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

Thu, 11 Apr 2013 04:52:22 -0400

My Big Brother


(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 May 2006 issue.)

I advise marathoners to adopt a practice that I came to only late in my marathoning life. That’s to name the person who helped who most helped to put you where you are, then to dedicate your big effort to him or her. Write the initials on your hat brim or race number, or just carry that person’s image in your heart.

Then when the going gets tough, as it surely will if it’s an effort worth making, think about that special someone. That way he or she can keep on helping.

Writing a long column is my current version of a “marathon.” It isn’t as tough physically, of course, but has its own challenges. These pages take longer to complete than any marathon I’ve run.

Writing requires training – practicing linking words together, yes, but more so gathering experiences from which to write. As in marathons, I stand at this starting line wondering: Will I get through another one? Here too I look for help.

The list of who has influenced my running the most runs long. It carries the names of coaches I trained with daily and some I never met. I can list my running heroes, teammates and competitors, parents and uncles.

But too little public credit has gone to the person who might have helped the most. That’s the one who shares the most DNA with me, my older brother Mike.

He was two years ahead of me in age, and miles further advanced as a young athlete. He played quarterback in football, point-guard in basketball, and ran hurdles and sprints in track. He was on hand for my first race.

No one has gotten more mileage from an awful race than I have from my first. It started too fast and lasted little more than a quarter of the scheduled mile. It credit my coach, Dean Roe, with keeping me from quitting forever that day. I remember exactly what the coach said then. I remember even better what my big brother told me without saying a word.

Mike stood over me as I slumped on the infield grass, feeling sorry for myself. His look wasn’t one of sympathy. He leaned on crutches, his look saying: I’d give anything to be running today. You had your chance, and you quit. What’s your excuse?

Mike shamed me into getting up and trying again. He was coming off knee surgery for a football injury. It would cripple him athletically from then through high school graduation a year later, then would keep him from staying active enough after that.

He would grow heavy. He would work too hard and relax too little. He would pick up a smoking habit. He would look old before his time.

My brother would become the type of person we runners too easily laugh at and look down upon. But before you judge him too quickly and harshly, get to know him a little better. You’ll see how much he could help runners without being one himself.


Mike and I didn’t look or exercise alike, eat or sleep alike. He was two years older, but in middle age he looked a decade my senior – not because I’m youthful but because he’d aged faster. He outweighed me by almost 100 pounds, not because I’m thin but because his food intake had far outrun his activity.

But Mike and I were more alike than anyone would have guessed at first glance. Most of all we shared a lifelong passion for sports – one sport for me, all of them for him.

He worked two jobs at once – one for pay as information director for an Iowa high school athletic association, the other voluntary for anyone who wanted his statistical services for sports in his home state. His greatest athletic love was the Drake Relays, which he served for 40 years.

For all the writing that Mike did, he almost never mentioned himself (again unlike his brother, who wears out the “I” on his keyboard). One of the very few pieces that told his own story was a biographical sketch requested by his employer.

He wrote this as if talking about someone else, such as, “In grade school Mike used crayons and dice for ‘play’ track meets complete with scoring.” From the next bedroom I would hear him announcing these nightly races: “Here comes Orange on the outside... Black is dropping back.” He recorded all the results.

Before his knee blew out in his junior year of high school, Mike was a better athlete than he ever would let on later. Afterward he hobbled along gamely on 1½ legs.

The only time we ever played on the same team was in his post-injury football season. Mike was the reserve quarterback by then, and I ran the ball only in games when the outcome was sealed one way or the other.

In one rout of a game we found ourselves in the same backfield. With the ball on the one-yard line, Mike could have scored on a sneak. Instead he decided that his little brother should have the touchdown. He called my number twice in a row, and each time I went nowhere. He tried the same play again, this time with him pushing me that final yard.

That was Mike, and would remain him. He sought no headlines for himself. His joy came from singling out others for attention and then pushing them across their goal lines.

An early example: He found a term paper of mine that I’d written for a high school class and sent it to Omaha’s newspaper, which I wouldn’t have thought to do myself. This became my first full-length article to see print, and it created an appetite to write more.

My big brother pushed and pulled me in ways I was slow to see. Hard as it is to say now, he sometimes showed me how I did NOT want to live: physically inactive, working nights and sleeping days, working through his weekends and vacations, going wifeless and childless.

That would be a sad way to live if you didn’t know the rest of his story. Mike was a rare and lucky man whose work and hobby were the same. He found his true course early and stayed on it to the end. He pulled me in that same direction while letting me leave some of his baggage behind.

[Continued in RC 985.]

[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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