Archive for July, 2018


WHEN RUNNING MADE HISTORY – SOME THOUGHTS

07.24.2018

If that title sounds familiar and you are worried I may be trying to slide through on the coattails of Roger Robinson, don’t be. I just finished reading Roger’s latest contribution to the world of literature and running and am anxious to share my thoughts.

Roger, along with all his very many credentials, is a contributor to Running in the Zone: A Handbook for Seasoned Athletes (The Seasoned Runner as Hero). That is how I first met and got to know him; first ‘electronically’ as we solicited and received his contribution and then edited his and all the other contributor manuscripts into the book from which this blog derives its name. Shortly after, I had the pleasure of meeting him face to face, along with his well recognized wife, one Kathrine Switzer. I believe that was at the Napa Valley Marathon in 2006. OK, I don’t just ‘believe’ it. That is a true fact.

When you come to either of the book launch events, THIS is the guy you are looking for: Roger Robinson

Some or all of us (including my wife, Judi) have met up from time to time at various events and look forward to another of those occasions coming August 6 and 7 when Roger and Kathrine visit Vancouver and attend Forerunners on 4th Ave (Aug 6) and Main Street (Aug 7) for brief presentations and the introduction of his new book: When Running Made History (Syracuse University Press). Details and a reservation form can be found at the end of this posting. Forerunners’ co-founder, Peter Butler, may even share with us how he met Roger while running in Central Park as he prepared to compete in the 1986 New York City Marathon.

Over the years I have kept in touch with both Roger and Kathrine via e-mail and social media and through common friends. Roger has been so kind as to allow this blog to publish or re-publish specific articles of interest to readers of Running in the Zone. One of particular interest might be this ONE which includes a link to “Keeping the Fire of Youth: New Ideas for Older Runners” first published in Running Times.

It is hard to know just how much to say as background on Roger and his credentials as an academic, a sportsman, stadium announcer, TV commentator and writer.

Among other things, there is the matter of lifetime geographical living arrangements. He was born in England, but found himself in his professional work as a professor of English Literature, in New Zealand and since becoming Mr. and Mrs. with Kathrine Switzer, a resident of the USA. I note with more than a little envy, that unless forced by circumstance, they spend summer in the US and summer in New Zealand, meaning mostly they just do summer! I may exaggerate just a little, as both are generally found at the Boston Marathon festivities in mid-April and the New York City Marathon street party of 50,000 or so in early November, meaning they also do a lot of Spring and Fall in the US. That is, if they aren’t traveling who knows where doing just what they will be doing in Vancouver, or running, or commentating or, well, you get the idea. Both are extremely generous with their time and in support of the whole sport and general phenomenon of running, and the community of people that represents.

Roger Robinson and Kathrine Switzer – Yakima River Canyon Marathon

A particularly memorable such event goes back a few years to the Yakima River Canyon Marathon (2014), run curiously enough down the Yakima River Canyon in Washington State. The race is the baby of Bob and Lenore Dolphin (aka Team Dolphin). Bob too, is a Running in the Zone book contributor.

Near Mile 3, Encouragement from KV Switzer (261) Herself. Hey look! That’s me in the yellow Marathon Maniacs shirt over on the left.

The race is what you would call OLD SCHOOL. Nothing fancy. All about running and the people who do it. Just a few of the photos from that weekend should demonstrate both what I mean about an old school race and particularly the contribution of Roger and Kathrine, and for those who will recognize some of the other regular suspects, the community of running and runners. Many of those in attendance at that particular celebration of running (Frank Stebner, Marty Wanless, Margaret and Geoff Buttner) are part of the ‘family’ that will gather soon in Vancouver. Some who will not be present in Vancouver included Joe Henderson (another ‘RITZ’ contributor and prolific author on running) and several of the originators of the Marathon Maniacs including (going only be memory) Stephen Yee (aka #1) and Tony Phillippi. It was that kind of a party. It was to honour the Dolphins.

By now you must have realized this is no ordinary book review. I mean, other than the title, I am already 600 or 700 words into this blog post and haven’t said a word about the new book!

Well, let’s fix that right now.

My little collection of Roger and Kathrine books.

I love books on running and am a great fan of Roger’s writing. I have several of his titles in my small personal running library, not to mention several of Kathrine’s.

At the outset, Roger makes it clear that When Running Made History is a first person account for the most part. He also makes clear that these are historical events and phenomena to which HE can bear witness, and not a definitive list of all historic moments in running. He goes so very far beyond: “There was a race, people came, people ran, it was hot/cold/sunny/wet/windy and some people won.” When I say ‘first person’ I mean that we hear not just about the facts of the matter, but also the impressions and importance of each of the events involved.

I suppose that since Roger is only about 5 years older than me, I may relate to some of the events more fully than a younger person might. For example, I can remember standing beside a commemorative plaque in Whanganui, New Zealand, early on a bright New Year’s morning (January 1, 1990), the place where Peter Snell had set a monumental world record in the mile. I was the only one there and nothing was happening, but tears trickled down my cheeks just for being in such a place on such a day. I have to say that more than a few of the chapters of When Running Made History fell into a similar category for this reader.

I am not going to say the book and Roger’s writing will have the same impact on a much younger reader. I know full well that my response to his writing is partly about the writing and partly about me, but I suppose it is always so. Younger readers may not get the same emotional connection, but they will get a subtle up-close eye witness insight to many of the events Roger reports on and describes from his personal perspective. To appreciate how our sport got to where it is today, it is most helpful to know where it came from on the road to ‘here’.

Judi Cumming with her freshly signed copy of Marathon Woman, the author herself, and me with my brand new finisher medal.

Kathrine Switzer’s Boston experience is part of the book, to be sure. But, how many young women truly appreciate what Kathrine’s marathon on that crappy April day in 1967 has done for their personal experiences as runners? Never mind that historic Boston Marathon, how many appreciate everything that came after? By her own admission in Marathon Woman, Kathrine did not set out to revolutionize women’s running that day, but she soon realized she had dug herself a hole (of responsibility) she couldn’t get out of by disappearing into the crowd. The result has been a lifetime of positive activism in the field of running, not to mention a determination to become a very good runner as part of honouring what she did herself, and what others began to join with her in doing. It was never easy and there was some pretty firm resistance. Right to this very moment, she continues her activism for women’s running through 261 Fearless. All of that said, Kathrine will tell you she did not do it alone, and eventually the race director that tried to physically eject her from ‘his’ race, became a staunch ally to her cause. I love her account of lining up for the 1973 Boston Marathon, just behind Nina Kuscsik, defending champion from 1972 (the first year Boston officially invited women runners). Kathrine had been third in 1972. Jock Semple (the infamous Race Director who tried to expel her from Boston ’67) was known for his one man show at the start and his zeal for making sure no interloper got one place closer to the actual line than he or (by then, I suppose) she deserved. According to Kathrine (Marathon Woman – p217), Jock spotted her and rushed over grabbing her around the shoulders (causing her to fear an instant replay of 1967), putting his arm around her, pointing her toward the cameras and giving her a kiss on the cheek while saying: “C’mon lass, let’s get a wee bit o’ notoriety.” (Jock was a Scotsman).

Three Amigos at Goodlife Fitness Victoria Marathon: Roger, Dan and BH Steve King – co-editor of Running in the Zone – the book. (Photo: M. Buttner)

Two really important aspects of When Running Made History are the advent and evolution of ‘mass running’ that pulled into the community, the most recreational of recreational runners and the literal explosion of women runners. It is probably hard for younger runners and younger women in particular, to really appreciate what has happened in the last 40 or 50 years. Remember, 50 years ago women were pretty much unwelcome in any marathon, not just Boston. When I started running, and particularly running marathons some 30 years ago, you were a bit ‘hard core’ if you were a marathoner. Many races had four hour clocks. FOUR HOURS. That was how long you had to complete your race. If you have never done a marathon as a true recreational runner, trust me, four hours is not a long time to get it done, male or female.

It is the first person nature of Roger’s tales that bring us inside what was happening. Because Roger was, in his own words “almost good”, he could, even in his 50s, run laps with some of the great athletes as they trained or warmed up. He could talk to them as a runner, rather than a reporter. That comes through again and again in the book.

In the early part of When Running Made History he talks about being witness as a kid sneaking under a fence or hedge to watch great runners at Motspur Park (London). He describes the horrible conditions of war-time and post-war London that he experienced as a child. He talks about being at major events as spectator (1948 London Olympics or the 1960 Rome Olympics) and being close enough to Abebe Bikila as he ran along the Apian Way,  to bear witness as he began his final barefooted surge to win the 1960 Olympic Marathon. Roger is a skilled writer and ‘paints’ word pictures as he describes events. When an author is that good, you don’t read the words, you see the scene and the action in your own mind.

A clutch of the Vancouver ‘family’ with Bog and Lenore Dolphin. Left to right: Frank Stebner, Margaret Buttner, Marty Wanless, Bob and Lenore.

While I am not going to recount each historic event Roger includes in the 21 Chapters, I will say that some of the chapters include Roger’s own exploits because his self-categorization as an ‘almost good’ runner leaves a bit to be desired. He may have been a late bloomer, but the outside observer would likely rate Roger as a bit better than ‘almost good’. In fact, some evidence of his excellence remains to this day, right here in Vancouver. In 1981 Roger recorded a time of 2:18:44 at the (then) Vancouver International Marathon, setting a record for Masters runners that has not been bettered. In 1981, his time was also good for 3rd Place Overall. In addition, during a brief period he won the Masters divisions of Boston and New York, setting records at each event at the time. In fact, he did compete at World Level for England and New Zealand. The full story can be found on his web site.

All of this is to say Roger Robinson is more than a superb observer and eloquent scribe. He was and is, a true ‘insider’ where it comes to running.

Some of his stories are right from the track or road. Anyone who has run the least competitively will consume these passages like eating candy. All it really takes is a competitive spirit and the least opportunity to have raced even one other person, not for the win, just for an age group placement,  or even just to be one place ahead of that other competitor whoever he or she might be.

As I get older and slower, oh so very much slower, attrition has from time to time favoured my competitive nature with a podium and even gold medal place in my age group, one time even a course record (it was the inaugural race!). The big problem for any age group competitor,  as you find yourself buried inside a large race, relying on your chip to determine who did what, is that you are deprived of the joy and excitement of racing another individual head to head or stride for stride. Admittedly, in small local races, that may not be so true, as you will often know the ‘competition’. It makes a difference. In fact, a few years ago, I finally met a fellow runner who had a very similar track record to me and was but 13 days older. I’d seen his name on results (usually just ahead of mine), but did not know who he was. Then, one day I met him at the start of the race we were about to do. From that day forward we became friendly rivals, but he never beat me again! Some races were breath-takingly close, but that is what competition is about.

Entry Gates to Hayward Field, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR

This is all just a set-up for the highly recommended Chapter 21 of When Running Made History (The Fire of Youth Under the Creases of Age). It is here you can run ‘with’ Roger in a classic race in Eugene, OR and learn secrets of the older runner where it comes to training and racing.

Competitiveness is rather timeless. It has to do with who you are and how you think about running and very little to do with the date on your birth certificate.

It is hard to know where to stop. If you don’t know Roger already I want to properly introduce you, but not leave you thinking I have told you everything you need to know! I will stop soon, but I must relate just one or two other things about this new offering.

Some of the peripheral or related events described within the stories, create essential context for his accounts of important running events. For instance, he talks about the Berlin Marathon, a fine event run by many and a source of a cascade of world record times. But his story is about going to Berlin to run the marathon just as the Berlin Wall came down and runners could pass through into the East. He fills us in with emotional stories and descriptions of the time and circumstances and I suppose because I am of an age, I could relate, including the fact that I worked in Europe (Brussels) for three years just after the wall came down. One of my daughter’s has a piece of that wall given to her by one of her best friends from that time. He also describes the 100th Boston Marathon done as a kind of internal inspector. As he notes, it was terribly enlightening to see such a race from the middle of the thing it is, not somewhere up near the pointy end or as a reporter sitting on the sidelines. Naturally, he did not leave out the cowardly bombing of this iconic event. I think most of have some kind of first person experience, or at least know someone who was there. Roger was not just there, he had a wife riding in a motorcycle side-car commenting on the elite women’s race.

I have just one more bit to add, before this ‘review’ gets longer than the book. Both Roger and Kathrine will be in Vancouver and at Forerunners to make short presentations, meet people, sell and sign books. Because space is limited, you are asked to go to the Forerunners web site and register. The local event(s) will be at Forerunners on August 6 at 5:30pm (4th Ave store) and August 7 at 6:30pm (Main Street store).

Normally, these two running icons would be more than enough to draw everyone out from the running community to meet and greet. HOWEVER, I have it on good authority that there will be a bonus. Roger’s two closest running companions, Russell and Mark, will attend and likely be introduced to the audience by Roger.