Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 27 Feb 2003 07:42:47 -0500

Unsung Genius

RUNNING COMMENTARY 455

(rerun from March 1998 RC)

What I'm about to say will embarrass Tom Osler. I've said this before in my talks, and now he can read it.

Tom is one of running's unsung geniuses. A genius because of what he wrote in the modern sport's formative years. Unsung because he never opted to become a star in print and on stage.

He prefers to be known as a mathematics professor. He teaches and researches the subject at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Tom's running writing is far behind him. But its influence lives on even if he doesn't get or seek credit. He is, for instance, the father of the now-popular walking breaks, though he isn't and wouldn't care to be known as such.

The slim booklet Conditioning of Distance Runners, published in the mid-1960s, laid the foundation for bigger and better-known books to follow. None was better than his own Serious Runner's Handbook.

I still say if you can buy only one book on running, make it this one -- if you can find a copy. It contains more than 300 gems of simple wisdom. Tom doesn't toy with a piece of advice for a chapter when he can dispose of it in a paragraph.

I've praised Tom this way ever since editing that book in 1978. But I've heard little about him, or from him, in the meantime. Until now.

A mutual friend gave me Tom's e-mail address. I wrote to ask how the nearly two decades of silence between us had treated him.

In his same-day reply he talked first about family -- married 30 years, father of two sons -- and then his work. "My deepest interest at the moment is in mathematical research," he wrote. "I always enjoyed mathematics and astronomy, but as I age I find I enjoy them even more. I really like my job, and hope never to retire."

Tom put his running in its proper place, talking about it only third. He doesn't write about the sport anymore but still lives it.

"I now run much less and much slower," said the former ultrarunner. "I have not run an ultra since 1982 due to foot problems. I now run about 20 miles per week in the winter and 50 in the summer."

Racing still excites him, even at reduced distances and paces. "I run 30 to 40 races a year," he said. "Most are 5K's. I will race up to the half-marathon anytime, but marathons are rare -- about one every three years."

The math man is proudest now of his own cumulative numbers: "At age 57 I am now in my 44th consecutive year of running and have completed more than 1550 races. I can't run fast anymore, but I can keep adding to the years of running and the list of races. It's kind of an old-man's marathon."

A trace of regret showed when he said, "There was a time when I could coast through 50 consecutive seven-minute miles. Now I am straining after TWO seven-minute miles. I miss being able to go out the door and run endlessly with no effort.

"I only have memories of such effortless joy. But, oh, what memories!"


UPDATE. In the understated way that I like about Tom's writing, he told me recently about what happened to him in January 2003: "My symptoms were dizziness and vomiting early in the morning. Later that day I felt fine, and even ran a 5K race that afternoon."

The 62-year-old's symptoms returned the next evening, then worsened the following day. He said, "I went to a hospital, where it was determined that I had a stroke. I was released 10 days later.

"I am to return gradually to normal teaching activity, and slowly to resume normal exercise and running. Fortunately I have no permanent problems from the stroke.

"As you can imagine, it was quite a shock. To see the end come so near -- wow! But maybe I will learn some good lessons from this, and have a chance to make the rest of my life better."

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