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

Thu, 11 Sep 2014 05:34:17 -0400

We're All Right

(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 week, this one from March 1998.)

Opinions are like noses. Everybody has one – and needs one. A nose is necessary for sniffing out what’s right for us, as is an opinion.

So when Roy Benson wrote that his “coachly frustrations surface when I see you and other experts giving general advice based only on your own experience,” I took no offense. I’ve never pretended that my nose led me places where everyone else should go.

The only way I would amend coach Benson’s statement is to remove “only,” because that qualifier trivializes opinions. I value them, both mine and those of dissenters.

I also took no umbrage when another coach, Jeff Johnson, suggested that long slow distance running (LSD) was responsible for the dip in U.S. racing performances in general, and high school mile times in particular. I’ve heard often since writing an LSD book in 1969 that I was responsible for a “dumbing down” of the sport – to use Jeff’s term.

Others have said, “The only thing long slow distance produces is long slow runners.” My answer: better a slow run than NO run.

I’d like to accept blame for LSD’s alleged sins, because then I could also take credit for bringing more slower runners into the sport. The fact is that my work was a ripple in a tidal wave of change already starting to sweep the sport back then. I was riding that tide, not pushing it.

Sales of that book totaled less than one-tenth of a percent of those for Jim Fixx’s blockbusting Complete Book of Running that came out a few years later. By then LSD was already out of print and would never come back. The people who still remember it, critically or otherwise, probably never read any of it.

I never said in the book that LSD was the best way or the only way to train. The book’s second paragraph stated that it “contains a simple report of experiences [of myself and five other runners] from which you can draw your own conclusions, agree or disagree.”

If only all of my personal experiences and opinions could be labeled so clearly. Every piece of my advice should start with a disclaimer, published or remembered: “what follows may apply to many of you, a few of you or only to the writer – but never to everyone.”

My heavy use of the first-person pronoun in advice stories is intentional, and not entirely egotistical. I try never to say, “You/he/she/they must run this way.”

Instead I lean on the “I” key. This is what I have read about, talked about and tried out – and then formed an informed opinion on its value to me.

If you’re looking to solve a similar problem of your own, this exerience might point you toward a solution. But understand that it’s only a suggestion, based on a successful experiment of one, and not a commandment to all.

Consider first, second and further opinions when looking for your answers. Sniff through the many – and often conflicting – possibilities of what might work for you.

Hold onto those that are best for you, and discard the rest. In the end the only opinion that counts is the one your form yourself.

UPDATE FROM 2014

One line of criticism of my writings still makes me wince. That’s the charge that I’ve helped “dumb down the sport,” with the added suggestion that I’ve pandered to the masses to boost magazine circulation and book sales. This hints at greed-motivated dishonesty.

If nothing else, I defend my sincerity. I’ve preached nothing that I haven’t also practiced. I write for and about the runners we really are and not who we would like to be. The material is aimed at participants like us who are decidedly not elite.

Have these messages “dumbed down” the elite who happen to read them? I don’t know, and don’t honestly care very much.

I can say for certain that this material has smartened up its main audience. Many are former athletic illiterates who’ve triumphed if only by lifting themselves to a fourth-grade running level.

“I hate the ‘dumbing down’ argument,” says former Runner’s World editor Amby Burfoot. “Thousands of lives are being improved and saved by regular slow running.”

We need to recognize that running is not one big happy family. This sport isn’t of a single mind about methods and goals, but is two sports with a growing gulf between.

On the one side are the major- and minor-leaguers; the pros, semi-pros and amateurs who live like pros. On the other side: the rest of us who run races but who have no more in common with the pros than rec-league basketball does with the NBA. (A third group of runners never races, and its activity is like shooting hoops alone in the driveway.)

These groups will never have the same attitudes and approaches. But maybe we can agree that we’re all right in our own ways.


[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. Latest released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, 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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