(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)
2008. One of my very best moments at my one and only New York City Marathon, in 1994, came at the starting line. There I lined up beside Ted Corbitt, who stood almost unnoticed at the back where he could see all that he’d helped create.
He said, almost apologetically and so quietly I could barely hear him in the race-time din, “I only walk the course now.” His running had ended before this marathon went bigtime in 1976. And this is only one among many of Corbitt’s proud progeny.
If Fred Lebow was the New York City Marathon’s father, then Ted Corbitt was one of its grandfathers. New York’s 25th-anniversary book, published in 1994, credited him with helping take the race citywide. Typically Ted downplayed his role, claiming a misunderstanding.
Peter Gambaccini wrote, “Ted Corbitt had decided it was time to give this marathon a fresh boost. He envisioned a competition of some sort between runners who each would represent one of New York’s five boroughs.” Others took the idea and ran with it, devising a race through all the boroughs.
Ted was founding races in his area long before Fred Lebow started running, but pioneers seldom receive much of the later glory. That was fine with the soft-voiced Corbitt. He never sought attention for himself.
He never, for instance, acted as a standard-bearer for African-American long-distance runners (of whom there are still few). He never directed a big race, never wrote a biography (though one came out about him), and never gave a major speech (that prospect would have paralyzed him).
Ted let his contributions speak for him. They reach far beyond his own running – which started early in the rural South, continued in track and cross-country and track at the University of Cincinnati, and bloomed late in the long distances.
He didn’t run his first marathon until age 32. Then just a year later he ran that race for the U.S. at the Helsinki Games. He found more success, if less glory, at even longer distances. In fact, the term “ultramarathon” may be his coinage.
In 1958 Ted helped found the Road Runners Club of America, which would give the sport a framework when it exploded more than a decade later. He served as the first president of the New York Road Runners, which would grow into the world’s largest club, and edited the publication that would become New York Running News. He set up this country’s first course-certification program and watched it become the world standard.
John Chodes asked me to introduce his book, Corbitt (published in 1974 by Tafnews Press). “Among us runners,” I wrote then, “Ted Corbitt is admired and envied not because he has run so well, but because he has run so well for so long. Corbitt is amazing to us because he has lasted.” Ted was a relatively young 55 then but had run for about 40 of those years – surely logging more miles in that time than any other American.
Little did we know then that his running was ending the same year the book was issued. A severe case of asthma stopped him abruptly.
“Sometimes I think I developed the asthma so that I would stop [running],” he said later. “It had become an addiction, and I was burned out but afraid of quitting cold-turkey. I had to taper off.” He added that “fitness can’t be stored. It must be earned over and over, indefinitely.” So he became a walker.
On the occasion of Ted’s 75th birthday (in January 1994), Robert Lipsyte wrote in the New York Times that Ted was “the last surviving spiritual elder of the modern running clan. He never allowed himself to become a guru. He never had the showman’s flare of Fred Lebow or Dr. George Sheehan or Jim Fixx. He never made money from the boom or became celebrated outside the runner’s world. He just ran and ran and ran.”
Then he walked and walked and walked. Strolling his New York City neighborhood wasn’t enough, so he matched – and sometimes exceeded – his old running distances. The longest: 303 miles in a six-day race named for him, at age 82.
“Since I stopped running,” he told me then, “I sometimes walk around Manhattan Island, which is 31-plus miles by the route I take. I’ve probably run or walked this more than 100 times. In fact, I had planned to walk it the day of the terrorist attacks – and would have passed the site of the World Trade Center after its collapse. Of course I changed my plans. I decided to walk another 30-mile course, going up the Hudson River and back.”
Ted added that “most of my walks are 10-milers.” Running or walking, he remained a beacon for aging actively. His way was as it had always been: “Keep moving. Do something useful.”
By then Ted had revised downward his earlier goal of living 100 years. Already he’d passed his backup target of celebrating the new century, reached at age 80. Now he could think: maybe 90?
Later. Few lifetimes have been filled with more movement or more useful work than Ted’s. But even the best of lives must end eventually.
Friends of mine reported that his final finish line appeared near when they saw him last November. He still attending events surrounding the New York City Marathon and men’s Olympic Trials, but now in a wheelchair.
Soon afterward his son Gary sent me a note that Ted had advanced colon and prostate cancers, and had been flown to a Houston hospital for treatment. He died there, about a month shy of his 89th birthday.
Published tributes listed Gary as his only survivor. That’s technically true. He was an only child, and his mother had passed on nearly 20 years ago. But within the extended family of running Ted Corbitt left thousands of children and grandchildren. I’m proud to be one of the many.
(Photo: Ted Corbitt, the father of many advances in American distance running.)
[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, 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.]