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

Fri, 27 Dec 2013 05:16:06 -0500

Where We Came From

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from May 1988.)

When it comes to public speaking, I donít frighten easily. The thrill of talking directly with runners usually overcomes any fear of standing up before them.

Typical of the talks was a recent one in Piney Flats, Tennessee. It followed a picnic under a tent, and the crowd sat close to me. I felt at home in this setting.

Twenty-four hours later, I felt old waves of stage-fright. This stage in Indianapolis stood in a ballroom, and a large crowd sat far away Ė barely seen behind the spotlight.

I imagined it to be a tough crowd. This was the concluding banquet for the Road Runners Club of America convention.

I couldnít recycle an old speech for these people. Theyíd heard or read almost everything before.

For the first time in years, I thought about exactly what to say before opening my mouth. I carried notes to the podium, then forgot to look at them Ė and surely was immediately forgotten by the listeners. Here, recreated from the notes, is the intended message:

I canít tell you how to run yourself or how to run the sport. Youíve done both for years and talked about it here all week.

All Iím left to talk about is myselfÖ and yourselves as well. Iíve never thought of myself as having unique ideas and experiences Ė just lucky to have a platform to talk about the things you also think and do.

Letís think for the next few minutes about what brought us here. Not as the business and political leaders of running, but as runners.

Henley Gabeau, your RRCA president, asked me to tell you about the old days. Iím happy to look back, but donít expect to hear the word ďgoodĒ before old days.

Iím a survivor of those days, just as the RRCA is. We started together in the late 1950s and have grown up together with the sport.

Let me remind you about those old days. That was when the total road running population of whole states would fit around one table in this ballroom.

The first two finishers at races would pick up a stopwatch and clipboard from the bushes and score the other runners. Courses were measured by car.

Metric was a foreign language. The 5K and 10K road races, along with the half-marathon, hadnít been invented yet.

There were no prizes for age-groups or women, because none were needed. A man felt old at 23, and no women dared run.

Races didnít give T-shirts. We ordered shoes by mail, and hoped to get the right model and size.

The public hurled insults and beer bottles. The general media ignored us, and the running media barely existed.

Weíve come a long way from there to where we are now. Before the sport could grow up, we had to change our ways of thinking about it.

Running would have stayed small if we had kept thinking that the only winner was the one who crossed the finish line first, and everyone else was a loser. We had to decide not to be losers; that there is more than one way to win.

Running would have stayed small if we had kept thinking that pain equals gain. The hardest runs do hurt, but no one can stand to hurt all the time.

We had to decide not to be long-sufferers. There also is much to gain from running without pain.

Running would have stayed small if we had kept thinking that the only reason to run was to improve at racing, and when improvement stopped so would the running. We had to decide not to become ex-runners; that there is life after racing.

Iím not a missionary for running who tries to win new converts. Instead I preach to the already converted. My mission is to protect and promote these attitudes that have brought us this far: running to win, running to feel good and running for life.

UPDATE FROM 2013

I still preach this same sermon Ė no longer to live audiences on the race circuit or to magazine subscribers but to students who sign up for my training groups.

The sport has come an even longer way since 1988. Back then we didnít have training groups such as Team in Training, or interest groups such as the Marathon Maniacs and 50 Staters, or GPS watches or minimalist shoes or energy bars and goos. We didnít have event websites with instant results reporting because there wasnít yet a web.

We also didnít have races that sold out within hours, as much as a year in advance. We didnít have entry fees of $100 up. We didnít have run/walkers or pure walkers. We didnít have color or obstacle or mud runs bringing new twists to the old sport.

This oldtimerís view of these changes? More bemused than annoyed. The worst of the new isnít as bad as it might appear to runners of long experience, and the best of the old wasnít as good as weíd like to remember.


[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 PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Just released was Joeís Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joeís Journal, Learning to Walk, 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 Englehartís 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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