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.]

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