That’s when Frank Shorter won the Olympic Marathon and the world of jogging got its start.
But there were quite a few of us that were already running our butts off before Shorter opened this whole can of worms and authors like Jim Fixx and Hal Higdon convinced Everyman and Everywoman there was something special about the activity of putting one foot in front of the other as fast (or slow) as you can.
It wasn’t all pretty back then. In fact one wonders if the relatively pampered runners of today would put up with much of what the sport was about back in the 70s. Here’s a list of 10 ways to test whether you could survive being a runner in the 1970s.
#10: Running shoes were rare, spare and hard to wear.
The running shoes of the very early 1970s were better known as “flats.” These were minimalist black shoes with gum rubber soles about a quarter inch thick. There was very little heel lift. You had to buy them at local shoe merchants that stocked such fair. One salesperson once told me: “Don’t wear them around too much. They’ll stretch out your calves.” Then came adidas training flats and the SL72. These were snazzy looking shoes whose build still pretty much informs every running shoe on the market today. Solid insole. Heel cup and heel counter. Insignia on the sides. They were basic. And they were good enough. Finally NIKE and Tiger came along in the early to mid 70s and the shoe war was on. But you still had to really search to buy the best models. We purchased ours from Dick Pond, a local guy that sold running shoes out of his garage. His company is still alive today.
#9. We almost never drank water before, during or after running.
Some coaches even denied you you the right to drink water during practice. Most of us ran distances of six to fifteen miles without drinking anything at all. Once in a great while we’d creep on someone’s hose or the faucet on the side of an industrial building when we got really thirsty during a 20-miler. But other than that, you toughed it out.
#8. We raced three times a week.
High school cross country runners typically had meets Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. In between those meets we’d often do speed work. That made for fast runners, but some who burnt out as well. With 18+ meets to run during the season, you knew pretty well where you stood in terms of fitness by the time the District, Sectional and State meets rolled around. As a result the sport at the state level was largely faster then than it still is today. It was not uncommon for the Top 25 athletes to all run under 14:35 for three miles. That’s what it took to be All State.
#7. We ate and drank what we wanted, and smoked some pot too.
While my freshman year coach counseled us on the better aspects of diet including instructions to avoid food such as carbonated beverages (sideaches) eggs (sulphur led to sideaches?) it was not uncommon for runners to ingest a daily diet of baloney sandwhich, Suzy Qs, Frito’s and a Coke. That was a pre-race meal. And we still broke 15:00 for three miles.
Beer was still pretty much PBR, Stroh’s and Old Style. There were no craft beers.
But there was a growing supply of pot. Frankly it destroyed some of my runner friends. Those of us that experimented with it and did not get sucked into a pot habit had some sense that it was not something a runner could sustain as a practical habit. There was all that smoke in the lungs, for starters. And it didn’t combine well with the drive to succeed. Ultimately it was our conservative instincts that balanced our taste for a liberal dose of fun. Such is the life of most runners. The 70s were one of the first real tests of those principles. The world could stand a dose of such equanimity.
#6. There was no such thing as tapering in mid-season.
Most runners “trained through” even important meets. The idea was to maintain a constant “tired state” so that when you finally cut down mileage the last weeks of the season you’d enjoy such fresh legs you could set PRs for three weeks in a row. Sometimes it actually worked.
#5. We did speed work out the ass. All the time.
Legendary speed-based workouts were common even at the high school level in the 1970s. Middle distance and 400 meter runners used to do workouts of 30 X 300 meters at ungodly paces. This is how one of my former teammates was able to run a state record 1:49 880. He barfed a lot to get there. But that’s what it took to be good back in the 1970s. It’s pretty much still true today. Because how many 1:49 high school half-milers are there even today? A few. Here’s the list of 800 meter records from the last 40 years…
National — 1:46.45, Michael Granville, Bell Gardens, CA, 1996
IHSA — 1:49.71, Jason Van Swol, New Lenox (Lincoln-Way), 1998 (finals)
Class 1A — 1:51.22, Peter Callahan, Winnetka (North Shore Country Day), 2009 (finals)
Class 2A — 1:51.48, J.D. LaFayette, Normal (University), 2014 (finals)
Class 3A — 1:49.71, Jason Van Swol, New Lenox (Lincoln-Way), 1998 (finals)
So for all the improvements in shoes, equipment, track surfaces and training knowledge, it still comes down to running as fast as you can in what you’ve got.
#4. We did insanely long runs to experiment on ourselves.
When some sophomore buddies and I decided to run the 30-mile DeKalb Walkathon we had no plan other than to head out and see if we could do it. Then it turned out that runners from DeKalb were there as well. So we raced the first six miles at six minute pace. then most runners quit and turned back to the NIU campus. But a few of us kept on. And on. One by one they dropped off. And there was one significant problem with this lack of strategy. The water stops were not even set up. BECAUSE IT WAS A WALKATHON! The organizers weren’t expected people to be out on the course running. Which left me all alone at the 20-mile mark with no other buddies to guide me along the way. So I kept on running. And running. Finally at 27 miles I begged a Coke in town because I was a little thirsty.
And we did shit like that more often than most of us would care to admit. Because it was the 70s. The frontier of the running movement. No one knew right from wrong. It was one grand experiment.
#3. We actually believed in our running heroes.
Perhaps there are still runners today that kids admire. But they don’t seem to inspire much…inspiration. By contrast we had our Frank Shorters, Bill Rodgerses and Steve Prefontaines to emulate. Then came the Africans like Henry Rono and others to stretch our imaginations even further. And we believed that running like them in practice and style could actually make us better. Women like Francie Larrieu Smith and Mary Decker Slaney, Joan Benoit and Grete Waitz were inspiring too. The 70s were a time for such naive beliefs.
#2. We sang our way to success. And failure.
Without Walkmans or iPhones or any other gadgets to carry along during training in the early 1970s, we had to rely on our own voices to carry use along. That meant heartfelt choruses of The Who and The Doobie Brothers. The Eagles and Kansas. Those strange anthemic tunes were all we had sometimes to finish off a 20-miler with no water on a Sunday morning in the hills of Iowa. It was tough going, but a song sung with buddies can often get you through the worst of situations.
And when we failed, there were sad songs to help us drown our sorrows in cheap Olympia or Coor’s beer.
#1. We dreamed of a better world.
There was a certain belief in the 1970s that being a runner was a secret way to becoming a better person. Coming back from a 15-miler, covered in sweat and walking through the football locker room to reach the cross country showers was a rite of passage of sorts. Our skinny bodies seemed nothing compared to the hulking, stinking, padded frames of those giant football players.
And yet I recall the moment when a runner from another team split off from the course tour before a cross country meet and tore through an actual football practice screaming KILL KILL KILL! at the top of his lungs. His name was Rich Flynn and he was a stupendously talented kid from Cary Grove high known to be a little crazy. It stunned us all that he had the guts to encroach on football practice like that.
Then he left us all in the dust during our three mile race. He seemed to run with such abandon and freedom that none of us dared to challenge him.
Yet thanks to all the torment that many of us had received at the hands of football players who believed they ruled the world in the 1970s, our competitor’s actions were symbolic in a way that drew our ultimate admiration. So what if he was crazy! He also had guts. Real guts to stand up in the face of insane repetition of thought processes that were clearly thick with authoritarian values.
And that was what many of us were about as runners in the 1970s. It was counter-culture to do what we did at so many levels. And despite all the corporatization of the sport over the last 40 years, there is still a streak within us all that hearkens to that independence.
Even my conservative running friends can feel it. There’s a certain liberality that comes from (and through) running. Even with its disciplines and rigorous requirements of dedication, there is an idealistic freedom that emanates from this sport we love.
One could argue that the 1970s started it all. It took a lot to survive that era with its pursuant hangover from the 1960s and its dark economic turns and shifts. It wasn’t perfect but it was real. Those of us that survived it sometimes stand back and wonder, “What was all that about?”
But the answer was simple. For better or worse, it was all about us, and who we wanted to become. On the run.