It’s the sport that grabs hold of you and never lets go.
Written by: T.J. Murphy
The New York City Marathon was born in 1970, drawing 127 people to the course that at the time zipped around Central Park. In 1976, when the course expanded to connect all five burroughs, Bill Rodgers, the winner that year, couldn’t believe how big the race had become: a field of 2,000. And now, in 2010, the field consists of more than 45,000 runners. The Running Boom can be traced to the 1970s but it seems accurate to describe it as a slow explosion. If and when will it ever contract? Not anytime soon if you ask me.
The quintessential “life list” is likely going to include items like “Skydive” and “run a marathon.” In the 1980s I did both. For me, jumping out of plane made for a fascinating rush, but once I crossed it off I basically moved on. If it had any impact on my outlook on life I can’t put a finger on it. It’s something I rarely think of.
After I ran my first marathon, Big Sur in 1988, the after effect was potent. It changed my life forever and running became a critical portion of daily life. I am far from alone in this, and perhaps this is the stuff that creates such deep bonds in the running community.
This is why, I feel, the sport continues to grow—the discovery that regardless of age, or background, that well beyond high school you can be an athlete, a competitor. When it comes to sports you are no longer fenced off to the stands and confined to be a spectator for the rest of your life. I love watching a good football game on TV just like most Americans. But it’s all the better after you’ve put in a morning long run or ripped through a 10K road race. I had to give up one of the two I wouldn’t have to think about it.
Friday afternoon at the ING New York City Marathon Health & Fitness Expo I saw an old friend working at the Adidas booth, Mike McManus, and got to enjoy talking about memories that go back to the time when running became my passion. Mike and I became friends around 1990, when we both were runners living in San Francisco and working at Hoy’s Sports, a specialty running shoe store on Haight Street. I first got to know Mike after he returned from a training stint in Alamosa, Colo., where he had made one of what I consider the ultimate dream pilgrimage a runner could have made back then: to go and train in a small town surrounded by hard, high-altitude land, a place made legendary thanks to great names in the history of American running that includes Buddy Edelen, Jim Ryun, Greg Meyer, Pat Porter, Deena Kastor and one of the most important names in the history of running coaches, Dr. Joe Vigil.
Vigil was why Mike made the journey to the no-man’s land of Alamosa and Adams State College. Vigil, an exercise physiologist and track and cross country coach, led Adams State College to 18 national championships and produced more than 300 All-Americans. The first time I saw Mike I was running in the Nike Half Marathon that was always set on Super Bowl Sunday. The race started on John F. Kennedy drive in Golden Gate Park, descended to the Great Highway, went south along the ocean until the turnaround near the San Francisco Zoo. I was still a ways from the turnaround when I saw McManus flying on the Great Highway, in the lead, with not another runner in sight. Mike started working some hours at Hoy’s and I began asking all sorts of questions about the Vigil program. As he reminded me on Friday, shortly thereafter I slammed myself into a high-mileage, high-intensity program and in a matter of a few weeks was so injured it took me months to recover and begin running well again. Finding out in a muscle-shredding way how tough Vigil’s program was not much fun, but overall it was the best of times. The San Francisco running community is a strong one, and it’s stunning to see how those times shaped our lives. Mike now works for the global team at Adidas and he and his family live in Germany. And while I’m standing in the booth talking to Mike, up walks Jim Ryun, the man who in 1966, at the age of 19, held the world record in the mile. Obviously Mike knew Jim Ryun and all of a sudden the three of us are talking about Alamosa and how, outside of the college, there’s just not much there. Ryun laughed at what Mike had to say about how small the town was—“You should have seen it in the 1960s” a reference to the time he spent.
I’ve never been to Alamosa, just heard the stories, but I was blown away that I was A) chatting with one of the all-time legends of American running about it and B) the power that running has in connecting those who share a passion for it. We certainly achieved different things in our lives as runners. Ryun was an all-time star, Mike posted excellent times in every race between the 1,500 and the marathon and I was well off the map from what either of these guys achieved. But none of this posed barriers to our sharing talking about the sport that grabs hold of you and never lets go.
T.J. Murphy is a contributing editor to Competitor and the Editorial Director of Triathlete and Inside Triathlon magazines.