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

Thu, 13 Dec 2012 11:31:26 -0500

Old Gold


(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the September 2005 issue. This long piece is continued here from RC 966.)

Three key factors made U.S. marathoners from our golden age, the late 1970s through mid-1980s, faster in depth than any group of Americans in the past 20 years: (1) they didn’t wait too long to start racing marathons; (2) they ran with abandon, and (3) they raced mostly for free.

— Starting “Too Soon.” An old idea, which should have died in the golden age, has taken root again in recent decades. It’s the myth that marathoning is a refuge for aging and slowing runners – that it’s their parents’ and grandparents’ event, not one for a young speedster to try. Young runners are urged to wait. Exploit their speed first, because the marathon will kill it. Once a marathoner, there’s no turning back to the track.

Oh, no? How about Billy Mills? He qualified for the 1964 Olympic Marathon before making the 10,000-meter team, and ran the long race in Tokyo after winning the short one. Alberto Salazar set American track records for 5000 and 10,000 meters after running his world-best marathon. Frank Shorter placed fifth in the Munich Olympic 10,000 – a week before winning the marathon there. Shorter and Bill Rodgers both qualified for the 10,000 at the Montreal Games (but neither ran that event there), after going 1-2 in the Marathon Trials. Joan Benoit ran internationally in cross-country and track while in her marathon prime.

These five runners are venerated elders in the sport now, but were in their 20s during their golden ages. Mills turned 26 in his golden year. Benoit won her Bostons at 21 and 25, and her gold medal at 27. Shorter was 24 when he won at Munich. Rodgers won his first Boston at 27, and another plus two New Yorks before his 30th birthday. Salazar debuted in the marathon as a 22-year-old and ran his fastest race at 23.

Back at the dawn of this golden era, Buddy Edelen set his world marathon record at 25. The average age of the best Olympic team in U.S. history (1-4-9 at Munich) was 26.6. Cathy Schiro (now O’Brien) holds the record for youngest Olympic Trials marathoner. She ran the 1984 race at 16, then made the next two teams while still in her early 20s.

Young talent still pours out of the high schools and colleges every year. The pool of athletes capable of running fast times in big marathons has never shrunk; only the wish and the will to do so when their speed runs high.

— Running “Too Much.” The golden age of marathoning had its roots in the distance-training revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Arthur Lydiard’s 100-mile weeks. Training big miles on the roads naturally led to racing them there. One reason the golden era ended in the 1980s was the turn away from distance. The buzz word became “quality” – fewer miles, faster. Runners who avoided “junk miles” rejected road races as inferior to the “real” running that centered on the track. Even the marathoners ran less. They bought into “scientific” reports that mileage beyond certain arbitrary maximums – 50, 60, 70 – was wasted.

Two oddities here: first, the best 10,000-meter track time by a U.S.-born runner was stuck for more than 20 years at the 27:20 run by Mark Nenow, a high-mileage trainer. Second, the same runners who praised quality miles also shied away from those highest in quality. They didn’t race as often as the golden agers.

“Quality” was another name for caution: less running, less racing. This might be a way to run pretty well for a long time. But truly great racing might require risking too much training and racing. The trade-off often is a shorter stay at the top.

The best of the golden agers ran as if there were no next year, and sometimes there wasn’t. Careers often were as short as they were spectacular. In 1972 Frank Shorter ran three marathons within five months. The second was his Olympic victory, the third his PR. In 1984, Joan Benoit’s winning race at the Los Angeles Games came just three months after the Trials.

Three of the country’s world-record marathoners – Buddy Edelen, Alberto Salazar and Benoit Samuelson – each ran in only one Olympics. The 1964 Trials triggered an injury from which Edelen never recovered. Salazar’s many big efforts had drained him physically before the 1984 Games. Benoit took her chances in 1984 and got away with it. She ran the Trials less than three weeks after knee surgery, but her best racing lasted only one more year.

America’s best native marathoner (read: not Khalid Khannouchi) who never to make an Olympic team was Dick Beardsley. The 1982 Boston was his fifth marathon within a year and 10th within two years. He PRed in seven of those races, but lost his shot at the 1984 team to an achilles injury.

You couldn’t accuse any of these runner of being too cautious. They all trained long and raced often. This wasn’t the way to stay on top for a long time. But it was their way to get there for a little while. They made their choice. That’s why we remember them so well.

— Racing “for Nothing.” You could ask, “Why aren’t more American runners upfront at the big marathons anymore?” A better question would be, “Why aren’t the best of them there at all?” The main reason they don’t show up in any numbers at Boston, Chicago and New York City is money.

The professional era in this country, which took hold here in the 1980s, hasn’t been kind to Americans. As amateurs, they would run anywhere they could afford to go. As pros, they don’t often go where they won’t be paid. Without another job, they must get paid for their running.

The biggest races buy the best talent, and it usually isn’t American. U.S. runners unable to earn travel expenses and unlikely to win prize money look for other races to enter.

Take Boston as an example. Its invited field, recruited worldwide, isn’t huge but it hogs the prize money. This scares off the lesser pros. Boston, like other wealthy races, is fast at the front but has thinned at the top. Times right behind the leaders have slowed since the golden age.

The last year before Boston went into a steep but brief decline, and then turned pro, was 1983. That year 83 men broke 2:20, and the majority were American. Only 16, from all countries, ran sub-2:20 at the 2005 Boston (just three of them from the U.S.). But those 16 drove away other pros with little chance to cash in.

Boston 1983 paid no appearance fees or prize money, and helped very little with anyone’s expenses. The peak race for women, the 1984 Olympic Trials Marathon, paid some travel costs but nothing extra to its leaders.

Few runners back then had shoe contracts or ever earned anything for their running. Most invited themselves to Boston and the Trials. They got there on their own, with money earned by other means than their running. They didn’t have to or expect to finish “in the money” because there wasn’t any. Their payoffs weren’t monetary but were (as, ironically, a credit-card ad says) priceless.

I’m not calling for an end to money racing, which is with us to stay. I am saying there are some marathons worth running for free and even paying to get there. America’s amateurs still know this, and the pros might profit from relearning it.


The end of a golden age doesn’t mean that the good times are over for good, personally and athletically. For me and for the sport, the low spell that followed the old high led to a new peak. This peak differed from the last. Maybe it wasn’t as golden, but it still was good.

In the mid-1980s, I bottomed out. Then I found a new home for my magazine columns, published more books, ran more marathons, remarried.

Running as a sport also rebounded from its low of the 1980s. By the 1990s we had a second running boom, far bigger than the first but different. This re-boom valued participation over speed, which wasn’t a bad choice. If I had to choose between masses of Americans running slowly and a few running fast, I’d pick the former.

But it doesn’t have to be either/or. American marathons can have both size and speed. They have the numbers, and now their leaders are picking up the pace. This country has long been short on marathon heroes. We have them again, and more are on their way.

At the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials, Colleen de Reuck, Deena Kastor and Jen Rhines all broke 2:30. Three American women had never done that before in the same race. Kastor became the country’s first Olympic medalist in 20 years.

African-born but U.S.-schooled Meb Keflezighi also medaled at Athens, the first American man to do this since Frank Shorter in 1976. Alan Culpepper, in 12th, finished as high as any other American since 1984.

These runners are modern professionals, paid well for their efforts. But they also repeat what worked in the golden age. Two months after Athens, Keflezighi ran at New York City and finished second. Kastor’s attempt at the same double ended in a DNF, but at least she tried. Culpepper’s fourth-place finish at Boston in 2005, best by a U.S. man since 1987, was his third marathon in little more than a year.

All three of these runners train big mileages, without neglecting “quality.” They can compete with any American in track and cross-country. Kastor won the Olympic Trials 10,000 by almost a lap during her heaviest marathon training. None of the three is young by golden-age standards. Kastor and Culpepper are 32, and Keflezighi 30. But a youth movement might come soon.

No young American shows more promise than 22-year-old Dathan Ritzenhein. He tells Track & Field News that the marathon “is going to be my best event, and I don’t want to make the mistake of being too old when I start. I want to be at the prime of my running career.”

Wish him great success, not only for himself but as a guide to other young and ambitious runners. He can send them this message: Don’t wait, don’t hold back. Train long, race hard and often, before the years get away from you. Create your own golden age to look back on later.

UPDATE: Dathan Ritzenhein made the 2008 Olympic Marathon team, returned to the 2012 Games in the 10,000, then set a marathon PR of 2:07:47 this fall at Chicago. Meb Keflezighi, who won New York City after this column was published, placed fourth in the London Olympic Marathon.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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