The Perfect Storm | by: Matthew Schiffbauer
Updated: Jan 7, 2021
In the 1970’s an interesting phenomenon swept across America, Australia and Western Europe. Many give Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic Marathon performance the nod for inspiring America to get out and run; however, I usually argue that it was the performances of Kip Keino, Billy Mills, Jim Ryun, Bill Bowerman, K.V. Switzer and Steve Prefontaine in the late 1960’s that did the trick. A decade prior to Ryun’s high school campaign, which included becoming the first high school athlete to run under 4 minutes, Roger Bannister became the first person EVER RECORDED to break the “impossible” 4 minute mile barrier. A few years later, Steve Prefontaine was becoming a rock star in the late years of his high school career, and the early years of his college career, with the help of his coach, Bill Bowerman. To this day, it is nearly impossible to attend a track meet without hearing Pre’s name at least once before the final 4x4 participant crosses the line. Billy Mills, an Indigenous American, won an Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 at the 1964 Olympics. Just as it’s origin could be debated ad nauseam, we could do the same with it’s cessation. One thing for sure is that it DID cease at some point, and now, it’s back!
Leading up to 1964, a young Lakota man, who grew up in poverty on a reservation in South Dakota, was struggling with depression, type 2 diabetes, hypoglycemia and suicidal thoughts. That same man boarded a flight to Tokyo, Japan, relatively unknown by the world, and returned with a gold medal around his neck and the forever-legendary status. To this day, he continues to be an advocate for the sport, health, and frequently appears as an activist against racial injustice.
Jim Ryun battled with Kip Keino at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, which was 7,200 feet above sea level. Keino won the 1500 in an astonishing time of 3:34, just one second off Ryun’s world record; Ryun was second in 3:37. In my opinion, this was the greatest race of Ryun’s life. To this day, altitude conversions are used to skew performances, since physiological data in millions of experiments have explained that any elevation over 3,000 feet compromises the abilities of the circulatory and respiratory systems. Using this science, Keino’s 1500 meter run becomes a 3:25 sea-level performance, and Ryun’s becomes a 3:28. Today, after all of the science, technology, and training knowledge that we have acquired, the world record is 3:26, and no American has ever run 3:28.
Steve Prefontaine graduated high school with personal bests of 4:06 for the mile , and 8:41 for the 2mile. His 2mile was a high school record, at the time, and would still land him a top three performance in any given year. However, what came after is where the story becomes a legend; he never lost a race over a mile in his four years as an Oregon Duck. His consistent tactic of going to the front at a suicide pace, and being the last man standing, is also frequently noted as “the only way to do it” to this day. Although this tactic is rarely used past the high school ranks today, many still argue that it’s “the only way to ensure that the best athlete will win.” Prefontaine died in 1975 in a car accident, and the mystery of “what would’ve been” will be a topic of conversation forever; however, “what already was” is already a phenomenal story in itself.
It is also important to note that Prefontaine was not Bowerman’s only successful athlete; Bowerman coached 64 All-Americans, 24 individual NCAA champions, 25 American record holders, 33 Olympians, and 22 world record holders. He was invited to coach two US Olympic track teams, and, possibly most importantly, created the first All-Comer’s Meet in 1949; Bowerman, although arguably one of the greatest coaches of all time, was far from an elitist. He saw the bigger picture, and had a beautiful platform, which he used to promote the sport and practice of distance running and training. Oh yeah, and he also coached “The Shoe Dog” Phil Knight, and is listed as a co-founder of Nike Athletics.
Prefontaine and Ryun were on the cover of Sports Illustrated as teenagers, inspiring an entire generation of young adults, giving them a mark toward which they should aim. Their standards for excellence are still present today. The exposure, candid interviews, and unique personalities gained the attention of the general public, whose interest in the sport piqued as they read about track in newspapers, watched it on television, and listened to races on the radio. Track athletes from previous generations share stories of getting race results in the mail, or flipping through a $1.50 Sports Illustrated magazine for results of the latest international meets. As the sport became more polarized, so did the training. Learning that these athletes were not born being able to do this, and that they worked at it every day to perform these tremendous feats, created a trickle-down effect. Although some would never make it to the Olympics, and had no desire to do so, more and more professionals in medicine and education started actively prescribing “jogging” as a way to live happier, healthier lives.
In 1967, A Syracuse University student entered into the Boston Marathon under the alias, “K.V. Switzer,” accompanied by their significant other. In the middle of the race, the race director JUMPED off the press bus, grabbed Switzer and attempted to rip off bib number 261 off the front of their hooded sweatshirt. Switzer was met at the finish line by a gang of critics, all screaming that, “real women don’t run!” Although Katherine Switzer was met at the finish line by critics, she became an inspiration to many women for years to come.
Some think of medicine/drugs as pills and syringes, but overlook the fact that exercise has been prescribed as medicine for millennia. Doctors rekindled this belief, and began suggesting a 20 minute daily run as a remedy for depression, stress and cardiovascular disease. By the end of the 1970’s, President Jimmy Carter even caught the running bug, and was very public about his advocacy!
Now, a few different stories have been covered, all unique in their own way. Before Keino, running was perceived as a sport for the middle-to-upper-class Caucasian male. Keino’s career, decorated by world records and international medals, totally flipped that narrative on it’s head, as he was a Kenyan citizen born near a grain shed, raised by his aunt after losing both of his parents as a youngster. Mills mustered through a mental illness, cardiovascular disease and racism; Ryun and Prefontaine inspired the youth; Switzer inspired many women to get into the craze of jogging and running; Bowerman’s resume is longer than a CVS receipt, and doctors and political figures became strong advocates. Now that the sport has transcended bounds of race, health, socioeconomic status and gender, and the training is recognized by medical and fitness professionals, the running boom is shown to be available and affordable for anyone, and is proven to decrease depression and the risk for cardiovascular disease. Running was off to the races!
According to legend, the marathon is run to commemorate Pheidippides’ trek from Marathon to Athens to tell Athens about the victory in the battle of Marathon. One could argue that the absence of technology, coupled with necessity and a culture’s emphasis on the importance of physical fitness, birthed the most popular distance running event. If Pheidippides could’ve unlocked his iPhone and texted his boys about the news, the marathon would have never been born. However, the enhancement of technology, one could argue, is the reason that the “running boom” was so widespread. It was one thing to hear or read about the aforementioned feats; but, it was another thing to actually BE there, or to watch it on the television. The Olympics and national championship events were not the only races that were on national television; major broadcasting corporations started televising the Boston Marathon, New York Marathon, Los Angeles Marathon, and many other major marathons run around the world. The World Cross Country Championships were also televised, and received ratings high enough for them to continue to be on the air to this day. The difference between a program being televised then and now is that television had less channels; if a race was on television, and someone sat on the couch and turned the TV on at that time, there was a higher probability that they were watching the race. Up until the early 1980’s, the running boom was in full swing in America. At some point in the 1980’s, that swing was tamed to a gentle sway.
Just as many argue how the running boom started, they also argue about when it ended in America. Some blame the “toxic” popularity of basketball, baseball, football and hockey; others blame the sport’s head marketers, and their inability to attract “the right population.”
After Keino, East Africa became a distance-running powerhouse, and the East African elite became the face of distance running around the world. People wanted to be fast “like the East Africans.” At the moment, every men’s and women’s world record above 5000 meters is held by an East African native. If the 1970’s played host to a “renaissance” in the Western World, there was a “Dark Age” from some time in the 1980’s to some time in the 2000’s; that is not to say that the renaissance ever stopped in East Africa, though. Since 2020 has been such a difficult year for so many, the summary of the next thirty years of distance running in the Western World will be excluded from the conversation.
Although cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the world, the number has been declining in America since the 1960’s. Of course, the reason for this decrease can be debated, just like anything else; but it could be argued that the running boom played a role. However, we still have a long way to go; although numbers have decreased, cardiovascular disease is still the leading cause of death in America and the world. Just as fairness and justice for Black Americans has come a long way since Tommie Smith, Peter Norman and John Carlos took a stand at the Mexico City Olympic Games, we’re still innocently getting gunned down in the streets, and the killers are still free. To hang up the hat, and admire the progress, is both unjust and unfair. The same holds true for cardiovascular disease. But, there is a trickle-down effect in progress.
In the last few years, the 100-mile, 50-mile, marathon, half-marathon, 10k and 5k world records on the men’s and women’s sides have been rewritten at least once. Since 2012, American men have medaled in the 1500, 3000m steeplechase, 5k, 10k and marathon on the world stage. Nine of the top twenty-one men’s American marathon times have been run in the last three years. On the women’s side, American records for the 1500, 3000 meter steeplechase, 5k, 10k and half-marathon have been broken at least once since 2016. Seven of the eleven high school boys who have broken the 4 minute mile did so in the last ten years. Standards are getting faster, expectations are rising across the board, and we are all witness to a paradigm shift.