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

Sat, 02 Jun 2007 05:07:51 -0400

Running After Bill Bowerman


(Second in a series of articles, begun in RC 677 and written as if the year were 1977. Nike assigned and then declined these writings for its marketing campaign to re-release several shoe models from that era.)

Call it what you will -- an aerobic revolution, a fitness phenomenon, a running boom (the most-used phrase), a jogging fad (the one that oldtime runners hate, for both of its words). Running's population has exploded. More runners are running more miles, entering more races, and buying more products, publications and services. The runner, so recently a seldom-seen oddity, is now trendy.

Long-distance running is no longer a clannish sport, skulking along beneath the public's radar between Boston Marathons and Olympic years. You can't go anywhere now without bumping into runners, sometimes almost literally as they act like they belong on the streets with cars. You can't escape being told it's so fantastic, you should try it, here's a flyer for a race you'll be ready to run next month -- and while you're at it, buy this shoe, subscribe to this magazine, and this is how you should to train.

Running is more than simply a competitive sport, as it used to be. It's also an accepted exercise. Today's runners come in all sizes and shapes, all abilities and ambitions, and -- maybe most notably -- both sexes.

Bill Bowerman is as surprised by all of this as anyone, even though he had as much to do with it as anyone. Bowerman was so far ahead of his time that he couldn't see what was coming. His contributions to running, as we know it in 1977, came so early that he doesn't get full credit for laying foundations on which others have built their reputations as innovators and instigators.

This Bowerman story has little to do with his amazing run of success as University of Oregon track coach from late 1940s to the early 1970s, or with his coaching the Munich Olympic team. In fact, the revolution/boom/fad has little to do with elite sport but mostly with running for fitness and fun, far away from tracks.

Ten years ago, running was almost exclusively a sport of young men, born to be lean and fast. The only reason to run was to race. Only the fastest high school racers ran in college, and most of those retired at graduation. A long distance was six miles, the longest that collegians raced. Women didn't run at all at that level.

Bowerman coached this type of runner, taking the good young one and making him great at the University of Oregon. The coach didn't set out to start a nationwide running revolution. His ambitions were local and personal: to coach his own runners well, to put them in better shoes, and maybe most importantly for our subject here, to reclaim his own fitness.

He experimented with training methods that would maximize improvement and minimize injury. This led to such Bowermanisms as "train don't strain" and "better to undertrain than overtrain." He saw that recovery between hard runs made the hard work WORK. This became the basis for his hard/easy system, which was helpful to young athletes but is vital for adult-onset runners who can't train their buns off everyday without penalty.

Bowerman's tinkering with shoes led him into the business of shoemaking, first for a distributorship that he bought into and then for a company where he had a larger voice. The resulting shoes contributed indirectly but mightily to the running boom by allowing people other than the young, thin and biomechanically gifted to run more miles, safely on the streets and roads.

His final, and perhaps greatest, discovery was personal. He realized how unfit he was in his early 50s, and what he could do about it. During a trip to New Zealand he saw men his age jogging, as they called their slow and steady runs. He tried it, and his partners shamed him into training again after decades away.

Bowerman took the message back to Eugene, where he offered it to his public. Hundreds turned out, because they thought if this local hero preached and practiced something it must be good. The training plan was a scale model of how he trained his athletes. This program became a book titled Jogging, written with Dr. Waldo Harris. It came out in the mid-1960s, years before bigger-sellers on the subject would appear.

Today, Bowerman lives in semi-retirement in the hills above Eugene. He's content to coach an occasional hand-picked athlete, tinker with shoes, act as godfather to the company he helped create, and watch new gurus accept acclaim for discoveries he made a decade earlier.

Ten years ago Bill Bowerman didn't see the revolution coming, nor did even the most optimistic pre-boomer. We marvel now at how running grew so much, so quickly, and wonder where it might take us from here.

(Continued in RC 679.)
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