Gary Corbitt Keeping the Legend Alive with the Legacy of Ted Corbitt
A few years ago I had a long conversation with Coach Ashley Toussaint on various topics regarding our communities, helping out our fellow brothers and sisters in our brother and sisterhoods. One main part of the discussion was our shared history. We both mentioned that our elders are the last of our generation that have direct ties to our struggles and our successes when it comes to actually experiencing the Civil Rights Movement first hand. Coach Toussaint and I spoke about things we can do to document those stories, to create a history lesson not only for ourselves but for our culture, to create an avenue where those stories can be kept and shared not only for our generation but future generations as well.
Marathon running and Black culture has gone hand and hand for decades; we were born to run, it’s in our DNA to do so. This month we’ve decided to go a different direction with our feature and give you a history lesson in running with the help of none other than Mr. Gary Corbitt. Let’s chat with Gary and discuss his running journey, his deep dive into running history, and most of all his father and the father of long distance running Ted Corbitt.
MSM: Mr. Corbitt, as I type this I can honestly say it is an honor to have you in our publication as there’s so much to chat about. The timing is perfect as road racing has progressed in making a return and marathon training has commenced for most runners. We’ll get into the history lessons in a bit, but for now let’s get an introduction into Gary Corbitt. Most of us know you as the son to legendary runner Ted Corbitt but for now let’s get to know Gary. Please give our readers and introduction into who you are.
I just turned 70 years old and have been retired for 10 years from a broadcast research career. I’m a 1973 graduate of Howard University. My first job after college was as a Research Analyst for the ABC Television Network in New York. My wife Debra and I have lived in Jacksonville, Florida for over 40 years. We enjoy reading and learning the history of people and events. I’m a collector of jazz music and play the great game of golf. I coordinate an annual golf fellowship in Jacksonville every March. I invite the golfers reading this to consider joining us one year.
I’m a prostate cancer survivor and my message to your readers is for men to get their annual check-up and know your PSA score. To the women, be sure the men in your life are getting their annual check-ups. Prostate and colon cancers are always successfully treatable when caught early.
I run three times per week and still feel energized after most workouts. I don’t race much anymore but I do hope to compete in masters track meets starting next year at the 800 meters and to one day be competitive in my age group for [NYRR’s] 5th Avenue Mile.
I’m currently learning Tai Chi on YouTube from a site called taichichiuanism.
MSM: I feel like you’ve seen and experienced so many things in your life which has led you to the path of becoming a historian.
I’ve had a front row seat in watching the evolution of road running. I also became a fan of track & field at a young age. Instead of reading comic books I’d get the latest news about our sport reading cover to cover Track & Field News and the Long Distance Log. My becoming a running historian has been a natural evolution and fitting way to honor the memory of my parents.
I was seven years old when the New York Road Runners (NYRR) was formed in 1958. My first Van Cortlandt Park track memory was seeing the 1960 Olympic team training for two days before traveling to Rome. We lived just one mile from the U.S. mecca for cross-country, Van Cortlandt Park. We were just four miles from the course that gave birth to NYRR at Yankee Stadium: the Macombs Dam Park course. I saw most of the major races throughout New York in the 1960s.
Indoor track was a big deal across-the-country when I was a teenager. There were five indoor meets I’d attend with my father annually at Madison Square Garden: Millrose Games, Knights of Columbus, NYAC, AAU National Championship, and IC4A College Championship. I saw the first 16 foot indoor pole vault by John Uelses in 1962 and the first 17 foot vault by Bob Seagren in 1966. I witnessed the high jump duels between John Thomas and Valery Brumel. These competitions had the excitement of a Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird matchup. I saw Jim Beatty in 1963 and Tom O’Hara in 1964 set world indoor records for one mile. And I saw the “Chairman of the Boards” Martin McGrady and Lee Evans race at 600 yards. All everlasting indoor track and field memories.
Also, I was a regularfan at the 168th Street Armory before I competed there for DeWitt Clinton High School. I saw the greatest high school runner I ever witnessed, Julio Meade, race Otis Hill in a number of classic races.
Many of the innovations in our sport were invented in New York and I had a front row seat. I saw the first generation New York Road Runners from 1958 to 1970 work tirelessly as dedicated volunteers inventing our sport. The athletes were all amateurs. At that time women couldn’t officially compete in road races of any distance. The longest event they could run on the track was 800 meters.
I served as a race official for many of the races during my teenage years. This would include passing out race day programs, helping at water stations, being positioned on a course to point runners in the right direction. It was a unique position watching the sport grow and getting to see these individuals at work. History is fragile, can be easily lost and sometimes distorted. I’m sure over the years many runners thought NYRR started with Fred Lebow. Instead there were six presidents of NYRR before Fred entered the scene. John Sterner, a teammate of my father and co-founder of NYRR, was one of the most important figures in the development of our sport. His name would be totally lost and forgotten if I didn’t bring awareness of his contributions locally and nationally. The other past presidents included John Conway, Aldo Scandurra, Nat Cirulnick, Vince Chiappetta and Barry Geisler- and all pre-dated Fred Lebow. There are many other names that need to be raised and remembered for their respective contributions to our sport.
I have a lot of memories from 1964 from events leading up to the Olympics. The first was at AAU Championship at Rutgers where four men broke the American record for 1500 meters with Tom O’Hara winning in 3:38.1. It was the greatest 1500 meter race ever to that point. African- American Ben Tucker finished 7th in 3:40.8 which translates into a 3:58.4 for the one mile. Both Ben and his good friend Harry McCalla got close to being the first Black runners to break the 4-minute mile barrier. What’s significant is that Ben and Harry were years ahead of Byron Dyce and Reggie McAfee when they became the first African-Americans to break the 4-minute mile barrier. If you google “Ben Tucker runner” one of the entries that comes up is this: ”Ben Tucker – The First African-American Sub 4 Minute Miler: 3:40.8 = 3:58.4.” I posted this on social media and track and field message boards. This was the biggest mistake I’ve made to date in documenting running history because it’s both confusing, inaccurate, and forever on the internet.
Here’s my correction notice:
“As a running historian, I have to be precise as possible with my posting. In this case I knowingly was in error. I apologize for any confusion caused from this headline. Unfortunately, this is doubly problematic to clear in the internet age.
A metric conversion is a good estimate but would never show-up in the record books. Ben Tucker’s metric 1500 conversion to the mile (3:40.8 to 3:58.4) in 1964 is an estimated time for one mile. Ben did record the fastest time ever by an African-American for 1500 Meters, a record that stood for many years.
As a teenager I was a big fan of Ben Tucker and Harry McCalla, following their performances through Track & Field News. Harry’s fastest mile came in 1967 when he recorded a 4:00.6. I’ve always desired to raise the names of these two great African-American running pioneers. They came ever so close to achieving sub 4 minute milestone many years before Byron Dyce, Reggie McAfee, Denis Fikes, and Tommy Fulton began making headlines.
I issue this correction notice today April 21, 2018, on the 45th anniversary of Reggie McAfee running the first sub-four minute mile by a native born African-American. His time was 3:59.3 placing him second to his University of North Carolina teammate Tony Waldrop.”
The first of two meets to select the 1964 Olympic team was held at Randalls Island in New York. I saw Charlie Greene run a wind-aided 10.2 for 3rd place after pulling his hamstring muscle at 90 meters. Greene had a big lead over Trenton Jackson who won in 10.1. Later in life I learned a research lesson about writing about history; you can’t always trust your memory and it’s always best to use original source information for confirmation of an event or fact. For years I recalled that Greene had Bob Hayes beat before pulling his muscle. But in reviewing original sources like Track & Field News I see that Hayes was injured and didn’t compete.
The first of two 1964 Olympic Marathon qualifying races was held in Yonkers on a 90 degree, 90% humidity day. Both Yonkers and the Boston Marathon for years started their races at 12 noon. On this May date I witnessed the greatest marathon effort I’ve ever seen. Buddy Edelen under oppressively hot weather conditions still ran 2:24:25 for the win. He won by 3.5 miles and 20 minutes. On a day tailored made for my father he instead struggled to his slowest marathon time ever to that point of 3:20:32 and 12th place.
I may be the only person still alive who can say they saw all of John J. Kelley’s eight consecutive national marathon titles wins at Yonkers. Known as Young Kelley, he was the dominant distance runner in the U.S, from 1956 to 1963. This win streak is a record that will never be broken.
In a talk I gave to the Episcopal High School (Jacksonville) female cross country team before they headed to compete at Van Cortlandt Park I talked about a runner I named “The Unknown Runner.” This was a female runner I’d see regularly running the cross-country course on Saturdays and Sundays in the mid-1960s. I’d be there on Saturday to see college dual meets, and Sunday to see the club runners. I can still picture her today, but I never knew her name or her background. She was a runner long before Title lX [the 1972 federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance], with no opportunities to compete.
I have many memories of watching my father race. I’ll give you one example that’s my most memorable.
The year was 1966, the race was the first National 50-mile Championship. My father’s chief rival was Millrose runner Jim McDonagh. They had raced at 44 miles three months earlier. In that race Jim let my father set the pace the entire route and then outsprinted him. This race was held in Clove Lake Park in Staten Island. My father’s plan was to go through the marathon in 2:42. It was a hot day, and they instead covered the marathon in 2:49. My father could tell Jim’s breathing pattern was labored and that he had him on the ropes. However, my father was having his own issues with a blister and the heat was getting to him. He slowed the pace which allowed Jim to recover. At 46 miles my father was forced to walk in a race for the first time in his long distance running career. His adductor muscle cramped up on him and at first, he could barely walk in a straight line. He was able to again begin running and walking and hold on for a second place finish. It was a shocking and memorable to see my father in this condition.
Yes, I’ve been fortunate to witness a lot of running history, and these memories have led me on this path.
To properly fill the historical preservation needs of our sport – more running history scholars are needed. My plate is already full of projects to properly preserve and tell my father’s story. It’s time for a new generation of running history scholars to emerge.
MSM: Before I started running a few years ago I essentially had no clue about running nor what it meant, especially when it comes to Black culture. It’s in our DNA, we are runners at heart, we were born to run and run well. What I did not understand was the history of our culture and running and it wasn’t until I met you at my first NYRR Ted Corbitt race in 2017. I was in awe to simply hear you speak of the history. At what point did you feel it was necessary to note, project, and explain in detail the history of Black culture and running?
My father always told me there were great Black runners that preceded him. I knew of his teammate Lou White who placed 3rd in the Boston Marathon in 1949 and was national champion at 15k in the 1950 and 1951. I had no idea the names or achievements of other African-Americans until I started doing the research and reading Pam Cooper Chenkin’s book “The American Marathon.” My father would also talk about running 600 miles in six days and walking 100 miles in 24 hours. These were milestones achievements dating back to the Pedestrian era of six-day racing in the 1880s. I knew nothing about this 19th century running history until after my father passed.
Many people feel my father was the first great Black American distance runner, but this isn’t true. I wanted to document this point and learn more so I developed the African-American Running History Timeline from 1880 to 1979. The timeline highlights the many African-American achievements in middle and long distance running. There’s been a big void in documenting and researching Black running history. A history that has been ignored by many including sport historians. My father would say if you see a need and have the ability to fill it – do so.
A few years ago, Shawanna White (who holds the record for the most sub 3-hour marathons by an American born Black runner at 16) asked a simple question: How many Black women have qualified to run the Olympic trials marathon race? A simple question, [but] nobody knew the answer. Perhaps the questioned had never been asked, but this is an example how we need to take ownership of properly documenting our running history and tell our stories.
The National Black Marathoners Association in 2013 started the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame. This was an important step in growing institutions that document Black running history. To answer Shawanna’s question, I’ve developed a list of all-time American born Black female marathoners. This is an ongoing project and there are currently 20 Black women with documented sub 3-hour marathon performances. I’m also tracking ladies with sub 3:10 times for an honorable mentioned category. I expect the list will grow significantly over the next one to two years and will serve as an inspiration to grow not only more elite Black women marathoners but also all runners who have long distance running and walking goals. The list one day needs to include naturalized citizens. Adding naturalized citizens is the type of running history project that I don’t have the time to do and here’s where the need for other running historians to step-up and develop further what I’ve started.
I’m in the early stages of an all-time list of Black Men marathoners. Herman Atkins’ historic 41- year old record of being the fastest American born Black marathoner was broken last year by Nathan Martin. Herm’s time in 1979 was 2:11:59 and Nathan ran 2:11:05. There should be more American born elite Black runners both female and male competing at all distances. It shouldn’t have taken 41 years to break Herm’s record. The Black female all-time best of Samia Akbar’s 2:34:14 is now 15 years old. It’s also time for this performance by Samia to be exceeded.
To grow elite Black running talent is like with any company seeking diversity: a pipeline needs to be developed. There are plenty of Black college middle and long distance runners that could be converted into professional road runners. They need a financial support network. There are some good current examples like Marielle Hall who runs for the Bowerman Track Club, Erica Kemp who is sponsored by the Boston Athletic Association, Janel Blancett who is with the Atlanta Track Club, and Caroline Austin, a steeplechaser who has a marathon best of 2:44:55 and is supported by Tracksmith. We need more of this type of financial support to grow national and Olympic caliber Black distance runners.
A new running boom is awaiting our sport. It will be fueled by a growing number of Black and runners from all ethnic groups taking up road running. It’s in the sport’s best business interest to address being better diversified. A first step is to quantify the number of Black runners in the sport today. The measuring and tracking participation levels will then help the sport set goals and give the sport leaders targets to grow the numbers. I expect the running history preservation work I’m doing and that of others who follow me will help with a new running boom. The conversion of running history research into inspiring stories along with effective packaging and marketing of this work will in my opinion be a model for growing our sport.
I need help in both developing and maintaining the all-time marathoners lists along with other running history projects that are in various stages of development. To properly fill the historical preservation needs of our sport – more running history scholars are needed. My plate is already full of projects to properly preserve and tell my father’s story. It’s time for a new generation of running history scholars to emerge.
MSM: Staying on the topic of history, one thing I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older is that Black history and information is so scattered making it difficult to find out tidbits and facts from our past. As an historian, do you find yourself having to work extra hard to research and find information pertaining to our culture?
I’ve been able to make the information search easier at www.tedcorbitt.com. The site is a clearinghouse for all facets of running history. I expect other running history scholars to follow this example and digitize historic running collections. The sport overall needs to do a better job at preserving its entire history. There needs to be a systematic way of documenting and storing this history. We need people to take on these tasks. I’m currently in conversation with running historians about what to do with historic running collections. I’d like to see a best practices document developed that addresses running history preservation. The CSPAN (Cable – Satellite Public Affairs Network) website is a good model with the tremendous easily searchable video library. I want athletes, fans, scholars 100 years from now to easily be able to research and study the history of our sport.
The technology has made it much easier to do the research. I have an advantage because I witnessed so much of the history firsthand. Also, my father didn’t throw out anything. I subscribe to a service called Newspaper.com which is a tremendous source for newspaper articles dating back to the 19th century. I recently did research on the Negro runners of the early 1920s participating in the Boston Marathon from this site. I found a new addition for the timeline in Frank Martin who ran Boston in 1921-1923 and again in 1925. The first four Black runners to do the Boston Marathon starting in 1919 represented the St. Christopher Athletic Club of New York: Aaron Morris, Clifford Mitchell, John Goff, and Frank Martin.
The only historian I’m aware of before me to publish and study the Black running experience in the 19th and early 20th century in an in-depth manner is Pam Cooper Chenkin and Charles Kastner with his work on the Bunion Derby. Charles’s latest book: “Race Across American – Eddie Gardner and the Great Bunion Derbies” is an excellent source for Black running history.
Pam Chenkin told me she only captured about 50% of the Black running history in doing her research for the book. My work with the timeline maybe takes the research up to 75% complete. We need to capture that remaining 25% of Black running history particularly from the years 1914 to the early 1930s. As more running history scholars emerge project assignments should center on how the Black newspapers like the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, and The Amsterdam News reported and covered our sport.
MSM: Your father has done so much for the run community as he has laid the foundation and groundwork for many things that we see today. Many people usually approach you from a historical perspective when it comes to running but I’d like to take a different approach with a simple question. What was it like seeing your father, Ted Corbitt, going out each day running so much heavy mileage at an insane clip?
Running was a big part of our family life. My mother Ruth totally was supportive of all his activities, and she deserves a thank you for allowing him the freedom to train and work the way he did on behalf of the sport. His daily runs and traveling to out-of-town road races were our norm.
Our dining room table also served as a printing press (mimeograph machine) for the printing of the NYRR quarterly newsletter, race entry forms, race programs and other running related materials. The number of dues paying members of NYRR was small; in 1961 it was only 64; 1963 – 82; 1964- 133. 1966 was the first-time membership was over 200. The annual dues in 1959 were $3. The official name was Road Runners Club: New York Association. I knew all the runners and would pass out the newsletter at the big races. Many of the early races had no entry fee. A big race during the early 1960s would be 35 – 50 runners. If the member wasn’t at the race to receive their newsletter, my mother would address it and sent it out – this was a family affair.
As a child I’d see my father off on his 20 mile run to work most mornings. We’d say goodbye at the door in this manner: He would say “see you later alligator and I’d say after a while crocodile.” This was the title of a Bill Haley and His Comets recording in 1956. That was our morning ritual.
My most memorable memory of a workout was being home when he returned from his longest workout ever 101 miles in 22 hours in October 1973. I was shocked how refreshed he looked after running all day and night. He was preparing for a 24 hour race in the United Kingdom that was three weeks later. Ironically, he most likely lost his chance at setting a world record at that race due to the overtraining he did like this workout. My father later in life admitted that he overtrained and didn’t recover sufficiently to take full advantage of the base training he did for his major ultramarathon races. He was experimenting to see how far he could test his body. He believed in the adage that more was better. I think his heavy training miles cost him at least one victory at the ultra-world championship race of the 1960s: the 52-mile London to Brighton race. He only had one opportunity to race at 100 miles and 24 hours on the track. He set American records on both occasions, but these were inferior performances – off days from what he was capable. I feel he could have set world records at both distances if he had more opportunities to race these distances and had trained at lower weekly mileage levels. I saw recently there are runners who have run 100 mile races 100 times. How things have changed.
Rich Innamorato wrote the following about my father: “His instinctive nature was to explore and learn. Undertaking challenges would be his classroom.”
MSM: As a runner I have to ask, how? How did Ted Corbitt manage to run 300 mile weeks on three separate occasions? His training was legendary which honestly, I don’t think will ever be matched again. For our readers, paint us a picture of what it was like seeing your dad prepare for those daily runs.
He actually did 300 mile training weeks on four occasions. He also twice did 50 mile training days on a workday and a 207 mile training week during a Monday through Friday workweek. He did this with little sleep. It was common to hear him typing past midnight doing paperwork in his leadership role (18 years) in the development of accurate course measurement practices in United States.
The two things I remember most about his training preparation was he would roll a marble under his foot to strengthen the muscles and prevent plantar fasciitis and heel issues. Another was the time he’d spend gluing support layers to the heel of his running shoes. He also used casual dress shoes like loafers to train with and would add support layers to these also.
As I review his training diaries today, I’m shocked at how often he was hurt. If I could ask him a series of questions today, they’d center on his spirituality and the self-healing techniques he used to overcome injuries. He had to be using his knowledge and skills in physiology – physical therapy to keep up his daily runs. An upcoming piece in the U.S. Running Streak Association newsletter will state that my father was the first person in the world to run every day for over one year. His most impressive running streak lasted 13 years (1955 to 1968) of doing at least two workouts per day. He would tell you his second run of the day was a token effort, but don’t be mistaken how he defines token – he’s talking speed not distance. The streak ended July 24,1968 due to an encounter with a dog. On that date he ran three times: 20 miles, 3 miles, and 13 miles. The dog incident occurred three miles from home on his evening run in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.
As a child/teenager I read his training diaries regularly. I knew all his running routes and his training’s personal records and his average times on each of his courses. I have all his training diaries that date back to 1943 and racing diaries dating back to 1933 and junior high school. Steve DeBoer, a gentleman who currently is one of the leading streakers in the world having run every day for 50 years, is adding up my father’s lifetime running mileage from the diaries I’ve shared with him.
Another of my most memorable times witnessing my father race was the 1963 Yonkers Marathon. I would follow the Yonkers Marathon each year in a car with two gentlemen from the Philadelphia area. One of these individuals was Dr. William Ruthrauff, an advisor/coach to my father. The first we saw him was at the 10 mile mark where he was running with a pack of 4 runners including Old John Kelley and John Flammer. They passed this marker in 56:04. I still have a vivid image of how well he and this group were running along. My father was on his way to a Top 6 finish with a low to mid 2:30s effort.
We saw him again climbing one the many hills in Yonkers and he had a noticeable limb. He had suffered a leg injury and was being passed by a runner he’d typically beat by 10- 15 minutes. He limped the remaining distance in 2:52:37 for 22nd place in the national championship race and 9th place in New York Metropolitan Championship. The Yonkers Marathon for years served as both a national and New York Championship race. My father had placed either first or second in the New York Met Championship since 1951. Witnessing this race gave me a several life lessons at age 12 that took some years to fully appreciate. Like not giving up despite not being able to perform at your best.
Sarah Yuster sent this message out after learning of my father’s passing in 2007:
“Ted Corbitt left us early this morning. Do your best today in tribute to an amazing, incomparable man who never did less than that…every day and always.”
MSM: How did Ted recover after those legendary runs? What were some of the recovery methods he used to be able to go back out the very next day and do it again?
He’d soak in the tub after long runs.
He’d also go back out for a short run after all his weekend long runs including his twice around Manhattan Island efforts that totaled 64 miles.
MSM: Growing up in the Corbitt household and seeing your father run with so much determination, were there times where you felt inspired to one day follow in his footsteps as a similar type of runner? You are a runner and a consistent one at that.
I’ve run all my life from putting on races with friends around the Marble Hill Projects in the Bronx, to being a quarter miler in junior high, high school, and one year of college. I also ran cross-country in high school. I did some recreational running during the 1970’s for fitness and took up distance running in the early 1980’s.
My greatest successes on the track were in the 9th grade. I never ran to my potential in high school or the one year I competed in college. I do have some remaining competitive goals and they are to compete in masters track meets at 800 meters and be competitive in my age group for the 5th Avenue Mile.
My father would tell you his best runs were in practice for distance under 30 miles. My running times never ever came close to his achievements. My greatest road race was in 1984 at a 25K tune-up race in Central Park three weeks before the NYC Marathon. I averaged 7:07 pace and set personal records for 10 miles, and the half marathon in route. Three weeks later I ran a 5 hour New York Marathon. I was never able to hold my body up for the entire marathon distance. My times and the competitors I race against at shorter distances indicated I had the potential of a 3:08 to 3:12 marathon. I was proud that over the age of 50 I broke 1:40 in the half marathon on two occasions. Also, like my father, I tended to run better in practice than in races. I’ve also battled dehydration and cramping issues throughout my long distance running career.
MSM: There are many things as Black runners we’re still struggling with today. There’s days when I plot my route out where I say to myself I need to stay away from this neighborhood or days where I tend to look over my shoulder as a runner. What was it like running in the Jim Crow era for your father Ted? These are things that I’m sure he constantly thought about while running his daily 31 miler or his loop around Manhattan. As the son of a legendary runner did you ever find yourself having those same concerns and worries?
My father estimated he was stopped by police over 200 times. He frequently ran throughout Westchester County in preparation for numerous Yonkers Marathons. This was during the 1950s and 1960s in neighborhoods that were all white. Here’s a Black man doing a sport/activity that very few people did. When I reflect on the murder of Ahmaud Arbery it sends chills throughout me for my own safety when running, but also, I think how fortunate my father was to survive his runs. He ran through these white neighborhoods thousands of times. His signature 20 mile morning workout took him north into Yonkers for the early miles. In a letter I recently came across my father talked about his many times being stopped and how after a period of time there was at least one officer who would call out to my father “Mr. Corbitt, when is your next race?” I call this going from being a suspect to respect.
My workouts are in the Baymeadows section of Jacksonville and the people in this neighborhood have seen me running on and off for over 40 years. I also plan to return to the YMCA at some point and resume the workout routine I had developed pre-pandemic.
When I did business travel for many years, I’d run in new cities and neighborhoods I knew nothing about. Today I’d only stay in hotels with a good gym and avoid running in unknown areas.
My father often mentioned running a 30-mile track workout, and I recently found this workout in his training logs. This is the first time I’m sharing this with anyone and it perhaps is a world record in duration for a track session. This workout was April 10, 1960. Distance 35.75 miles consisting of 108 X 440 with 110 walk. The time duration was 5 hours and 31 minutes. He didn’t time the quarters but did time the walks.
Gary Corbitt on his father Ted Corbitt’s workouts.
MSM: Ted Corbitt essentially created road maps through running. In 1947 Ted Corbitt joined the New York Pioneer Club which was founded by Joseph Yancey in 1936. You mentioned on your running history ‘site that Mr. Yancey was one of the first to integrate and accept runners of all abilities. What was the experience like for you when you heard about this opportunity for your father?
The New York Pioneer Club (NYPC) history is one of the greatest American sports and civil rights stories yet to be told. Unfortunately, the story has been buried, hidden, and lost for far too many years. I’m doing my best to change this and in recent years others are stepping up in acknowledging this history.
The Black Lives Matter movement over the past year has resulted in an increased demand for the running history preservation work I’m doing. I challenged NYRR last year to tell the world about the NYPC Story. They’ve accepted the challenge and started an initiative called the NYRR History Project. The vision I’ve presented to NYRR is to always honor and remember the first generation of members (1958 – 1970) who helped invent the sport of road running.
In 1942 the NYPC changed its charter and became an integrated athletic team. This predates the integration of all the professional sports. Mr. Joseph Yancey, co-founder and coach, brilliantly used athletics to build an integrated team of men with good character, gentlemen as athletes and citizens. Gentlemen first, athletes second.
The Pioneer Creed was stated as follows:
“The Pioneer Club, a club of gentlemen and athletes. This does not signify mere outward refinement. It speaks of a refined and noble mind, to which anything dishonorable, mean or impure is abhorrent and unworthy.”
There wouldn’t have been a NYRR in 1958 – 1959 if not for the members and leadership of the NYPC. A good percentage of the original NYRR members were NYPC athletes. The modern day history of road running particularly the mass participation in urban marathons worldwide actually starts with NYPC and its inclusive culture in the early 1940s.
Pam Chenkin says it well: “The modern marathon footrace is a gift to the world from New York’s African-American community.” The NYPC was open to everyone of all abilities and that’s the culture of today’s running scene.
At www.tedcorbitt.com I do a team comparison of the NYPC and the New York Athletic Club (NYAC) pre 1970. One was inclusive and other exclusive. One was open to all, the other excluded Black, and Jewish athletes. One welcomed all abilities and other focused on elite athletes.
MSM: Your father Ted is one of the most iconic runners ever. I’d like to take some time to point out some of his incredible accomplishments:
- He essentially created ultra marathoning
- 22 Boston Marathons with 19 consecutive years breaking the sub 3 barrier
- A personal record for a marathon of 2:26:44
- 223 total marathons
- Lastly, he never dropped out of a race.
All amazing statistics and these are just a small snippet of his accomplishments. From your point of view, what was Ted’s preparation like prior to race day?
The ultramarathon historian Andy Milroy credits my father with coining the term ultramarathon in the 1960s.
My father was big on the 7-day carbo loading plan that was developed in the 1960s by a Swedish physiologist. He would do this for major marathons, particularly Yonkers. It involved doing an exhaustive long run seven days before the race; followed by three or four days of extremely low-carbohydrate intake, and then three or four days of extremely high carbo intake. The goal was to double the glycogen (carbs stored in muscle and liver) and improved endurance.
My father always did some level of speedwork even during his years of ultramarathon running. This included 220s, 440s, on the track and the Big Hill in Inwood Park. He used downhill running in training for speedwork. His strength in races were on the downhills. The great Emil Zatopek had an influence on the runners of the 1950s and my father duplicated his workout of 60 quarters with 110 rest on a number of occasions.
My father often mentioned running a 30-mile track workout, and I recently found this workout in his training logs. This is the first time I’m sharing this with anyone and it perhaps is a world record in duration for a track session. This workout was April 10, 1960. Distance 35.75 miles consisting of 108 X 440 with 110 walk. The time duration was 5 hours and 31 minutes. He didn’t time the quarters but did time the walks.
It took my father nearly 10 years from his first marathon in 1951 to reach his peak conditioning for the marathon in the 1960. A chronic ankle plagued his entire running career and particularly hurt his chances in the 1960 Olympic trial marathon race where he finished in 7th place in 2:36:07.
MSM: What were some more things you noticed about your father as you were growing up? What are some of the things that made Ted work so hard to be the runner that he was?
His scholarship and hard work were always apparent. I try to follow his example with the work I currently do. One of my most lasting memories as a child was how often he would go to the dictionary to look up words.
In researching my father’s life there are two credos – hard work and the theory of progression – that defined how he lived his entire life. He applied these principles to everything he did. I’d call it his code of discipline and scholarship.
The lesson of hard work he learned in a 9th grade math class. He learned that hard work pays off. His 9th grade algebra teacher set up an afterschool remedial class and the successful completion exempted students from taking the final examination and a positive note was sent home to his parents. My father learned that by doing extra hard work/effort and not giving up (staying with it) paid dividends. He first learned about hard work as a child picking cotton on the farm and observing how everyone worked hard. [My father said] “I picked (harvested) 100 pounds of cotton in a day on the farm at age eight. This was the first competitive challenge of my life. My mother picked over 300 pounds.”
He often talked about the theory of progression in training, but he also applied this to his many work projects. This has been a new revelation to me. I often wonder how he was able to do so many massive projects. He would learn a basic work habit applicable to the project. As the volume increased, he would apply what he learned (best practices) and effectively take on increasing workloads. An established disciplined work habit made this possible. The clear example is his 18 years leading the course measurement movement in the United States. For many of these years all road race courses needed his final approval to be certified. The workload volume he handled is beyond description.
Here’s are three more quotes from my father:
“As it turned out the RRC and AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) committees were eventually combined, and I ended up with responsibility for the whole program. This cost me a lot of sleep, but I added this and other things so gradually that I adapted nicely, and I did not feel it acutely.”
“Establishing a work habit made it possible. The key after starting a project is progressively adding a little more, and keep progressive by adding a little and in the end, you’re doing a lot of things that you couldn’t do if you were suddenly loaded with them all at once.”
“To succeed you must apply The Principle of Progression – step by step increase in the exercise load and The Overload Principle – not killing yourself, but simply doing something that is hard to do rather than easy.”
MSM: The New York City Marathon is the largest marathon on the planet. It draws so many runners worldwide and I believe back in 2019 it was the largest field at 57,000 runners. What most runners don’t realize is that marathon originally started with basic loops around Central Park. It wasn’t until Ted mentioned the idea of making NYCM a ‘5 borough’ race, that the expansion began. This originated with the trio of Ted, Percy Sutton, and George Spitz. Ted would go on to run the inaugural NYC Marathon back in 1970, when it was held in September, and not the month we’re used to which is November. Ted curated most of the course. From your point of view what went into the route planning?
My father’s greatest contribution to the sport is the establish standards for accurate course measurement throughout the country.
David Katz says it well with this statement: “I believe Ted is the man who invented the sport of road racing. An activity is just play until you apply standards and rules. Ted did just that when he researched and quietly applied standards of measurement to an activity that was void of them.”
In Pam Chenkin’s recent article “TedCorbitt and the Modern Marathon” she states the following: “His many contributions—in leadership, technology, competition, training, and physical therapy—make him the single most effective individual in establishing the American marathon as a modern sport.”
My father was involved in all the stages of measuring the Cherry Tree Marathon which was the first signature marathon of NYRR in the Bronx on the Macombs Dam course. The first edition of this race was in 1959 with 12 starters. The 1970 NYC Marathon, which was four laps of what is now called the Ted Corbitt Loop in Central Park, had 127 starters, and 2002 starters toed the line for the 1976 first five borough NYC Marathon. My father had a hand in the start-up of each race.
The ‘5 borough’ concept did start with my father who took it George Spitz. He however thought the race would be an ultramarathon because he couldn’t envision that going over the Verrazano Bridge would be an option. He saw the race running in New Jersey and crossing the George Washington Bridge before tackling the five boroughs. He asked Harry Murphy (co-founder, Prospect Park TC) to layout the route. The ‘5 borough race’ would never have happened without the endorsement and support from Percy Sutton.
MSM: Let’s stay on the topic of races for a bit. Your father Ted helped to curate one of the largest races in the world. A few other names that we mentioned earlier are Percy Sutton which runners in NYC have come to know and love as the Percy Sutton 5k in Harlem and the Ted Corbitt 15k which takes place in December. How do you feel about the current representation of running in our culture? Running is not only a white sport, it is a diverse sport.
Percy Sutton, Joseph Yancey, and Ted Corbitt are three Black men who are some of the most important people in helping make the sport worldwide what it is today. Our sport can still do a better job at being diverse. I plan to start a foundation later in the year called “Ted Corbitt Institute for Running History Research.” The primary mission will be to grow the number of running history scholars doing research, and a secondary goal will be that of growing diversity in long distance running.
I’ve made the following diversity recommendation to some of the leaders of our sport:
- Support the programs of National Black Marathoners Association
- Form alliances with clubs like Black Men Run New York City
- Local running club should seek out Black runners for board of director appointments. Black runners should volunteer for these positions
- Create an environment that establishes a pipeline of future athletes, officials, coaches, and governing body officers
- Gain access to Running USA Annual Research Study and other industry databases. To properly grow diversity the issue needs to be consistently measured
- All running industry conferences should have diversity panels and provide diversity networking opportunities
- Conduct Diversity Summits and Academic Symposiums that result in targeted actions plans with measurable goals and best practices documents.
MSM: Our run history is so deeply rooted with your father Ted Corbitt. NYRR represents his legacy with the Ted Corbitt 15k but at some point would you like to see his legacy celebrated? Celebrated with a race that’s not only the Ted Corbitt 15k?
Rich Innamorato, a dear friend of my father and leader of the Broadway Ultra Society (BUS), has done the best job of honoring my father with races. My father walked these events that celebrated anniversary of his American record runs as follows:
1993 –Ted Corbitt 24 Hour Run – 20th Anniversary
At age 74 did 77 miles, 644 yards
1994 – Ted Corbitt 100 Mile Race – 25th Anniversary
At age 75 did 69 miles
1999 – Ted Corbitt 80th Birthday 8 Hour Run
2003 – Ted Corbitt 24 Hour Run
At age 84 did 68.93 miles
In 2019 in what would have been my father’s 100th birth year, Rich put on a Ted 100 Birthday Run. The distances were 100 miles and 100K.
I’ve heard for years people feeling that my father legacy hadn’t been celebrated in an appropriate way. At times I’ve agreed with this assessment, but things have and are changing. Here are some examples:
2014: Ted Corbitt Way Street Naming Ceremony
2017: BMR-NYC begins annually awarding medals at the Ted Corbitt 15K
2018: NYRR commissioned a Ted Corbitt Bust for display at the NYRR Run Center
2019: NYRR renames ultra-award – Ted Corbitt Ultrarunner of the Year
2019: National Black Marathoners Association Distance Running Hall of Fame Medal Series
2019: Road Race Management Lifetime Achievement Award
2021: Ted Corbitt Loop in Central Park
I expect NYRR will support my foundation mission. I also plan to ask NYRR to consider naming a cup or some type of athletic award/achievement associated with NYC Marathon and the Bronx 10 miler.
I challenged NYRR last year to help make the world aware of the NYPC story and properly remember the legacy of all the first generation NYRR members from 1958 to 1970. They have stepped up with a project I mentioned earlier called NYRR History Project.
MSM: On his birthday January 31st, 2020, the good brothers of Black Men Run NYC and other club members trained through November and December to celebrate his birthday in January with a 31 mile ultra marathon, running the same streets and routes that Ted ran around Manhattan. It showed the run community how much Ted meant to all of us and how to really pay homage and respect to ‘the father of long distance running’. Part of me feels like a 15k race is nice but there can be more done to represent Ted’s running and what he really met to the run culture, what are some of your thoughts on this?
Your 31 mile run on what would have been my father 102nd Birthday was such a special way to honor his legacy. The way BMRNYC has honored by father means a great deal to me. I still have many of my father medals. I wish to give each person involved with the 31 mile run a medal my father won along with his diary write-up of that race. Here’s my response after hearing about the run on January 31st.
To: Black Men Run New York City (BMRNYC)
I’m not sure I can fully express my Thank You in words for remembering my father’s 102nd Birthday with a 31 mile workout. You’ve over the years honored him in multiple meaningful ways. Here’s excerpts from the first messages I received from Captain Kovon Flowers in 2015 – 2016: “I am the Captain of Black Men Run New York City and wanted to ask you a question: has anyone considered asking for a Ted Corbitt Medal for his Honorary Race every year and a better quality shirt? I read up on Ted Corbitt and I feel he should be praised in the highest regard. His passion has now become my own, especially since finding out NYRR was started by him and fellow runners.” June 2016: “Just wanted to inform you of an idea me and the guys wanted to do in honor of your dad for the Ted Corbitt 15K this year. We plan to create our own medals for the group with his image engraved on it not to sell but to just show respect.”
My father’s training disciple and mileage totals are legendary. My mother Ruth was always supportive. The 31-mile distance has great meaning for it represents the mileage around Manhattan Island. Your route of January 31st included the same footsteps of Ted Corbitt. Here are some examples:
I was born in Brooklyn (1951), and we lived there until 1955. My father trained in Prospect Park in preparation for the 1952 Olympics.
In the late 1950s my father had a 22 mile training route to work which was a modified run around Manhattan down the westside to the Battery and up the eastside to 23rd Street.
In the first NYC Marathon,1970 in Central Park, and wearing #1, Ted Corbitt at age 51 was the second oldest runner in the race. He finished in 5th place in 2:44:15.
Your route took you to Dyckman Street in upper Manhattan. There’s a monster hill next to the #1 IRT train stop that my father did workouts on.
We moved to 5240 Broadway/Ted Corbitt Way on January 7, 1955. The Marble Hill Projects and area was a uniquely integrated community in 1950s and 1960s. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Jewish, Irish, Italian, Hispanic kids were who I went to school and played with. Several Black children integrated the area Catholic school in the 1950s. Ted Corbitt Way is where his workouts started and ended. Many times, he’d run up the 15 flights of steps to our apartment in concluding the workout.
I congratulate BMRNYC for the ways you’re fulfilling your mission of building a community of healthy Black Men. You are part of long lineage of Black American long distance running history dating back to at least 1880. Always consider me as a resource whenever needed.
MSM: We often remember Ted Corbitt for his contributions on the pavement but let’s not forget that he was an awesome physical therapist and healer and had a great career. For our readers take us through some of his accomplishments as a PT and how this helped to keep him not only to keep others healthy but also himself.
My father is equally revered in the field of physical therapy. There are times I could make the argument that his accomplishment in health and rehabilitation exceeded that of his running career. He was a master student, master teacher, and master clinician. He traveled the world to learn the latest rehabilitation modalities. He taught at many of the area New York colleges including Connective Tissue Massage, Progressive Resistance Exercise, and PNF Stretching at Columbia University, for over 20 years.
The fact that he effectively trained generations of healers is special. His workplace the International Center for the Disabled, was the first center in the United States established to treat the disabled. Recently someone called him one of the first holistic physical therapists in the world. He was one of the first to advocate weight training for a running training program. He studied acupuncture in 1950s long before it became popular in the U.S. in the 1970s. He studied kinesiology with Dr. George Goodheart who developed this technique of understanding the relationship between Chinese meridians and muscle groups, organs, and glands in the body. My father was open minded in learning all potential approaches to healing. He lived a life of continuous education including taking classes as an octogenarian.
Here’s an example from a co-worker of his Marie Roach:
“Ted was not only an amazing runner. He was an amazing healer. He was very knowledgeable about many forms of treatment, both orthodox (western) and alternative. Ted was very open minded about all forms of treatment and started studying what were considered “alternative” treatments a very long time ago. Ted was all about helping the patient improve, and he would use whatever tools he had in his very large toolbox to bring about that improvement. Just watching him work was a privilege. There was calmness about him. He was the supervisor, but he had a large caseload and yet I never remember him being rushed. He was generous with his knowledge about any topic. And even if you didn’t fully accept the efficacy or belief system of some treatment, I think that you learned from being around Ted, to be more flexible, accepting and less dogmatic in working with your patients.”
My father’s ability to heal people was remarkable and I’ve heard quite a few stories over the years. Here’s one example from a Facebook message I received earlier this year from Kenneth McGrory:
“He came to our apartment in 2004 and performed a miracle on my son’s back injury. He had two sessions with Nathaniel and his back immediately felt better. He had been out of school for 5 weeks and couldn’t lift his leg onto a curb. We did not know who he was until the next day when his name was mentioned at the start of the NYC marathon. And … he wouldn’t take any money from me. He said, “people have been good to me my whole life, I am glad to help.” What an amazing human being.”
It should be noted my father joined the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) in 1947 and this made him one of this country’s first Black physical therapists.
MSM: You are a beacon of resourceful information, a historian, which has led you to be inducted into the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame. For our readers, take us through some of your thoughts about being inducted by the National Black Marathoners Association?
Social media, particularly Facebook, has given me an excellent platform and opportunity to build a community of people interested in running history.
My first reaction to the Hall of Fame induction was “no, this should go to the many deserving athletes.” I accepted because my research has been ground-breaking, and I have a high level of respect for what Tony Reed and Charlotte Simmons have built in the NBMA.
As I stated earlier, African-American running history had been ignored even among sports historians. It was shocking to see the paucity of research and writing that had been done about our running history. This needed to change.
Here are excerpts from the press release:
Tony Reed, NBMA Executive Director says, “Gary Corbitt is the ‘Carter G. Woodson’ of African-American distance running history. Without Gary’s knowledge and support, there may not be a National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame. He produced the African-American Long Distance and Middle Distance Running History Timeline (1880 – 1979). This compilation is the first of its kind and is the Hall of Fame’s foundation.”
Gary says, “I accept this honor because I know my contributions to the preservation and dissemination of long distance running – track & field history is important. I’m grateful that in retirement I have time and interest in filling this need, and that my work is appreciated and making a difference.”
In 2014 NBMA appointed me Historian and Researcher for the association. This also helped to inspire me to produce the timeline.
MSM: The Central Park loop is now known as the Ted Corbitt loop thanks to the one and only Mitchell Silver who has been such an excellent advocate as the NYC Parks Commissioner. Hopefully, the next Ted Corbitt 15k will still take place there. What were some of your feelings as you saw the name change? Have you had a chance to speak with Mitchell Silver?
I wrote to Mitchell Silver and here are excerpts from that letter. I plan to meet him on one of my next trips once I start traveling back to New York.
“I want to express a heart filled thank you for honoring my father with the naming of the Ted Corbitt Loop in Central Park. In my eyes, this ranks as a high level way of remembering his legacy. I’d compare it with the Ted Corbitt Way street naming and being inducted into the first class of the National Distance Running Hall of Fame with Frank Shorter, Joan Samuelson, Kathrine Switzer, and Bill Rodgers.
I’ve been on a mission since my father’s passing in 2007 to encourage the sport of road running to do a better job at preserving its great history. My father didn’t throw-out anything. I’ve been able to preserve his legacy at www.tedcorbitt.com along with documenting the achievements of other men and women pioneers of the sport. I’m currently working with New York Road Runners (NYRR) on a NYRR History Project. This will show the many innovations in the sport that were started in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. The project will also highlight the great civil rights story of the New York Pioneer Club (NYPC). The NYPC with roots in the Black community of Harlem has had a profound impact on the successes the sport of long distance running has enjoyed over the years.
My father in the 1950s saw the many needs of an evolving sport. He and others put in tireless volunteer hours to invent the sport the world enjoys today. Words like humble, quiet, unassuming, brilliant, student, and teacher best describe my father. He would never engage in self-promotion. Many people have felt he hasn’t received the recognition for his pioneering work in long distance running and physical therapy. I can say that this is rapidly changing and that an emerging demand for the history of Ted Corbitt has been occurring over the past year. The Ted Corbitt Loop is a special tribute for my father and will further fuel the interest in him and running history.
Thank you for your kind words at the naming ceremony.”
MSM: Most of us have never had a chance to meet Ted, we only know him based on stories and what we’ve read; he was hard working and adamant about creating change in culture. I see many of his traits in you as his son. What are some of the things you would like to see to keep his legacy going, and your legacy as well? You’ve contributed so much to the run culture that we need to make sure the torch is passed on the correct way.
I’ve used these two quotes in doing presentations about running history. Like I’ve been inspired, I hope my work inspires other to do it even better.
“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.
Carter G. Woodson
A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
MSM: A keyword that I’ve noticed from a quote of yours was preservation. WE MUST PRESERVE our history and we must share it. That being said, we thank you for all your contributions. Any last words that you would like to share with our readers?
[I’ll repeat that] we’re going to need to develop running history scholars to grow the existing body of history research. My African-American Running History Timeline goes from 1880 to 1979. There’s still 42 more years of research to get us up-to-date. I can provide scholars a template on some best practices to do this research and other scholarly projects needing attention.
Some running advice: When you get in good shape race often so that you can exploit your good conditioning with personal records that realize your full potential. When I was at my fastest 1983 – 1985 I didn’t race often enough, and my personal record times should be better.
I took up this advice from my father later in my running career. Take a long walk after long training runs. This does effectively cutdown on soreness.
Thank again for this opportunity to tell my story.