(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 2016.)
GOING OUTSIDE to run wasn’t a big social activity for high school boys in the Midwest winters of the mid-20th century. I started running alone then by necessity, because no one else in my town would have considered it. Now, when a runner need go solo only by choice, this remains my preference.
I’m a loner runner but never lonely. From my start in the 1950s, I sought support from people near and distant, well and little known.
My first coach, Dean Roe, let me make my own mistakes then picked me up when I fell. My teammates let me go my own odd ways while still welcoming me onto their team.
Back then, living on the outer fringes of the sport, I almost never saw a big-name athlete or coach. But they came to my mailbox in small-town Iowa by way of the magazines Track & Field News and Long Distance Log, and books by Franz Stampfl from Australia by way of Austria, by Arthur Newton from South Africa and England, and by Fred Wilt from the U.S. Midwest. People I hadn’t yet met reached across time and space to teach me how to run, and why.
These writings also told me I wasn’t alone. Other runners were out training and racing – often alone too but never in isolation. Our publications linked us.
The runners who wrote and were written about didn’t know me then, but they became my extended family of sorts. They encouraged me, and I supported them in return. We were all in this sport together.
Later my career took me to the very center of the sport, where I ran the many of the races that verified the boom in running. While working for the main magazine that reported and spurred this growth, I talked directly with the people igniting the explosion.
Later still I backed away from running’s center, to a quieter place for doing my writing. Here in a home office (known as my “cave”) I still work alone by necessity because this is the only way I know how to write, in solitary confinement and not in a committee meeting room.
I spend much of each day alone, but I’m not reclusive. Runners wouldn’t allow it even if I leaned that way, which I don’t. My happiest days each week are those spent teaching running classes at the local university and coaching a marathon/half training team.
I talk often and at length with running friends. Some visit in person, but most cross long distances – formerly by phone calls and letters, and now through emails and Facebook. I know many others only through their published writings, and visit a growing number of old friends only in memory.
MY FILES bulge with people stories written for my journal, newsletter and magazine column. Until now, though, I’ve had little chance to preserve these stories between book covers.
Of more than two dozen books, only one has dealt with a person (as opposed to running practices and personal experiences). The exception is Did I Win?, a biography of George Sheehan. I would call it my favorite of all I’ve written, except that it’s really George’s own book that I transcribed for him after his passing.
George liked to say when he borrowed lines from other great thinkers, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” My take is that we run beside and behind these people. They set our pace, leading us to places we couldn’t have gone by ourselves.
People stories have always been my favorite type to read. They give life to the times and techniques. They inspire as well as inform.
These stories still do all of that for me, even after reading them for more than half a century. The gap in my book writing, now closed, was not giving proper credit and enough thanks to the people who are with me on every mile run and every line typed. I called them my pacesetters in a 2016 book with that same name.
Talent and fame were not required for inclusion here. Though some runners qualified on both counts, many are little known to you but important to me for reasons other than records or winnings. The main qualification for selection was how much their stories moved me then and how well I recall them now.
Photo: Arthur Newton reached out to me across the oceans, and the generations, to coach me with his book.
[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, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]