Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Worlds Apart

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

June 1998. Old friends can agree to disagree and remain friends. Jeff Johnson and I have been disagreeing since the 1960s, when he first questioned in writing my original story on slowing down and lengthening my training.

Jeff and I ran all-comers track meets together one summer in the early 1960s. He was a Stanford student, and I was out from Iowa to run every race I could.

That summer deepened our love for the sport to the point that we’ve never left it. The sport gave each of us a career, and only the directions we took in running differed.

Jeff once sold Tiger shoes, then helped found Nike, and now is a coach of club athletes with elite ambitions. I still do what started that summer, which is to work for a magazine.

We’ve stayed friendly for 35 years now. But that isn’t to say that we always agree on all matters, running.

He objected recently to story of mine in which I said the current shortage of world-class U.S. runners doesn’t trouble me. “The U.S. leads the world where it really counts – in distance-running participation,” I wrote.

Jeff compared this to an educator saying, “The U.S. has more people than ever reading at the fourth-grade level, yet we produce fewer scientists. Nevertheless this is evidence that the U.S. leads the world where it really counts.”

He added, “I think it possible that you and other popularizers of our sport (Runner’s World, etc.) are partly responsible for this decline in quality by ‘dumbing down’ the notion of what it takes to get to the top. For the last quarter-century the running publications have sought to expand their markets (a not-unreasonable goal) by preaching that running is easy and fun, that you can walk your way to a marathon finish, etc. All of this is true, but little or none of it aids in the advancement of performance.”

I don’t know if this message has “dumbed down” the elite who happen to read it. But I can say for certain that this message has smartened up our main audience. Many are former athletic illiterates who’ve triumphed if only by lifting themselves to a “fourth-grade” running level.

The friendly disagreement with Jeff Johnson reminds me that all runners don’t think alike. Today’s running is really two distinct sports with a growing gulf between.

On the one side are the major- and minor-leaguers; the pros, semi-pros and amateurs who live like pros. On the other side: the rest of us who run races but who have no more in common with the pros than rec-league basketball does with the NBA. (A third group of runners never races, and its activity is like shooting hoops alone in the driveway.)

The mixing of the two worlds at races is an illusion. They and we share little else there but a common course.

I write mainly for the “we’s” because there’s nothing I could tell the “they’s.” They and we run in different worlds, and these are some of the differences:

They outrun 99.9 percent of all runners. We outnumber them a thousand to one.

They are athletes. We are just runners.

They are largely young. We are mostly middle-aged and more.

They race long and fast. We race long.

They race for place and time. We race for time.

They are paid to race. We pay to race.

They train to race. We race to spice up our training.

They fit their day around training. We squeeze training into our day.

They train as much as they can. We train as little as we can get by with.

They are featured in magazines. We read the magazines.

2018 Update. I've now liked and admired Jeff Johnson for 55 years. Meanwhile, I’m more than ever before a full member of the “we” and never further from a “they.”

[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.]

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