Friday, June 29, 2012

Remembering Jack Pyrah Villanova Coaching Legend

The victorious Villanova 4 x 1 Mile Relay team
wearing black ribbons for Coach Jumbo Elliott at the 1981 Penn Relays.
From left: Ken Lucks, Marcus O’Sullivan (Current
Villanova Coach), Jack Pyrah, John Hunter,
Sydney Maree
 Near the shadow of the Walt Whitman Bridge in Gloucester City, NJ resides one of the best track coaches in the country. Jack Pyrah, now 87 years old, spent 26 years as Villanova assistant track coach under legendary Villanova coach Jumbo Elliott, and 26 years as Villanova’s head cross-country coach. Elliott, considered by many to be the best American distance coach of all time, coached at Villanova for 47 years before passing away in March of 1981.

Jack joined Villanova as Jumbo Elliott’s assistant track coach and head cross-country coach in the fall of 1966 after meeting Elliott in spring of 1965 on a plane on the way to a Knights of Columbus track meet in Cleveland. Jack retired from Villanova in 1991 and is now considered Villanova “coach emeritus.” Upon his retirement, Villanova presented Jack a unique gift--the offer to accompany the Villanova track or cross-country teams to any meet in the country. Jack was inducted into the Villanova Wall of Fame in 2001.

Jack didn’t know when his Uncle George took him to his first Penn Relays in 1934 at age 16, that he would attend 73 Penn Relays in a row, and that he would witness an incredible 54 Championship of America relay victories by Villanova at Penn. More importantly, that first trip to Penn started in motion a lifetime love affair with running and track and field, and a lifetime of friendships with some of the greatest track-and-field athletes of all time.

Jumbo Elliott once said of Jack, “That Pyrah has the mind of a computer when it comes to track.” A visit with Jack reveals not much has changed. Jack still retains an encyclopedic knowledge of current and past runners and of course the famous Pyrah sense of humor.

When asked how he was feeling, Jack replied, “With both hands. That joke’s 90 years old; I’m only 87.”

Jean Pyrah, Jack’s wife of 49 years, just smiles. Jack had a series of health problems in December including a heart attack. Jean acknowledges Jack’s health problems gave everyone a scare and that Jack is currently pursuing physical therapy to build up his strength. A visitor can’t help but notice the similarity between the workouts and dogged mental toughness of the world-class runners Jack coached and the way he pursues his own current physical therapy--a walking trip the length of his Gloucester City street and back and some stair repeats in his house conjure up visions of Sydney Maree, Marcus O’Sullivan, and Don Paige pushing themselves through a workout on Villanova’s track or on the hills close to campus.

Jack grew up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and graduated from Germantown High in 1937. He began his coaching career at Philadelphia’s Shanahan Catholic Club in 1942 in Philadelphia.

Jack coached 18 Olympians at Villanova including Eamonn Coghlan, Marty Liquori, Sydney Maree, and Villanova’s present head coach Marcus O’Sullivan. Jack stepped in and became Villanova’s head track coach in 1981 when Jumbo passed away on March 22, 1981. During his years as head coach, Villanova won three Penn Relays titles and the school’s first Big East Conference Championship. When former Olympian and Villanova alum Charlie Jenkins was hired at the end of the season, Pyrah went back to his previous coaching duties of head cross-country and assistant track coach.

“That Pyrah has heard more sad stories [from Villanova runners] than a bartender!” Jumbo Elliott said once. “He’s so nice, so understanding that some of the runners call him ‘Mother Pyrah.’” Many of Jack’s runners, now spread around the globe, keep in touch with him still. During his illness and at his birthday it’s common for Pyrah to hear from many of his former runners around the country and around the world. Jack is proof that good guys can finish first. Jack won eight IC4A and an incredible four NCAA championships (1966, 1967, 1968, and 1970) as head cross-country coach at Villanova. The 1970 title was famous because it was won after Irish runner Donal Walsh demanded that a film of the race finish be reviewed in order to prove that a Villanova runner had finished ahead of other point scorers and had been passed in the finish chute.

Larry James
When asked for his favorite Penn Relays memory, Jack recalls Larry James winning the 1968 mile relay at Penn, running a 43 quarter and beating a kid from Baylor who ran “only” a 45 second quarter mile. James, a Gold and Silver medallist at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, ran on the World Record 4 x 400 relay team (2:56.16) and later became a coach and Athletic Director at Stockton College in Pomona, NJ.

Marcus O'Sullivan
When asked to name his best runner Jack hesitates. “There have been so many. We’ve had guys who went on to world records and many Olympians, but I guess you’d have to put Marcus O’Sullivan and Sydney Maree at the top of the list. Marcus ran over 101 sub-4 minute miles, and 83 equivalent 1500 meter races at sub-4 minute pace. Sydney Maree from South Africa ran a 3:48 mile, a 3:29 1500 meters, and held the American record (13:01) in the 5000. Browning Ross, Villanova’s first Olympian and member of the 1948 and 1952 Olympic teams, and I met Sydney Maree his first day in America (from South Africa). He ran in a 4th of July race Browning put on in Woodbury, NJ.” Jack chuckles at the memory of a world-class runner debuting in a small, hometown race. “After the race, Browning, Sydney, and I went out to eat at a Woodbury diner,” Jack recalls. “Of course, when the waitress took our order she thought Sydney was pulling her leg when he ordered ‘passion-fruit juice’ with his meal. He said he always ordered it in South Africa but it wasn’t on the menu at the Woodbury Diner!”

Jack has also been a long-time track official in South Jersey until his recent health problems affected his mobility. Jack won’t bring it up but he has a major track meet named after him, the “Jack Pyrah Invitational,” held the first week in December at Villanova.

When Marcus O’Sullivan went on a recent recruiting trip to Kenya, he met former Villanova distance great Amos Korir. Marcus said, “Amos’s first question was ‘How is Jack doing?’” Jack was Amos’s coach at Villanova.

Another former runner, Tom Donnelly, Haverford College track and cross-country coach, was a key member of Jack’s championship teams at Villanova in the 1960s. Donnelly’s runners have earned 97 cross-country and track and field All-American awards since 1980 including 24 individual NCAA championships and an NCAA championship relay team. Tom remembered, “Jack was both loved and respected by every single athlete, male and female, who came into contact with him at Villanova. He was the soul of that program for a third of a century. In his understated way, Jack Pyrah had an enormous positive influence upon hundreds of young athletes. They and Villanova are richer for the experience.”

Jack was introduced to his wife, Jean, by Browning Ross. Jack and Jean married in 1957.

Jack said, “I told Browning it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. More important than all of those trophies you won and all of the electric cooking machines you’ve won at races over the years!” Jean recalled Browning and Jack’s long friendship. “When those two got together they could just spend hours just laughing about the smallest things.” Jack closed his eyes and smiled at the memory.

“Browning would make you laugh; he had so many great sayings. One of my favorites is when he would console one of his runners with, ‘You can’t win ’em all-- you can’t win ’em all especially if you just lost one.’

“I first saw Browning when he was a senior at Woodbury High School. He ran in the AAU championships as a high school kid against grown-ups. He was also New Jersey State Champ in the mile. I don’t think people realize just how good Browning was. Many of the area (South Jersey) high school coaches have never even heard of him.”

Jean Pyrah adds, “One of the toughest things about getting older is there are less and less people to share common memories with, things you’ve experienced together.”

(By the way, I’ve noticed that all of the Elliott/Pyrah products who have gone on to coaching--Browning Ross, Larry James, Tom Donnelly, and Marcus O’Sullivan to name a few--share the Elliott/Pyrah characteristics of a sense of humor and common sense approach to training, and an unsurpassed knowledge and love of running.)
On a personal note, over the years Jack has been an enormous help to me in my own coaching career at Gloucester Catholic.

With his easy-going nature, sense of humor, friendship, and expert knowledge of the sport, Jack is a great person to compare notes with and has been a huge help to me. He has even helped me brainstorm trying to think of ways to get more kids out for the cross-country team in years when numbers were small for either the boys’ or girls’ teams. To meet Jack Pyrah is to understand why so many runners--from Olympian Jim Ryun, to his Villanova greats, to local high school runners--make a beeline to talk to him when they see him.
Villanova Track Secretary Ilene Lee sums it up: “Jack is just a treasure.”

Jack Pyrah held the title of “assistant emeritus” at Villanova University after his retirement from coaching. He joined his colleague Jumbo Elliot, in the U.S. Track and Field and Cross-Country National Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006. Jack passed away in July of 2007 and is missed by all who knew him.
This article was written by Jack Heath and previously appeared in Runners Gazette Magazine

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Coconut Water for Hydration

Coconut Water is high in potassium, calcium, phosphorous and magnesium, and has been used by The Pittsburgh Penguins and other NHL teams for hydration for at least the last four years in addition to he  other more common hydration drinks  like Powerade and Gatorade  because it has 15 times the potassium of those common sports drinks. In February 2010, Madonna,  invested $1.5 million in  Brazilian Vita Coco coconut water after discovering its hydration benefits on her last world tour.
Recently Pepsi announced it will sell its own version of coconut water called "Naked Coconut Water".  Coconut water is high in Vitamin C, contains no cholesterol and has no added high fructose corn syrup-- it's only ingredient is natural coconut water, or as it's ads say "just coconut and a straw.
  The Gloucester Catholic Cross Country Team has been using coconut water for the past few seasons. The team seems to liker the pineapple and mango versions of coconut water the best. Coconut water contains more potassium than two bananas (to prevent cramping) and it tastes great which aids in hydration, and it also contains much less sodium than the usual sports drinks.
Coconut waters two major drawbacks have been availability and cost.
 Now that coconut water is getting some press, it is also easier to find in our local stores. Recently we've been able to find it in many of the supermarkets in Southern New Jersey for the first time.
 Hopefully with a variety of sources of coconut water becoming more prevalent, and with the Material Girls financial muscle behind it, Coconut waters cost will drop as well.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Billy Mills 1964 Gold Medal Winner 10,000 Meters

With the 2012 London Olympic Summer Games approaching (opening ceremonies July 27), it is impressive to note that Billy Mills  is still the only American to ever win the Olympic 10,000 meters.

US 10,000 Meter Gold Medalist Billy Mills (1964)

Mills a native American and US Marine is a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, was a tremendous underdog in 1964.
His victory in the 1964 Tokyo Games, included a thrilling finish and a new the world record (28.24.4) in
the 10, 000 meters.

and his incredible life story-- making the US Olympic Team against huge odds, captivated the world.
Mills story was later told in the movie Running Brave, which has served as an inspiration and motivation for the millions who have watched around the world. 

Billy Mills today working with Indian Youth

Billy is still active-- he travels over 300 days a year giving motivational talks throughout the country, he still runs for fun,  and works with Indian youth 
Billy visits American Indian communities throughout the U.S. and speaks to American Indian youth about healthy lifestyles and taking pride in their heritage.

Billy has been married to his wife Pat for over 45 years, and Billy and Pat have 3 daughters and granddaughters.

Billy has also written an inspirational book with Nicholas Sparks called "Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Understanding."

Billy recently took the time to wish the Gloucester Catholic Cross Country Team good luck and to "remember to find your passion and follow your dreams" advice he followed to win the only American 10,000 meter gold medal and provide a life of service that continues to positively impact thousands of American youth.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Browning Ross

Ross winning 1 of his 10 Berwick 10 mile races.
He was Gloucester County’s only two-time Olympian. A close friend and fellow distance runner, Tom Osler, lionized him as “The father of distance running in the United States.” He is mentioned in the autobiography of Roger Bannister, the world’s first sub-4 minute miler. When he died of a heart attack, April 27, 1998, after his daily three-mile run near his Woodbury home, the New York Times devoted 20 inches to his obituary.

And while the hearse was delivering legendary Browning Ross to his final resting place, members of the Gloucester Catholic High School track team he coached so proudly jogged alongside in a tear-provoking, gut-wrenching tribute.

Villanova Olympian Ross

Ross, one of Gloucester County's most accomplished athletes in history, a will-o-the-wisp running machine from Woodbury High and Villanova who represented his country in the London and Helsinki Olympics and raced competitively around the globe, would be 87 years old.

So not everyone remembers the man or his bigger-than-life persona.
But Jack Heath remembers. And he is determined to not let others forget.

Heath, a Bellmawr resident who coached with Ross, was a member of his Ram teams, and considers him the most important person in his life next to his parents, is gathering data for a book about Browning he hopes to complete and publish this year.

“I never would have coached without Browning’s influence and encouragement,” says Heath, Gloucester Catholic’s cross-country coach for nearly 30 years. “I want kids to be able to go to the library to read the book and discover how important he was to running. Few people around here know what he accomplished. I also want to convey what kind of person he was. His story is long overdue.”

     Heath, whose full-time job is in computer technology with the Social Security Administration and who was GC’s first computer classroom instructor, met Ross at Gloucester Catholic in 1974 when Ross was coaching at the school for one of three stints spanning three decades.
     Heath came out for spring track wearing baseball spikes, set on trying out for jumping events.
“Ross told me, ‘Jack, try the mile.’ I ran a 5:30. He said, ‘You’re gonna be a good distance runner.’ So after that, I ran the mile, two-mile, and steeplechase.”

Heath graduated from Gloucester Catholic in 1977, after establishing the school’s two-mile record and becoming the first Ram to qualify for the state Meet of Champions, and his path would cross Ross’ on almost a daily basis for the next 21 years via competition and coaching.

Says Heath, “Many coaches treat kids like kids, but Browning treated you like you were a real person. One of his coaching strengths was how nice and how generous a person he was.

Tom Osler: Ross was the Father of US Distance Running
“He was humble. But he was a great coach who was ahead of his time. "
"There is a recent New York Times bestselling book ‘Born to Run' that talks about the benefits of barefoot running-- Ross sometimes had his Ram runners working out barefoot because he said your feet could become atrophied in running shoes." So Heath once raced and won a shoeless half-mile race in a Moorestown Friends track meet.

 "He knew what worked. He was ‘sane’ with his training,  he advocated running 40 miles a week as the minimum needed to reach your potential.”
 Heath has enough Ross memories to fill several chapters in his book.

Once, when he was running for Glassboro State College, Heath was asked by Ross to help him coach Gloucester Catholic.

“I’ll be by to pick you up at 3,” Ross told him. “I told him I wasn't interested in coaching. He ignored me and then said 'how about 3:30?' I thought he was kidding. But he picked me up, right at 3:30 ... and I became his assistant and have been coaching at Gloucester Catholic ever since.”

Heath says Browning told him he “struggled with French” at WHS but his teacher gave him a good grade, figuring he’d never have to use the language again. “He got a kick out of mailing her a postcard from Normandy when he was serving in World War II.”
 Ross ran in the steeplechase in the 1948 London Olympics, placing seventh (Boston Marathon champion John Kelley was his roommate), and was 12th in his steeplechase heat in 1952 at Helsinki, failing to make the finals because of an upset stomach. In the 1951 British Games he placed fifth to Roger Bannister’s mile victory and received a mention in Bannister’s book "The Four Minute Mile".

Ross after winning Vestal run, Binghamton, NY
 “He had great speed and won races at varying distances all over the country,” Heath says. “I think Browning’s best distance was 10 miles. He won the Berwick, Pa. 10-miler 10 times.”
There were countless Ross accomplishments besides being a 2 time US Olympian, he was a  high school (Woodrow Wilson and Gloucester Catholic) and college (Rutgers, Camden) coach; coach of the first US world cross-country team; started the first US national runners’ club (RRCA) and put on thousands of track and road races; published the first nationwide runners’ magazine (The Long Distance Log a precursor to Runners World which he mailed himself) and member of the US Long Distance Hall of Fame.
     Heath was scheduled to coach with Ross in a meet against Williamstown the day after Ross died.
Browning Ross officiating at Woodbury Relays
“I talked to him almost every day,” Heath says. “When the phone rang that day with the news he had died, I thought it was him calling about the meet. It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had. The whole running community felt the same way. To me, running just didn’t feel the same; running and racing just hasn’t been as much fun for many of us who knew him. "

“But Browning’s greatest accomplishment was being a good father. He was a great family man (wife Sis, son Barry, daughters Bonnie and Barbara).”

The late Sis Ross once said of her husband, “No one loved running as much as Browning.”

Jack Heath will offer additional proof.

Written by: Bob Shryock Gloucester County Times

Friday, June 15, 2012

Jim Plant To The Rescue

"One man with belief is equal to a force of ninety-nine who have only interests"John Stuart Mill

Jim Plant knew something was wrong. The former Gloucester Catholic track and cross country standout, and 1978 graduate could tell the water in his Pompano Beach Florida stand was polluted even though the beach flags said "all clear" to swim.
Plant, a full time Life Guard who had saved numerous people in the surf, knew the water contained enough bacteria to make swimmers seriously sick no matter what the flags or tests said. He knew the water.
Plant investigated with the same tenacity that made him an outstanding runner at Gloucester Catholic and Stockton College. He found out that bacteria levels in the water were ten times the safe limit. He also found out that the EPA had changed the rules in 2003 making it easier to discharge waste into the water.

South Jersey Running Legends Jim Plant and Jamie Bagley
Plant fought to make changes in the discharge process and also to close the beaches when the water was unsafe. The beaches were only being closed when the water levels were unsafe for 3 days in a row. There was a lot of tourist money at stake. Plant knew it only took one day of swimming in the unsafe surf to make someone very sick.

At first there were repercussions-- attempts to force Plant
off his job, lawyers refusing to take his case. At one point
Plant even got sick from working in the water. But Plant refused to be intimidated.

Through Plant's hard work and his one man crusade, things eventually started to turn around.
Plant appeared on NPR to talk about the water quality to millions of listeners. The feedback was quick and loud.
The opposing side suddenly was not as intimidating, not as threatening when the public became aware of how bad the water really was-- how dangerous it was to do a wholesome activity-- swim in the surf with your family.

Thanks to Plants efforts, the water is now tested daily by the Pompano high school science classes and results are posted online for all to see

Plant has been a successful runner, a professional musician with two CD's released and an award winning life guard, but his greatest contribution may have been having the courage to do the right thing against the odds, and to fight to make sure that the ocean where he lives and works is safe for everyone.
         Update: Jim Plant's latest CD has been remastered and is available on itunes and Amazon: