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

Sat, 22 Dec 2007 05:27:55 -0500

Grandpa Ted


(rerun from December 1994 RC; my longer tribute will appear in the March-April 2008 issue of Marathon & Beyond)

One of my very best moments at my one and only New York City Marathon, in 1994, came at the starting line. There I lined up beside Ted Corbitt, who stood almost unnoticed at the back where he could see all that he'd helped create.

If Fred Lebow is the father of this marathon, then Ted Corbitt is one of its grandfathers who was starting races in this area long before Lebow started running. This marathon was only one among many of Corbitt's proud descendents.

Pioneers seldom receive much of the later glory, but that's okay with the soft-voiced Corbitt. He never sought attention for himself.

Ted let his contributions speak for him. They reach far beyond his own running, in which he was a 1952 Olympic marathoner and U.S. record-holder at several ultradistances.

In 1958, Ted helped found the Road Runners Club of America, which would give the sport a framework when it exploded more than a decade later. He served as the first president of the New York Road Runners, which would grow into the world's largest club, and edited the publication that would become New York Running News. He set up this country's first course-certification program and watched it become the world standard.

John Chodes asked me to introduce his book, Corbitt (published in 1974 by Tafnews Press). "Among us runners," I wrote then, "Ted Corbitt is admired and envied not because he has run so well, but because he has run so well for so long. Corbitt is amazing to us because he has lasted."

He was a relatively young 55 then but had run for about 40 of those years. Little did we know that Ted's running was ending that same year. A severe case of asthma stopped him abruptly.

He said then, "Fitness can't be stored. It must be earned over and over, indefinitely." So he became a long-distance walker.

"Sometimes I think I developed the asthma so that I would stop [running]," he added later. "I was burned out.

"I had to taper off -- start walking the distance because it had been like an addiction. I was afraid of quitting cold-turkey."

On the occasion of Ted's 75th birthday (in January 1994), Robert Lipsyte wrote in the New York Times that he is "the last surviving spiritual elder of the modern running clan. He never allowed himself to become a guru. He never had the showman's flare of Fred Lebow or Dr. George Sheehan or Jim Fixx.

"He never made money from the boom or became celebrated outside the runner's world. He just ran and ran and ran."

Then he walked and walked and walked. In the New York City Marathon, yes, but also in the annual 100-mile race named for him and in a six-day race where he totaled as much as 303 miles.

Ted revised downward his goal of living 100 years. Now he wanted to celebrate the new century, which would arrive in his 81st year.

His way of getting there would be as it had always been: "Keep moving. Do something useful." Few lifetimes have been filled with more movement or more useful work.

UPDATE: Ted attended events surrounding the latest New York City Marathon and men's Olympic Trials -- in a wheelchair. Soon afterward his son Gary sent me an e-mail, reporting that Ted had advanced colon and prostate cancers. He'd been flown to a Houston hospital for treatment and died there on December 12th, about a month short of his 89th birthday.

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