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

Thu, 01 Nov 2012 04:53:55 -0400

Running's Inventors

RUNNING COMMENTARY 961

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the September 2007 issue.)

Running, the act, didn't need inventing. It came as original human equipment from – take your pick – the great master planner of the universe or by evolutionary accident. Our kind is designed to run, and only in the last blink of our history has this act become optional.

The ACTIVITY of running, the modern sport and exercise, did need shaping. Inventors, innovators and instigators had to step forward to lead us where we are today. Who are they?

The question is timely because, as this column reaches print, it’s 40 years since Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon as the first woman pinned to an official race number. In 1967 a national magazine article previewed an upcoming book promoting running for fitness, Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s Aerobics. It’s 30 years since the first running boom peaked. In 1977 Jim Fixx’s Complete Book of Running was scaling the best-seller lists.

I’m old enough to have run and written through those revolutionary times. Boston 1967 was my first marathon, run as anonymously as Switzer’s was sensationally. That also was my first year as a columnist in a running magazine. In 1977, I resigned as editor of Runner’s World, foolishly thinking that book sales would free me from working at a real job, a la Fixx.

I’m better at reporting than predicting, so I can see now what was hazy to me 30 and 40 years ago: how big running would become in those years, how long that first boom would last (and it quieted in the 1980s before booming again, louder, in the 1990s), and who laid the early groundwork for all that we still have today.

Two major and separate streams – running for fitness and training to race – came together in the years 1967-77. The two greatest pioneers were Kenneth Cooper and Arthur Lydiard. Fittingly each had dipped his feet into both streams.

Dr. Cooper was a college miler, then he ran the Boston Marathon while in medical school. As an Air Force physician he began researching fitness, which led him to praise endurance activities such as running, which led to his best-selling book Aerobics, released in 1968.

This book inspired hordes of new adult-onset runners, because running was simple and time-efficient. Many of them reached Cooper’s prescribed amount – two to three miles, three to five days a week – and looked to go longer and faster.

New Zealander Lydiard exported fitness running, “jogging” as it was called then, to the U.S. by way of Bill Bowerman. Lydiard is better known, though, as a coach of Olympic medalists: three runners with four golds and a bronze among them, all coming from his Auckland neighborhood.

This coach turned away from the standard training of his day – almost all of it fast and on the track. His runners trained long miles on the roads and trails. Their success bred imitation, and soon runners everywhere were training longer and slower.

The two separate streams joined in the boom years to flood the roads with runners. Cooper Aerobics graduates took the next logical step up, to low-key road races. Lydiard devotees found they liked training on the roads and began to race there, a welcome step down from the intensity of track.

Others are credited with igniting this boom – Kathrine Switzer for women’s opportunities, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers for success at high levels, Jim Fixx and George Sheehan for their writings, Bob Anderson for his magazine Runner’s World. But they are at least equally products and beneficiaries of the boom.

The same could be said for the many other businesses, events and organizations that served this burgeoning community. Their further success would depend on how many boomer runners kept running, and for how long – in years, not miles.

Hindsight is always clearer than foresight. Which is to say, it’s easier to report a phenomenon 30 or 40 years later than to predict a trend as it happens. Here are my confessions of how badly I underestimated running’s 1967-77 growth and change at the time.

Take the Boston Marathon as one example of sea changes. I first ran there in 1967 and thought the field might be the biggest I’d ever see. Seven hundred of us started. Ten years later, despite qualifying times designed to limit entries, the number there was 10 times larger.

In 1967, I thought that Johnny Kelley might be the oldest runner I would ever meet. He was 59. A decade later Kelley still ran Boston and was far from alone in his age-group. This wasn’t a young-person’s sport anymore, and the ex-runner was an endangered species.

Two women ran the 1967 Boston, one with a race number that her gender wasn’t yet welcome to wear. While I applauded what Kathrine Switzer did, I thought she might have set back women’s running by embarrassing certain officials. Just the opposite happened. The best change of the boom years was the feminizing of running.

I thought in 1967 that American marathoners couldn’t compete with the best of the rest of the world. A U.S. man had won at Boston just once since World War II, in 1957. Fortunes changed.

Amby Burfoot won that race in 1968. Then between 1973 and 1977, four of the five men’s AND five women’s titles went to Americans. I thought by 1977 that they would keep winning indefinitely. Then they were swept aside by the rising tide of worldwide talent.

If you ask me now where running as a whole is headed in 2007, my most honest answer is the same one I should have given in 1967 or 1977: I don’t know but can only guess.

As you’ve seen, my crystal ball has always been cloudy. But if you ask where MY running is headed, the answer is easy: straight ahead for as long as possible, no matter how many other runners continue – or don’t.

I’m not unique. Many of you also know that you never want to stop. This will assure a good long run into the future that counts the most. Your own. You invented YOUR running and will keep reinventing it.

UPDATE: Kathrine Switzer was Marathon & Beyond’s first “On the Road” columnist when the magazine launched in the mid-1990s. She became the first repeater in that spot when she returned in 2011.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine, starting with the September issue.]
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