Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Running's Health


(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

November 1999 (retitled in the magazine).  My local newspaper, the Eugene Register-Guard, reacted curiously to the return of the national track championships to Track Town USA. The sports section lavished as many as six pages a day on the meet. Yet the front page on Sunday led off with a negative story headlined “Popularity of Running Tails off, Slows to a Walk." This demanded and received the following rebuttal from me, which our paper published:

Most of my mornings start with a run. I follow this with another favorite morning habit, reading your newspaper.

Imagine my surprise to pick up Sunday’s paper and learn that running is a dying, damaging activity. The anecdotes and statistics seem to support these claims, but they are misleading. I say this as one who has run for 40-some years, writes about the sport for a living and travels the country meeting with runners.

Your article props up the tailing-off theory by reporting a decline in the number of runners and in the sales of running shoes. I’ve read the census figures and offer a different take on them.

Most of the drop has occurred among marginal “runners” who had only one foot in the activity anyway. They ran less than three times a week and no more than a mile or two at a time. Those who run more and more often are more likely to keep running.

Interpreting the shoe-sales figures: As many as half the pairs sold aren’t worn by runners. Blame changes in footwear fashion, not a dwindling runner count, for the decline in these sales.

Better measures of the running population are the numbers of magazines and books sold. Only true runners buy them.

Circulation of the largest magazine, Runner’s World, topped 500,000 for the first time last year. Books on the sport are more numerous and sell better than ever before.

“The difference between a jogger and a true runner,” said the sport’s finest writer George Sheehan, “ is an entry form.” Entries at U.S. road runs in 1998 exceeded the previous high by nearly 10 percent, according to the national Road Running Information Center in Santa Barbara. Some 419,000 Americans ran marathons last year, exceeding the previous record by more than 30,000.

True, the number of road runs in Eugene has slipped. These events haven’t disappeared, though, but just moved north to the Portland area.

More than 12,000 runners entered the annual Portland Marathon and its shorter companion events on one day last October. More than 20,000 tried the five-kilometer Race for the Cure in Portland last fall.

As for the suggestion that running is inherently bad for the legs, it’s interesting that your article mentions Eugenean Janet Heinonen. She has run at least 35 miles a week for 35 years, and her knees and hips still work just fine.

Runners do get hurt. These injuries usually result from training mistakes – too far, too fast, too often.

The problems nearly always ease if the error is detected and corrected. Very few injuries need be retirement-provoking.

Running is basically health-giving, and running’s health activity is undoubtedly sound. It’s true nationally and here in Eugene, where the movement took its first steps almost four decades ago.


2018 Update. I was well into my think-locally, act-locally stage of life when three arrivals coincided midway through the new century’s first decade. Their combined efforts made Eugene running more vibrant than ever. 

First came ace promoter Vin Lananna to the University of Oregon, which landed four straight Olympic Trials. Next, event organizer William Wyckoff brought his Eclectic Edge here, quadrupling the number of available races. Finally, director Richard Maher returned a major marathon to Eugene after a 20-year absence here.


[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, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Running with Class, 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.]






Monday, November 5, 2018

Remembering George


(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

November 2003. If you've run less than 10 years, we can't expect you to know the name Dr. George Sheehan. But if you started running – and reading this magazine – before 1993, we can assume that you'll never forget him.

I never will. George was the best friend I've ever had in this sport. He was my confidant, mentor and model for the writing and speaking roles that we both played, and was almost my second father.

We were teammates. He was the essayist and I the editor from his first Runner's World appearance in 1970 until he finished his last book 23 years later. I had the honor of seeing his columns before any reader of the magazine did, and to hear the private stories behind these public gems.

The most dramatic of those stories began in 1986, when George stood at the top of his many games. His books had made best-seller lists, and his columns were the best-read feature of the magazine.

He also was one of the best-known speakers on the running, fitness and sports-medicine circuits. He was one of the country's best runners for his age, 67 at the time.

Then came the type of medical exam that he'd ordered for his own patients hundreds of times. Back came the chilling report on himself that he'd delivered to others: "We have found a growth..."

He had cancer of the prostate, and the disease already had spread into his bones – beyond the reach of surgery. His first reaction to this diagnosis was to surrender. "I planned my will and turned down speaking engagements," he wrote. "I wasn't sure I'd be around in three months to fulfill them."

He also stopped writing and dropped out of racing. But he soon realized that waiting to die was no way to live his remaining time.

"There is nothing more certain than the defeat of a man who gives up – and, I might add, the victory of one who will not," he wrote at the time. I know that Robert Frost was right. I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep."

George resumed his full menu of activities. While fighting the disease to a standstill for the next six years, he delivered hundreds more speeches, ran scores more races, wrote dozens more columns and published two more books.

More importantly he patched up his personal life. He ended a long separation from his wife, Mary Jane, and eased the resulting strains with their 12 children.

By his own admission he became less self-absorbed. He was quicker to say his thank-yous and I-love-yous.

"I am still under sentence," he said, "but I have been given a stay of execution. Time to set things right and achieve what I was sent here to do."

That time stretched many more years than his doctors expected. They were good, happy, productive years before his disease finally took its inevitable course.

Even after the cancer went (in his words) "into fast forward" in 1992, forcing him to quit running and then speaking, he kept writing. His journal-style essays became a frontline report on his final battle.

These writings combined into the most intimate of his eight books, and the most inspirational. He wryly referred to Going the Distance as "my death book." But he was wrong. It's full of life well lived.

"There is a healthy way to be ill," Dr. George Sheehan had long advised his patients, readers and listeners. His final book, completed in his final week of life, tells how well he took his own advice.

Its publication now commemorates the 10th anniversary of his death, on November 1st, 1993. I choose instead to celebrate the 85th anniversary of his birth, four days later. As long as his writing is read, a part of George Sheehan lives on.

2018 Update. This column is posted on the 100th anniversary of George’s birth, November 5th. His words still live in me, most visibly in my office in this framed quotation: “Winning is doing the best you can with what you are given.” 

I was also given prostate cancer at about the same age as George’s diagnosis. Thanks to detection and treatments unavailable to him, I do my best with it at the age didn’t quite reach, 75.


[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, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Running with Class, 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.]

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Running in Circles


(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

October 2002 (retitled slightly in the magazine). The best runner in my family asks me without words but with his glances, Why are you so slow? We’re an odd couple. He’s tall, I’m small. He’s thin, I’m less so. He’s young, I’m not. He’s a sprinter, I’m a distance runner.

Our bond is our shared status as retired racers. Before joining my family, he had a brief professional career – on the greyhound track.

His name, Buzz, fits. He can buzz along at 40 miles an hour when his genetic memory moves him.

Buzz wasn’t just born to run; it’s his whole reason for being. His breed has been refined down to a single specialty – to run extremely fast for the pleasure and profit of dog-racing fans.

When instinct kicks in now, he bolts into high gear and dashes invisible laps for a minute or two before dropping back to my pace.

Since Buzz joined my runs, I too have run more laps – slower and bigger ones than he might otherwise do, but laps just the same.

For decades I plotted courses that never duplicated themselves. Some were out-and-backs, but a route looks different when you reverse directions. Usually I’d run a single big loop with new scenery every step of the way.

Buzz has reduced my range. Running safely with him means using fewer and shorter routes, with multiple laps per day or multiple returns there per week.

Neither of us minds repeating ourselves. This is what runners do.

Ours is a life of constant reruns. We’re always circling back to where we’d we started, then starting all over again. Even if we don’t run extra laps that day, we surely will come back for more of the same another day soon.

Anyone who thinks this sounds boring doesn’t have a runner’s mindset or hasn’t chosen the courses well. To a runner in just the right place, each repetition there has a comfortable sameness to it. And each run there also is a little different from any other.

If anyone should feel bored by his everyday runs, it’s Ed Whitlock. History’s fastest over-70 marathoner runs two or more hours a day at a “glorified shuffle,” nearly all of it around a third-of-a-mile cemetery near his Ontario home.

Some readers question this unvarying routine. Ed himself says that he feels safe in his on his everyday route because “I know every pothole on my lap. It wouldn’t be like that on a single-loop course.” Other benefits: “No traffic, no dogs and no other macho runners to keep up with.”

I have no single Whitlock-like home course. But my regular choices in Eugene have come down to a handful, meaning that Buzz and I run each of them at least once a week.

Our favorite: a former garbage dump converted into a riverside park. I first ran there more than 30 years ago when a marathon passed through this park that later became home to Pre’s Trail.

I’ve lived nearby since 1981 and probably have averaged one run a week there. That’s more than 1000 repetitions, and I have yet to tire of this course.

Where did you run today? Now there’s a question you don’t often hear.

We think and talk about the whats and hows (especially the how-fars and how-fasts) of running. But the wheres seldom come up, beyond where the next race might be.

Yet the home courses are where you spend dozens to hundreds of hours a year. You must choose them well.

Plot routes that start and finish in the same spot, that you can reach quickly and easily from home or office, and that are runnable in all weather and light conditions. These might not be the fastest, easiest or prettiest routes. But you run them because they’re convenient, familiar and safe.

Someone who doesn’t know these courses as you do might think they would get old after the 99th repetition. Not so.

A course never quite looks the same way twice. The combinations of weather, season, light, feelings and thoughts that you find there are ever-changing.

2018 Update. Buzz ran his last laps seven years ago. I continue using his favorite off-road courses.


[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, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Running with Class, 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.]


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Pure Sport


(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

October 2001. You don’t run cross-country for flat, fast courses accurate to the inch. You don’t run cross-country to have every step watched, as in a track stadium, or to mix with the masses, as on the roads. You don’t run cross-country for the glory, since in U.S. schools it shares a season with King Football.

You run cross-country for the purest of reasons. You run to test yourself against other runners on whatever surface and terrain nature provides – on a course where no car can go and where your family and fans can catch glimpses of you only by running from point to point. You run with teammates in a race where everyone’s result helps or hurts the team score.

Cross-country tests your love of running and racing for their own sake, not for PRs you might set or attention you might grab. Once you’ve fallen for the fall sport, you never stop loving it.

Almost two-thirds of my autumns have passed since I last ran a full cross-country season. My final race for Drake University was the worst, as in the snowbound NCAA meet I trailed nearly all of the finishers.

The pain of that race, of failing the team and of ending a college career this way, soon eased. The fond memories of those seasons remain, and I eagerly refresh them each fall at my favorite running event of the year. It isn’t a big-city marathon or a championship track meet in my hometown, but the Oregon State High School Cross-Country Championships.

Marc Bloom wrote in his magazine, The Harrier, after last year’s overcharged Olympics, “At least we’ve got the warm and cuddly cross-country season to make us feel better.” He loves the running that high schoolers do in this season, since he coaches as well as writes about them.

Marc’s first love is mine as well. The best day of the year to be a running fan in my home state is the first Saturday in November. All sizes of high schools run their state meet on the same course, in multiple races lasting as long in total as my slowest marathon.

This is a gathering of kids who often are ignored or misunderstood in the own schools during King Football season, and where the runners outnumber the fans at most of their meets. Now they come together with runners like themselves to be appreciated for all they do.

Oregon’s state-meet crowd is large by cross-country standards. That’s because each runner brings along an average of two family members and friends. They care about that runner’s race almost as much as the runner does, and dash about the course to grab glimpses of their special athlete.

This is a feel-good meet to watch, if not to run. These runners all seem to start at a dead sprint. Standing close enough to the course to see them sweat and hear them pant, I feel some of what they feel.

I watched a favored girl fall back through the field and wind up in an ambulance. In a boys’ race one of the early leaders was reduced to walking the last lap on the track and dropped to last.

Only two of runners this day were acquaintances of mine. I’d known their parents since their own teenage years. The daughter had been injured all season and finished in midpack. The son was expected to win, but his kick failed him and he placed a dejected third.

Without knowing the other kids by name and face, I knew them by what they were feeling. I hurt for those who felt they’d never recover from this from this failure.

And I celebrated with the winning individuals and teams who felt they’d conquered the world. Feelings run to extremes at this age.

If you ever ran cross-country and want to renew those memories, or if you want to see what you missed by not being a young runner on a team, go to a high school cross-country race this fall. These kids will leave you feeling good about the sport’s future as well as their own. They’ll show you that competitive running in its purest form is still in great shape.

2018 Update. More than four-fifths of my autumns have now passed without a cross-country race. But two of my grandchildren are now doing them for me.

They were years from being born when this column first appeared. Now Paige is running high school cross-country, and Noah is doing the same on his middle-school team. Their races remind me anew of this pure sport’s attractions.  


[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, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Running with Class, 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.]