Amby Burfoot Interview

September 10, 2011 1

© Copyright – 2009 – Athletics Illustrated

In 1968 at the age of 21 Amby Burfoot won the historic B.A.A Boston Marathon. John J. Kelley, who at that time was the most recent American to win Boston 11 years prior, happened to be his coach at Robert E. Fitch High School in Groton, Connecticut. Therefore Amby’s win at Boston held personal significance on several levels.

December of that same year Amby ran the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon in Fukuoka, Japan and finished 1 second off the American marathon record with his 2:14:29. Amby said,  “Fifth in 2:14:29, one second off Buddy Edelen’s American marathon record and, at the time, the fastest-ever fifth-place performance in a marathon… if your readers are geeky enough…”.

The apparent, self-effacing Burfoot is currently the Editor at Large with Runner’s World Magazine, North America’s and possibly the World’s most read running publicaton. He also maintains, in his own words, “two irregular blogs”, footloose and peakperformance.

Amby has been with Runner’s World since 1978, holding a variety of positions including East Coast Editor, Executive Editor and now, Editor at Large. During this time he has authored several books including, Runner’s World Complete Book of Running, The Principles of Running: Practical Lessons from My First 100,000 Miles, The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life: What 35 Years of Running Has Taught Me About Winning, Losing, Happiness, Humility, and the Human Heart and Runner’s World Complete Book of Beginning Running.

The lifetime runner and advocate of healthy living, maintains a rather prolific calendar when considering his blogs, articles, books and his efforts to maintain good physical condition, which you can read about here, in our interview.

Christopher Kelsall: During 1968 when you were at the top of your game as a runner, with your Boston win and Fukuoka performance, were you entertaining thoughts then of where you believed the limit of human performance was? At that time could you conceive a 2:04?

Amby Burfoot: Through the early 70s I couldn’t imagine anything faster than Ron Hill’s 1970 Boston win in 2:10:30. He seemed as good a runner as any in the world at that point, and his Boston time was just amazing to me. I had also been a participant in Bill Adcocks’s 2:10:48 at Fukuoka in 1968, and at that time I considered the Brits the gold standard. Remember that America’s own Buddy Edelen had moved to England years earlier, and improved his performances substantially. I thought of England in the early 1970s almost the way I’ve come to think of East Africa in the last 20 years. Times change, obviously.

As far as a 2:04 goes, I would have said that was an impossible time for sure. Even when Derek Clayton got down into the 2:08s, I couldn’t imagine anyone running more than a minute or so faster than that. Today, I consider 2:00 hours the impossible barrier. Truth is, I don’t think we’re going to see anyone go under 2:03 in the foreseeable future.

CK: So suggesting one mano-a-mano and high-paying race on a flat course in ideal conditions, with a fistful of pacers capable of running 61:00 minute half-marathons accurately, in a media-heavy environment with the likes of Wanjiru vs., Lel vs. Gebre; you are saying that, that race would not result in a potential sub 2:03?

AB: Are you willing to allow roller blades and a point-to-point course with a strong tailwind? I’d say, in the race you propose, the chances of a sub-2:03 would be less than 10 percent. The biggest factor is weather; you can’t get a world-record marathon in anything less than world-record marathon conditions, and how often does that happen? But we’re also approaching the limits of human performance. That’s not to say that records won’t be broken, but the new records won’t come easily and they won’t come by big amounts.

An interesting Journal of Experimental Biology article in the last year showed that horse and dog-racing records have plateaued. Basically, no horse today can touch Secretariat from 25 years ago. The same will happen with humans–we’re just two-legged horses after all. What I mean is, we face biological limits unless we suddenly evolve into a new creature. And if you look at Paula Radcliffe’s marathon record, we’re already getting farther away from it, if you look at the last three or four years. That’s not a record that’s going anywhere in my lifetime. I think we might see more women run sub-2:20s, like the guys under 2:06 (let’s say), but I don’t think we’re going to see a 2:14:59 by a woman any time soon.

CK: In 20 years will people be talking more about the Duel in the Sun or about Haile’s 2:03:59?

AB: In the U.S., they’ll be talking about Duel, because it has passed into our running mythology. Around the world, they’ll be talking about Haile’s 2:03:59 for the obvious reason that he established a new world record and passed through a modest time barrier.

CK: I wonder about that, don’t you think the general public is becoming jaded with ‘performance’ versus good old-fashioned racing?

AB: Are you kidding? Do you think Usain Bolt becomes famous if he wins the Olympics in 9.9? I know I’m going against everyone’s best intentions here, but I don’t see how you can take the stopwatch out of running. Tennis and golf don’t use watches, and I know we’re envious of them, but let’s admit that different sports are different. Running is a sport where we use a watch. That being the case, the watch becomes important, particularly against the great history of our sport. Nobody would have any clue who Roger Bannister is except for one tiny little detail. Today we have lots of race promoters and so-called “track fans” arguing that we need to focus on the competition, and not the times. They have the best intentions. They know few races produce records, and they want people to pay attention to the sport even when records aren’t set. This is a very noble goal–trying to increase running and track and field popularity. But it’s ridiculous to think you can throw away the watch. If this is true, why do we even invite elite athletes to compete? We could have very close, competitive races among fat, slow people. Might even turn into a hit reality show. I think that if we’re going to invite fast runners to run standard distances–100m to marathon–then we’re going to have to acknowledge that times matter. We just need to do this in the most creative ways possible. I’m a big supporter of the Battle of the Sexes approach. It’s so easy to understand. The women get a head start; the men chase them, just like men have always been chasing women. Other sports can’t do this because they’re not time-focused, but running can, and I think we should.

CK: I’ll call Mark Burnett; he will have it in production in weeks, fat people racing 11 minutes-per-mile 5ks. Humour aside, the Duel in the Sun, like you said will be in American’s minds for a long time and that’s what that race was, a race – time aside. I was really leaning towards the idea that the public doesn’t really believe some of the times are naturally possible. If that is the case, perhaps the public is becoming apathetic about PEDs?

AB: I used to talk to Mark Burnett when he was doing his early adventure races, and I believe Runner’s World was the first, or one of the first big media outlets to give him coverage. I went to one of his first parties in Hollywood. Okay, that’s the end to that aside.

The Duel in the Sun was David against Goliath, a story that almost everyone understands and relates to. If it had been Alberto against Henry Rono, or Dick against Inge Simonsen (the guy who I think he tied in one London Marathon), there’s no story. It’s just another forgettable race in which the first two finishers were separated by just a few seconds

As far as the public being apathetic towards PEDs, we’re all apathetic. We’re sick and tired of all the talk. With rare exceptions, we don’t know who’s using PEDs, and probably never will. We point fingers knowingly, but the fact is that we know almost nothing. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who can run a 2:03 marathon is already a freak of nature, and I don’t really care if he uses PEDs. I’m ready to let all adult athletes make their own informed decisions. We have a far better chance of achieving a level playing field this way than we do on the current path. As far as I can tell, all we’re doing is spending a lot of money for drug-testing that isn’t very effective, and probably never will be.

CK: Where was Meb on your radar in terms of the likelihood of him winning in 2:09 in New York City Marathon.

AB: I would have given Meb about a 5 percent chance of winning. I wouldn’t have rated anyone over about 25 percent (Lel before injury), but Meb would have fallen behind 5 or 6 others because of his lack of prior marathon wins and, even more, the injury problems of the past year-plus. Who knew that he had come this far back. Now we know. Now we can look at his lifetime career and see how impressive it is. But before New York, there were only question marks, and I know he had a number of strong races in 2009.

CK: Interesting you were giving Meb about 5 percent chance, where the poll at Let’s Run, asking people to submit likely winners of the New York City Marathon and their finish-time range (Let’s Run supplied the ranges to choose from) had 2.8 percent of voters believing Meb would win and for time range, I do not think he even registered. He was not on anyone’s radar, it seems. Do you think this win is what Meb needed to re-ignite confidence or do you think he is a career 2:09 marathon runner?

AB: Oh, Meb’s way better than a 2:09 marathoner. He’s probably a 2:06 marathoner. I just wrote a blog about this, using very shallow stats. Elite marathoners have it tough. They can only run a couple of races a year, and if they have a slight cold, or are injured, or run into bad weather conditions, or just have a “bad day,” they lose six months of preparation for nothing. Ryan Hall has run two really strong marathons this year, but they don’t look like much on paper, because he didn’t win and didn’t get close to his PR. But he made the conscious choice not to chase PRs this year, and it might pay off for him next year. I like his attitude–that his day will come. I think you have to believe that. He might also choose to go back to the PR courses next year, who knows? Meb had a couple of years of bad timing, but he didn’t give up or stop believing, and now he’s back where he wants to be. He seems to me a very smart guy, and a realist. He probably knows that London 2012 is his last big-time race, and I suspect he’ll put a lot of eggs in that basket. I would, if I were him. It’s a gamble, but he’s accomplished so much (except for a super-fast marathon time) that I think he should go for it.

CK: What were John J. Kelley’s magic words that motivated you to become a marathoner while still attending University?

AB: Kelley didn’t pass along a mantra or anything–he didn’t believe in simplistic approaches like that–but he was an Irish born story teller and philosopher, and his big message way back in the mid-1960s was: We’re moving too fast; we need to remain more connected to simple values and nature; we might be a big-brained animal, but we’re still just an animal; we shouldn’t be polluting the planet; organic is the way to go; exercise is an imperative, without it we shrivel and die; abhor the automobile; beware the military-industrial complex; don’t believe 99 percent of what big institutions tell you. It was pretty radical stuff back then.

CK: I was under the impression Kelley was the one to motivate you to run that first marathon. Was your motivation to run that first one primarily a personal quest and decision?

AB: Kelley motivated me, and showed the way, and then it became a personal quest. At the time I thought marathon success was 100 percent about hard work, and I figured I was willing to work harder than anyone else, so I wanted to see how far that might carry me.

CK: So was achieving 1 second off the American record in Fukuoka a meeting of your expectations?

AB: Oh, it was way beyond my expectations. I’m a small town kid. I never really believed in myself. Every race I ever won was a bit of a surprise. I got my butt handed to me on the last lap of so many track races of 1 and 2 miles. I always figured someone was going to catch me and pass me. Once I led the Millrose Games 5000 for 31 laps. I told all my friends to tune in and watch me on TV. Of course, TV only showed the last lap. I don’t think I even made the cameras. At Fukuoka, I probably PR’d at every distance from 15K to 25K. I remember hitting 25K at 5:00 flat pace, and thinking, how did I do that? How am I going to keep going? I do wish someone had told me to sprint on the track, and then maybe I could have made it into the American Record progressions book for the marathon.

CK: Next to John J. Kelley, who were your biggest running influences?

AB: All the others were ones I read about for the most part: Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek, Percy Cerutty, Arthur Lydiard, Bill Bowerman. In college, I roomed with Jeff Galloway and Bill Rodgers, and raced against Frank Shorter, but I was ahead of the curve vis a vis them, so they never became like gurus to me or anything. We all enjoyed Bill Squires back in the Greater Boston Track Club days, though I lived 100 miles south of Boston, and only ran with those guys on rare occasions. Dave Costill inspired all who worked with him for his support for runners and his passion for exercise physiology. At some point, Hal Higdon taught me that you didn’t have to be in shape every season or even every year; I think that’s an under-appreciated lesson for the lifetime runner. I also befriended Jack Daniels at some point, and began to understand the implications of his Oxygen Power research before most. In fact, my brother-in-law (an MIT mathematician) and I interpreted Daniels in Runner’s World in the mid 1980s, creating preferred training paces based on his work. This was a decade before he published Jack Daniels’s Running Formula. I believe Jack has been the most influential coach of the last 25 years. I mean, he basically invented tempo runs, and who isn’t following his paces to one degree or another these days? Plus, everyone who meets the guy loves him.

CK: What are your thoughts on training groups that have popped up for example McMillan Elite and Hanson’s? Would have run faster yet, if they existed during the 1960s?

AB: Absolutely. There’s no doubt in my mind about training camps: They work. That said, a training camp with 13:15 5K runners works better than a training camp with 14:15 5K runners. The talent comes first, then everything else, including the training camp.

CK: During your interview with Travis Saunders, the researcher co-heading up Obesity Panacea (in pursuit of a cure for obesity) he asks your advice about getting people to look at exercise over the long-term. You replied that inactivity is a social issue, rather than a personal issue. What role do you think the popularity of social networking can play in Travis’s quest to get people to think long-term about their health and fitness?

AB: Oh, I think social networking will be huge. I think it already is, but I don’t know who’s measuring it. It has the ability to help us reach and engage far more people across all borders (ethnic groups, languages, countries, etc) than anything I’ve ever known in my lifetime. As a motivator and a staying-in-touch device, social networks are breaking new ground faster than we can acknowledge the power. We’re way behind the curve on this one.

The network is way bigger than our ability to comprehend it or the way it works. I have a particular interest in intelligent online tools. I know a smart Harvard guy and fast miler (sub 4:10 I believe) who did an online training program a few years ago similar to the SmartCoach that my son and I have pioneered. He “sold” his program to the New York Road Runners for a season, but by the next year he had moved onto weight loss, because it’s a bigger market, and he started traineo.com. Some people will make fun of the weight-loss efforts and web sites, but I’m not one of them. Every weight loss purveyor knows that exercise has to be part of the system, or individuals won’t succeed, and the weight-loss programs won’t either. So they’re all promoting exercise to one degree or another.

I have a friend who used to be at Runner’s World Magazine and is now writing content for a major pharmaceutical company and their diabetes drug, because the company knows that exercise, presumably along with their drug, will help people in their diabetes struggles. We need all the help we can get in promoting exercise, and I’m ready to reach out to everyone and build bridges. In the end, exercise will be the big winner, because it’s cheap, it works, and it produces tons of benefits beyond weight loss. (In passing, let me note that I particularly want to reach out to the exercise walking community).

CK: Ok weight loss and healthy living clearly, are important to many people for various reasons, what do you think of the notion that elite runners are everywhere, they just need to be trained up?

AB: I think talented runners are everywhere. The definition of “elite” is tough to pin down. A few years ago, I would have said that a sub-2:12 was worth pursuing, and a sub- 2:10 could put you on the world competitive stage. Now that’s a ridiculous thought. You basically have to be a 2:06-equivalent marathoner to be competitive. And I was ready for a time to think that virtually everyone growing up in the Rift Valley had some special gifts in the distance-running domain. Strangely, John Manner’s wonderful KenSAP program for academically talented Rift Valley Kenyans has made me see that this is not the case. Many of the Kensap students do try cross-country and track here in the States despite having done virtually no running in Kenya, and a few have shown real talent. The most obvious example is Hamilton’s Peter Kosgei, who I believe will set an NCAA record if he wins his Nationals this fall. But many of them have tried cross-country, and proven to be mediocre. I’d guess that the percentage of talents is greater among this group than among a typical American group, but it’s certainly nothing like a universal talent among Rift Valley Kenyans

CK: Have you heard of this New York Times recommended read, Connected? (The premise is about virtual and physical social networks functioning in a 3 degrees of separation-like effect. Perhaps today’s destination marathons and mass participation events are establishing a beachhead towards a much greater movement (still not everyone exercises regularly). Do you think the growth in endurance events will continue to rage on?

AB: No, don’t know the book, but thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out. Seems obvious to me that we’re all much more connected than we have ever been, and this is only going to increase as we get more and more digital and wireless. I suppose at some point we’ll almost lose the distinction between virtual and social networks, but I think social networks–family, work, church, community, etc–will remain very important for a long time.

When it comes to the growth of endurance events, I sometimes pinch my cheeks and wonder how long this can go on. I’ve heard, anecdotally, that some of the Rock and Roll events have started to cannibalize from each other, though I don’t know that for a fact. At any rate, there seems to be no immediate limit to the numbers of people entering events overall. As many people have noted, entering an event is a big motivator, and we all need all the fitness motivation we can get. My big racing season in recent years has been Nov. and Dec, and I can tell you for sure that I train harder in Sept and Oct than I do any other time of the year.

CK: Ever run with an iPod? What is (or otherwise would have been) on your iPod?

AB: I’m completely brain dead when it comes to music. Always have been. I mean I love many classic Broadway show tunes. How lame is that! But other than old Beatles and Rolling Stones, I hardly recognize music or musicians. I don’t do much better when people ask me about favorite books and movies. There’s some part of my brain associated with these things that just doesn’t seem much activated. I’ve run once with my wife’s iPod. She couldn’t live without BROOOOOCE and music and dance in general. Odd bedfellows? Anyway, I found the experience more enjoyable than I expected–I think I was locked into her “favorite running songs” play-list. But I’ve also never been tempted to go back. I pass the time running by chatting endlessly with my training partners, or with my own ruminations. I can honestly say that I’m one of my own favorite running partners: I enjoy the unexpected thoughts that pop up on a regular basis.

CK: No question, I can only laugh: ‘Broadway show tunes’.

You have been with Runner’s World Magazine for some time now (1978). I see you were the Executive Editor and now Editor at Large. Does Editor at Large mean you are a little, semi-retired sort–of-speak?

AB: No, I’m still working full-time at the magazine. I do about 2 hours of early morning internet work everyday, and then maybe 7 hours in the office. Editor at Large means that someone else is the head editor, so they have to find a different title for me. I’ve been around long enough and had enough nice titles, not to worry about them. I figure it’s time to let some of the younger writers and editors step to the plate, which they do very capably at RW every day. RW doesn’t need me or anyone. The institution is larger than any individual. As long as the magazine holds true to its mission to provide useful running and fitness advice to runners of all ages and abilities, it will remain a strong force no matter who is on staff and off staff. The brand is very strong, and the people at Rodale and RW are very committed to maintaining its position.

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