazing to us because he has lasted.”

He was a relatively young 55 then but had run for about 40 of those years. Little did we know that his running was ending that same year. A severe case of asthma stopped him abruptly.

He said at the time, “Fitness can’t be stored. It must be earned over and over, indefinitely.” So he became a long-distance walker.

“Sometimes I think I developed the asthma so that I would stop [running],” he added later. “I was burned out.

“I had to taper off – start walking the distance because it had been like an addiction. I was afraid of quitting cold-turkey.”

On the occasion of Ted’s 75th birthday (in January 1994), Robert Lipsyte wrote in the New York Times that he is “the last surviving spiritual elder of the modern running clan. He never allowed himself to become a guru. He never had the showman’s flare of Fred Lebow or Dr. George Sheehan or Jim Fixx.

“He never made money from the boom or became celebrated outside the runner’s world. He just ran and ran and ran.”

Then he walked and walked and walked. In the New York City Marathon, yes, but also in the annual 100-mile race named for him and in a six-day race where he totaled as much as 303 miles.

Ted revised downward his goal of living 100 years. Now he wanted to celebrate the new century, which would arrive in his 81st year.

His way of getting there would be as it had always been: “Keep moving. Do something useful.” Few lifetimes have been filled with more movement or more useful work.

UPDATE. Ted Corbitt attended events surrounding the 2007 New York City Marathon and men’s Olympic Trials – in a wheelchair. Soon afterward his son Gary sent me an email, reporting that Ted had advanced colon and prostate cancers. He’d been flown to a Houston hospital for treatment and died there that December, a month short of his 89th birthday.

A revised edition of the book Corbitt is available through Two races in New York City, a 15K and a 24-hour, honor Ted. His son Gary maintains a website bearing his father’s name:

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Latest released was Memory Laps. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, 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.]

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Dr. Kenneth Cooper

(This piece is for my latest book titled Pacesetters: Runners Who Informed Me Best and Inspired Me Most. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from November 1988.)

FOLLOWING COOPER. I’ve followed Kenneth Cooper for 20 years now. I still haven’t caught up with him, but am slowly gaining.

Dr. Cooper’s original Aerobics book, published in 1968, was the first I read that talked of running purely as a prescription item. He was the first person I interviewed face to face two years later in my new job with Runner’s World.

Then as now, Cooper combined the bearing of a military officer (he was an Air Force physician) with the delivery of an evangelist. His message on exercising for health and fitness was spellbinding, but I didn’t think it applied to me.

I already ran far more than he prescribed for health maintenance. I’d never run purely for fitness.

As results came in from the first generation of aerobic exercisers, Cooper modified his prescription. He had implied early on that if some training was good, more would be better.

After seeing an “overwhelming” number of injuries and burnouts in higher-mileage runners, he recommended running no more than three miles a day and five days a week. He made the now-famous statement, “If you run more than 15 miles per week, you are running for something other than fitness.”

At the time, I and most others I knew ran for reasons other than fitness – or at least in addition to it. We trained to race or to settle our nerves. Our running was just getting started at the point where Dr. Cooper asked us to stop.

Years after he’d made his fitness statement and I’d first denied its personal merit, we met at the Fitness Fest in Shreveport, Louisiana. “I’ve finally caught up with you,” I told him. “You were right after all.”

Cooper looked puzzled at my words. So I clarified:

“I now run a half-hour, covering little more than three miles, five days a week. I hold down the pace, do some stretching and wear sensible shoes.”

Cooper smiled, then said, “I’m in my 28th year of running. I’ve run more than 23,000 miles and have no muscular-skeletal problems.”

He always follows his own prescription. I cheat on it once a week by going farther or faster than he thinks wise. That big day keeps me happy, if not healthy.

With this one big exception, we’re finally running almost in step. Now we both run cautiously five days a week, though for different reasons: Cooper to stay in shape, I to rebuild and relax between big efforts.

I still don’t run for fitness – and make no claim to being totally fit. The Shreveport event offered a dozen physical tests, and two of them scored me as “poor” – in muscular strength (of the arms) and flexibility (of the hamstrings).

These results drew laughs when announced at a talk that night. The muscular deficiencies cause no obvious health problems. But I wasn’t laughing at another score, this one a cholesterol reading.

Kenneth Cooper had implied in his early work that anyone who collected enough Aerobic points could eat just about anything. This wasn’t a license to pig out, of course, but was a signal that exercise might forgive certain dietary sins.

Then came Jim Fixx’s death, attributed in part to a high cholesterol count. That tragedy prompted Dr. Cooper to write two more books: Running Without Fear and Controlling Cholesterol.

When Fixx died, I wrote that the best way runners could remember him was by having their cholesterol checked. A high reading is a silent threat that can only be found with a blood test and then can’t be reduced by running alone.

My reading went unchecked then. When Cooper and I talked two years ago, he had become a cholesterol crusader. He asked what my reading was, and I promised to have it tested.

I’d made the same promise to Dr. George Sheehan and others, but hadn’t kept it. Now we know. It’s 206, or slightly above the supposedly “safe” borderline of 200.

This reading doesn’t spell imminent danger. But it does tell me to read Kenneth Cooper’s latest book and play some catch-up with him, this time on diet.

UPDATE. Long after this writing, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, now 84, still runs regularly at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas, which he founded.

I still run his way most days – an easy half-hour – with the one big exception of a longer day each week. Thanks to a few dietary changes, my cholesterol count remains well controlled without medication.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Latest released was Memory Laps. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, 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.]