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 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.]

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