I first had the pleasure of meeting Joe Henderson at the Des Moines Marathon in 2006. We spoke for a small bit of time at the expo and I could tell Joe had forgotten more about running than I knew. As the former chief editor of Runner's World magazine this makes perfect sense. When he cheered for me pacing my 3:10 group through the race the next day and told them they were running with a guy who knew how to pace I was beyond flattered. I most assuredly have gotten much better at doing that and also at learning about how the sport got to where it is today, more often than not by picking Joe’s brain.
Joe currently writes for Marathon & Beyond magazine and since 1982 has penned a weekly column entitled "Joe Henderson's Running Commentary". Born in Peoria Illinois, the 66 year-old runner now coaches others in Eugene, Oregon to succeed at their own pace.
I recently sat down with Joe (virtually) and asked him a few questions.
Dane R: The first and most obvious question to ask, Joe, is how did you get involved in running?
Joe Henderson: Two answers here. The factual answer is that, at 14, I sought success at some sport. Lacking size, speed and skill, I was mediocre at best in the other two sports that my school offered, football and basketball. The last one left to try was track. Here, I soon discovered that my lack of size wasn't a handicap but maybe a plus. Here, persistence counted for more than talent. I found some low-level success, reaching the state meet as a freshman, and was hooked.
The better answer might be that I was born to this. My father and two of his brothers were college track athletes (as sprinters and jumpers) who remained lifelong fans of the sport. I was exposed to it early and often. Distance running, however, was my own idea. While my father and uncles fully supported my habit, they wondered how I'd acquired it.
DR: Were there any particular running figures who you looked up to (famous or not) in your formative years?
JH: Too many to name here. One reason for writing my memoir series (of three books, now being serialized on my website) is to credit as many of them as possible. The first and foremost was my high school coach, Dean Roe. Without him, I wouldn't be talking with you now. None of what happened to me in this wonderful sport would have happened. He picked me back up, literally and otherwise, after I'd dropped out of my first mile race -- and I thought I'd made an early exit from the sport that day. Mr. Roe (we always called him "Mr.," never "Coach") said, "You owe me one. Finish the race next week, then we can talk about if you still want to quit." Finishing made me want to finish faster next time, and for hundreds of "next times" that followed.
Other early heroes visited me from afar. They dropped into the mailbox in my Iowa hometown, by way of Track & Field News, Long Distance Log and any running book I could find. This reading not only informed and inspired my running; it also made me want to write about the sport -- which I began doing for a local newspaper as a high school senior.
DR: What are some of the most memorable big-time running events you have witnessed personally?
JH: Four races stand out as the best I've ever seen. First was the 1972 Olympic 10,000, where Lasse Viren was tripped in midrace, then got up and won in world-record time. Second was the marathon at the Munich Games, where not only did Frank Shorter win but Kenny Moore placed fourth and Jack Bacheler ninth -- the high point of U.S. marathoning, then or since. Third was the Alberto Salazar/Dick Beardsley race in Boston, 1982, because I knew them both and admired each equally. Fourth was Joan Benoit's 1984 win, not at the first Olympic Marathon for women but in the Trials she had to run to get to Los Angeles -- 17 days after her knee surgery.
DR: Steve Prefontaine is often referred to as the James Dean of running. Is the sport lacking someone with Prefontaine’s fire these days or was he more a product of his time and today’s top runners need to have a different sort of appeal?
JH: Thanks to Nike and to several filmmakers, "Pre" is even better known and more worshipped today than he was in his time. The U.S. had many great distance runners in that era, some with equal or better competitive credentials. (Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori and Frank Shorter come to mind, and Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson a little later.) Runners didn't have to look very hard to find American heroes then. They do now. Times are tougher for U.S. athletes in a running world dominated by Africans. Unless Americans win or medal, they have a hard time making household names for themselves no matter how fiery their personality.
DR: You have said something akin to how you would rather see 50,000 people run a 7 minute mile than see 50,000 people watch one guy run a 3:50. Is today’s current running boom heartening to you?
JH: I couldn't be happier. My writing has always aimed more at getting people to run rather filling stadiums and roadsides with winner-worshippers. Doing means a lot more than viewing, to each individual and to a country where activity isn't the norm. This isn't to say that I don't care about the winners. I admire their work as much as anyone, but have nothing to teach them and little to say about them that dozens of other writers haven't also said. The strength of the U.S. sport today isn't how many (or few) of our runners we can count at the front in top races but in how many of our people we can field from midpack on back. No country has more.
DR: We have Chirunning, barefoot running and many other types of ideas that are a little on the fringe, so to speak. Do you see merit in these running ideas or are we potentially complicating a simple idea?
JH: In my time as a runner I've seen lots of trends and fads come and go, and have tried more than a few. My test of any new technique or product: If it's still around in 10 years, it has proven its value. If it works, it lasts. If it fails, it disappears.
For me now, running is at its best (read: most lasting) at its simplest. The more complicated our life becomes, the more we need a simple and low-tech outlet. Running, the most primitive activities, can be one of those antidotes.
DR: Why do you feel that even though there are probably 40 million runners in America, the sport lacks a certain cache amongst the television viewing public? Are too many runners out there actually running to watch broadcasts of other runs?
JH: This is a two-sided problem. On the one side, few enough runners know enough or care enough about the runners competing upfront to tune in. On the other side, the broadcasters focus almost exclusively on the first few men and women, and ignore the event as most of us runners would see it. Unless more runners become fans, or unless the shows widen their focus, the ratings won't rise enough to create a market for more running coverage.
DR: What, if any, drawbacks do you see to the current “completion-only” mindset of many runners in the marathon?
JH: I don't see this as a problem. We have at least as many runners as we ever did who are trying to reach the Olympic Trials, trying to qualify for Boston, trying to run as fast as they can. It's just that they're vastly outnumbered in fields that have grown from the back -- with just-to-finish runners, run/walkers and pure walkers. Where's the harm (except possibly from people who think they paid for the right to ignore cutoff times or to enter without training)? The slow make races bigger, which means better perks for all. The slow make the fast look faster.
DR: You now coach marathoners with a 99% success rating of finishing. What has been most rewarding about coaching these runners?
JH: Watching runners improve. This can mean dropping from an 10-minute mile to an eight during a school term. It can mean setting a PR for distance in every long run of their first marathon training program. It can mean doubling or tripling the distance that they can run at a certain pace. It can mean starting a class only to get P.E. credit before moving on to the next activity, or starting a marathon program "only to finish, once" and winding up a lifer in this sport. As I did.
DR: You wish to run a marathon in every decade of your life. Do you have the marathon chosen for your 70th birthday year?
JH: This isn't to say that I've run just one per decade, or that the next one won't come until age 70 . I hope to run others before long before 2013 but can't even say what and when the next will be, let alone the 70s race. I've learned over the years, and especially in the past two years with their illness scare, not to look too far up the road. I’m happy to get up and take an unspectacular run most days.
Anything more is a bonus.