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

Thu, 07 Mar 2013 04:57:19 -0500

What Foster Taught

RUNNING COMMENTARY 979

(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 November 2004 issue and is continued from RC 978.)

The highest form of flattery for a writer isn’t imitation. It’s repetition – quoting the writer’s words as better than any you could make up – or better yet, adopting his or her recommended practices as your own.

Jack Foster left me with three lasting lessons for enjoying a long and happy running life. I’ve repeated them often in writing and speaking, and practiced all three myself:

1. The one-day-per-mile rule. Jack could race as hard and fast as runners little more than half his age. He just couldn’t race that way as often as those that much younger. Watch-time doesn’t necessarily slow with age, he said, but recovery time usually does.

He outlined his recovery needs in the Ancient Marathoner booklet: “The after-effects [of a hard race] vary, with me anyway. Sometimes I feel fully recovered in two or three days. Other times I have a drained feeling for as long as three weeks.

“My method is roughly to have a day off racing for every mile I raced. If I’ve run a hard 26-mile road race, then I don’t race hard again for at least 26 days. I’ll go for daily runs okay but no really hard effort.”

One easy day per racing mile. That’s the Jack Foster Rule – my term, not his.

2. Not training. “A reporter once asked about the training I did,” wrote Jack. “I told him I didn’t train. The word ‘training’ conjures up in my mind grinding out 200- and 400-meter intervals. I refuse to do this.”

Nor did he run “the 150 miles a week that some of the top marathoners are doing. I rarely did more than half that. I believe it is possible to achieve results in a less soul-destroying way.”

He concluded, “I don’t train; never have. I don’t think of running as training. I just go out and run each day, and let the racing take care of itself. It has to be a pleasure to go for a run, looked forward to while I’m at work. Otherwise no dice. This fact, that I’m not prepared to let running be anything but one of the pleasures of my life, is the reason I fail by just so much.”

3. Timeless racing. Jack added to the paragraph above that “failing” didn’t bother him. Nor did “the prospect of running 2:30 or even 2:50 marathons in the future.”

This would have almost unthinkably slow to him at the time he penned this line, but “slow” is a relative term. Jack’s times would slip to levels that were slow only to him – a 2:20 marathon at 50, and to six-minute miles for 10K’s in his 60s.

He claimed not to let the old times haunt him. “The drop-off in racing performances with age manifests itself only on timekeepers’ watches,” he wrote. “The running action, the breathing and other experiences of racing all feel the same. Only the watch shows otherwise.”

Jack chose to define a good race by the effort, not by the numbers of a watch. He said, “All the other experiences of racing that attracted me initially are the same as they have always been, and they still appeal to me.”

AFTER THE FAME

A fourth tip, one I often quote and follow, deals with wearing the least shoe we can tolerate, not the most we can carry (or afford). Jack Foster wrote, “I was introduced to running over farmlands, where the underfoot conditions were soft and yielding, developing good foot strength and flexibility. I ran first in light tennis shoes because there were no suitable training flats in those days.”

Jack believed that those shoes forced him to learn proper running style. “We ran in those flimsy, light shoes and developed a ‘feel’ for the ground,” he said. “We learned to land properly or got sore legs, since we couldn’t rely on the shoes to absorb any shock. We got into a light-footed gait that moved us over hill and dale very effectively. I’m certain this [style] helped me stay injury free.”

After he set world records and ran in the Olympic Marathon as a master, shoe companies begged him to wear their latest high-tech training models. He remained a minimalist, running daily “in shoes most people consider too light even for racing.”

This preference would clash with the onrushing trends in running shoemaking, toward bulkier and better-cushioned or more-supportive models. The clash would affect him personally, but not for long.

Jack’s successes led to a job with Nike. The company moved him to Oregon, where he knew right away that he didn’t fit in. He didn’t like having to wear the latest high-tech shoes. He didn’t like running on suburban streets instead of his beloved sheeplands. Most of all he didn’t like acting the role of hired celebrity, Jack Foster World Record-Holder, Mr. Masters 2:11.

Jack had lived too long as a normal adult to believe he was as famous as others made him out to be. He had written years earlier: “People tend to think success in some field or other changes a person. In some cases this is true, but more often it is the other person’s attitude toward the successful one that changes. Before success, no one knows him. After success, everyone wants to.

“Our sense of values is quite lopsided. Music stars, film stars and to a lesser degree sports stars all get media coverage, public acclaim and, for professionals, remuneration out of proportion to what they contribute to society.”

Our brief stays with Nike almost overlapped (mine with its short-lived magazine, Running). Just before I arrived in Oregon, he left, fleeing in joy and relief back to New Zealand.

Our letters after that were few. One came in the mid-1990s, when I asked for his contribution to my book Road Racers and Their Training. Then 63, he spoke apologetically of his running.

“I feel like a fraud completing your questionnaire,” he wrote. “But I do run some, so I’ll answer it.”

He told of choosing what he liked best from his past program and discarding all else. His favorite: a run as long as 1½ hours over hilly countryside, taken two or three times a week. He wasn’t training for anything, just running.

Jack told of “indulging in a fun race now and then, but at about half-throttle while finding someone to chat with.” He didn’t pay much attention to the watch-time, so neither will I here. I’d rather recall his words than his numbers.

The last lines of his booklet read, “Perhaps what I’ve achieved as a runner may have inspired other 35-year-plus men to get up and have a go. I’d like to think so.” I know so.

FRIEND TO THE END

Bicycling was Jack Foster’s first sport, and his last. He was struck and killed by a car in early June 2004 while riding near his home in Rotorua, New Zealand – the same place he’d started to run almost 40 years earlier. He was 72.

He wasn’t the first friend I’ve lost to a bike accident. It’s a riskier sport than running. But Jack wouldn’t have wanted anyone to speak ill now of his favorite sport, any more than Jim Fixx would have wanted to tarnish running by dying of a heart attack on the run.

Anyway, I’m not a runner-biker, so it’s better to let one of them speak here. Steve Goldberg, a law professor at Northwestern University, writes, “I was shocked and saddened by the news of Jack Foster’s death. I never met Jack, but we were the same age, and his successes were both an inspiration and a challenge. They also served to keep my own successes in perspective.”

Goldberg recalls telling a friend in 1974 how proud he was of running a 2:31 marathon at age 41. The friend responded as only a good one can, “Congratulations. You’re only 20 minutes off your age-group record.”

Goldberg says, “The fact of Jack’s death while bicycling was also sobering since, with a decreasing amount of cartilage, I have increased the amount of time I spend on a bike. Riding with the traffic, not against as I do when running, has always created a sense of vulnerability, and that is increased by this news. I have no intention of stopping, however. What will be, will be.”

Jack Foster went quickly, doing what he loved. That’s not all bad.

UPDATE: The day after hearing about his accident, I quoted advice from Jack in my talk at Dick Beardsley’s Marathon Training Camp in Minnesota. This wasn’t a memorial tribute. I’d already planned to borrow words from Jack, as I nearly always did in talks and books, and would keep doing. Friends keep giving long after they’re gone.


[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.]
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