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

Thu, 20 Feb 2014 14:42:26 -0500

Going Too Far

(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 April 1989.)

Where I come from, you don’t speak ill of the dead. That’s why the general tone of reaction to Jim Fixx’s death five years ago has bothered me.

Opportunists of every stripe used this tragedy as an opening to make their pet points. He gave non-runners a ready excuse never to start what they’d never planned to do anyway. See how much good all that running did him, they said.

Dietary true-believers pointed fingers of blame at Fixx’s eating habits. See how little good all that running did him because he wasn’t careful about what they ate, they said.

My friend Jim, whose Complete Book of Running launched thousands of running lives deserved better obituaries. But his literary success made him a public figure and a target of critics.

Sy Mah seemed above such criticism. He never wrote a book and never pretended to be a celebrity.

All Mah did was run every marathon within reach of his home in Toledo, Ohio. He’d run the distance 524 times when he died last year from hepatitis and lymph cancer at 62.

Runners Mah had met in his marathon travels praised him after his death. The obits I read were almost entirely positive.

Al Hromjak’s piece was the exception. Knowing what to expect from him, his post-mortem description of Mah still jolted me.

Hromjak isn’t a professional writer, so he can write things that pros can’t for fear of losing our jobs. He seethes with opinions on all subjects. He expresses these views freely as volunteer editor and main writer of the Senior Track Club Newsletter.

After describing Sy Mah’s attempt to run three marathons in one weekend after his combination of diseases struck, Hromjak wrote, “Reasonable people might conclude that this guy’s behavior was self-destructive. I mean, he didn’t even live up to his life expectancy.”

As if those words weren’t strong enough, Hromjak added, “I think the guy was a misguided running nut, plain and simple. If your body is fighting a serious debilitating disease, you don’t put it repeatedly through the ordeal of a marathon.”

The writer then used Mah as a takeoff point in a wider attack on runners who equate more with better. He labeled them “stunt runners” and called some of them by name.

He wrote, “The sooner runners and the sport’s groupies stop revering people like Sy Mah, Ron Hill and Mark Covert [the latter two hadn’t missed a day’s run in more than 20 years] and other stunt runners we hear about from time to time, the less we will see obsessive, self-destructive behavior in potential champions.

“Perhaps this country will start producing Olympic champions when the mileage nuts like Paul Gompers – 170 miles a week, fourth in the 1988 Olympic Marathon Trail – and others of his ilk will learn that quality training always beats out quantity training.”

Strong views like these have gained Hromjak readership far beyond the borders of his southern California club. No less a figure than George Sheehan read the comments on Mah.

In a letter to the writer, Sheehan refused to speak ill of the dead marathoner or to mention by name any living runners with similar leanings. But George agreed with Hromjak’s statement on high mileage, streaking and multi-marathons.

“I have never run over 30 miles a week in my life,” wrote Sheehan. “And yet I have run on a par with people doing twice or three times that distance.”

He said that “no runner frightens me more than one with a long string of consecutive days without missing a run. Here is a prime candidate for taking the body out on the road when every instinct says to stay home.”

And finally, “The marathon is an experience everyone should have, but it need not be repeated. A few years back I met a man who had climbed Everest twice. It set me to thinking, and I have not run a marathon since.”

Al Hromjak and George Sheehan speak from the same viewpoints but in different ways. Of the two styles, which do you prefer to read: the one who respects Sy Mah’s memory while disagreeing with his approach, or the one who attacks Sy when he no longer can defend himself?

UPDATE FROM 2014

What would these two commentators, both now departed, make of what I now call the “megamarathoners”? They run as many marathons as possible, in as many states as their travel budgets can take them. Sy Mah’s race count would seem rather ordinary to many of today’s Marathon Maniacs, 50 Staters and 100 Marathon Club members.


[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 Joe’s Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s 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 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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