KNOW YOUR RUN HISTORY: Ted Corbitt’s signature workouts

By Curtis Caesar John with data assistance from Gary Corbitt

One of my first ever races was the 2011 Ted Corbitt 15K, a 9.3 mile gallop organized by New York Road Runners in honor of the titular legend. Ever curious, before running the race I discovered that Mr. Corbitt, who had passed away a few years earlier, is known as the “father of long-distance running,” and is also a Black man…two things that society tells us don’t normally go-to together as us Black folks are normally known for being sprinters, not endurance runners. As an artist, I normally ignore what society tells me is supposed to be, but even this surprised me. 

From that point on the Corbitt 15K became my go-to race almost every year. I eventually began running the race alongside my Black Men Run NYC brothers, and in 2016 we began doing a special medal in honor of Ted Corbitt, with the blessing of his son Gary Corbitt, who maintains his dad’s archive and does tireless work to ensure everyone knows how important Ted is to run history.  Even without the regular race happening this year we are doing the same (along with a virtual race) and many of our members, and run friends who have supported our efforts, do all we can to ensure his legacy shines bright.

In 2019 at the expo for THE RACE, on the centennial of Ted Corbitt’s birth, I moderated a conversation with Gary about his father’s personal and running life. Among the standout things Gary revealed to the audience were two mind-blowing signature Ted Corbitt workouts.  One was his 31 mile route around Manhattan Island where his early and finishing miles included Inwood Park (in upper Manhattan) depending on if he were going clockwise or counter clockwise around the island. In preparation for the London-to-Brighton 52 Mile road races he would do two laps of Manhattan (62 miles!) for three consecutive days.

The author interviewing Gary Corbitt at THE RACE Expo (October 4, 2019)

The second workout though was his signature one that he did every day Monday through Friday during his build-up training periods.  This was a 20 mile run from his home in upper Manhattan at 228th St. & Broadway (now known as Ted Corbitt Way) to his workplace at the International Center for the Disabled on 23rd Street & First Avenue.  The shortest route to work was heading south for 11.5 miles.  Instead, he would run North into Yonkers to McLean Ave and then he’d run the entire length of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.  Next he’d cross into Manhattan over the 3rd Avenue Bridge and then down the FDR Drive to 23rd street.  

During this build-up training period, he’d average over 30 miles per day over the summer months. Some days he’d run this route in reverse for a 40 mile training day.  On two occasions he did 50 miles on a workday with a lunchtime run added. Yeah, you read that right. 

According to Gary, Ted Corbitt naturally encountered numerous notables and characters during these treks of runs. Ted said he would pass Malcolm X speaking on the street in Harlem but he never stopped.  One reason he didn’t stop was because he felt the FBI was videotaping & photographing Malcolm and the attendees, which of course he was right about. 

Corbitt would leave home at 6am and run to his job as a physical therapist, which would require him being on his feet for a good portion of the day.  After these morning runs he would say he felt like a king.  According to Gary, this is an example of the impact of endorphins.  He would do his hard running in the morning, and he termed his evening runs ‘ token efforts. For many years, on his morning run was the equivalent of running a 3 hour 15 minute pace or better marathons each day.  The running time includes stopping for traffic lights.  He kept a diary of all his workouts and races going back to the 1930s.  His course record for this 20 mile workout was 2:13:20 set in 1966 and is equivalent to a 2:53 marathon.

Another story comes from the blog of distance runner George Brose, as told by fellow runner Thomas Coyne: “ Apparently, Ted used to run to work in the morning and run home at night as a regular part of his training.  His route went past one of New York’s famed mental institutions, Bellevue.  He did this for years.  On one morning, Ted was planning to race that afternoon, so he cut short his run and was walking when he passed the facility.  A guard at the front gate came out and asked: “Is anything wrong?”  Ted replied, “No!  Why do you ask?” and the guard answered, “I’ve never seen you walk before.”  

One of road running’s greatest streaks was what Ted Corbitt achieved over 13 years.  He ran two workouts per day for 13 consecutive years from January 1955 to July 24, 1968. The streak ended on a 36 mile training day (20 miles to work; 3 miles lunchtime; 13 miles home) when Corbitt encountered yet another dog on the run home that led to an injury ending the streak.  

What Ted Corbitt contributed to run culture could for an entire year’s worth of this column, so look out for more on him throughout 2021.  

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When Curtis isn’t writing and editing for Mid Strike Magazine, he is the executive director of the nomadic microcinema The Luminal Theater (@luminaltheater) which exhibits Black independent film in and for Black communities, and is also the club manager for Black Men Run NYC (@blackmenrunnyc

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