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

Wed, 25 Sep 2013 07:16:13 -0400

Feel Real

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday. The one from October 1982 came soon after my daughter Leslie was born with multiple handicaps. She would soon need life-saving heart surgery.)

We live in the Age of the Marathoner, and we’re now moving into a new era in which merely surviving the long race is not enough. The idea is growing that a “real runner” must run that far, fast. If you don’t, you feel diminished.

You should know better. You don’t have to run far, fast to qualify as “real.” You only need to meet certain qualifying standards – not all but most of these 10 that aren’t measured by training distance or race pace:

1. You are a viewer as well as a doer. Your own running is very important to you, but self-interest doesn’t blind you to the fact that lots of people run better. You can be amused, entertained, educated and inspired by them without feeling intimidated.

2. Rating highest on your hero scale are those runners who make the most from the least and those who persist. You think quite highly of 1968 Olympic marathoner Ron Daws, who probably started with less talent than any Olympian ever has. You think the world of Doris Brown Heritage, a pioneer of women’s running who keeps putting more back into the sport as a coach and official than she ever took out as an athlete.

3. You know that this sport has a rich history. You know the names of people who stopped running before you started. You feel like a friend to runners across the country and around the world you have never seen and will never meet. You know, and take pleasure in knowing, that this sport is much bigger than you are – and that the only way you can remain a true part of it is to keep running and reading.

4. You are known as a real runner by the trivia you carry. You can tell who missed medals by one place in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics Marathons. You know that the two famous John Kelleys of Boston are unrelated. You know that Kathrine Switzer only puts one e in her first name. To paraphrase Eugene McCarthy’s observation on politicians, you are smart enough to know these details and dumb enough to think they’re important.

5. You’re even better acquainted with your own racing statistics, humble as they may be. You have earned them with your own sweat and will never forget a second of them. You can list from memory your 10 best races and 10 worst. You are brutally honest with numbers, even when they hurt, because a real runner never lies about times.

6. You run for the sake of running. Good health and fitness are important to you. So is racing. But those are by-products of the real thing, which is your everyday run. You know the physical benefits of running, but you would keep at it even if a government agency suddenly decreed, “Running is hazardous to your health.” You know the value of racing, but would keep running if all public officials suddenly decided that road events were a public nuisance and had them banned.

7. You don’t qualify as a real runner until you earn your battle scars. You don’t truly know what running means to you until you have lost it for a while through injury or illness. You come out the other side of those problems knowing what really is important – which is not necessarily being able to run fast or far, but being able to run at all.

8. Long-term goals define a real runner. You aren’t so worried about what you run in this week’s race as with being able to run again the day after. You look at your running life as if it were a marathon and one year as if it were a mile. You won’t do anything in one of those pieces that might threaten the whole.

9. You live your running. That isn’t to say you’re obsessed with it every waking moment or dream of it every night. But it’s part of you and everything you do. You may run less than one hour in 24, but you’re a runner all day long. You automatically sift all other obligations through the question, “What effect will this have on my running?”

10. You call yourself a “serious runner” even if you run for fun. You claim that “I began running a long time ago – before it was in” because you want to be known as a leader even when you appear to be trailing the crowd.


This piece ran during what we now know was the golden age of U.S. marathon racing. It began 10 years earlier with Frank Shorter’s victory at the Munich Olympics, continued with Bill Rodgers’ eight combined wins at Boston and New York City, then Alberto Salazar’s three straight New Yorks plus his “Duel in the Sun” with Dick Beardsley at Boston 1982. U.S. women came of age in the 1970s, when they were first to break 2:50 (Cheryl Bridges), 2:45 and 2:40 (both Jacqueline Hansen).

Boston 1983 was perhaps the brightest year of that golden age. Joan Benoit ran a world best, while American men went 1-2-3 and broke 2:20 en masse. These successes had all runners thinking they had to go fast to be “real.” We learned otherwise a decade later when the sport boomed a second time. Races grew much larger, while average times slowed and interest in the runners upfront, present and past, waned.

[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 PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Just released was Joe’s Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Learning to Walk, 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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