Tuesday, July 19, 2016

V.1 #36 Ted Corbitt: The Father of American Distance Running (Part 1)

Ted Corbitt – The Father of American Distance Running (Part 1)

This blog about Ted Corbitt is the second of five relevant to individuals with local ties that accomplished ultra activities to an extraordinary degree. However, simply noting and confining ourselves to describe Ted by his endurance achievements is like characterizing the 1975 Reds by saying they had a good outfield. Ted Corbitt was a copious contributor to the sport of running in many domains. The first part of this particular blog concentrates on his distance achievements to be succeeded by an outline of his life plus a listing of his other contributions. I want to thank Bill Schnier, who previously coached for 33 years the University of Cincinnati’s track and cross-country teams, for supplying numerous facts, many of which came from the book “Corbitt.”

Ted the Racer
Corbitt was not always a distance runner. He possessed a few fast twitch muscles and launched his running career as a sprinter. While in school, he ran 9.9 seconds for the 100-yard dash.  He held a local AAU 440 record that was not beaten until 1950 by Bob MacVeigh.

After graduating from Woodward High School, he moved on to UC that fall.  In 1939 Ted competed for the Bearcat freshman team, but they only had one meet, where he won the 880, mile, and was one of the triumphant mile relay quartet. Unfortunately, prevailing racial discrimination prevented him from running in other contests.

He won a four-mile AAU cross-country race during the fall of his sophomore year. Unfortunately, his second spring was much the same as his inaugural year where segregation and little competition caused him to train on his own.  However, he did win a two-mile race for UC.

At an interview, he lamented that, “The color line was drawn, even in some of the meets in Cincinnati, so I could not participate in them.  In the Midwest there were places like Illinois and Indiana with track meets, but I was a little reluctant to take part in them because I did not know what type of reception I would get and what problems I would have getting a place to stay and getting something to eat.”, Fortunately Oliver Nikoloff, the long time UC staff member, returned as the coach during his junior year. Nikoloff reinstituted cross-country, although they only had an abbreviated one-race season.  In track Coach Nikoloff eliminated segregationist teams from their schedule and the color barrier was eventually dropped.
During his senior cross-country season, Ted ran a total of 66 miles and had three races.  He trained on his own during the off-season while receiving ideas from Indiana's coach, Billy Hayes.

By his senior year track season he was the most versatile member of the UC team - the best in the sprints, 440, and distances.  He had hoped to specialize in the 440 but a pulled hamstring shattered those aspirations. However, he was able to earn the coveted varsity letter C in both track and cross-country. 

His persistence and love of the sport caused him to be the only team member to continue running after leaving UC.  Another trait that preoccupied Corbitt’s entire life was his willingness to be an experimenter. He was interested in investigating the boundaries of what the human body was capable of achieving. For this reason he switched away from the shorter distances in order to confirm whether he was capable of enduring the challenges created by the marathon distance.  At age 31 he set about training for his first marathon, the 1951 Boston Marathon.

It appears that he found his athletic calling when he started exploring the distance events. Achievements started billowing in like the surf’s repeating breakers:

In 1952 he ran in the US Marathon Olympic Trials and qualified for the Helsinki Olympics. In Ted’s mind he ran a disappointing Olympic race as he finished 44th. However, with this Olympic status came the distinction of becoming the University of Cincinnati’s first track and field Olympian. He also was the first African-American to represent the USA in the Olympic Marathon. Now, as he put it, “He bit the distance bug.”

Corbitt posing before the statue of Paavo Nurmi.  The Helsinki Olympic Stadium is in the background.

In 1954 he won the USA National Marathon Championship.

For two consecutive years, 1956 and 1957, he garnered the National 30 Km, about 18 and three-quarter miles, Championship titles.

In 1959 he organized, ran, and won the first 30-mile run in New York City. Ted’s last running race in Cincinnati was in 1959 (Ted walked the Thanksgiving Day Race in 2004) when, on a very hot day, he easily took first in a 30 km race at the Lunken Airport Playfield against stiff national competition.

At this point in his racing career, Corbitt felt that he had conquered the marathon distance. He was eager for new competitive challenges.  In 1959, he helped organize New York’s first ultramarathon.

In 1962 he conquered the 52-mile London-to-Brighton double marathon the first of five times.

He set a USA record for 15 miles on the track in 1966.

He won the National 50-mile Championship in 1968.

The next year, 1969, he set a USA record for 100 miles on the track.

Extending his repertoire, he ran 134.7 miles within 24 hours to create another USA record in 1973.
He established American records for 50 and 100 miles.
Bronchial asthma, at age 54, ended his competitive running career. Like a person with high cholesterol who was told to change his diet, his appetite to participate in events remained steadfast. So, he embraced walking.  Existing age group records were vulnerable. At 81, he walked, with interludes for sleep, 240 miles in a six-day race. The following year, in the same race in 2002, he set the world 83-age record by covering 303 miles. Then, at age 84, Ted walked 68.93 miles on the 30th anniversary of his 1973 USA record of 134.7 miles in a 24-hour race.

Ted the Trainer
How did he accomplish these feats?  His training regimens were legendary. He lived in the Bronx, near Van Cortlandt Park.  Most days he would run, mostly on the Henry Hudson Parkway, from his apartment to his work at the International Center for the Disabled in Lower Manhattan.  Often he would have another session at noon.  Then, he would retrace his steps and jog home after work.  When he was in serious marathon training, he would start the day by heading north to Yonkers, then south down the Henry Hudson Parkway to Battery Park and finally north again to his Hospital.

For a time, he traveled on foot 200 miles or more a week, averaging 33 miles per day, often in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. He once ran the marathon distance every day for a month. He often traversed a 31-mile loop around Manhattan Island in about 3:45. Every Labor Day weekend saw him completing two laps around the Island on each of the three days. 

He was quoted in a book about him as saying, “The marathon demands patience and a willingness to stay with it. You must be willing to suffer and keep on suffering. Running is something you just do. You don’t need a goal. You don’t need a race. You don’t need the hype of a so-called fitness craze. All you need is a cheap pair of shoes and some time. The rest will follow.”

Here is his entry in his training log for the month of August in 1973: “Total mileage for the month, 817. Took four days off.”
Another logging notes:  “Three separate 20 milers in one day, 300 mile weeks, training culminating in hell week– Seven days of consecutive long runs in workouts, often completed twice or thrice daily, running to and from work, loops around Manhattan Island and Westchester County.”

A running mate described how after their 31-mile trek around Manhattan, they ended up at Ted’s apartment complex. “The first time we did this, I was exhausted and standing near the elevator, waiting for it to open. Ted looked at me and said that he didn’t take the elevator. We had to walk up the 15 fights of stairs as our cool-down.”

He logged over 200,000 miles, widely believed to be more than any other person on the planet. In his 88 years, he ran 199 marathons and ultramarathons, winning 30 of those races and setting numerous records. He wasn’t just a cheerleader for the sport – he was a very serious athlete always willing to go down in flames to beat the guy in front of him. When asked why he stays at this sport, he replied, “It’s a habit. I have an inner drive to keep at it.”

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