The Marathon Man

A former marathoner sings the praises of a book on distance runner Buddy Edelen
August 16, 1992

Let an old marathoner commend to you a surefooted book. A Cold Clear Day, the Athletic Biography of Buddy Edelen, by Frank Murphy, moved me with what I didn't know about an important American marathoner. Then—and this was far more difficult—it moved me with what I knew perfectly well about runners under stress, holding themselves together, reduced and revealed by the longest Olympic distance.

Edelen was the first American marathoner to train according to the simplest, hardest truth of our race: It goes to the swift. The marathon's history is not simply a story of runners building greater endurance. It is a story of how men learned to sustain ever-higher speeds over the 26 miles and 385 yards. The Europeans led the way. Finland's Hannes Kolehmainen, the 1912 Olympic champion at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, used his track skills to win the 1920 Antwerp Olympic marathon in 2:32:36. The lesson was affirmed when Czechoslovakia's Emil Zàtopek won the 5,000, the 10,000 and the marathon at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. His marathon time was 2:23:04. Eight years later, in Rome, Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila ran almost eight minutes faster, 2:15:16. "Bikila used his speed tactically," writes Murphy, "by picking a moment at 40 kilometers [with about 1¼ miles to go in the race] and moving. In so doing, he changed the marathon from run to race."

Yet American runners didn't seem to get it. Most of the post-World War II U.S. distance men gravitated to the marathon because its daunting length let them escape from the milers and three-milers they couldn't beat on the track. They gloried, perversely, in being called plodders. The best American finish in the four Olympic marathons from 1948 through 1960 was Vic Dyrgall's 13th in 1952, about 10 minutes behind Zàtopek.

Then came Edelen. A habitual over-worker, he won the 1958 Big Ten two-mile title in 9:03 for Minnesota, and after graduating in 1960 he moved to England to race and train. He balanced 30-mile training runs with interval workouts of as many as 30 hard 400-meter repetitions. He raced both cross-country and track distances as short as 800 meters. And in June 1963 he won the Windsor to Chiswick marathon in 2:14:28, becoming the first American in almost 30 years to hold the world best for the distance.

I was then an Oregon sophomore, a two-miler with dreams of marathoning. So I took my own 30-mile runs, imagining that I was hanging with Edelen, that an Olympic stadium was looming. Six years later, marathoning had so advanced that when I broke Edelen's American record in 1969, with a time of 2:13:27 in Fukuoka, Japan, I placed only seventh.

I mention this to establish the right to say that Murphy's reconstruction of Edelen's thoughts while running the 1964 U.S. Olympic Trials marathon in Yonkers, N.Y., is both believable and affecting. The temperature was 91°, genuinely life threatening. The course was hilly. Edelen moved away from the pack at 10 miles and held to an unrelenting yet always-tempted-to-relent frame of mind.

In the last miles he composed his own obituary, listing himself "after today" as a member of the 1964 Olympic team. He yelled, "How much farther?" at his coach, Fred Wilt, with such unexpected force that he lamented the waste of energy. He drilled himself by thinking, You are one tough bastard. Say that over again and say it slow. Say it one word at a time. You...are...one...tough...bastard.

Edelen won the trials in 2:24:26. He had driven himself so hard, fighting down doubt after doubt, that he finished an incredible (and unnecessary) 20 minutes ahead of the next man. Five days later, unwilling to rest, he ran 20 440s, and the day after that he felt the first tightening from the sciatica that would end his career. Running in pain all the way, Edelen finished sixth in the Tokyo Olympic marathon five months later. By rights he could have been second to Bikila.

Yet Edelen's demonstration of what an American runner could do produced an outpouring of followers. Billy Mills and Bob Schul won the 10,000 and the 5,000, respectively, in Tokyo. They inspired Frank Shorter (who in 1972 became the first American to win the Olympic marathon since 1908), Gerry Lindgren, Marty Liquori and Steve Prefontaine. They, in turn, inspired Bill Rodgers, Craig Virgin and Alberto Salazar. So Edelen stands alone. But none of the rest of us does.

It's fitting that you have to show a little gumption to get this book. For a copy, send $14.45 to Wind Sprint Press, P.O. Box 412074, Kansas City, Mo. 64141.

PHOTOGERRY CRANHAMEdelen changed the face of U.S. marathoning. ILLUSTRATION

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