Ted Corbitt: 20th Century Pioneer
Cool Running's Don Allison pays tribute to the late Ted Corbitt who passed away this week.
Posted Friday, 14 December, 2007
January 31, 1919 is not a date readily recognized in American history, but perhaps it should be. On that day two men were born―no far apart geographically, in the South―who would both go on to make their respective marks in sport and society. While one, Jackie Robinson, is widely recognized as one of the greatest and most influential figures of the 20th century, the other, Ted Corbitt, should be as well. Long distance running lost a true pioneer this week, when Corbitt passed way at age 88.
Although Ted Corbitt’s chosen sport was not as popular as baseball, the effect he has had was not dissimilar to Robinson’s. Although there was not a clearly demarcated “color barrier” as there was in baseball, Corbitt nonetheless excelled in a field that was dominated by whites, enduring many trials along the way. But the mark Corbitt has left upon long distance running goes far beyond race; he was integral to the development of road racing in the U.S. at a time when it was on very tenuous footing, as well as in promoting course certification, something that is almost taken for granted nowadays, but was once virtually non-existent. As if all of that were not enough, Ted was also an elite athlete, earning a spot on the 1952 Olympic Marathon team and setting many records in ultrarunning, some of which still stand today. He completed 199 races of the marathon distance or longer, winning 30 of them. All the while, he worked as a full-time physical therapist, raised a family, and trained at levels that would become legendary. The late Fred Lebow, the founder of the New York City Marathon, called Ted Corbitt “the father of American long distance running.”
Of course, no one starts out running marathons and ultras. The first distance at which Ted competed was 60 yards, in junior high school. Not surprisingly, he won. Long distance runners were few and far between in pre-World War II America however, so Ted’s motivation to move into the longer distances came from an unusual source: boxer Ezzard Charles, who would log his “road work” in Cincinnati, where Ted spent his formative years and subsequently went to college at the University of Cincinnati, where he competed in track. There, Corbitt experienced racial discrimination: In an interview with UltraRunning, he said, “The color line was drawn even in some of the meets in Cincinnati, so I could not participate in them. In the Midwest, places like Illinois and Indiana, there were 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.”
Duty in the service, college, and a his work as a physical therapist kept Ted from realizing his long-held dream of running the Boston Marathon, until 1950, when he was able to complete a 30-mile training run, something he felt necessary in order to run a quality marathon. Ted’s quality marathons started coming regularly after that, enough so that he was able to earn selection for the 1952 Olympics.
Although Ted’s performance in Helsinki was less than he hoped for (he finished in 44th place), the experience was otherwise fulfilling, and he came away with a new appreciation for training, having witnessed Emil Zatopek’s greatness, as the Czech swept all three distance running gold medals in those games. Ted resolved to implement some of Zatopek’s exhaustive interval and strength training into his already extensive program.
Despite professional and family responsibilites―not to mention the additional work he was doing at night for a pair of emerging groups he would lead, the Road Runners Club of America and the New York Road Runners Club―Corbitt logged prodigious mileage, sometimes upward of 200 miles per week, in an era when even attempting a marathon was considered extreme. One regular training run was a 30-mile “loop” around Manhattan, and two loops were not all that unusual for Ted.
Not surprisingly then, the challenge of ultrarunning intrigued Corbitt. Since so few events were being held in the U.S., he ventured overseas for several epic battles in the London to Brighton 54 Mile, as well as world-class 24-hour races. Ted competed well into his 50s, blazing yet another trail for long distance runners in this country. His personal best 100-mile of 13:33:06 was set at age 50, and he racked up 134 miles in a 24-hour at age 54. Corbitt was sidelined by severe asthma in 1974, a condition that would hamper him for the next several decades.
On a Tuesday afternoon in early May of this year at the Self Transcendence Six and Ten Day Races in New York City, Ted projected an air of serenity as he sat at a picnic table. “I saw two clients today,” he said nonchalantly, as if labor-intensive physical therapy work were the norm for all 88-year-olds. In fact, after a chat he offered his services to a few of the runners in the six-day race. “I never was able to run a real good six-day,” Corbitt said with a touch of regret. In fact, Corbitt did compete in two six-day races, in 2000 and 2001. In the latter, at age 82, he racked up an incredible 303 miles. The esteem in which Ted was held was evident on the faces of runner after runner, as they stopped to say hello and tell him how much it meant for him to be there. Ted humbly accepted the good wishes, but seemed a little embarrassed by all of the attention.
Surely he would feel the same way today, as honors and tributes pour in from the running world upon his passing. Despite all of his records and pioneering achievements, the sport of running remained simple to Ted Corbitt. As told in First Marathons: Personal Encounters With the 26.2-Mile Monster, he explained, “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.”