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

Thu, 08 Dec 2011 05:00:36 -0500

30 for 30


Thirty years ago my writing, which had developed nicely since the 1960s, took a nosedive. My many books now gathered cobwebs in publishers’ warehouses. Editors at the magazine where I’d gone to work that year deemed my writing style not “literary” enough for its pages, and the few pieces appearing there were edited beyond recognition as mine.

I still wrote, but seldom for eyes other than my own. These articles needed a public venue, and were about to find one. With support from Tom Mills, my agent at the time, and promotion by Ed Fox at Track & Field News, I was about to launch a newsletter called Running Commentary.

Taking writing public is easy in 2011. Anyone can start a blog and publish at no cost to the writer or reader – and without editors to say “this isn’t good enough,” though they might be right.

There were no blogs 30 years ago; no web pages either. Starting a publication meant paying for printing and postage, and soliciting paid subscribers. Only 170 of them wrote checks for the Commentary, trusting that they would see even one copy.

RC has taken many turns since then: twice a month through 1988, monthly through 1999, weekly and online only from 2000 onward, and free to all readers this past decade. I still don’t like calling this a “blog,” though that’s what it has become.

I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s is from the very first issue, published in January 1982.


Whatever the criticisms of mega-mileage training that has been the style since the 1960s, one positive fact is beyond dispute: This type of running has had a profound effect in making the sport more democratic.

Emil Zatopek ran high mileage in a low-mileage era, and was often questioned about “doing too much.” He answered that he had limited talent, and this was the only way he could correct nature’s oversight – by gaining speed through endurance. (The four-time Olympic gold medalist mainly practiced interval training, but ran so much that it qualified as endurance work.)

Peter Snell ran then-unheard-of mileage for a miler. He trained like a marathoner in the early 1960s (and won three Olympic gold medals on the track).

One reason this worked so well for Snell might have been that he was heavy. He gained weight easily if he wasn’t running a lot. The 100-mile weeks gave him his raw-boned look.

Some runners have gone too far in the direction of slow distance training in recent years. The abuse of distance now parallels the abuse of speed at midcentury, which had then sent the pendulum swinging toward marathon training.

The pendulum has swung back toward speed again. In most ways this is a welcome change. But built into it is a sneaky bias, a kind of elitism that hasn’t been part of the sport in a long time.

Athletes from Olympic 1500-meter champion Sebastian Coe and world marathon record-holder Grete Waitz on down brag that they only run “quality” miles and that they “never take long runs.” (Coe’s father and coach Peter added that “long slow training only makes you a long slow racer.”)

This is fine if you happen to be born with great speed and lean genes, as Coe and Waitz were. But what of the Zatopeks and Snells who aren’t naturally fast or aren’t natural ectomorphs?

If they have serious racing thoughts, they have to make up with strength for what they were shorted in speed. They have to burn up more calories than they eat. Nothing does this better than healthy doses of distance.

UPDATE: Some things never change, even 30 years after issuing my first newsletter. Names and products have changed, and so have the numbers of runners and races. But our favorite topics are the same now as they were when RC stood at its starting line in 1982.

We talked then about our times, our mileages, our shoes, our injuries, our diets. As the new century began, I wrote about the first of those topics (“Taking Time,” RC 392) and the last (“Great Weight Watch,” RC 390).

Now I look back to this newsletter’s first issue. Its first advice column touched on mileage and its role in weight control.

Reading it then and now, you might think I haven’t come very far in my writing since then. I choose to think that some themes never grow old.

[This piece and others also appear on a Facebook page titled “Joe Henderson’s Writings.” I invite you get each update by going to that page and clicking “Like.” The three books of my memoir series – Starting Lines, Going Far, and Running Home – are available as e-books for Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Other books of mine in this format: Long Slow Distance, Long Run Solution, Marathon Training, Run Right Now and Rich Englehart’s e-book about me, Slow Joe. All are minimally priced at $2.99 each. Sample chapters are free – as are applications for dedicated e-readers, personal computers, iPads, iPods, and other smart-phones and tablets.]

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