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.]