(This piece is for my book titled Pacesetters: Runners Who Informed Me Best and Inspired Me Most. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from December 2004.)
LYDIARD’S FAREWELLS. Five years ago Arthur Lydiard took what he and we thought at the time was his “farewell tour” of the United States. He’d been coming here from New Zealand for almost 40 years then, and he still loved the attention that greeted him in the U.S. That acclaim kept him going.
I wrote in 1999 that “Arthur Lydiard now eases off the stage. But his system remains as sound as it was when he sprung it on the world in 1960.”
Three athletes from his neighborhood in New Zealand, a country with Oregon’s population, won medals at the 1960 Olympics. He later inspired the double-double of Finland’s Lasse Viren, 5000 and 10,000 golds at both Munich and Montreal.
Most of today’s runners hadn’t yet started when Arthur Lydiard was in his coaching prime. Many weren’t yet born.
Some critics now call Lydiard’s methods “outdated.” But there is no expiration date on expertise, no statute of limitations on what works.
Rich Englehart, a longtime Lydiard devotee, saw him in Boston five years ago. “It was an interesting evening – and a bit sad, quite honestly,” said Rich that year.
He saw his chosen coach as an unsteady old man of 82 and most of the audience in their masters years. “My pervasive feeling was that I was at a meeting of People Whose Time Has Passed.
“Right outside the auditorium one of the local clubs was running a group interval session on the track. The conference organizers went out and invited them in for free. But they all decided they’d rather stay out and do intervals than come in and listen to some old guy tell them that maybe they should be doing something else.”
Rich added, “My experience isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. But it assures me that I chose to follow the right leader – both when we were all much younger, and recently when I signed up for his online coaching advice and improved by 1:45 in the track 5000.”
That 1999 U.S. tour wasn’t Arthur Lydiard’s last. He encored this fall at age 87, bringing along the baggage of four strokes and two knee replacements.
Rich Englehart again met his mentor in Boston and then drove him to Washington, DC, with an overnight stop en route. “This was one of the greatest experiences of my life, spending two days alone with him,” says Rich.
The high point of the tour, and not just in elevation, was Arthur’s talk in Boulder before a crowd of 400, the largest of the tour. He shared the stage with Mark Wetmore, the college coach whose methods most closely follow the Lydiard system. Wetmore’s Colorado teams had won both NCAA Cross-Country titles the week before.
“I owe everything to Arthur,” said Wetmore. “I am just the delivery boy for his great message.”
Little more than a week later the greatest running coach we’ve ever known was gone. After speaking to a Texas audience, he returned to his hotel room and suffered a fatal heart attack that evening.
Lydiard left on a high note. Not in reclusive retirement in New Zealand but on the road, still spreading his timeless message to anyone who would listen. The message will outlive the man.
UPDATE. Year after year, the University of Colorado continues to field top distance runners, and Mark Wetmore continues to credit Arthur Lydiard for pointing the way. Team alumni include Olympians Kara and Adam Goucher, Jenny Simpson, Emma Coburn, Shalaya Kipp and Dathan Ritzenhein.
[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.]