Getting to Know the Corbitts

Ted Corbitt, known as the “father of long distance running,” is famous for many accomplishments.  I had heard that his training regime included weeks where he’d run 200 miles or even 300.  I couldn’t imagine how someone could do that while working full time.  And why would you want to?

And so it was with great interest that I attended a presentation hosted by the New York Road Runners featuring Corbitt’s son, Gary, who shared personal insights about his father and talked about the history of the New York running scene.

Ted Corbitt, 1957

From Gary’s presentation, I learned a great deal about Ted Corbitt.

He grew up on his father’s farm in South Carolina, and as a child, ran constantly: to school, the store, the mailbox.

He first heard about marathons while in high school and became curious because “I was interested to know if I could do it.”

During his career, he ran 223 marathons and ultramarathons, of which he won 36.  He represented the US in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic marathon.  He set American records for the marathon, 100-mile race, and 24-hour race and age-group records at 50 miles.  He ran the Boston Marathon 22 times, of which 19 were under 3 hours.  His fastest marathon time was 2:26.  Until age 75, he never dropped out of a race.

London to Brighton race.

He is credited with coining the term, “ultramarathon,” for races longer than standard marathon distance.

In 1958, he helped found the New York Road Runners and served as the organization’s first president.

In 1998, he was inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame.

At age 55, he was diagnosed with bronchial asthma, and this ended his elite racing career.  But he didn’t stop.

At age 81, he walked 240 miles during a 6-day race, and then the next year, he improved that to 303.

And, yes, he was famous for his daunting training schedule, which included the 200- and 300-mile weeks that had caught my attention.  And all this while working 40 hours a week as a highly-respected physical therapist.

I didn’t understand how anyone could fit in so much mileage into a normal working life — so I raised my hand.  Gary took my question and explained that his father would commonly run 20 miles to work and often run back home the same evening.

But why such incredible mileage?  Was he was determined to push body and mind to their limits, just to discover what would happen, no matter what the cost?  Was he just into suffering?

The marathon demands patience and a willingness to stay with it.  You must be willing to suffer and keep on suffering.

— Ted Corbitt

I raised my hand again and asked the question, “Why?”

Gary responded, “because he wanted to win.”

So there I had my answer.

After the presentation, I poked around on the web, trying to learn more about Ted Corbitt.  I read that finishing a major race in the top 10 was a “glorious experience,” in his words.  That he constantly “experimented” with different training methods.  That he ran two workouts a day for 13 consecutive years and often ran to and from work in street clothes and street shoes.  That he credited the 200-mile weeks as contributing to his successful racing career, but also emphasized the importance of rest and recovery.  That he expressed gratitude for his wife’s support of his running career.

In 2002, in an interview with Gail Kislevitz, he summed up his thoughts:

As I look back over my career, injuries and mistakes took their toll, as did the failures and lost opportunities to score in big events.  But the successes balanced it all.  Looking back on all this makes me wonder why I ran in the first place and whether the bothers were worth it.  I do admit I was addicted to running; it was easy for me to leave the house in lousy weather and run 40 miles.  I had an intense urge to run back then that could not be denied.  If I could do it all over again, I would.  And I would certainly choose to make a different set of mistakes en route.

Ted, Gary, and wife Ruth in 1956

If you don’t know Gary Corbitt, he’s a modest, soft-spoken, thoughtful and articulate man, and he’s doing the running community a great service as a volunteer historian, collecting information not only on his father, but also on other historical runners.  At his presentation, a young woman who had recently started running was almost in tears.  She had never heard the Ted Corbitt story, and she said she found it very inspiring.

Gary Corbitt
Author and Gary Corbitt at NYRR presentation

Sources:  Frank Litsky, “Ted Corbitt, a Pioneer in American Distance Running, Dies at 88,” New York Times, December 13, 2007

Trishul Cherns, “Ted Corbitt:  An Ultrarunning Pioneer,” Ultrarunning Magazine, November 24, 2013

Gail Kislevitz, The Spirit of the Marathon:  What to Expect in Your First Marathon and How to Run Them for the Rest of Your Life, 2003

Getting to Know the Corbitts

6 thoughts on “Getting to Know the Corbitts

  1. Anna Pettersson says:

    Great to read this as I just ran the Ted Corbitt 15K in Central Park this past weekend. A perfect sunny day for a run! Central Park races always have that slight festival feel to them and the first few miles really just breezed by. Then right as I had finished up the first loop, I saw a flutter on my left, in the finishing lane. As it turned out the first few runners where just finishing up, around the 47-minute mark if I’m not mistaken. Wow! They were amazing to watch!! Something to aspire to, I thought to myself, as I reminded myself that I still had more than half the race to go and continued on to the end. — Very fun event, and a fitting tribute to a great runner!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have read as much as possible over the years about the amazing Ted Corbitts!
    His 200 mile weeks while working full time have helped me more than you know ! Right now I am working 75-80 hours a week and trying to hit 200 mile weeks as I train for Run the Nation next year. Ted is one of my heroes and greatest examples that it can be done.
    Thx for sharing


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