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

Thu, 25 Apr 2013 08:55:22 +0000

Happier New Year


(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 January 2005 issue.)

Publication lead-times dictate that I write in late summer for New Year’s Day reading. This timing is fitting for several reasons, the first a throwback to school days when the running year began with cross-country in September. A year can start just as well at Labor Day as the week after Christmas. Vacation season ends with the arrival of September, offices return to full staff, classrooms fill again. We’re back to business.

My latest year truly ran from September to August. The last “new year” was less than a week old when the contract for my next book came through. Writing any book is an endurance test, and this one would be my biggest solo effort.

From planning through publication it would take a full year. I thought this work would be the hardest part of that year. Instead it became a welcome everyday escape from the much tougher realities of living.

A week before Christmas a new editor at my old magazine, a man I’d never met and never before talked to by phone, called to say that my job of 33 years was ending. “Your column has run its course,” he said. (Happily the bosses at Marathon & Beyond didn’t agree.)

I thought this forced retirement was the worst news that could come all year. It would be a footnote to the events coming soon afterward.

In February my wife Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer. Subduing this invader would require a three-barreled medical assault – chemo, surgery and radiation – lasting the rest of the year.

In April my mother Virginia passed on. She was almost 87 and no longer her real self because of Alzheimer’s. But no matter the age or infirmity, we’re never ready for a parent to leave.

In July my own health failed for awhile. Pneumonia cost me just two weeks of running but seriously weakened my efforts for the rest of the summer, which by my calendar meant the rest of the year.

This is not a woe-is-me tale. It’s a reminder that life itself can sometimes be an endurance test, for all of us. We lose jobs, lose loved ones, lose health, though we hope not all of these happen in the same year. We get through these trials as best we can, hoping that the next year will be happier.


Bad years can lead to better ones. Apparent ends often mark new beginnings. I need to look no further than my daughter Leslie, who sits in her room down the hall during this writing, for proof of that. I don’t need to look any further than my left foot with the long vertical scar on its heel.

Leslie and the left foot remind me of two gloomy years, and of how far we’ve come since then. In 1973 my running had limped to a halt because of the damaged heel. That February I submitted to a surgeon’s knife, wondering if I’d ever run again.

By a quirk of the calendar Leslie underwent a far more ominous operation 10 years later to the day after mine. She was born with Down syndrome, which was shock enough. Then we learned that she also had a heart defect common to Down’s babies. Without the surgery she wouldn’t have lived out her first year. She almost didn’t survive that February 16th, as her heart stopped in the recovery room.

My surgery day didn’t mark an end but only a pause for repair and recovery. I was reborn as a runner in early 1973. That September, the “new year,” I ran another marathon. Almost three decades post-op the repaired foot worked well enough to run that distance, this time in a February race at Las Vegas.

A habit of long standing is to dedicate my marathons to someone special. The events make such big demands on my limited training that I seek outside help. I carried the letters “LCH” and the numbers “2-16-83.”

The initials are Leslie’s. The date isn’t her real birthday but her re-birthday. Leslie fought past her shaky start. She learned to sit up, then to walk and eventually to run. She now knows some reading and writing, and while not speaking she’s fluent in sign language.

Doctors said in 1983 that she probably would need twice-a-year checkups for the rest of her life and might require another heart operation on reaching her teens. Decades later she hasn’t yet needed more surgery and goes years between checkups. So far her repaired heart is working fine. Each of her years has been better than the first.


Victories come in many sizes and shapes, but the biggest of them are alike in one way. They aren’t won on a single day but in the training done and experience gained over the previous months and years.

In May 2004, I had a slight brush with Deena Kastor. She was well into her Olympic training by then, having made the team in the marathon. She was preparing for the worst – the hilliest course and the hottest day in Games history – by training in the California mountains while wearing too many clothes.

But on this night she wore an evening gown while accepting an award and giving the keynote speech at the Road Runners Club of America convention. My wife Barbara and I sat near the podium, nodding in agreement and appreciation of all that Deena said, while hoping she would stand on a higher podium come August.

I too received an RRCA award this night, for writing. Barb insisted that we both go to the convention at Lake Tahoe, though she went against doctors’ advice to be there.

She was in the first and worst phase of cancer therapy, the chemo. (By another calendar quirk this treatment started on February 16th, and we hoped that date would mark another rebirth.) She’d been told not to travel long distances or to mix with big crowds, but had done both.

Chemo-induced fatigue took her back to our room before my late talk. She didn’t hear me compare her to Deena Kastor as they both traveled hard roads to distant goals that year.

Barb doesn’t think of herself as an athlete. She never played sports outside of gym classes. But she approached her biggest challenge as an Olympic runner would her biggest race.

Looking at an entire training plan for, say, a marathon can be overwhelming in its size when it lasts six months or more. So we break it into small pieces, weekly increments and individual runs, then log them one at a time. Eventually this adds up to something as big as we’d planned at first.

This is how Barb viewed her illness: frightening as a whole but manageable if looked at as “workouts” to be checked off one at a time. These weren’t long runs and speed training. They were diagnostic tests, chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.

She had times of doubt, as athletes do while training – times when the goal appears too distant to reach. She had disagreements with her doctors, as runners sometimes have with their coaches. She had setbacks, like the injuries athletes go through.

Deena Kastor ended her Olympic year with a medal, awarded in late August but won much earlier. My wife Barbara began her “new year” in early September by celebrating a prize earned over six hard months: becoming cancer-free. (Continued in RC 987.)

UPDATE: Daughter Leslie remains heart-healthy 30 years after her surgery. Wife Barbara shows no signs of cancer nine years post-treatment.

[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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