This is the second installment of my interview with Jim Webster. If you missed the first installment, you can find it here. I’m excited to share the rest of this great interview and learn more about the history of our sport. Don’t miss the email excerpt at the end from Jim’s friend who describes selling Blue Ribbon Shoes (which later became Nike), and ultimately selling his shoe store to none other than Sally Edwards!
5. One of the things that intrigued me in talking to you is that you got to experience running from the same start line as some of running ‘s most iconic figures. Can you name drop a few of the runners who you toed the line with?
Jim: Name drop…actually only three, yet, who knows.
In my 4:14.6 mile in Jefferson Georgia in April 1968 (while I attended Navy Supply Corps School) the winner was Jack Bacheler, a two time Olympian, 5000m in Mexico City in 1968 (so like 3 months after our race) and Marathon in Munich in 1972. He was 6’7” weighing in at 170 lbs and ran a 4:04.2 that day, his personal best; I was fourth. He was on the Florida Track Club with Frank Shorter and our own Jeff Galloway, and these are three the guys that, in my opinion, led the second wave of American track growth. In Munich the marathon was won by Shorter, Kenny Moore was second and Bacheler was ninth. Shorter’s success moved many in the US to actually run the marathon and imitate his training. A side story is that Jeff Galloway, who had already qualified in the Oly Trials 10K for Munich, chose to pace Bacheler in the Marathon trials and eased up at the finish, so that Bacheler could get the third spot. Jeff is a wonderful person.
A year earlier, while in Pensacola with the Navy, I started a track club to compete with the FTC. I called it the ALFA TC for Alabama and Florida. We had good runners from Eglin AF Base, Pensacola JC and a Mobile army base, I think, along with my Naval Air Station. That year we scheduled a meet with the U of Alabama and the FTC, and those three guys got three of the first four spots. Craig Boylston of my NAS got third and no telling where I finished…probably 10-12th of 21 among the Alabama guys. I’ve run 38 Peachtree Road races, but that shouldn’t count. Another place that I have run against some big names was at All-Comers meets in Los Angeles where I grew up. That is where I raced Archie San Romani, mentioned in the Bowerman book. He won. I’m sure there were others in those meets, in my track & cc at Notre Dame and after when I was hitting my peak, but they were not runners of any fame. Not like the FTC guys. So, really only those three qualify as icons.
I think Galloway pioneered the third wave in running with his run/walk model. It made 1/2s and marathons doable by everyone.
6. How would you compare the running culture in the 60s and 70s to the running culture today?
Jim: NO ONE ran in 1957 when I began. I really didn’t “go out for a run” until fall of that year when my high school cross-country team was inaugurated. For all of those high school years, I was heckled by kids in cars as they drove by me. “Hut two, three, four” being the most common derisive yell. Running was something they made you do in the military or military schools, I suppose. Real males played football, basketball and baseball. NO women ran. This was way before Kathy Switzer became the first numbered female entrant in the Boston Marathon in 1967 and the race director tried to tackle her to take her out of that race. Women weren’t officially allowed at Boston until 1972. The first woman’s Olympic Marathon I witnessed in 1984 in LA.
The shoes we wore in the early years were black heelless Keds. That was it. Nike, Blue Ribbon Sports, Puma and even an Adidas non-spiked shoe was far in the future. I think the first real running shoes were introduced to me at Notre Dame in 1964. There were no open road races. If you mentioned the word 5K and no one would know what you were talking about. For h.s. x-c [high school cross country] we ran 2 miles. For college x-c we ran 4 miles…even at the Nationals, which for many years were always held on Michigan State’s golf course. “Track & Field News” the “Bible of the Sport” was only 9 years old when I began running. (I actually have a library of the 60’s issues, if you’d like to take a look. [Yes!]) “Runner’s World Magazine” began in 1966. Most high school track and cross-country coaches were also football coaches who didn’t have anything to do in the spring. And they knew nothing about running. There just was no US information about those two sports at the time. There were no training programs to emulate.
We did read about “fartlek” (meaning speed play) training that the Swedish runners used. And, I may have mentioned Percy Cerutty to you earlier who “was one of the world’s leading athletics coaches in the 1950s and 1960s. The eccentric Australian pioneered a home-spun system of “Stotan” training, embracing a holistic regime of natural diets, hard training in natural surroundings, and mental stimulation.” What I remember about his training method was his students running on the Portsea beaches in Australia, running up and down sand dunes. And, yes, when we went the the beach that is what we did. When I coached later, on occasional weekends, the team would meet at a beach near the airport, and we’d be joined by the St. Bernard team coached by one of my high school teammates and run the hills. LA beaches also had steep hilly dunes maybe 30 yards up at a 40 degree angle. (For fun, Google that teammate Walt Lange Jesuit. After college he went on to become one of the premier high school coaches in the country.) Cerutty’s Herb Elliot won the 1960 1500 meters. Shortly thereafter came Arthur Lydiard with marathon training for all runners and his book “Running to the Top”, published in 1962, was our inspiration. His top guy, Peter Snell, is the only runner to win both the 800 & 1500 in the 1964 Olympic Games. Oh, and I visited the Snell museum on a trip to New Zealand a few years ago. “Jogging with Lydiard” was, to my knowledge the first ever use of the term “jog” and it was written in 1983. Thus, it was very very different 50 years ago. My Boston had 800 or so runners. My son just finished the NYC Marathon with 50,000 runners…3:49. And we are all so very much healthier being runners than were the adults of those years.
7. Tell me more about your experience selling shoes out of the back of your car with Blue Ribbon Sports. At the time, did anyone have any idea that Bowerman and Knight would ultimately create the company that would become Nike?
Jim: […] I think I remember selling shoes with Walt at All-Comers track meets in 1965’s summer. That is, at most, all I ever did. I’d not coached high school since mid-Spring of 1965 when the school principal offered me a job to teach Chemistry (I was an accounting major at ND) and be the assistant track coach for $386/month salary. I went from part time at the LA Times payroll department to full time for probably double that salary. I did keep private coaching one of my cross country guys…one Paul Petersen, who that summer broke a Jim Ryun high school record for the 3 mile or 5K in 1965 at an All Comers meet. [Below] I hope you enjoy Walt’s story and you may wish to look at some of his links. And, yes, he is still coaching at Jesuit High 38 years later!
Below are two email exchanges with Jim’s friends who sold Blue Ribbon Shoes with him and truly pioneered running in the 1960s and 1970s.
From: Walt Lange
To: Jim Webster
Jim, Well, this is probably more than you wanted or needed. –Walt
My experience with Blue Ribbon Sports and Nike lasted from around 1966 to 1973. My first awareness of BRS was through their advertising in Track & Field News and other running publications. Early on, Jeff Johnson was selling shoes by mail only, out of Seal Beach California. He eventually opened a store in Santa Monica. Jeff would take pictures at road races and if you wanted your picture, you had to go to his store and fish through a shoe box full of pictures to find yours.
After a move to Sacramento in December of 1968, I became involved with the distance runners at Jesuit High School. I began ordering shoes from Jeff (there were no running stores in the area, or in Northern CA for that matter). After a while, Jeff suggested I become a dealer out of my house, he would sell me the shoes for $2 off the normal retail price. So I wound up stocking my garage with Tiger shoes. I believe I only stocked two models, the trainer called the Cortez, and the racing shoe, the Marathon. The Cortez sold for $11.95 (team price), others paid a buck or two more.
The family car was a 1967 VW Bus. I would take out the middle seat, load the car up with shoes, and travel to road races or high schools (by appointment) and sell. People would come to our house weekday evenings, try on shoes in the garage, and buy what fit. Eventually, the traffic became too much and I opened a small store a couple of miles from our home. Store hours were evenings and weekend afternoons. At some point (1972?), BRS dropped Tigers and switched to a new brand, Nike. Jeff Johnson was the guy who came up with the new brand name that many, including me, thought was kind of weird. Phil Knight wanted the name “Dimension Six”. My store, “Sacramento Athletic Shoes”, was the first to carry any Nike products in the Sacramento region.
The store did well for a couple of years. I expanded into wrestling and basketball shoes. But eventually a Nike guy (maybe Bob Woodell, later to become Nike president?) wheelchaired into the store to tell me that unless I went full-time, they would stop supplying me, that they were ending all operations like mine. I had to choose between going full-time and the security of the full-time teaching/coaching job I had begun in 1970. I chose teaching and coaching.
I sold my inventory to two women who were starting a new store in town, Fleet Feet. Sally Edwards and her partner Elizabeth Jansen came by our house and loaded my remaining shoes into their vehicle. Their new store eventually became a nationwide chain, still doing business.
I’ve run into Jeff Johnson a few times over the years and have an autographed book of notes he distributed at a coaching clinic. At the time he was coaching the Nike Farm Team, having retired from Nike many years ago.
From: Paul Petersen
To: Jim Webster
Thanks, Jim, for including me in this email!
Walt, I didn’t realize you had shoe store that sold the pre-Nike product line, and that you knew the giants in that industry when they were just starting!
Jim, I think you can still brag about selling shoes for Blue Ribbon Sports, because I think I bought them from you, out of your bug. I can’t be the only one you sold to. I remember the sizes were all screwed up and they were sometimes too wide because the Onitsuka Tiger’s were Japanese-sized. They were amazingly light. I also remember driving to either Seal Beach, or Santa Monica to get more pairs when they wore out, and you weren’t around. I had their t-shirts, too, and wore them in all-comer races. They still sell a vintage Tiger shoe online at this link: http://bit.ly/2gwFuUU – not exactly the same shoe.
You found the weakest existing Ryun record – a sophomore class three mile record, and talked me into besting it an all comers meet – I think it was ’66. Ryun’s time was 14:52 and mine 14.48. Then Prefontaine did 13:something soon after!
I remembered that I still have the 50 year old program for the 1966 All-Comers season. That’s the one we went to all summer, Jim. I scanned it and attached it below. You might remember some of the names in it.
Hi Meredith, – You can get some good training advice from these guys!
[A few more interesting article links to give background to the story.]
Jeff Johnson: http://www.runnersworld.com/masters/employee-number-one
Below is a race picture of Jim (far right) with his wife, Beth, and neighbors at the local (hilly) 5k race held this past Saturday. Jim took home the pie with a time of 28:12!
Thank you, Jim, for sharing so much of your running history with me. You are a remarkable runner, and you give me so much pride in the history of our sport. I have thoroughly enjoyed every sentence that you shared about your running journey, and it helps me relate to the running giants who made our sport what it is now. Many more miles to you, and best of luck on your 40th Peachtree Road Race!