Jay Birmingham – Ultramarathon Man
In January of 2016 there was a gathering to honor Don Wahle. Germinating from that evening was the idea for this history blog. Jay Birmingham was among the invited individuals. Since he lives in Florida, he was unable to attend. However, Jay wanted Don to know a couple of things. They were his feelings, for both Wahle and the Ohio Valley Track Club that Don started, plus how Don and the OVTC influenced Jay’s running career.
This blog begins with the letter that Jay wanted to be read that evening. That’s followed by the story of his exploits as an ultramarathon runner. Jay, our third of five individuals with local ties who performed extraordinary distance feats, certainly fits into the company of earlier mentioned Dan O’Leary and Ted Corbitt. Most of the quotes in this story are from interviews Jay has given over the years. These include articles by Mark Woods and Mike Spence about the transcontinental run.
I have a particular connection with Jay. In August of 1978 both of us were going to race up Pike’s Peak. He had a tent, which he shared with me the night before the ascent. At that time Jay had a running shop in Jacksonville. Talking with him about the store rekindled an interest that I previously had about starting my own running shop. Reconnecting with Jay that weekend directly led to what eventually became Bob Roncker’s Running Spot.
MY FIRST TRACK CLUB, 1964
By Jay Birmingham
Mounted on the wall of my bedroom is a shadowbox, housing a running singlet. A genuine relic of my running past, the 50-year-old garment has survived college, grad school, two-dozen moves to six states, and half-a-dozen life changes. That it lasted to the present day is a minor miracle.
It was discovered, as fossils often are, in a box of running t-shirts. Among the other treasures are shirts from six River Runs, the 1990 Pikes Peak Ascent, and the 1976 New York City Marathon. A white singlet with blue piping, it says OHIO VALLEY TRACK CLUB.
My wife, Debbie, rescued it from my Colorado cabin, washed it for the first time in probably 35 years, and mounted it in the box. I glance at it every day now, and the memories come flooding back. The OVTC was my first track club.
In May of 1963, I was a freshly retired runner, my prep track days complete. No one I knew raced after high school, and there was no adult running going on in Ohio, or so I thought. By mid-summer, however, I missed running enough to go to Riverside Park in Dayton for an evening jog. It changed my life.
Chaminade High School was a track dynasty at the time, producing bunches of crack milers whose times made me feel pedestrian, although I had experienced some success at rural Wilmington H.S. There they were, a dozen of them, hammering across the grass, charging up a steep hill, and shouting at each other. They were emaciated and tireless, excited over the results of their time trial.
A week later, I returned, hoping to see them again. I jogged around, warily, and was startled by a voice.
“Would you like to run with us?”
Thus began my return to running and my introduction to the sport of cross-country.
By Labor Day the next year, 1964, I placed eighth in an open cross-country event in Cincinnati. There I met Don Wahle, the founder and leader of the Ohio Valley Track Club. Six feet, three inches tall, with Coke-bottle-bottom eyeglasses (I’m serious), Don was friendly and quite old - I think 32. He and two other older guys wearing Ohio Valley TC uniforms came up to me.
“Would you like to run with us?”
Since I was not yet eligible to compete at my new college, I was game.
The OVTC was solely a competitive group: no meetings, no newsletter, and a roster that changed from week to week. We converged on a parking lot in northern Cincinnati, piled into the largest car, and drove out to challenge the world.
Barry Binkley was a stocky high school coach, famous for his 3:00-flat split for a ¾-mile leg of a distance medley relay while running for Bowling Green University. Bob Roncker (former owner of several running specialty stores) was a Spanish teacher and a former standout at UC. Don was the heart and soul of the club, a UC grad, who worked as a bookkeeper. Jack Mahurin was an English teacher and Western Kentucky alumnus. The five of us were joined by a half-dozen other locals, mostly post-collegians, who just couldn’t give up their running.
We all trained hard and independently, and shared workouts and track articles with each other. Don kept us connected through postal cards. His large capital letters announced our next race.
“U OF KY, 4 MILES XC, OCT 17, MEET AT DESC PARKING LOT, 6 A.M.”
I don’t recall a time when fewer than five guys showed up. We’d drive to the meet, run to exhaustion, grab a sandwich, and then drive back home.
In the fall of 1965, led by Mahurin’s first place finish, we claimed the Kentucky AAU Cross Country Championship over 15 clubs and colleges. I got to take the team trophy home for the week, a compliment for placing second man for the club. Two weeks later, we captured third place in the Ohio AAU meet, behind Ohio State and Miami.
I wore my OVTC singlet in my first marathon, Labor Day 1966, in Columbia, Missouri. Later that fall, I won a one-hour run at the University of Kentucky, outsprinting club-mate Al Sewell during the final minute to prevail over a field of 17 guys, mostly collegians.
I was—and I think most of us were—proud of our little club. Although the singlet survives, my racing shorts are long gone. Same goes for my dark blue warm-ups, which sported the initials, OVTC.
Don said it stood for “Old and Very Tired Club.” What a great couple of years for me, to race with those old, but not so very tired, runners.
Jay started running in middle school. He graduated from Wilmington High School in 1963, where he ran the mile and 880. Jay said that, “Had I not hooked up with the Ohio Valley Track Club near the end of my first year of college at the University of Dayton in 1964 and been exposed to road racing (which was not very popular back then), and cross-country, as well as track, I am certain that my running life would have been limited to a couple of years of track at Wilmington College. Meeting Don Wahle and other serious post-collegiate runners from Cincinnati made all the difference.” And what a difference it made. Jay remained with the club through 1968.
At the suggestion of a club member, he ran the 1966 Heart of America Marathon in Columbia, Missouri. He finished in 2 hours, 51 minutes.
“I realized my future in running was going to be in the marathon,” Birmingham said. “I kind of became a marathon runner. I would run one or two a year because there weren’t many marathons back then. I thought I could break 2:30, 2:25 and qualify for the Olympic Trials.”
That never happened.
“My PR is 2:39, run in 1978 at Boston,” Birmingham said. “I trained really hard for 15 years and got good, but not really good.”
Birmingham understood his Olympic dream was not going to be realized, so he began dabbling in longer races like 24-hour runs and 100-kilometer races, and discovered he enjoyed it.
Jay started doing what he called “journey runs.” In 1967 he had his first successful long run of 51 miles around Clinton County. In 1972 he went 166 miles from Cleveland to Grove City and in 1973 he did his first ultra race, the JFK 50-miler in Maryland.
In 1975 he did his first crossing of the Grand Canyon. He said it “kicked my butt but I got out of there with only leg cramps. I doubt I will ever go across again unless I have someone carrying my gear/drinks. The 7-mile descent from the south rim beat up my quads and the steps, hollowed out by mules, were gravelly and steep. The middle 7 miles were gently uphill and I pushed hard (1500 feet elevation gain); but I was dead over the final 7 miles (4000 feet of climbing). It was hot and the final altitude is around 8200 feet but I had trained all summer at 8800 so I think the leg cramps (biceps femoris and sartorius) were simple overuse.” Jay must have a short memory because he forgot his oath not to try it again. He made the crossing in 1985, 1995, 2005, and in 2015 to celebrate his 70th birthday. Will he be up for 2025?
In 1976 he “journeyed” 219 miles from Miami to Titusville, Florida, but that was only a prelude for what was to come. Jay met Ted Corbitt and Corbitt suggested that he attempt a trans-America crossing. He lined up a two-man support crew, the use of a camper and sponsorship money.
His first trans-USA attempt in 1977 ended after 238 miles after going from Los Angeles to Ehrenberg, Arizona. “I lasted seven days,” Birmingham said. “I got into Arizona and was doing 45 to 50 miles a day. I was very regimented. I would run for 45 minutes, take a 15-minute break, then run for 45 minutes and take an hour break. It was stupid. I didn’t train that way.”
“I blamed the heat for my problems,” Birmingham said. After prematurely ending the first time, he spent 10 days in the desert acclimating to the heat and started again. Again he followed his regimented running plan. This time he lasted two days.
“By then, my Achilles tendons were like broomsticks,” Birmingham said. “I literally couldn’t walk fast.”
The failure left Birmingham depressed. He broke out in a rash. “It was just stress,” he said.
Birmingham thought that was the end of his dream of a trans-America crossing. But the itch never left him and in 1979, Jay wrote to Corbitt and told him he was considering another trans-America attempt.
Corbitt asked him if he had considered doing it the way South African runner Don Shepherd had, running alone with no support crew and just a backpack for equipment. Shepherd had been the second man to make the crossing solo, completing the run in 1964 in a record time of 73 days, 8 hours.
Birmingham running with backpack
Birmingham prepped by running 180 miles a week and by reading and rereading Shepherd’s book “My Run Across the United States.”
“I almost memorized what he would do when he had a lumpy Achilles, when he got sore, when he couldn’t find food,” Birmingham said. “I became very confident I could deal with any unexpected situations.”
Birmingham followed the rules set by the Guinness Book of Records, gathering witness signatures along the way. He was required to have three per day but tried to get four or five.
Gathering the witness signatures proved to be a huge help. Birmingham said, “I learned it was a great introduction to learning about lodging, meals, and shortcuts where you didn’t have to run along a busy highway. The witness signature turned out to be a real boon to my progress.”
When Birmingham set off at 9:00 a.m. on May 20 from Los Angeles’ City Hall, he gave Corbitt a phone call telling him he was starting.
Corbitt gave Birmingham a key piece of advice: Don’t let your rhythm be disturbed by people who are trying to give you publicity.
“I learned to become very independent,” Birmingham said. “I took advantage of every free meal. If all I could get was Pepsi and snack crackers from a vending machine, that’s what I would eat. That happened a couple of times. I’d done so much training, I figured if I ate poorly for a week it wouldn’t affect me much.”
He was cruising along at 35 to 40 miles a day until he got to the eastern edge of New Mexico. “I ran for 17 miles through a rough gravel shoulder and hurt my left leg,” he said.
Birmingham limped from Tucumcari, N.M., to Amarillo, Texas, where a friend met him and took him to a doctor.
After an X-ray, the doctor recommended a month of rest. Birmingham took just one day.
“I had run 11 miles the previous day and none the next, and here the clock was running,” Birmingham said. During his day off, he fashioned a makeshift orthotic out of some old insoles and resumed running.
“I was able to go 28 miles the first day out of Amarillo,” Birmingham said. “By the time I got to Oklahoma, I was running freely again, over 35 miles a day.”
At that point, a heat wave hit. Birmingham endured 14 consecutive days of temperatures in excess of 100 degrees.
“I would find myself running in the middle of the road just to be in the shade of the power lines,” Birmingham said.
He took no chances in those conditions, limiting himself to no more than 40 miles per day. Gradually, he fell behind the record pace by a day and a half. “I had 700 miles to go and was running out of days,” Birmingham said.
During a TV interview, Birmingham admitted he might not break the record. “I think I’m just going to do the distance.” he remembers saying.
The turning point in the run came the next night when another TV reporter asked him about what he had said.
“To have somebody say that to me, my exact words back to me, was like a slap in the face,” Birmingham said.
“I hemmed and hawed for about 30 seconds and said it’s not really out of reach. I just need to average 50 miles a day the rest of the way.” Birmingham decided to run 50 miles the next day no matter what. “If you don’t give it your best shot, you’ll never forgive yourself,” Birmingham said he told himself.
He ran 50 miles that day. The clouds rolled in and there was an afternoon thunderstorm. Then, as he reached his hotel, he found a 50-cent piece on the ground.
“I thought that was an omen,” Birmingham said.
Birmingham discovered that he wasn’t any more tired. His blisters weren’t any worse, and he wasn’t hurt.
The next day he ran 59 miles. He started running 50 miles or more each day.
By the time Birmingham got to Philadelphia, he was about a day and a half ahead of schedule. He spent the last night of the run in Perth Amboy, N.J., where he called Corbitt again.
“We’ve got it all arranged for you,” Corbitt told him. “Be at the base of the Verrazano Bridge before 9:00 a.m.”
The New York Road Runners Club had a lane of the bridge shut down for Birmingham. “I ran up through Brooklyn, across the Brooklyn Bridge and finished on the steps of City Hall,” Birmingham said. “Ted Corbitt signed my final witness card and marked down my time. It was perfect symmetry.” He covered 2,964 miles in 71 days, 22 hours, 59 minutes – a record that still stands.
Jay Birmingham being interviewed on the steps of New York’s City Hall upon concluding his trans-continental run
Rather than satiating his desire for ultras, this achievement seemed to spark his interest for more “journey running.” Many of you have heard of the Badwater Ultramarathon. Here is how Wikipedia describes it.
The Badwater Ultramarathon describes itself as "the world's toughest foot race". It is a 135-mile (originally 146 miles) (217 km) course starting at 279 feet (85 m) below sea leve in the Badwater Basin, in California’s Death Valley, and ending at an elevation of 8360 feet (2548 m) at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to Mount Whitney. It takes place annually in mid-July, when the weather conditions are most extreme and temperatures can reach 130 °F (54 °C). Consequently, very few people—even among ultramarathoners—are capable of finishing this grueling race.
Originally the course went to the peak of Mt. Whitney. The idea was to connect the lowest point in the western hemisphere to the highest geographical feature in the contiguous U.S. After three aborted attempts to complete the distance, in 1977 Al Arnold became the first person to successfully navigate the entire route.
Jay, in 1981, was the second person to accomplish this feat. His time of 75 hours and 34 minutes eclipsed the standing mark of 84 hours set by Arnold. During the run in the desert, he endured temperatures over 120 degrees and on the summit of Mt. Whitney it was snowing.
In Death Valley
On top of Mt. Whitney
The following year Birmingham undertook another journey. He ran from the northern tip of Maine, Ft. Kent, to Key West along the Atlantic Seaboard. This trip of 2,254 miles, which took 47 days and 5 hours, concluded on July 30, 1982.
However, his greatest challenge loomed. In 1988, he embarked on an ambitious attempt to run through every state. He ran 4,526 miles and had passed through 26 states when he simply stopped and went home. This was six years before the movie Forrest Gump was released. Jay said, “I had run one and a half times the distance of my trans-America crossing. I was tired of running.” Forrest too just decided that he had had enough.
Actually, Jay was tired of the grind, the daily interviews, and sleeping in a different hotel each night. Coincidentally, that run also ended on July 30, the same date that he ended his Atlantic coast run.
In 2004 he repeated Badwater and completed it nine hours faster than in 1981. Jay says that his “journey runs” are now over but he continues to run everything from one mile through short ultras, about 2,500 miles per year. He goes at a pace now that truly qualifies as "pedestrian," the term used a century ago to describe ultra-distance running events.
Jay finishing Badwater in 2004
He teaches high school anatomy and physiology, and is head track and cross-country coach at his school. He remains close to many of his former athletes and supports the sport in a variety of ways.
Is he still competitive? Birmingham says, “I could do it today. “I’m not as fast as I used to be, but I’m in as good a shape.”