Retro: John J. Kelley on the Father of American Distance Running

(Ed. note:A recent request passed on to us from Ted Corbitt’s son, Gary, reminded us of “The father of American distance running.” After Ted Corbitt’s passing at age 87, we received a bounced issue of NER back in the mail. The name was Ted Corbitt and the address was in the Bronx. We never knew the honor, or we would have touted it shamelessly.

In the March/April 2008 issue of NER, 1957 Boston Marathon champion John J. Kelley wrote of his friend in his regular Retro Running column, reprised below.)




The Man Who Scaled his Own Everest



by John J. Kelley




Illustration by Andy Yelenak



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—even, or especially, Everest (whose very name in our lexicon had been Anglicized)—had 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—or would “Sisyphusian” be better?—athletic 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 imagination.




The next time you run the New York Road Runners Club Marathon, 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.”




Kathrine Switzer at the NYC Marathon with the original course designer and certifier. Photo courtesy of the Ted Corbitt archives.



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—never 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—for 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 miles.




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 me.’”




[Ed. note: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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