Chatting with a champion: Q&A with Amby Burfoot

When I started running I picked up this book called The Principles of Running. I enjoyed the sport, but since all my friends questioned my sanity, I decided I should read up. The book was more of a page turner for me than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was, and before I knew it I was tearing up with inspiration. I though, “this guy Amby knows his stuff!” Soon after that I was entered in my first marathon, with plans to incorporate running into the rest of my life (as long as I’m healthy).

Amby has accomplished quite a bit during his running career. Not only is he Editor at Large for Runner’s World Magazine (which just happens to be one of the largest running resources in the world), but he’s won the Boston Marathon (1968), competed in the Manchester Road Race 48 times, and I’m pretty sure he’s the only person to have won at Boston and partied at Woodstock.

The other day I had the opportunity to sit down and talk about one of the greatest races in the sport of running with Amby, the Boston Marathon. Counting my blessings, I sent him over a lengthy list of questions. His responses have given me a perma-grin (that’s what happens to me when I can’t stop being excited), and so I’ve listed our Q&A below.

Kathy S.: I’ve interviewed a lot of runners lately, but it’s not often that I get to interview a runner who doubles as a journalist. As a running journalist, what’s the funniest story you can tell me about what happened in an interview with a runner?
Amby Burfoot: Funny is a tough one. Neither the journalists nor the runners are particularly funny in the pre- and post-race scenario. I will also recall interviewing Rosie Ruiz after her “win” in the 1980 Boston Marathon. We all knew it was impossible; she was completely clueless about anything related to serious running. But the race officials were very cautious about doing the right thing, so it took them more than a week to DQ her.

KS: And what’s the most inspirational?
AB: It wasn’t exactly an interview but I ran the last 23 miles of the Marine Corps Marathon with Oprah Winfrey, and that was the single most inspirational performance I’ve seen close up. From the social-cultural perspective, including her background as an overweight African American woman, to all the attention she had to endure en route, it was an amazing example of sheer personal determination.

KS: You have a lot of running wisdom, what’s your #1 lesson for runners today?
AB: Running is a sport with multiple rewards. It’s the job of the individual runner to find the ones that are most important to him or her. It’s definitely about speed, or qualifying for Boston, or setting PRs. If that’s the only interest you have, your career is over after 5 to 7 years. But once you latch onto the other rewards, you can keep going for decades.

KS: You’re sort of a running pioneer. In today’s distance running world, how do you stay aware, fresh, and up to date with what’s going on in running news?
AB: I’m not one to be preoccupied with this. If I were 20, I suppose I’d be reading and tweeting and social networking all day long. But I’m past that point. I recognize that I can’t keep up, and that others are better at this sort of thing than I am. There are a couple of young reporters at Runner’s World and Running Times who are better at this than me, so I try to stand aside and let them take the lead. It’s their time, not mine–certainly in the news reporting arena.

KS: It’s obvious that community is important to you. How do you feel about online communities of athletes? Do you think there’s a way for these communities to have the same type of relationships/friendships as communities in “real life”?
AB: I’ve been a hippie searching for a commune all my life. Never found the right one, but I haven’t given up. I think online communities are hugely important, even though I’m not a big participant. I think that online community is one of the best tools we have to get people living heathier lives. I’m talking about the battles against obesity and inactivity. So many people need help and reinforcement in these areas, and online communities can help. The challenge is to fit the community to the needs of the greater society. We don’t need exclusive communities; we need helpful, welcoming communities. I suppose regionalism will become very important. I haven’t kept track of how well social networks are doing doing in their regionalism efforts. Eventually, people want to have “meet ups” as well as digital posts.

KS: What’s the single most important thing running has taught you about life?
AB: That I have enough intelligence, discipline, determination, and consistency to be successful in many different pursuits. Maybe that lesson was already there for the grabbing when I was an adolescent, but I seemed to learn it through running rather than other pathways.

KS: I don’t want to give away your age, but since I’m a woman runner, I have to ask: what was it like when women started running and beating men? What did you think when K. Switzer ran the Boston Marathon?
AB: Well, I was there when Kathrine ran Boston, and I remember the day very clearly. Actually, this is one of my better laugh lines when I speak in various places. I make the point that we male runners were always supportive of the women, which Kathrine often notes in her talks. I often say something like: “How stupid do I look? I was a skinny, nerdy, long distance runner who couldn’t get a date to save my life. Of course I wanted women to start running–the more the better.”

I don’t think we can compare Kara to Kathrine and Bobbi Gibb and Nina Kuscsik and the true pioneers. Kara is a remarkable and very likable athlete. But she’ s not a pioneer. She’s reaping the rewards of the sport that the pioneers helped create.

I don’t think Kara’s very concerned about beating any boys at Boston. She’s focused on the East Africans she’ll be doing battle with. It’s a major challenge for any American marathoner to race the East Africans, but Kara and her camp (Alberto Salazar and others) are preparing her to go for the gold. It will be very interesting and exciting to see how far they get in the next 16 months (to London in August 2012).

KS: How many times have you run the Manchester Race on Thanksgiving?
AB: Forty eight. With luck, this year will be 49. As you might guess, I’m very interested in consecutive year running streaks. I think there are two guys in the country who hit 50 in their races last year. So they’re two years up on me. But I’m hoping to keep going as long as I’m healthy.

KS: How’s your training today? How many miles are you running, etc.?
AB: For the last 25 years, I’ve run about 25 miles a week. Then on March 1 of this year, I jumped to about 70 by slowing my everyday pace by 60 seconds/mile. It’s a little experiment organized around the fact that I hit a new age group, 65, this summer. Also, I’ll probably stop fulltime work at RW this fall or next Jan.

KS: Looking back on your career, What’s the most memorable marathon you’ve ever run?
AB: Of course Boston in 1968. It feels as fresh as yesterday. And then the very slow 6:15 I ran and walked last October with my wife Cristina, son Dan, my brother and my brother in law. Dan’s not a runner; he’s a big chested gym rat. I was stunned when he said he wanted to run the marathon with me.

KS: What is your opinion on the new Boston qualifying times and registration process?
AB: I wrote some semi-critical blog posts, but I actually think they came up with the best system they could, given the hole they had dug for themselves. What makes me most sad is that an important organization like Boston allowed itself to get into such a big hole. They said they didn’t see it coming, but everyone else did. For several years. They should have found a pro-active solution. The good news is that I don’t think they’ll let themselves get in this position again. I hope they’ll find ways to modestly increase the field size in the future.

KS: You posted a question to your blog readers a few weeks ago asking for opinions about why so many people are able to qualify for Boston these days. What was the best response? Why do you think so many people are qualifying for Boston?
AB: There were many good responses. In the end, I think it’s mainly that the number of marathoners has increased dramatically, and therefore the number of fast marathoners has also increased. I had assumed that many of the new marathoners were 4- and 5-hour runners, which is mostly true I imagine, but there are still enough at the top of the pyramid to increase the numbers there.

KS: If you had control over the way B.A.A. handles qualification and registration, what would it look like?
AB: The answer to that isn’t a matter of logistics and procedures, it’s a matter of philosophies. Everyone younger than me considers Boston the race you have to qualify for. But when I first ran Boston, you didn’t have to qualify, so I have a different feeling for what Boston is. I consider that Boston is Mecca and that every marathoner should have the chance to visit, to pay their respects, and to experience the magical run from Hopkinton to Boston. How to engineer this with today’s 500,000 American marathoners? I don’t know. I haven’t tried to work out the mathematics, because it’s not my place to decide. But I suppose I might set an even higher qualifying standard for half the field, and allow the other half to be open by lottery with the limit that you can only get one lottery entry in your lifetime.

KS: What was going through your head as you passed the Citco sign in 1968?
AB: Total panic. I had run myself off my feet and felt that I was staggering down the road at 12:00 pace. I figured the entire field might pass me at any moment. I couldn’t believe that my good fortune would last to the finish line. And when I looked back to see how I was doing, I couldn’t tell, because there was no crowd control, and the spectators filled the road behind me as soon as I passed through the narrow gauntlet they had allowed to open.

KS: What is your advice for American distance runner, Ryan Hall as he toes the line for the third time in Boston this year?
AB: I feel for Ryan. There’s such a spotlight shining on him, and there has been for 4 years now. The expectations are so high, and the critics so harsh–the down side of social networks–when he doesn’t live up to the impossible hopes. I actually think Ryan has as good an attitude as I’ve ever encountered, and he expresses it so well every time he’s asked. You have to go to the start believing this could be your day. If you don’t believe, you certainly can’t achieve.

KS: In your heyday as a runner, your crew was known as the outsiders. You were pretty much a group of cowboys in short shorts, and you had a lot of fun! What do you think of the seriousness of today’s Boston? Do you think we can inject some fun back into it? Or… if the fun is still there, what is it?
AB: Cowboys? Not me. I was a naive, smalltown, liberally educated wuss. I barely believed in my own abilities. That’s just who I was. Certainly, Boston had many colorful characters in those days, but I don’t think I was one. I was way too serious. In general, I don’t think elite running is much fun. I always tell people not to envy the elites much. They train for 6 months for one damn race where they hope to beat a PR that is pretty much untouchable (if they’ve been running for a few years.) So almost every race is an exercise in humility and falling short. You have to be an incredible optimist to keep going back and trying again. The thing is, most of the time you don’t break the tape with that big smile and pumping fist in the air. You limp across the finish a little slower than you hoped. And then you have to start over again, and hope for something different the next time. I’m happy to be a journalist. It’s tougher to keep score of our efforts. There’s no stopwatch in the background.

KS: How many times have you been kissed by the Wellesley girls?
AB: Exactly once, the last time I ran Boston in 2008. It was wonderful, and a friend from NPR took a photo with his new iPhone and immediately uploaded it to their web site. In my future Bostons, I intend to collect enough kisses to make up for all the years I missed.

KS: What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you while running the Boston marathon?
AB: The night before the 1967 Boston, I decided to load on apple butter. Don’t ask me why; I have no idea. I felt a primal urge and I figured I should follow it. Bad idea. I had to stop to use service station restrooms twice–at about 12 and 17 miles. I figure I lost 5 minutes or so, because I had to ask the people for the key to their restroom, sprint around back, unlock the thing, yada yada. The sad part is that I was in excellent shape and running really strong when I wasn’t sitting. Due to the two stops, I passed several other runners twice on the course. They didn’t see me veer off to the side, they only saw me come hoofin past them. They were like, “What are you doing, Amby, running laps or something?” That was my last apple butter meal before a marathon.

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