Roger Robinson is an author, speaker, scholar and runner. He earned his PhD from Cambridge University and is Emeritus professor with Victoria University of Wellington. He is the author or contributor of more than twenty books, both scholarly and about running. There are four running books including his latest, a book called “Spirit of the Marathon,” which is a tie-in with the documentary film, “Spirit of the Marathon II.”
Robinson’s international running career spanned nearly 30 years, from 1966 to 1995. He first competed for England then later for New Zealand. When he first became a masters-age athlete in 1981, he set course records and won several marathons including in Vancouver, Canberra, Boston and New York. As a 50-year-old he continued on his age-group record-breaking tear in several events and won 16 of 17 major races. In his fifties, he ran 10-kilometres as fast as 32:34, the half-marathon in 1:10:17 and the marathon in 2:28:03. He continues to run, however, limits himself to racing the distance of five-kilometres.
Robinson and his wife Kathrine Switzer split their time between New Zealand and the USA. They are both, in-demand public speakers, race announcers and television commentators, on the road racing circuit.
Christopher Kelsall: What do you owe your very long international running career to? Is it a mileage volume thing or perhaps genetics?
Roger Robinson: I was a slow starter, only moderately talented as a student, but every now and then surprised myself with unexpected successes – like winning the Surrey cross-country in 1963, and then making the England team in 1966. Those kept me going. It wasn’t that I had high ambitions, but I somehow never felt I’d passed my peak. So the late bonuses kept on coming – I never hoped I might run for New Zealand, but that came in 1977; and then, to my good fortune, the running boom and the masters movement were beginning as I turned 40. So I ran my first marathon at 41, and it all started again. Maybe I’m just stuck in an arrested childhood.
CK: So perhaps a degree of mind over matter, mixed with the pursuit of happiness, while running with a sense of structure?
RR: There may have been a physical/genetic element, maturing late. More likely it’s just that I didn’t train hard enough until later. On happiness, yes, I’ve always wanted what in “Heroes and Sparrows” I call “the balanced life.” I think I was a better academic because I was also a runner, and probably vice versa.
CK: Do you follow Ed Whitlock’s career, with all that record-breaking going on? Do you think the effect will be demoralising or motivating to aging runners?
RR: I’m a fan. I can reveal that Ed and I grew up three miles from each other, in Tolworth (Ed) and New Malden (me), modest outer suburbs of London. We didn’t know each other then, but nowadays we sometimes wax sentimental together about Saturday morning kids’ pictures at the Tolworth Odeon and biking on the Kingston Bypass. If it was something in the air, I got only a diluted dose. He is raising the sights of what older people might achieve, and that’s always good. Clearly genetics play a major part – his uncle lived to be Britain’s oldest man, at 108 – but Ed also shares my belief (see above) that it’s best, and still amusing, to keep going. It’s the racing he loves, not the records. I’ve written about him several times (see Roger on Running, March 2013, “New research on older runners – the Whitlock Mystery may soon be solved”). Living in Canada hasn’t changed his Brit reticence. The toughest job in running is interviewing Ed for the crowd at races. It would be easier to beat his times.
CK: A good, humble man.
RR: Yes, though deep underneath there is competitive striver for excellence.
CK: You and your wife Kathrine Switzer seem to be busy speaking at events around the world. Do you get to see much of each other?
RR: When we married, with Kathrine in New York and me in Wellington, New Zealand, we knew it was going to mean setting world commuting records, but we accepted that, rather than either of us give up our career and social and family life. It has worked well. Kathrine’s a New Zealand as well as American citizen, and I’m a permanent US resident. We’re fully part of each other’s family, and everything else. After I retired from University and Kathrine from New York corporate life, it all became easier, and with our present lives of freelance writing and speaking we have for ten years spent more time together than most couples. Quite often, too, we speak as a duo, and like doing that. That said, her celebrity speaking career is going so well at present that, yes, she is away more again, but only for a few days at a time. And we’re always in contact at least once a day, usually more. We still keep the basic pattern of dividing our time between homes in USA and New Zealand.
CK: Is it a nostalgia thing?
RR: Everyone loves Kathrine’s story, with its elements of adventurous damsel, heroic defiance, and victorious combat. And she tells it brilliantly, every time, and draws morals from it about turning negatives to positives, meeting life’s challenges, etc. Many women still find it hard to grasp how things were – quite often, after her story, they will ask “Did you win the women’s race?” – but they still love having someone to thank and admire for giving them something that’s so fulfilling. And the important part of her story comes after the 1967 Boston, with how she really did create opportunities for women around the world, in her work with the Avon circuit and lobbying for the Olympics.
CK: Are you working on a book at this time? Have you published three running books to date?
RR: Yes, four running books, if you count the new 2011 edition of “Heroes and Sparrows,” which has quite a bit of new writing in it. Twenty-plus books in all, with scholarly-literary ones like the “Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature,” and a number of editions of novels by H. G. Wells, and others. I’m just finishing a book called “Spirit of the Marathon,” which is a tie-in with the documentary film, “Spirit of the Marathon II,” and I also have a bigger book well advanced on the running boom – how it happened, what it means. I’d call it a history, but then no one would buy it.
CK: “How it Happened” has a certain appeal. In regards to Spirit of the Marathon, how does your book tie-in with the movie?
RR: Working title for the history is “Creative Energy: how the running movement changed the world.” With “Spirit of the Marathon: the challenge and the journey” we’re waiting on the DVD release of the movie “Spirit of the Marathon II,” as the two will be marketed, as one option, as a package. The book is DVD-size, beautiful visually, but still with substantial writing. It amplifies the themes that a movie can only skim – the running movement, women’s running, Italy’s marathon tradition, Rome’s famous marathons – and gives background to making the movie, and in-depth profiles of all the gurus who contribute to it. Often audiences don’t really know who they are, so here are full assessments of Jeff Galloway, Mary Wittenberg, Paula Radcliffe, etc, and even me.
RR: It’s rigorous as scholarship but accessible and entertaining to every reader, which is the combination I like. My running writing is the same. The model for the series is the “Oxford Companion to English Literature.” It’s a big (600 double-column pages) definitive compilation of lively and informative entries on authors, individual books, topics, publishers, keywords, etc. It’s famous for extending the definitions of “literature,” with extensive coverage of Maori oral and written work, entries on Neil Finn, Romance fiction, a TV soap-opera scriptwriter, the writer of the old BBC radio show ITMA, the movie “The Piano,” etc. I wrote about a quarter of it, including ground-breaking entries on Sports Writing and Jack Lovelock, as a near-mythic figure in NZ culture; and the excellent running writer Norman Harris (“The Lonely Breed” etc). It covers NZ literature from early Maori oral conventions to the latest novels when it was published in 1998.
CK: Do the theorists continue to debate the nature of Maori oral composition and style? Apparently it is rather artful.
RR: As with all non-literate cultures, a lot of verbal creativity went (and still goes) into speech-making and song, though of course there is now also a flourishing written literature in Maori and in English by Maori writers. As Dean responsible for Maori Studies at one time, I learned to observe the main formal speech-making conventions, and in organising things like conferences, I always invited a contribution from the Maori staff, usually at the formal opening. New Zealand shows a lot of respect to Maori as effectively “hosts.” But the “Companion” also covers Pacific cultures in New Zealand. It gave publicity to the little known fact that Tokelauan is legally a third New Zealand language. But I didn’t manage to sneak in any running entries there – there’s not much interest in long-distance running on Pacific islands.
CK: Carl Jung wrote, “A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them.” Obviously Carl Jung never understood a distance runner.
RR: I go a bit Whitlocky confronted with questions like that. Inferno? or only Purgatorio? At one level it’s all a game, just as I sort of believe every weekend that my entire fate depends on how Aston Villa gets on. (Obviously I don’t really believe it, or I’d be in melancholic despair most of the time.) Whether I race well or not is similar, especially at this age. It matters. It doesn’t matter. On the other hand, in terms of feeling happily fulfilled, or disappointed, running is right up there with other things like personal life and career and accomplishment as a writer. I won’t say that breaking the Boston Marathon masters record made me happier than publishing the Oxford Companion or having grandchildren – I don’t rank things like that. But I suppose my mindset is that the best thing in life is to do something well, so succeeding as a runner counts. But it’s not the only thing. On the negative side, in “Running in Literature” I tell how Lord Alfred Douglas expected to win the school cross-country, but got flu and missed the race. “All sorts of appalling misfortunes and miseries have come to me since; but I do not think I ever suffered more in my mind than I did then,” he wrote. That means he suffered more about missing that race than he did becoming a despised social pariah for his involvement with Oscar Wilde. It seems a strange statement, but most runners will understand it.
CK: Are you primarily intrinsically motivated? What about the number one human desire of recognition? As a master would you suggest there has been a shift from one to the other?
RR: A cynical colleague once accused me of running only “for the applause.” I invited him to join us in a two hour run in the rain over steep hills at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, to see how much applause there was. “Recognition” is nice but I see it as a bonus add-on. It’s the satisfaction of doing it as well as possible that has always kept me going. I now choose races like the “Mommas and Poppas 4km for over-60s” at Wappingers Falls NY where no one has a clue who I am and there is absolutely no kudos or recognition. I know that as a writer I should seek more attention, and get on Facebook etc, but I like some privacy, and don’t enjoy that kind of self-promotion. Even this interview is pushing the limits.
CK: How is the knee?
RR: It’s made of titanium and plastic, so when I run it doesn’t hurt a bit. The rest of me hurts like hell. No, it’s allowing me to run and even race again. In the last two years, I’ve got my 5k time down from 30 minutes to 23 minutes. I’m not risking anything much longer, and have reluctantly learned that many cross-country courses are too tricky for my doddery state. I don’t want to trip. But it’s wonderful to race again, however frustrating the pace is. Which I suppose confirms my theory for question number one: that I simply haven’t grown up.