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

Sat, 24 Nov 2007 05:22:58 -0500

The Ancient Marathoner


(rerun from November 2004 Marathon & Beyond)

We met in person only once, and then for less than an hour in 1976. Yet I count Jack Foster as one of the greatest friends I've ever had. Like all the great ones, he has never stopped giving.

Measured by the most said in the least words, one of the best books ever written about running was really just booklet length -- Foster's Tale of the Ancient Marathoner. Its first words, and far from its best, aren't his but mine that introduce him to readers.

"If a friendship can be measured by the number of letters two people exchange," I wrote in the Foreword, "then I can count Jack Foster among my best friends. On my desk here now is an inch-thick folder of lightweight blue aerogrammes postmarked 'Rotorua, New Zealand.' I feel I know Foster about as well as I know any runner."

At the time we hadn't yet met. We tried at the Munich Olympics, before the marathon he ran there at age 40.

I wormed my way into Olympic Village, found the New Zealand compound and knocked on the door that I'd learned was his. No one answered.

Oh well, I thought at the time, I'll try again later in the Games. But a few days later everything changed for that Olympics and for all to follow. No intruder sneaked into the Village again.

Our writing back and forth continued, peaking during his writing of that wonderful little booklet (which I edited for publication in 1974). He handwrote it in tiny script across almost 100 pages of aerogrammes.

By then the sport knew him as the world masters marathon record-holder. His mark of 2:11:19, set at age 41 while silver-medaling at the 1974 Commonwealth Games, would stand until 1990.

We finally did meet, briefly, at the 1976 Boston Marathon. The meeting was awkward, as we tried to reconcile the person imagined from written words with the one now standing before us, speaking.

Though his measurements (about 5-feet-8 and weighing in the 130s) were known to me, I was surprised by how small he looked. We expect people who've done big things to be bigger than life.

Jack and I didn't say much that night, at least not to each other. We stood together at a question-and-answer clinic, where he wowed the crowd with his simple wisdom.

He did the same for me as he now gave voice to what he'd told me by letter over the years. Though we never talked again, I would never stop repeating his words.

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.


The highest form of flattery for a writer isn't imitation. It's repetition -- quoting the writer's words as better than any you could make up, or better yet adopting his or her recommended practices as your own.

He left me with three lasting lessons for enjoying a long and happy running life. I've repeated them often in writing and speaking, and practiced all three myself.

1. THE ONE-DAY-PER-MILE RULE. Jack could race as hard and fast as runners little more than half his age. He just couldn't race that way as often as those that much younger. Watch time doesn't necessarily slow with age, he said, but recovery time usually does.

He outlined his recovery needs in the Ancient Marathoner booklet: "The after-effects [of a hard race] vary, with me anyway. Sometimes I feel fully recovered in two or three days. Other times I have a drained feeling for as long as three weeks.

"My method is roughly to have a day off racing for every mile I raced. If I've run a hard 26-mile road race, then I don't race hard again for at least 26 days. I'll go for daily runs okay but no really hard effort."

One easy day per racing mile. That's the Jack Foster Rule -- my term, not his.

2. NOT TRAINING. "A reporter once asked about the training I did," wrote Jack. "I told him I didn't train.

"The word 'training' conjures up in my mind grinding out 200- and 400-meter intervals. I refuse to do this.

Nor did he run "the 150 miles a week that some of the top marathoners are doing. I rarely did more than half that. I believe it is possible to achieve results in a less soul-destroying way."

He concluded, "I don'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.

"It has to be a pleasure to go for a run, looked forward to while I'm at work. Otherwise no dice. This fact, that I'm not prepared to let running be anything but one of the pleasures of my life, is the reason I fail by just so much."

3. TIMELESS RACING. Jack added to the paragraph above that "failing" didn't bother him. Nor did "the prospect of running 2:30 or even 2:50 marathons in the future."

This would have almost unthinkably slow to him at the time he penned this line, but "slow" is a relative term. Jack's times would slip to levels that were slow only to him -- a 2:20 marathon at 50, and to six-minute miles for 10K's in his 60s.

He claimed not to let the old times haunt him. "The dropoff in racing performances with age manifests itself only on timekeepers' watches," he wrote. "The running action, the breathing and other experiences of racing all feel the same. Only the watch shows otherwise."

Jack chose to define a good race by the effort, not by the numbers of a watch. He said, "All the other experiences of racing that attracted me initially are the same as they have always been, and they still appeal to me."

(This column was a tribute to Jack Foster, who was struck and killed by a car while riding his bicycle in 2004. He was 72.)
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