The Man Who Scaled His Own Everest

When news of my
old friend Ted Corbitt’s passing reached my den at the beginning of January, I
was in the midst of digesting the feast of journalistic reminiscence that
followed Sir Edmund Hillary’s death. Headlines continued to distort Sir
Edmund’s history-making achievement, I was thinking. No mountain‰ÛÓeven, or
especially, Everest (whose very name in our lexicon had been Anglicized)‰ÛÓhad
ever been, or ever would be, “conquered” by even the most impressive human.


And why was
Hillary’s fellow-climber, Tenzing Norgay,
still relegated to a second-place step to the summit?  Such thoughts amounted to an old guy’s nit-picking, however.
The “humble New Zealand bee-keeper” surely deserved every accolade he received.


And there was
the perfect association: America’s Ted Corbitt, who tried to retire from his
Everestian‰ÛÓor would “Sisyphusian” be better?‰ÛÓathletic labors in 1993, after
logging 199 marathons and ultramarathons, was Sir Edmund’s counterpart
in self-effacement. His personal accomplishments break the limits of workaday


The next time
you run the New York Road Runners Club
, reflect on Ted Corbitt’s legacy. For it was Corbitt who designed
and first measured the race’s trans-borough course. It would have required an
ice axe to chip the fact out of the man, though. The late Fred Lebow has been accorded credit as the event’s founder. Lebow
called Corbitt “the father of American distance running.”


Corbitt’s life
reads like the fulfillment of the American dream. There were nightmarish
aspects, too. Consider the odds against a young man of color, born to a farming
life in Dunbarton, SC on January 31, 1919, becoming his native country’s
pioneer in a far realm assumed to be the white man’s province.


When young
Corbitt entered the University of Cincinnati, Ohio’s southernmost city kept its
old racial lines starkly drawn. Ironically, Ohio’s most famous citizen, 1936
Olympic star Jesse Owens, was the
being invited to race against baseball’s Negro League players‰ÛÓnever against
white pros. Writer Marc Bloom, in his 1999 book, “Run with the
Champions,” described the restrictions on the area’s black athletes at that
time: “(They) faced racism at every turn. The squad could not compete at
certain schools, like Kentucky, which barred blacks from campus. On bus trips,
the athletes were denied access to hotels and restaurants. At one cross-country
meet in Ohio, Corbitt ended up sleeping on a cot in a school gym.”


Such a hostile
environment might have driven other men from the sport. Young Ted Corbitt
turned to the more racially tolerant road racing sector. Upon graduating, he
moved to New York City and joined the forward-looking Pioneer Club, headed by a jovial black undertaker named Joe Yancey.


He pursued his
studies to become a physical therapist. In the city’s bustling racial mix he
found his un-compromised place. Where other men might seek the shortest
mechanized transits from home to work, Corbitt plotted out the longest
pedestrian routes doable. Soon he was running to and from his Bronx apartment
to Van Cortlandt Park.


As his
familiarity with the city became something like a love-bond, he began to
enlarge his commute into Manhattan. Sometimes he would run all the way to
Battery Park before heading up to his physiotherapist’s parlor on East 24th
Street. Eight or ten hours later he would run more or less directly home‰ÛÓfor a
typical workday distance of 25-30 miles.


In 1951 he ran
his first marathon, in Boston, placing 15th. The famous race would call him
back for many years, along with other signal marathons, like the Yonkers
(NY) National AAU Championship
, which he won in 1954.  But, though he represented the United
States in the Helsinki Olympic Marathon (1952), where he finished a
disappointing 44th, his imagination had been captured by the great ultra races
that were held mainly in England. To prepare for them he raised his weekly mileage
to upwards of 200 miles, occasionally touching 300. He competed at distances
ranging from the marathon to 50 miles.


Such extreme
tests baffled ordinary mortals. How could one overcome the deadening monotony
of circling a one-quarter-mile track for up to 24 hours? How to overcome the
pain? What could possibly lure a person into such an endeavor? To such
questions the slight, shy and soft-spoken athlete would reply: “I find these
races personally fulfilling. Running is a simple, uncomplicated activity. But it’s
one that gives me satisfaction. It makes my legs want to go. Of course it’s
difficult. It involves a commitment to suffering. Sometimes, when the pain
grows too great, I press my thumb against my index finger, and that dulls the
pain. It’s a trick I learned from the Australian coach Percy Cerutty.”


Not until
entering his forties did Corbitt discover the realm of sublime suffering that
awaited him on the other side of the Atlantic. He placed second twice in
England’s famous London-to-Brighton 52.5-mile race, thereby etching an
American name into world ultra consciousness. He was 48 when he completed 100
miles on an English track in 13:33.06, setting an American record. On the same
track five years later, he placed third in a 24-hour race, covering 134.7


Home again, he
began a unique annual Labor Day celebration, which would become a personal
tradition spanning decades. 
Depositing a sandwich in his apartment building mailbox at street level,
he proceeded to circle Manhattan Island twice, stopping midway, briefly, to eat
the sandwich, for a total distance of 62-plus miles.


Some Corbitt
watchers have opined that his Spartan habits, while ostensibly healthy, led
inadvertently to the lung problems that came upon him in his mid-fifties and
eventually brought his Herculean career to a close. For all the oxygen his
running consumed, they said, much of it was breathed in the city’s toxic air.


Ted Corbitt was
never one to be stopped in his tracks. Though he announced his retirement at
74, he emerged in 2001, at age 81, to walk
240 miles in a six-day race
. He didn’t let things go at that, however. The
following year he repeated the test, to put up a new mark of 303 miles


Talking about
the man with my friend, runner/writer Gail Waesche-Kislevitz recently, I’m left
with her luminous anecdote: “One day in his late life, Ted was confronted by a
man who introduced himself as a competitor in the 1952 Olympic Marathon trials
race. The man said, ‘Ted, I’ve carried this burden with me through all these
years. I was part of an attempt to box you in during that race. You see, as
white athletes, we figured it wasn’t a black man’s business to represent the
United States in a distance event. But you broke free of us and qualified
anyway. I’m just terribly sorry we did that un-sportsmanlike thing to you.’ And
you know what Ted answered? ‘Hey, it’s all water over the dam. It didn’t hurt


In addition to his prodigious running accomplishments, Corbitt
founded the New York Road Running Club and was the second President of the
RRCA. He was also a pioneer in the accurate measurement of courses. His 1964
book “Measuring Road Running Courses” became the benchmark resource of the time
and the foundation for certification. He was 87 at his passing]



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