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

Thu, 12 Jan 2012 04:46:38 -0500

Bill Bowerman's Legacy


(I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s is from August 1987. It also appears on Facebook on the “Joe Henderson’s Writings” page.)

We live in the same town, Eugene, Oregon, but rarely see each other. We met by chance this time in a doctor’s waiting room.

I was there to talk about the athletic uses of the office’s therapy pool. Bill Bowerman was there as a patient to train in the pool.

Several years earlier, glue fumes from his shoe experiments left the retired University of Oregon coach, then 76, with nerve damage and forced him to give up running. The pool training was part of his therapy. When his name was called, he said, “It’s time to walk on water.”

He said this wryly, to mock the saintly status he never sought but still holds in our hometown and in our sport. The least you can say about Bill Bowerman is that he’s one of America’s all-time great track coaches, if not the greatest. He coached four national collegiate championship teams and flocks of sub-four-minute milers at Oregon, and once served as U.S. Olympic coach.

His influence reaches far beyond coaching elite athletes, touching runners at every level. He laid the early groundwork for the running boom by importing the jogging message of New Zealander Arthur Lydiard to this country in the 1960s and co-authoring (with Dr. Waldo Harris) the first best-selling book on the subject, simply titled Jogging. He then designed shoes that would keep the masses of new runners safe and comfortable.

However, his most lasting gift to health, fitness and performance is the hard/easy system of training. You can’t improve as a runner without some hard effort, Bowerman has said for 30 years. But running hard every day will destroy you.

Every current program that works mixes hard and easy days. Bowerman gets due credit from others for this concept, but he asks little for himself. He has talked and written sparingly about the roots of his system.

His rare statements on the subject are treasures. He issued one recently for his friend Dick Brown’s book-in-progress. It tells of a pupil who has become as well known as the teacher – the runner/writer Kenny Moore.

As a sophomore at Oregon “Moore was a problem,” writes Bowerman. “He’d hooked up with the seductive idea that the more he ran the better he’d be. On Sundays when I asked him to cover 20 miles, he’d do 30. And on easy days when I thought three miles and a swim was enough, he’d sneak in 12.”

Moore’s two-mile time that year had slowed from a best of 9:12 to 9:48. He was often ill or injured.

Bowerman told him that the overtraining had to stop. “From then on I would watch him perform his easy-day run. It was to be three miles on the grass, seven minutes a mile.

“I told him I had spies who would report any midnight runs, and such reports were cause for suspension from the team. He told me I was a tyrant.

“He remembers, 25 years later, that we had this talk while he was hanging from his neck by my affectionate grip. But remember, this is a man who went on to earn his living by his imagination.”

After three weeks of taking the rest he needed, Moore ran the two-mile a full minute faster than he’d done while overworking. He PRed by 24 seconds.

“I sat down next to him at his locker afterward and told him I had to be honest,” Bowerman writes. “I never thought he could run that fast. He told me he still thought I was a tyrant, ‘and thank God for that!’ ”

Moore became a believer that day but still had occasional lapses of faith. One came a year later, Bowerman recalls.

“In 1965 he won both the steeplechase and three-mile in our conference meet. That was a lot of stress.

“The next day I told him to cut his long run to 10 miles. Naturally he set out to do 20.

“At 10¼ miles he suffered a stress fracture in his foot. When he finally figured out what it was, he looked at me like I had broken the bone myself with a sledgehammer. I hated to lose him for the NCAA meet, but I have to admit I was proud of myself for calling it so accurately.”

Bowerman knows runners. He knows our greatest strength – our will to endure – can also be our biggest weakness. We run into more trouble from going too far, too fast, too often than from not doing enough.

Bill Bowerman knows the difference between enough and too much. We need more “tyrants” like him to protect us from ourselves.

UPDATE: Dick Brown’s book manuscript, with the chapter quoted here, was never published. However, Kenny Moore issued his masterwork about this innovative coach, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, in 2006. Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman died in 1999 at age 88.

[This piece and others 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.]

Previous Posts