Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Running Commentary

(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 1982.)

THINK OF TRAINING up for competition but then having no place to race. Before long you’d wonder: Why train at all?

That’s how I now felt, except this was about writing rather than running. I did the “training” (the private writing) but had little chance to “race” (go public with the best of it).

This wasn’t happening at Running magazine, where my writing style and subject choices didn’t match the editorial philosophy. Running had positioned itself as the literary journal of the sport, and my plain-spoken words and phrases didn’t fit that image.

As 1982 dawned, I had nowhere else to place my writings while keeping my job as an editor at Running magazine. Running Times and The Runner were competitors, as was Runner’s World – where I’d broken diplomatic relations anyway, apparently permanently.

A writer wants to be read, even more than to be paid. No matter how humble the outlet or how small the readership, I needed someone to say, “I saw what you wrote.” The only way to do this was to build a writing home of my own.

This never would have happened without help. My first push came from Jon Anderson, a 1972 Olympian and 1973 Boston Marathon winner. He now published, with his father, a weekly lumber-industry newsletter and advised me on creating a similar publication on running.

Next came an essential assist from Tom Mills. He worked as an agent in the music business but was branching into sports when we met, during my lobbying efforts to win acceptance for a women’s marathon in the Los Angeles Olympics.

With that event now in place, Tom said, “I’d like to work with you on a writing project.” My reply: “Your timing is good. I’m thinking about starting a running newsletter.” Tom: “Let me see what I can do.”

He contacted Ed Fox, the Track & Field News publisher. Ed was willing to test-market what was now known as Running Commentary. Only 170 people liked it well enough to pay in advance for a publication that didn’t yet exist.

Ed said, “This isn’t enough to make it worth our while. But if you want to go ahead on your own, we’ll send you the checks to get you started.”

The newsletter started as a twice-monthly (and would later go monthly, then finally settle at weekly). It started at $24 a year (would peak at $30 and eventually become free). It started at eight printed pages (would drop to four, then a single web page, which I’d call a “column,” never a “blog”).

What started in January 1982 would become the outlet for my more of my writings than any other site.


SOME THINGS never change, even after almost three decades of issuing Running Commentary. Names and products have changed, and so have the numbers of runners and races. But our favorite topics are the same now as they were when RC stood at its starting line in 1982.

We talk about our times, our mileages, our shoes, our injuries, our diets. The first advice column in RC #1 touched on mileage and its role in weight control.

Reading it now, you might think I haven’t come very far in my writing since then. I choose to think that some themes never grow old. Here’s that column:

Whatever the criticisms of mega-mileage training that has been the style since the 1960s, one positive fact is beyond dispute: This type of running has had a profound effect in making the sport more democratic.

Emil Zatopek ran high mileage in a low-mileage era of the 1950s. He explained that he had limited talent, and this was the only way he could correct nature’s oversight – by gaining speed through endurance. (The four-time Olympic gold medalist mainly practiced interval training, but ran so much that it qualified as endurance work.)

Peter Snell ran then-unheard-of mileage for a miler. He trained like a marathoner in the early 1960s (and won three Olympic gold medals on the track).

One reason this worked so well for he might have been that he was heavy. He gained weight easily if he wasn’t running a lot. The 100-mile weeks gave him his raw-boned look.

Some runners have gone too far in the direction of slow distance training in recent years. The abuse of distance parallels the abuse of speed 20 years earlier, which had then sent the pendulum swinging toward marathon training.

The pendulum has swung back toward speed again. In most ways this is a welcome change. But built into it is a sneaky bias, a kind of elitism that hasn’t been part of the sport in a long time.

Athletes from Olympic 1500-meter champion Sebastian Coe and world marathon record-holder Grete Waitz on down brag that they only run “quality” miles and that they “never take long runs.” (Coe’s father and coach Peter adds that “long, slow training only makes you a long, slow racer.”)

This is fine if you happen to be born with great speed and lean genes, as Coe and Waitz were. But what of the Zatopeks and Snells who aren’t naturally fast or aren’t natural ectomorphs?

If they have serious racing thoughts, they have to make up with strength for what they were shorted in speed. They have to burn off more calories than they consume. Nothing does this better than healthy doses of distance.


Photo: The newsletter Running Commentary wasn’t much to look at but had a lot to say.


[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.]


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Oregon Calling

(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 1981.)

RETREAT ISN’T necessarily defeat. Instead of surrender, it can be a pullback to revise strategy. My plan for life as a gentleman writer was failing, and to revive it I had to retreat from the bucolic beachhead on the California coast.

Once the book royalties dried up, we couldn’t live in dreamland anymore. We didn’t want to leave Pebble Beach but couldn’t afford to stay.

We’d outgrown our house, where Sarah and Eric couldn’t share a bedroom much longer. We couldn’t add on here and couldn’t buy up in the bullish local real-estate market.

Paul Perry offered a solution. The editor of Running magazine called to say, “Our managing editor is leaving, going back to New York City. Would you like to move north and take her place? Nike can raise your pay and cover your moving costs, plus you’ll find bargains on houses here.”

The benefits would be professional and financial, even educational. As a gatekeeper on content for the magazine I could assign and edit my own articles, reclaiming a voice in the running world. Moving to Eugene, where half the money bought twice the home, would solve the housing squeeze.

Sarah was now in second grade at a school that wasn’t great. The older population of this area balked at spending tax money on schools.

Eric, at three, had started to school himself. Our boy was slow to start talking.

A pediatrician had tried to ease our concerns by saying, “Don’t worry. He’s a boy and a second child. That combination often leads to delayed speech.”

Finally we visited a specialist at Stanford University Hospital. She told us, “Your boy has been severely hearing impaired since birth. Without hearing aids, he essentially can’t hear anything.”

The doctor outlined a remedial program: hearing aids and an early start at a special pre-school. At age three he took an hour-long bus ride to Salinas and back each day.

The kids deserved better schools, or at least closer ones, than we could find on the Monterey Peninsula. So we headed north to Eugene, where a job awaited, where better housing was affordable, where the schools were first-rate in this college town.

Relocating here was a needed move out of the dream and back to reality, out of a theme park that guests paid to see and into a real town. We would remain in Eugene long after Running magazine’s short life ended. Eugene, where I came in retreat, would become my longest-time home.


WE DREAM, especially on days when being a runner wins no respect in our hometown, of moving where we could be understood and appreciated. I made that move in 1981, to the epicenter of the sport in this country.

Eugene was then known as the nation’s running capital, and would later trademark the title TrackTown USA. University of Oregon teams made the sport important here, Bill Bowerman coached here, Nike started here, one of the country’s best marathons, Nike-OTC, ran here. More runners per capita took to the streets, tracks and trails here than anywhere else in the country.

Ten years before the move north I wrote, “Eugene. There’s a tinge of magic in that name. The running press has created the impression that this is an oasis where the runner is king, where the streets are clogged with runners from sunup to sundown, where the stadium is packed with fans heaping praise on their running heroes, where the cool climate is as kind to the runner as the city’s populace is.”

Eugene wasn’t perfect, but I realized in several visits during the 1970s that it still ran far ahead of any competitor as the country’s number-one running city. I cheered when Running magazine located here in 1980, because I could visit more often.

Now I was in Eugene to live after accepting a new assignment as senior editor. In my first column as a resident I wrote, “Running has been a mass movement longer here than anywhere else in the U.S. To borrow a word from Jim Fixx (who contributed an article to the same issue of Running), this city has had a chance to ‘metabolize’ running, to make it a routine part of daily life and not a fad. I see here what the future of running may become in other places. That future works.”


Photo: Pre’s Trail, hallowed ground for runners of all abilities in Eugene.


[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.]


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Nike's Magazine

(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 1980.)

EVER FEEL that you’ve made a big mistake by changing jobs? And that it’s too late to turn back?

That’s how I felt while visiting the Running magazine office for the first time. There, during the Olympic Trials-to-nowhere, I met the full staff and felt little part of it.

By now I felt as if Nike and Running hadn’t hired me to write but only not to write for its competitor. My writing had gone nowhere since I finished my latest book, The Running Revolution, which itself was going nowhere. My style of writing – sometimes instructional, often personal, always conversational, and built from simple words and short sentences – wasn’t the magazine’s.

The editor, Paul Perry, envisioned this as a literary magazine about running. I can’t fault him for that. It would be a noble effort and an artistic success.

Each issue would include at least one major article by a writer from outside the sport: Hunter S. Thompson’s manic take on the Honolulu Marathon, Ken Kesey’s whimsical view of newly opened China. At best these writers offered a fresh take on the sport, But not all of them succeeded. At worst they lacked insight into running and passion for it.

At the least, Running needed a balance of articles and columns by runner-writers that the magazine lacked at first. My pieces hid in small, dark corners of each early issue. That was just as well, because I wasn’t proud of what little appeared under my name.

The managing editor had come west from Sports Illustrated and tried to bring SI’s ways with her – while seeming to look down on everything that wasn’t New York publishing. She clearly didn’t like my style or content.

Editor Perry required her to accept my byline, but she used my original copy as little more than an outline to produce a revised (and shorter) piece, which read fine but wasn’t mine. Without anyone ever saying so to me, her heavy edits signaled that my writings weren’t good enough for this magazine.

On this first visit to the small suite of offices on the Willamette riverbank, quick greetings were exchanged. Then the staffers went back to work.

I had nowhere to sit and nothing to do. No one wanted or needed my advice. No one asked me to stay when I started to leave.

I retreated next door to write more of what the magazine couldn’t use. Sitting on the deck at the North Bank cafe, I alternately scribbled on a diary page and sipped iced tea while watching Olympic Trials athletes and commoners run past on the bike path.

This was the writing that I did most and liked best. No one saw most of it, but it was as much worth doing as when tens of thousands read it.

I realized while sitting in the summer sun, looking out on the river, on a weekday, that my (non)job at Running magazine came with good (non)working conditions. I would accept them for now.

If I made a mistake in signing on with Running, Nike made one too by agreeing to pay me for doing next to nothing. I decided to ride this gravy train a few stops longer before climbing off to find a real job.


WHY I WASN’T summarily fired for disloyalty, I’ll never know. By mid-1980, I’d accepted several Nike paychecks.

I sported the Swoosh most of each day but still wasn’t wearing Nike’s signature product, its running shoes, on my runs. My brand of choice was Brooks, the worst choice politically because this was then Nike’s most bitter enemy in the business.

Understand here that I wasn’t flaunting my footwear. Nearly all runs were by myself, often under cover of darkness.

Then I went to the Olympic Trials in Eugene and had nowhere to hide. Running on Pre’s Trail one morning, I came upon a Nike exec. We stopped for a howdy.

His gaze went straight to my shoes. His silence and eye-rolling said more than words of censure could have.

Soon I was running in Nikes, and company loyalty came at a price. A foot started hurting almost immediately, and would keep hurting until I left that company’s employ – and switched to another brand. For almost two decades I ran in Converse, Asics and New Balance, but never Nike.

I was slow to adopt Nike shoes for the simple reason that they didn’t work well enough for me. This reflected the weirdness of my feet and not the quality of the company’s shoes.

My loyalties are two: to my right foot and my left. I wear whatever works, regardless of brand name. For the longest time, to my regret, this wasn’t Nike.

Then I was reintroduced to one of its early failures for me: the Pegasus. It had passed through many updates since I worked for that company, and 20 years later the Pegasus passed my road test, which is: Does the shoe treat me so kindly that I’m hardly aware I’m wearing it?

If the shoes “speak” to a runner, it’s usually because they’re causing problems. These Nikes ran so “silently,” as did some later models, that the loyalties to my feet finally matched those to the company nearest to home.


Photo: Shirts on sale at the Trials to Nowhere, which took me to Eugene in summer 1980.


[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.]


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Peaking Early

(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 1979.)

THE HIGHER your climb, the harder your fall. Even if you settle back to where you’d been not long before, the comedown is disappointing.  My summit arrived in the final months of 1978 and early 1979.

My fall 1978 royalty check peaked out at its heftiest size ever, and I imagined that such amounts would continue indefinitely. Then I accepted a Road Runners Club of America double: a Hall of Fame induction and a journalism award. The descent came steeply after that.

My spring royalty check from Anderson World, the book-publishing branch of Runner’s World, dropped by half from the last one. Then the next check shrunk to one-tenth of peak size.

I thought what had happened with the runaway sales of Jim Fixx and others would keep happening indefinitely. Fixx’s Complete Book of Running topped the best-seller lists, for all topics, for almost a year.

At first other books (including mine) tagged along on that wild ride. The big sellers spawned dozens of similar books. In 1977-78 all running books sold, but soon most of them (mine too) tanked as the market became glutted.

Then I needed to find another way to make a living. I’d burned some bridges with Bob Anderson at Runner’s World by joining other authors in challenging his reported book-sales figures.

I doubted he would add to my duties, and pay, so I looked toward Nike. It had declared itself an enemy of RW by challenging the legitimacy of shoe ratings and was buying a magazine of its own.

Ned Frederick and Jack Welch had published a small one called Running that now had visions of going large. Jack arranged a meeting, in Hawaii, to pitch me on working for him.

My wife Janet and I had come to the Honolulu Marathon. This trip was long planned as a celebration of her successful cancer treatment, along with another marathon opportunity for me. But now I was suffering through bronchitis, running little and worrying much about my suddenly sick career.

Jack Welch didn’t need to talk very hard to recruit me to his magazine team. He asked, “Can I assume you are ready to go to work for us?” Yes.

“So let’s talk about the terms,” he said. Before I could answer, he said, “This is what I’m thinking. Whatever you were paid at RW, we can raise it.

“There’s no need for you to move to Oregon. You can keep writing from home, flying up to Eugene as needed, though I suspect that once you’ve come there a few times you’ll want to stay.” I didn’t debate any of this.


RUNNERS PEAK at different ages and levels. So too do writers, though successes with words and phrases aren’t as easily quantified as those with times and distances. We can’t know in advance how high we’ll climb, but can only look back later to see when the ascent ended.

In running I took about a decade to learn the game well enough to play it at my highest level. Then I had only a few more years on that high plateau before my body refused to play at that level any longer.

Because I started young, I peaked early. My year-round running began at age 15, my best year of racing came at 25, my last personal record of note at 27.

During the peak years my days centered on the training runs, my weekends on the races. I had no competing commitments from family or job to keep me from indulging so heavily. I raced whatever and whenever possible, with no thought to what this might mean to my health.

Then, at age 29, I ran myself into a date with a foot surgeon. His repair job worked well enough to let me run again within a few weeks and to race again a few months after that.

But the heel was never again as good as new, and it gave me an excuse never to train as much or race as hard again. My peak clearly had passed, and the time had come to settle for fewer miles and less speed.

Full-time running writing followed a similar decade-long climb to a peak. It started later than my racing but also summited early.

This career began at Track & Field News as a 23-year-old; by 26, I had published a book; by 27, I was editing Runner’s World (and not just the magazine but its spinoff books, booklets and newsletter, along with many and varied promotional efforts). By 34, my book sales were lofty enough to let me leave the magazine for life as a gentleman author.

But by then the book sales had already peaked, then crashed downward as quickly as they’d soared. At 36, I had to seek another job in magazines, but was no longer willing to work as hard to climb as high as before.

I’d worked too much in the glory days at RW. I’d given too little thought to how this might have affected my girlfriend, who became my wife, then the mother of our children. It was time to settle down below peak level.

I couldn’t, and didn’t, stop writing after peaking – any more than I could, or would, quit running after setting my last PR. These twin passions had been too much a part of me for too long by then to leave behind.

The running and writing did change, though. I slowed the paces of the runs and the writings so they could keep going. The peaks had been nice places to visit, but I couldn’t have lived indefinitely in that rare air.


Photos: By 1979, my Eric and Sarah held more of my attention than racing and writing did.


[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.]