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

Thu, 28 Feb 2013 04:55:38 -0500

Ancient Marathoner


(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 November 2004 issue.)

We met in person only once, and then for less than an hour a long time ago. 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 of that writing, in 1974, we hadn’t yet met. We tried at the Munich Olympics, before the marathon that 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). 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 Boston Marathon in 1976. The meeting began awkwardly, 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 in height 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 letters over the years. Though we never talked again, I would never stop repeating his words.

Other runners feel that way too. Jack’s booklet was a treasure when published in 1974 and is much more so now. Originally priced at $1.50, a copy sold recently on E-Bay for more than $100. I wouldn’t part with my one tattered copy for 100 times more.


Running humbled Jack at first, which might be why he retained humility about his later successes in the sport. He remembered where he came from, and knew that by stopping running he would soon return there.

His first sport was bicycling. After taking long, hard rides with friends in his native England, Jack “drifted into racing” on the bike. This continued through most of his 20s, until he settled into family and working life in New Zealand. Biking only to work and back, and playing some soccer, he imagined himself to be fairly fit at almost 33.

“Surely a half-hour run would be no trouble,” he said of his first try. After going what seemed to be several miles, Jack arrived back where he’d left his wife Belle.

“What’s wrong, have you forgotten something?” she asked. “You’ve only been gone for seven minutes.”

Jack’s reaction: “Impossible. I was sure I’d run at least six or seven miles. I was soaked in perspiration and felt tired. Now I was worried. If I felt like this at 33, how would I be when I was 40?”

We now know that by 40 he was an Olympian, with his best marathon time still to come. But he couldn’t have known that lay ahead when his began running “only every second day, and I was working to maintain that 20-minute jog even on alternate days. I kept at it. I liked the feeling after the run, feeling the glow which comes after exercise. Sometimes the glow was a whole fire, in fact a real burnt-out feeling!”

Running led to racing. “I noticed I was still very competitive,” he wrote. “A hangover from my cycling days perhaps, or maybe my nature. My competitiveness might better be described as a desire to excel, for I have no ‘killer instinct’ at all, no real will to ‘win at all costs.’ Getting my times down was the motivation to do more and more running.”

Better times led to more training, to better times and... You now know where the repeated cycles led.

Other runners have climbed as high, but none was a later starter. Jack Foster wasn’t like the young superstars who seemed to drop in from another planet, bringing with them apparent immunity to the limitations imposed on us mere mortals. He was more like one of us, though one who made very good.

He ran while raising four children and working fulltime. He knew the feeling of starting to run as an adult, and of recovering from hard runs slower than the kids of the sport did. And he wrote for us.

We lacked his late-blooming running talent. (His son Jackson, himself a competitive bicyclist, called Jack “a white Kenyan – an oxygen-processing unit on legs.”) But he spoke a language that any older, part-time runner could understand.

UPDATE: This long column is continued in RC 979.

[Many of my 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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