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

Mon, 5 Jul 2004 09:33:49 -0400

Foster Care


Bicycling was Jack Foster's first sport, and his last. In June he was struck and killed by a car while riding near his home in Rotorua, New Zealand. He was 72.

The sport knew Foster as the longtime masters marathon record-holder. His mark of 2:11:19, set at age 41 while silver-medaling at the 1974 Commonwealth Games, stood for the next 16 years.

I knew Jack first as an inspiration and later as a mail-pal. We met only once in person, at the 1976 Boston Marathon, but carried on a long-lasting correspondence.

Our writing back and forth peaked during his authoring of a wonderful little booklet, Tale of the Ancient Marathoner, which I edited. It has as much wisdom per page (there were 48) as any ever penned about running. And Jack did pen it, mailing handwritten chapters to me on lightweight blue aerogrammes.

The booklet was a treasure then and is much more so now. It originally cost $1.50. A copy sold recently on E-Bay for $109, and this was before his death.

Running had humbled Jack at first, which might be why he retained an endearing humility about his later successes in the sport. He remembered where he'd come from, and that by not running he could soon return there.

Biking only to work and back, and playing some soccer, Jack imagined himself to be fairly fit in his mid-30s. "Surely a half-hour run would be no trouble," he said of his first try.

"What I thought to be many miles later, I arrived back. 'What's wrong, have you forgotten something?' my wife asked. I didn't understand. 'You've only been gone for seven minutes,' she said.

"Impossible. I was sure I'd run at least six or seven miles. I was soaked in perspiration and felt tired. Now I was worried. If I felt like this at 33, how would I be when I was 40?"

By 40 he was an Olympian, with his best marathon time still to come. Yet he wasn't like the young superstars who seemed to drop in from another planet, bringing with them apparent immunity to the limitations imposed on us mere mortals.

Jack Foster was more like one of us, one who made really good. He knew the feeling of starting to run as an adult, and of running's important but limited role alongside raising four children and working fulltime.

He wrote for us. We lacked his late-blooming running talent -- son Jackson, in his eulogy, called Jack "a white Kenyan... an oxygen processing unit on legs." But he spoke a language that any older, part-time runner could understand.

One sample: "A reporter once asked about the training I did. I told him I didn'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."

The last letter I can find from him came in the mid-1990s. I'd 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 1-1/2 hours over the hilly countryside, taken two or three times a week. He wasn't training for anything, just running.

The day after hearing about his accident, I quoted advice from Jack in my talk at Dick Beardsley's Marathon Camp. This wasn't a memorial tribute. I'd already planned to borrow words from him, as I nearly always do in talks and books.

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.


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