50 Years of Running: In the company of legends

My illustration of the human skeleton for the book Running to the Top of the Mountain by Dr. John Durkin and Coach Joe Newton of York High school. Published in 1988.

My association with my former coach Trent Richards grew in 1983 and ’84. We finished up his brochure for his new company One-On-One Fitness, and spent some time learning biomechanical analysis from his associate and podiatrist friend Dr. John Durkin.

Richards knew Durkin through his work with runners. As a podiatrist, Durkin’s practice was leading the way in treating injuries from a biomechanical perspective. He ran his practice along with his father, and his brother Mike was a world-class distance runner and a 1976 United States Olympian.

Durkin also befriended the legendary York cross country and track coach Joe Newton, who authored a book titled The Long Green Line based on the success of his coaching. The title came from the green uniforms of the York High School cross country team, and the size of the program as well. Newton’s teams won multiple state titles over several decades. I ran in the York Sectional cross country meet for several years, and never advanced to the state meet thanks to the high quality of teams and individual runners competing there.

I’d also heard Joe Newton speak. He was a powerfully motivating man, with a deep bed of stories to relate, so he was known for his inspirational talks. By contrast, Dr. John Durkin tended to be taciturn. He was a ‘no mess’ kind of guy. Even his bedside manner was a bit brusque, as I learned when my girlfriend Linda had bunion surgery and he kind of plowed through the procedure with all the pursuant noise of sawing bones. Durkin was not a gentle man in some respects.

World-class treatment

But that’s what made him the ideal candidate to work with world-class athletes, whose sometimes determined and prickly personalities were hard to handle, especially when facing injuries that interrupted their training or racing. Durkin cut through the crap on many occasions, fitting runners like Craig Virgin, Jim Spivey, and even world-record-holder Sebastian Coe with orthotics to keep them from running into injury problems.

It all came down to some simple principles. Few of us have a perfect body structure or ideal biomechanical foundations. The bones in our bodies, especially our feet and legs, all depend on a host of balancing fulcrums that determine how the muscles and supporting tissues perform under stress. If something in the bone structure is out of line, a biomechanical weakness ensures. That places body parts under pressure, whereupon strains and tears, stress fractures, and even broken bones can result.

My illustration of the muscular and fascia structures of the knee and lower leg

I’d seen horrible things happen in real life with a track teammate at Luther College. He was our top 400-meter hurdler and ranked near the top of the nation. Unfortunately, his feet and lower legs were susceptible to stress fractures, and he had to train in a pool during his senior track season. Perhaps if he’d been prescribed orthotics to deal with the imbalances in his feet, his shins would not have suffered so much, and he might not have shattered his leg while jumping the last hurdle in the final meet of his career.

Sebastian Coe

Durkin worked with Sebastian Coe, one of the world’s most dynamic and exciting distance running talents in history. Coe was immensely strong, reportedly able to leg press 700 pounds. But his feet were basically flat, with no arches, and he kept picking up calf injuries as a result. Durkin met with Coe and his coach/father Peter to cure leg problems the athlete was fighting all during 1983.

Sebastian also became friends with Joe Newton. Leading up to the ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles, Coe stayed with the Newton family in Elmhurst to train and acclimate in advance of the Games. That meant Durkin could also keep an eye on his most famous patient.

I visited the office one day while Sebastian Coe was in town testing out a set of new orthotics. “Cudworth,” Durkin barked at me. “Why don’t you take Sebastian out on a little run? And don’t go fast. This is just a test run. Two miles at the most.”

We ran slowly. Coe was focused on his running form and pondering how the orthotics felt in his shoes, so I didn’t distract him or try to make friends. I was nothing more than the guide horse to a thoroughbred that afternoon. It was daunting to think that I was running next to the man that set world records at both the 1500 meters and mile. “The fastest man in history,” I said to myself along the way.

Sebastian Coe in full flight.

Coe was not a large man, but he was strong, and also handsome. I had photos of him in my scrapbook back at home, and always admired his powerful stride and raw speed. Yet here he was, shuffling slowly along on a quiet day in the Chicago suburbs. If anyone had looked out the window of their home that afternoon, they’d have no clue that this was one of the fastest men in the world.

We returned to the office and Durkin went right to work. “How do they feel?” he asked Sebastian. I figured it was time for me to exit the room. There was high-level business to conduct, and the doctor-patient relationship is sacred.

World-class spirit

Durkin also treated Jim Spivey, the product of nearby Fenton High School and one of the smoothest runners I’d ever seen. I met Spivey later in life, and found him to be one of the most genuine individuals I’d encounter among world-class runners. Not that many of them were ever jerks. But handling fame is a tough thing for some runners, who can’t be bothered with certain kinds of fans. Not Jim. I saw him talking with a group of high school athletes once. It was evident that he really cared what they were learning. He went on to coach and share his talent in many ways. I’d also owe him partial credit for the fastest track 5K I’d ever run, as he led the race at an All-Comers meet at North Central College the night I ran a 14:47 behind his 14:00. He pulled the entire field to some of their best times that night.

I also met Craig Virgin along the way, and got to watch him work out at the East Bank Club in Chicago. Coach Richards had me leading my master’s protege runner in a noon workout, and Craig was blasting around the track doing interval training. I’m not sure how many people knew that he was a world-class runner, much less the world champion in cross country. Most of the guys on the track that day were more interested in catching up with a beautiful blonde jogging around in a skin-tight bodysuit. I had to admit that I admired her figure too.

Yeah. Something like this. She was clearly on the prowl for the “right kind of man” that day.

After that workout, I went to shower in the locker room and wound up standing between two other legends at the sink. On one side of me stood the tough-guy actor Robert Conrad. On the other side was tennis great Arthur Ashe. “Hey guys,” I muttered and commenced with re-wetting my contact lenses. What was I gonna do, make small talk with two world-famous guys in their bath towels?

The magnificent miler

Trent Richards also brought me to a meeting in downtown Chicago in which a potential race was being discussed. One of the owners of the building called One Mag Mile wanted to host a world-class mile. One of the dignitaries at the meeting was Irish runner Eamonn Coghlan, at that time still one of the world’s greatest milers. He shook my hand with one of the firmest grips I’d ever felt. Coghlan was there to represent the interests of the Irish tourism industry, and Chicago’s love of the Irish drew him in. But he was clearly uncomfortable with all the ego-tripping and corporate puffery going on at the meeting. He confided to me that he did not think the race would ever happen. His instincts were correct. The race never came together.

Heady times

Those were heady times with legendary characters swirling around my life as I struggled to make a living and keep my own running on an improvement track. During that same period, Durkin and Newton hired me to illustrate their upcoming book, a collaborative work titled Running to the Top of the Mountain.

Durkin handed me anatomy books highlighted with sticky notes designating which illustrations he wanted to copy for his own purposes. I sat in my home studio doing detailed drawings of muscles and bones.

One on one

At the same time ,we were putting Durkin’s principles to work through Trent’s company One-On-One Fitness. I learned how to measure and mark the angle of pronation or supination in the lower legs of his corporate clients. Some of those feet were a total mess, and Durkin won a few patients along the way. I’m not sure what the financial arrangements were between Dr. John and Trent, but they certainly had a few beers together along the way, and it felt like celebration. Both were making money. That much I knew. But me? Not so much.

I finished page after page of illustration for the book, but the book itself took forever for Durkin and Newton to complete. In the meantime, I did a scratchboard illustration of a mountain to place on the cover behind a photo of Sebastian Coe leading runners in the ’84 Olympics.

It would take several years for the manuscript to be completed. The book was finally published in 1988. Sadly, I later learned that a large chunk of the material in the book was plagiarized. The author whose work was stolen pursued compensation from Durkin and Newton and I think they had to pay it.

But, why?

That news struck me as odd, considering how original and driven those two men really were. Why did they feel the need to copy the work of others? The fact of the matter is that the pressure of publishing sometimes gets to people. Legends have egos, and some don’t work all that well together. Writing a book is hard work. Like training for a race, it takes discipline. They both found that out.

That said, the information they compiled was visionary in many respects. Durkin’s foresight about the impact of biomechanics in the sports world is now reflected in technology such as the pressure-sensitive foot and lower-leg measurement devices built by Aetrex. Those machines provide visual data about foot and ankle imbalances. I now use that machine at the Dick Pond Athletics store where I help customers on weekends. The Fleet Feet running shoe chain also tests the feet of every runner before fitting shoes. Those are the same principles Durkin taught us way back in the early 1980s. So while he was a bit forceful in some of his methodologies, his ideas were genuinely progressive.

He was in many ways a complex man, at once immensely caring and intuitive about the needs of so many runners and patients that he helped along the way. And yet, he was pragmatic almost to a flaw in other ways. I once overheard him discussing his financial interest in importing rare woods––compassionately or not––from Costa Rica or some other jungle nation in Central America. He knew that I was a big “environmental” guy at heart, but to him, the opportunity to make some cash mattered most, and he laughed it off.

John’s obituary from 2014 records a man who retired to a quieter life. “WEAVERVILLE – Dr. John F. Durkin, age 65, died on Tuesday, October 21, 2014. He recently moved to North Carolina after spending the first 60 years of his life in the Chicago area. He was the son of John J. Durkin and the late Mary Doughtery Durkin. Dr. Durkin had a long career at Roselle Podiatry and Sports Medicine in Roselle, Illinois, where he treated many world-class athletes. He and his wife recently relocated to Weaverville to be closer to family and to enjoy retirement in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina.”

Joe Newton later passed away at the age of 88, leaving behind a career worthy of a coaching legend, for sure. Runnersworld.com carried a story about his successful career.

One of Durkin’s fellow clinicians wrote a testimonial to Durkin’s proficiency in his work.

John Durkin, Jr., DPM “JD” was one of the most
successful DPMs treating big-time Olympic runners.
His dad John, Sr. was also a podiatrist and his
brother Mike, was a 2-time Olympian. JD graduated
from IL (now Scholl) College of Podiatric
Medicine, was board certified by the ABPS and a
Fellow of the AAPSM.

I shadowed JD in the last years of my training at
his practice in Roselle, IL. He taught me not to
be known just for treating runners; learn how to
treat all athletes was his advice. He said “treat
the coaches well, because they never get enough
respect.” He also said “don’t try to be a
millionaire off of patients, but if you do it
right, you will be.”

He saved countless bone scans and MRIs to diagnose
medial tibial stress fractures by just taking an
external oblique x-ray view of the leg, which I
call the “Durkin view.” JD pioneered the use of
the extended forefoot varus post, particularly for
those on their toes, which makes you look like a
miracle worker with athletes’ medial tibial stress
syndrome/stress fractures.

When others criticized him that it won’t work for
a forefoot valgus, he said “I don’t know what you
think happens when the forefoot hits the ground,
but when I push up, the 1st ray elevates, so I
don’t think a valgus post is going to help
stabilize at toe-off.”

Observing him create a temporary orthosis was like
watching a gourmet chef preparing a fine meal; he
was passionate about his work. When we had a
sports medicine track at the ACFAS meeting in
2003, he challenged us to push the envelope in
treating stress fractures by treating them with
methylmerthacrylate. He said no one but a
podiatrist will know anatomy, biomechanics, and
pathology of the foot and ankle better- that was a
challenge he was making to other professions.

He motivated you to be a better doctor, surgeon
and person. I know he motivated a few of his
patients to become DPMs, which I considered an
excellent sign of how good he was. He could always
crack me up; in fact my jaw was often sore from
laughing so much around him! He also made me proud
to be a DPM.

Amol Saxena, DPM, Palo Alto, CA, heysax@aol.com

About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
This entry was posted in Christopher Cudworth, cross country, injury, mental health, race pace, racing peak, running, running shoes, training and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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