Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Races

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1998.)

DON’T BELIEVE everything you see at the movies. There’s more to Flint, Michigan, for instance, than shown in the documentary “Roger and Me.”

Beverly, a volunteer at the Crim Festival of Races, drew the early shift. She was making her first airport runs at six o’clock on a Sunday morning, and I was the first weekend guest to be escorted away from Flint.

We talked about the recent divisive and depressing two-month strike against General Motors that had Flint at its epicenter. We didn’t talk about the city’s image that took a beating in Michael Moore’s film. This portrayal is still a sore point with the city’s loyalists.

As we pulled into the airport, Beverly said, “When you talk to people about Flint, tell them we’re nice here.” And they are.

By 1998, I’d traveled here for 11 of the Crim’s past 13 runnings, and had never met with anything but niceness. This even extends to the residents who have nothing to do with the running event.

One year I ran through one of the poorer neighborhoods. From a porch I heard the shout, “Run, white boy, run!”

The shouter was African-American, as were all of his neighbors. I’ve gotten lots of mileage from this story in years since.

But in fairness to Flint, I note here that the comment was jovial, not menacing. It didn’t lead to an adrenaline-charged upping of pace or quick retreat to a paler part of town.

Flint has always welcomed this runner, even where he’s in the minority. And the Crim Race has long embraced runners of all nationalities and shadings.

This year I walked into the hospitality room at the Radisson on race eve. The faces there were mostly dark, and the dominant language was Swahili. I felt again like someone from a minority group, but not unwelcome here.

Kenyans accounted for the top eight men and top three women at Crim 1998. The previous year’s leading male was Moroccan, and a Mexican had won here in recent years. Asians will eventually arrive.

This points out an oddity of U.S. road racing. While the elite runners are multiracial, the overall field is quite white.

Talk of “racism” rumbled through the sport in 1998 when certain events allegedly tried to limit the number of Kenyans. But the bigger problem went unaddressed in that discussion. That is how to diversify the rest of the pack.

Some racial and ethnic minorities in this country fight an everyday battle against messages telling them they can’t keep pace because they look, talk, act or pray differently from the dominant culture. Everyone needs to find ways to win.

Running in races is one of those ways. Go the distance at whatever pace you can handle, and you can feel like just as big a winner as the person who finishes first.

“Everyone can win” has become a cliché in running. But it’s still a rare concept in sports and rarer still in life at large.

This running mantra has yet to reach all cultures. So far, the racing that made superstars of black Africans – as well as Arabs, Asians and Latin Americans  – hasn’t transferred widely enough to Americans of similar descent and lesser ability.

U.S. road running resembles a party to which only one ethnic group was invited. This was never the intent but still is the result.

Both sexes now run together, as well as all ages and every ability (and disability). The American sport’s continuing need is to embrace every race. We runners, like the good people of Flint, all need to put out the word that we’re nice folks who welcome everyone to our parties.


Photo: Runners of all abilities – and many nationalities and ethnicities – flock to Flint, Michigan, each summer for the Crim races.


[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, 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, August 9, 2017

Asian Work-ation

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1997.)

BUSINESS TRIPS don’t have to be all business. They can be working vacations, with emphasis on that second word, though I was slow to learn this.

As a runner and later a speaker I traveled to perform, not to party. I arrived just in time for the performance, left right afterward.

I took the stage only briefly, but the worry about it, preparation for it and recovery from it dominated the whole trip. I saw little more than the airport, a hotel room and an arena.

Old ways die hard, even when no longer needed. The paragraph above still pretty much defined my travel style in the late 1990s. It couldn’t have been much different than my wife Barbara’s.

Barb has traveled to dozens of countries, on most of the continents, since her first big trip, to India during college. After graduation she traveled through Europe and into the Middle East, often as a hitchhiker.

She hasn’t slowed much since then. Her thinking is that a U.S. trip that doesn’t last at least a week, or internationally a month or more, is hardly worth taking. I get antsy for home and office if I’m away more than three days.

When offered the chance to visit Japan in 1997 (this a first Asian trip for me), we compromised. We would fly over together, then I would stay (gasp!) a full week. She would linger in Japan for another week, then move on to round out her month abroad by visiting her son Chris in China.

Our Japanese hosts asked little from me and gave much. I’d do no speaking here, only some consulting at Mizuno headquarters for one day, and with Runners magazine on another, plus a ceremonial appearance at a marathon.

Otherwise we would be tourists, on a paid work-ation for which Mizuno and Runners spared no expense. All travel (first-class), all hotels (luxurious), all meals (amazing) were covered. A translator was always available.

The night we landed in Osaka, Satoshi Takai from the magazine guided us to our hotel. At the front desk he asked me, “Can we have a short meeting after you take your luggage to the room?”

Barbara fell into bed, while I returned downstairs. The host then led me to a meeting room where a dozen men in identical dark suits greeted us.

Bowing while extending a sheet of paper in both hands, one man handed me the week’s business and social agenda. I was to learn that the two are inseparable here, where business is conducted sociably and social events are business-like.

Another man handed me a fat envelope and instructed, “Count, please.” Inside was a shockingly large number of new U.S. bills with Ben Franklin’s face on them.

We hadn’t discussed any consulting fee, and I expected nothing more than the expenses for the two of us. I asked myself: What can I do to earn this?

The answer was the same then that it would be afterward: Not enough. This week in Japan would be too little work and too much vacation.


OLYMPIC TRACKS are the shrines of our sport. Unfortunately we must leave the U.S. to visit any of them. The sad fact is that all three tracks used for the Olympics -- St. Louis, Los Angeles and Atlanta -- weren’t considered important enough to preserve.

To see an Olympic track in near the end of the 20th century, I had to travel to Tokyo. This wasn't the reason for visiting Japan but was to be the highlight of that trip.

1964 was the high point for my track-watching fanaticism (also my best year of track racing). The Olympics came to Tokyo that year, to what the Japanese now call "National Stadium."

That October I stayed up much of the night to catch as many events as possible on television. But the best one slipped past me.

My dad woke me with the stunning news of Billy Mills, who went in as third-fastest on the three-member U.S. team, winning the 10,000. Americans Bob Schul and Bill Dellinger later went 1-3 in the 5000.

Peter Snell won his second Olympic 800, plus the 1500. Abebe Bikila won his second marathon.

I later got to know Mills. I've corresponded with Schul and heard him speak, and I live in the same town as Dellinger.

I've met Snell since he became a U.S. resident Ph.D. in exercise physiology. I saw Bikila in a wheelchair at the Munich Games shortly before he died.

But until this fall I'd never visited the place where they ran at their best. And I almost missed the chance.

Tokyo's traffic spooked the small-town boy in me. But my Los Angeles-born wife Barbara insisted that we go to the stadium by taxi. "You may never get this chance again," she said.

Once there we found it seemingly locked tightly. "Let's just walk around the outside to get a feel of the place," I said.

Barbara then spied a tiny doorway and went over to peek inside. I held back.

"We can sneak in here," she shouted. I swallowed my fears of a trespassing arrest and followed her inside.

Here I walked a lap. The stadium appeared empty except for the two of us.

But in this shrine I could sense the ghosts of Mills and Schul and Dellinger, Snell and Bikila when they were young, these seats were filled, and this air was supercharged with sound and emotion. My Japanese trip peaked in the 10 minutes here, when memories from long ago and far away came together briefly with here and now.


Photo: The 1964 Tokyo Olympics peaked for Americans with one of the biggest surprises in track history, Billy Mills victory in the 10,000.


[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, 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, August 2, 2017

News Release

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1996.)

JOURNALISM AND journaling share little more than their first eight letters. Journalism is a job, the gathering and writing of news about the feats and failings of athletes other than himself or herself. A journal is personal, a record of its writer’s own opinions and observations.

I’ve worked as a journalist since 1960. But even earlier I’d become a journal-keeper. Over the years my published writings have increasingly become more journal-like than journalistic.

In early 1996, I announced that my Running Commentary newsletter was dropping all hard news about this sport at its highest levels. It would become even more a personal letter to readers like myself.

One reason was that the internet was exploding. The daily web supplement to Runner’s World and the emailed Race Results Weekly were reporting more news, much sooner than I could in my little once-a-month publication. Yet I was doing more journaling that ever and wanted to make more room for it in the four printed pages.

Another reason for backing away from reporting on bigtime running in the Commentary was that it had little to do with the world where I and most of my regular readers ran. I still enjoyed reading about the stars, but also realized that many runners didn’t. They found this news oddly disturbing.

At my most impressionable age I devoured Track & Field News, Long Distance Log and anything else published about the sport. My young teammates didn’t share this passion.

Instead they chose not to read these magazines that I tried to press upon them. The news of better runners depressed them, as if it diminished their own efforts.

My buddies didn’t understand the true nature of news stories. I knew from growing up in a family of journalists and studying to become one myself.

Journalists-to-be learn a truism of this business in their first course: If dog bites man, that’s not worth reporting. But if man bites dog, that’s news.

Normal people and events aren’t newsworthy; only the oddities are. News tells of the exceptions, not the rules. The more unusual the story, the bigger it is.

Witness OJ’s trial or Oprah’s marathon. Sports lend themselves to this type of reporting, because standouts are so easy to see and dote upon.

Sports reports worship their winners... and spread the notion that only one athlete or team can win any event... and give the impression that to win anything you must win everything – the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the Olympic gold. Sports news suggests to recreational athletes that we must think, and train, and compete like those who make the headlines.

But they’re not like us. This is their job. They play for pay and plan their day around this work, while we try to squeeze our sport around the edges of the workday.

They also chose their parents well. They have the size and skill, speed and stamina to compete with the best athletes in their sport, while we lack the gifts to win anything more than a local award when only three people show up in our age-group.

Big-race winners are freaks, the one-in-thousands athletes who stand above almost everyone else who runs. Reading about them can be intimidating. You can feel pangs of inferiority on learning about athletes who train more in a day that you do all week, or go two miles for each one of yours when they race.

The cure for intimidation isn’t to stop reading. It’s knowing how to read. Realize that these people have been written up because they are exceptional.

Admire the “news freaks.” Take inspiration from them. But don’t let their uncommon efforts insult your common ones.

Take pride in your training, knowing that mega-mileage runners can’t log one of your miles for you. Celebrate your racing, knowing that record-setting runners can’t break any of your PRs.

Once you start thinking this way, the news stops disturbing you. The “freaks” of running can only lift you up, never put you down.


Photo: David Monti provided more hard news faster in his Race Results Weekly than I ever could in Running Commentary.


[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, 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, July 26, 2017

Off Balance

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1995.)

NO MATTER your age, you never leave your parents. In fact, the older you grow, the more ruled you are by the genetics they passed along.

At 52, I could see a mirror image of my father staring back at me each morning. This face sometimes brought a sigh, other times a shiver. It reminded me that at the age I was now, he had just two years left to live.

A cerebral hemorrhage struck my dad without warning and took him quickly. Why this happened – an inherited defect or untreated high blood pressure or another undetected condition – we never knew. I did know that we didn’t share much in our style of living.

He had smoked; I never had. He’d exercised little to none after leaving the farm a decade earlier; I had never stopped running.

But Dad and I still shared genetics. If he died young, might I be programmed the same way?

This became more than a fleeting dark thought the weekend before Halloween. I was in Alhambra for the Moonlight 8K, where my main job was P.A. announcing.

At dusk I was taking a break as a local band played, with more volume than talent. A runner came over to the low platform where I stood and shouted words I couldn’t hear. After bending closer and talking briefly, I stood up.

Suddenly I lost focus. The scene around me went into a spin. The spotlighted starting area faded toward darkness. The band’s volume stilled toward silence.

My weak knees lowered me slowly toward the stage. I had just enough time to think, Is this how it ends? With a stroke? Like Dad?

Then, as quickly as this episode had struck, it passed. My equilibrium returned, my hearing sharpened, my vision cleared.

Still shaken and woozy, I muddled through the night’s announcing. I never said at the time what had just happened, though anyone who knew me would have noticed that something was wrong.

Later that night, when I gave my wife Barbara a heavily edited report (down to “dizzy spell”), I shook off her suggestion that we visit an emergency room. The doctor visits, lots of them, would come later.


FOR THE next year or so I wasn’t myself. This was evident to anyone I talked with, or who sat through one of my speeches, or who read some of my columns.

Nineteen-ninety-six, the year of Boston’s 100th and the Atlanta Olympics, was my year of living dizzily. It wasn’t as if I appeared falling-down drunk but just a little tipsy.

While trying to appear and act normal, I was never quite right. Sights, sounds and thoughts were slightly out of focus. Running, writing and speaking (formally or socially) were never much fun, and were sometimes nauseating.

The symptoms were worst when they first struck in late 1995, then they waxed and waned after that. But they never went away until another year was ending.     

The first doctor I saw said, “You can take a drug and feel groggy all the time, or you can tough it out. The vertigo will probably go away on its own.”

I said no to drugs but soon ran out of toughness. I saw six more medical professionals that year, trying to learn what was wrong and what to do about it. They ruled out the scariest possibilities, but supplied no definite diagnosis or solution.      

Then I got lucky. In the fall I came home from yet another doctor’s visit and turned on the local television news that I’d normally not watch at that hour.

A report was ending with a young woman running across the screen. The voice-over said, “Her battle with vertigo appears to be won, thanks to the exercises her doctor prescribed.”

I called the TV station, asking for a copy of this full piece. “We can’t do that,” I was told in that era before websites made everything available, “but we can give you a contact.”

That phone number connected me with the Center for Balance Disorders in Houston. I asked for the exercises but was told, “It would be unethical for us to recommend a treatment plan without first evaluating you.”       

I would have taken the next flight to Texas. But the Balance Center there had a better idea: referral to a physician doing the same type of work in Portland, a two-hours’ drive from home.

This doctor fit me in quickly, and the first exam lasted as long as the drive from Eugene. Afterward the doctor said, “We want you to take more tests, but your symptoms strongly suggest that you have...” Then he reeled off about a dozen syllables describing an inner-ear disorder.      

“Did any of that make sense?” asked his nurse when the doctor left. Not much, I said, so she translated.

“He says you probably have BPPV. That’s benign, which means it won’t kill you; paroxysmal, meaning you sometimes have it and sometimes not; positional, with quick changes in head position causing symptoms; vertigo, or imbalance.”

In most cases, I was told, this condition could be treated without drugs or surgery. Specially prescribed diet and exercises could ease if not erase the vertigo.      

I went on the diet (cutting way down on my sugar and upping the protein gave best results). I did the exercises (sometimes).  Soon I felt more level-headed that anytime in the past year.

A truism of medicine seems to have worked again: Look long enough and an answer will usually appear.


Photo: Breakfast with Steve and Joan Ottaway in Alhambra, just hours before my vertigo first struck.


[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, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]