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For 69-year-old Amby Burfoot, it's too soon to stop running

Decorated American marathoner Amby Burfoot talks about his first Boston Marathon, running and aging, workouts and more. 

AmbyBurfoot is one of the best known and most insightful running and fitness writers around. For many years he was the editor and chief of Runner’s World and he was also a terrific runner who won the Boston Marathon in 1968. We keep in touch and caught up a couple of weeks ago after he finished the Boston Marathon in 4:17 at the age of 69. 

Michael Joyner: How many Boston Marathons have you run, and when was the first?

Amby Burfoot: This year was my 22nd Boston. I ran my first Boston in 1965 as a 17-year-old freshman in college, and finished 25th in 2:34:09. In the 1980s, I began repeating Boston every fifth anniversary of my win in 1968. My 2013 Boston was interrupted by the bombings, which made all of us want to run the “comeback Boston” of 2014, I decided to see if I could run five straight Bostons leading up to 2018, the 50th anniversary of my victory.


MJ: A lot people who ran fast when they were young avoid participating in races as they age even if they stay in shape. Many of these folks will tell you they have a hard time being middle of the pack. What has the transition from front of the pack to the back been like for you?

AB: That’s exactly what everyone told me in 1976 when I transitioned overnight from 100 miles a week to 25 miles a week. But I love the middle of the pack. It’s much more fun than battling for the top spots. I used to put a lot of personal, internal pressure on myself to win races. These days I still gauge my times against various age standards and other runners, but I don’t worry when I fall short.

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MJ: Speaking of motivation you have just written a terrific new book, First Ladies of Running, about 22 pioneers of women’s distance running from back in the 1960s and 70s. It is a diverse group but were you able to find a common thread that motivated these women?

AB: I’d say the common threads were that the First Ladies all loved running for the simple physical and mental relief it afforded them. Also, that they wanted the chance to challenge themselves in competition just to see how far they could extend their horizons. They didn’t race to beat others or to beat certain times, they raced to see what they could become.

MJ: We live in a world of nutrition, gels, heart rate monitors, fancy shoes and other gadgets. Are the elite athletes of today overthinking it? Is the average participant overthinking things?

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AB: Well, today’s elite marathoners are East Africans of course, and I don’t believe they are overthinking or drinking too much Gatorade, or counting their stride frequency. So it’s possible to be world class without having an exercise physiology lab next door. I’m not a nihilist when it comes to various running products—just a late adopter. And I always remind myself that it’s possible, maybe even preferable, to run simple.


MJ: What has been the best change since you started racing and what bugs you the most?

AB: I enjoy everything that makes it easy to gauge distance and time, from chips in laces and race numbers to GPS and internet mapping. I’m a bit of a data freak, so I enjoy knowing that stuff. Still, the most basic $9 digital chronograph from the early 1970s was the best advance. And I love breathable socks versus the water-logged cotton socks we wore fifty years ago. What bugs me the most? The first thing that comes to mind is runners pushing their kids in baby joggers during races. It just seems wrong—and dangerous—on several fronts.

MJ: You were famous for your tough training schedules. What is the best workout you ever did? Most miles in a week?

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AB: I was very obsessive, very structured, very disciplined. It was relatively easy for me to run twice a day, almost every day. Also, I was better at slow miles so I focused on that rather than the fast miles that might have made me a better athlete. I topped out at 175 miles in one week, a month before I won Boston in 1968. Still we all gauged our best workouts by the standards of interval training on a track. I once did 60 x 200m indoors in about 33 seconds each, with a 200m recovery. Outdoors, Jeff Galloway and I several times did 40 x 400m in about 72-75 seconds with a 100m jog.

MJ: Not to jinx you, but John A. Kelly finished 58 Bostons. Tell me about your streak at the Manchester five-miler.

AB: I recognized a long time ago that I wasn’t aiming to beat John A. Kelley’s records at Boston. If I’m going for a longevity record, it would be at Manchester, the Connecticut five-miler that I have finished the last 53 years in a row. The single-race record is held by the Dipsea Demon, Jack Kirk, who finished 67 Dipseas in a row, with two early-life victories. I don’t believe I will break Jack’s record, but I can’t see any reason to stop running Manchester.

Burfoot left it with two interesting observations. He always tries to credit his high school coach and mentor John J. Kelley—1957 Boston winner, two-time Olympic marathoner, eight-straight national marathon titles (Yonkers). And finally, he concluded with a quote from Dr. Walter Bortz about exercise: “It’s never too late to start, and it’s always too soon to stop.”

Michael Joyner, is an expert in human performance at the Mayo Clinic, these views are his own.  You can follow him on twitter @DrMJoyner