Reflections on Running: Jim Webster Interview Part 1

When I think about running, I think of going forward (fast) and what my future will be as I continue to train.  But one aspect of running that adds to its beauty is also to look backwards to see where we came from.  By “we” I mean a collective we, the running community, the coaches who formed our training methods of today, the first men and women to toe the line and ignite a passion in this country for the run.

This past fall, I was talking to a man at our neighborhood clubhouse about running and he casually mentioned that he ran the Boston Marathon in the early 1970s.  Wait, what?!  I am not as well read in the history of our sport as I would like to be, but I do know that if you ran Boston in the 70s, you were part of a very different culture of running.  If you were a runner in the early 1970s, you were competitive.  My neighbor, Jim, continued to talk about his connection with Blue Ribbon Sports, the company created by Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight, which would later become Nike.

I had to know more about Jim’s story, and he graciously agreed to an interview for this blog.  I sent Jim a list of questions, and he answered with the most thoughtful insights, anecdotes, and bits of history.  It’s even more interesting and enriching than I anticipated.  There is a lot of content, but I can’t bring myself to shorten my list of questions.  It’s just so good.  So get ready to have a new appreciation for the sport and enjoy these installments interviewing my friend, Jim Webster.

Now for the interview questions:

1. You mentioned earlier that you started competitive running at the age of 13. Can you tell me what brought you into the sport?

I had just turned 11 and my dad suggested that it was time for me to get a job. My memory [of being a paper boy] is that we’d start our careers with about 100 papers and load those folded papers into two heavy denim bags. I must mention that my paper was the morning edition of the Los Angeles Times and my day began at 4:30 in the morning.  […] Now consider, I and I alone, am now getting up every morning and riding 10-12 miles and practicing my throwing accuracy working for the Times.  I did this job for 7 years!!!  Yes, all the way through high school.

So, you probably see where I’m going with this.  My freshman year, I did not go out for football or basketball, because I knew it would be fruitless.  However, come spring, ignoring my friends going out for baseball, I chose to see what track was all about.  Nothing special came of my first season in track, but the next year, Pius decided to add a cross-country team.  Father Daley was to be the coach and, as it turned out, one of my first mentors. Walt Lange, the answer to the password question, “who was your best friend in high school?”, also went out for the team.  The workouts were, it seemed, merely lots of miles of running.  This combined with my morning workout of riding a bike for miles gave me an obvious advantage vis-à-vis my fellow runners.  I was good.  I don’t believe I was a top three guy, but the team did well and so did Walt & I. […]

There was an incredible consequence of my dad encouraging me, maybe telling me, to get this job or throwing papers.  It seems that the Los Angeles Times gave five full tuition scholarships each year to any college in the country that would accept them to those of us still throwing papers their senior year and whom had worked at least five years for the paper.  I was accepted at Notre Dame.

I became a Catholic League champion and record setting (1:58.4) half-miler.  Walt, Bill Petersen, Mike Cauldero and I were third in the country in the two-mile relay with a combined time of 8:06.3 in 1960. I ran at Notre Dame, coached cross-country and track at Pius after graduation, and formed a cross-country team in Pensacola while in the Navy that competed with many southern colleges including Alabama.  For the Atlanta Track Club, I competed and also became its treasurer and Peachtree Road Race Associate Race Director.  The club set the world record for the 100 man 100 mile relay for men over 50 with me running 5:56.8 at 56 years old in 1999, with the 100 of us averaging 5:57. I just finished my 60th year of running since that first 440 for Wally Nowicki [73 years old].  And none of that success would have come without my paper route workouts!



2. When I first met you, you told me that you ran the Boston Marathon in the 70s. I’ve also heard that you clocked a very fast marathon time. Can you tell me a little more about that race and your results?

Jim: When talking of my marathon, ‘tis easier to say two things at once…I ran a 2:55 and the Boston Marathon.  In 1970, I ran the Palos Verdes, CA marathon in 2:55:01.  In April 1971, I actually ran the Boston Marathon in 3:12:06 and placed 376th.

So, now for the complete story.

There was no such thing as a “half marathon” back in the 70s; my longest race had been a 15 miler around Mission Bay in San Diego.  But, due to the successes of American runners, notably Frank Shorter, I decided that I should add a marathon to my resume.  I chose one close to home: the Palos Verdes (CA) Marathon.  It’s profile was interesting and beautiful.  The first 10 miles were uphill and I ran accompanied by three or four of the high school kids I was coaching at the time.  We chatted up the hills knowing not to push too hard in the beginning.  They finished the 10 and got a ride back to the start.  At that point the mountain ended and there was a long gorgeous downhill to the Pacific shore where Marineland used to be.  There was a good long flat run along the beach and we finished in Redondo Beach at the water’s edge.  I actually cried when I saw the finish.  My time was 2:55:01 and I was ecstatic, but totally wiped out and needed to tend my blistered and bloody feet.

Boston.  Some months later my job training for Merrill Lynch in 1971 was to be completed with a 3 month stint in New York City in the spring.  I decided to run Boston on Patriot’s Day while there.  There were no qualifying times required…you just had to be male.  Women were barred then, due to their fragile natures!  I drove to Boston, spent the night and we took a school bus from the Prudential Building the next morning to the start in Hopkinton.  I graduated from Notre Dame and chose to wear my ND jersey in the race for all the Boston Irish.  I was in much better shape than I was for the PV run.  So, my goal was to break 2:50.  Those three sentences proved to be my downfall.  But, I learned an important lesson.  The course profile, you may know, is the exact opposite of PV: downhill for the first 12 or so miles into Wellesley, then Heartbreak Hill somewhere near the 20 mile mark.  The ND singlet had many of the spectators encouraging me along the route and, unfortunately, I probably ran too fast because of that.  I have no clue as to my splits, but I’m guessing I hit the 1/2 in under 1:25.  By 18 miles I was toast and struggled to finish, including some walking (oh, the horror).  I actually thought about stopping and taking the MTA back to the Pru.  But after Heartbreak it leveled off and I was able to finish in 3:12:06.  I remember going up the elevator for my Brunswick stew (a tradition) and sitting in the back of the elevator vowing to never run another marathon…and I never did.

What did I learn?  Beware the course elevation profile.  My quads were dead when the hills appeared and I was unable to maintain my pace.  Once in Atlanta and running the Peachtree, with a downhill half and then an uphill half, I always ran the first part with someone slower than me that forced me to hold back.  In the “old days” when the course started at the Sears building on E. Paces and finished at Five Points it wasn’t as difficult for me.  Last year I ran with my wife for the first 3 and then was able to finish decently.  On the track and in most relatively flat courses I’ve always been a “negative split” runner: the first half slower than the last.  It is the way to get your best time, which has been proven by many runner’s experiences.


3. What other races do you consider your top accomplishments? Do you have a favorite distance?

Jim: You already have the mile race, which was 4:14.6, and double in the half…my best races.  There are tables produced by the IAAF which assign points for the times and distances of all Olympic and other events.  I got the most points for that mile, second was a 3:03.4 3/4 mile time trial I ran in Athens a week or two before the mile race which awarded the second most points and the 880 the day of the mile was third on the table.  There were no tables for the marathon.  My best 5k came in 8th in the table with a 15:40; 10k 13th with a 34:42.  It is clear that I’m at my best in the middle distances from 800 to 2 mile (9:23.8).

On the other hand, those are merely my best times.  My best races, the most memorable, exciting ones I didn’t win.  At Notre Dame in my sophomore year in an indoor mile in the Fieldhouse built in 1906 or something, I passed a U of Pittsburg guy in the last 300 yards for 3rd with 1000 screaming students cheering me on.  My two ND teammates were way ahead winning in a boring fashion.  A similar race, a 2 mile at the end of the meet in Pensacola where I’d already won the mile and came in third in the half, I went from 5th to second in the last lap to almost catch the leader.  And one more in Kingsville, Texas, in a meet between Texas A&I and UT San Antonio, with me as a guest…again I came from way back in the last lap to almost catch the local favorite at the finish.  The fans loved it, especially because the home town guy, Homer Martinez won.   I’ll never forget those three races.

4. How has running changed for you as you’ve aged? Do you have tips for longevity in the sport?

Jim: This one is tough.  The obvious is that goals must change…no more PRs.  There is now concern about injury and the long term effect of the pounding required in workouts and races.  The sun is setting not rising.  On a run the other day, I made a decision, or set a goal, to curtail or even stop running when I’m 75 1/2…7/4/2018.  My last Peachtree, my 40th Peachtree.  Those thoughts never entered my mind in my 50s and even 60s.  One of the things that keeps me going is that my wife, Beth, runs, as well.  She’s 69 and looking to moving into a new age group next January and getting first or second rather than thirds.  We are about to go to Brook Run [Park] in the next few minutes to do a 3-4 miler, not together, but…together.  She started in ‘92 and got committed after we were married in 2000.  It is great to share things…like mixed doubles.  We only play together, for example.  This helps whether it is your spouse or a friend.

Age group awards, though trivial, actually do satisfy the testosterone led competitiveness.  On the other hand, I now look at running as a way of life and health. My parents both had heart issues and I’ve been running from my genes for years.  I truly believe that it has helped me live longer in addition to increasing the quality of my life.  Beth & I did a tough 7.2 mile hike at Black Mountain State Park last week-end, through beautiful fall forest with a spectacular view halfway at the mountain peak.  Were we not fit we could not have done it.  We did decide not to do any “strenuous” hikes anymore, but to move down to “moderate”.  It was a b@*^h!  We’ve hiked Yellowstone, the Andes, Denali and more.  ‘Tis a good life.  And being fit is the gateway to many things most people cannot experience at 60 or 70.

Longevity:   I believe the mechanics of our individual running form contribute to how long we can do it.  As I mentioned to you, I think, “Born to Run” had a clue as to why some can run longer than others. Think of the fluidity of some top runners; it looks so easy…and beautiful.  When I first started running in California as a freshman in high school, we had a track with a nice grass infield.  We often ran our workouts just inside track….barefoot.  For cross country we’d go to a park very close to the school and run miles around the park…barefoot.  During the summer, a track buddy and I would go to the beach and run along the water line in the sand…barefoot.  (Easily done on many California beaches.)  Even in college at Notre Dame the cross-country team practiced on the golf course and I ran…barefoot.  I believe that this helped my joints build strength around them that really prevented me from ever having an injury.  Sure, I have run on the roads and sidewalks in Atlanta for years, but the base was built in those early years.  I still run barefoot when I can.  And I think I’ve been lucky!

But, most people today do not have the luxury of that kind of start.  So, the main thing that I’d pass along is that if you wish for running to be part of your life for a long time, go easy and listen to your body.  There are many regimens out there today; local coaches, internet training programs, and training groups.  But you are unique.  Build strength slowly; let your body get used to this.  Find what feels good to you; it shouldn’t hurt.  For years I have been saying that what you do this year will be there to help you next year.  So, don’t expect or ask for immediate gratification and superior results.  Due to some heart issues, I am very “out of shape” right now.  I’m putting in miles now and running races as if they are workouts, not RACES.  I’m building a base.  I’m looking to next March, when I expect to be ready to run faster than I am this year or even last year.  And my age is on a downward slope, so improvement in 2017 vs. 2015 is a challenge, but one I believe I can accomplish by doing more in 2016 than I could do in 2015.  I think you must look beyond and make sure you’re ready for your goal race.  I was influenced by a New Zealand coach (not personally) Arthur Lydiard who espoused a philosophy of pointing to one race six months down the road.  Even his countries half-milers did marathon training in January to prepare for the Olympics in August.  When I coached, it seems I’d lose two or more dual meets in the season.  But, at the end of the season’s championship meet, we’d win going away.  We had less injuries and were focused on the goal.

This is the end of the first interview installment with Jim Webster.  To keep reading click here.

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