Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Running Chronicles of Tom Osler

Tom Osler doesn’t write about running much anymore but he still has a lot to say about the sport he loves and has influenced so much in over 50 years. Tom Osler now 69 and his wife Kathy have two sons Eric and Billy and live in Glassboro New Jersey where he enjoys Tom Osler at the finish of the Ross Kupcha Runpublishing Mathematical research papers (more than 120) and teaching Math at Rowan University (his 49th year as a teacher, 41 at Rowan University). He still runs close to 50 miles a week.

A quick review of Osler’s running accomplishments: over 2100 races run, his first national championship, a 25k race, in 1965. He captured a second national title, for a 30K race in 1967. ItConditioning of Distance Runners was the same year he finished 19th in the Boston Marathon and, later that year, self-published a seminal work on running the 32 page classic, “The Conditioning of Distance Runners”. Osler also published the “Serious Runners Handbook” in the 70’s during the height of the running boom. Dr. Tim Noakes (Author of the Lure of Running) said “”Conditioning of Distance Runners” remains one of the absolute classic training books of the world. Tom Osler's great contribution was to emphasize the importance of peaking training. He was the first to verbalize that in a way that was really understandable to most athletes. Most importantly, he was absolutely correct in what he proposed. Our own research undertaken [in South Africa] shows his principles to be absolutely correct. The principles he described withstood the test of time and are unquestionably real physiological laws."
His second book “Serious Runners Handbook” sold more than 55,000 copies during the Serious Runners Handbookpeak of the running boom in the 1970’s and was called “the best running book” by Osler’s friend and mentor Olympian Browning Ross.
Despite health problems in recent years (notably a stroke at 2003, and a defibrillator in 2005 after heart problems) Osler continues to run with his doctors blessings, and to race each weekend although at a much gentler pace. We recently talked to Tom in a series of interviews about his running life and experiences gathered from more than half a century of running.

Early Years:
Tom, when did you first start running?
Tom: Probably just after I learned to walk (laughs). I started running when I was about to turn 14—it was in January or February of 1954 that I decided to get serious about it.
Jack: How did you get your start-- did someone talk you into going out for the team?
Tom: No, I was at the age where I was trying different sports and I wasn’t very good at baseball, football or basketball. One day a bunch of us decided to see who could run the most around a field and to my shock I could out jog everybody. So that’s when I realized I was born to be a runner! So I asked my brother in law what I could do with this, if there was there any kind of competition for runners. He told me about track. We looked into newspapers and looked at the results of track meets and there was the mile race. That was the longest race and they were running that in five minutes, 5:10, 5:15…
I lived in a row house in Camden NJ and there was a Mack truck factory at the end of the block that we estimated occupied a quarter of a mile. So I ran around the block four times. My brother in law looked at the kitchen clock to time it and it came out to something like six and a half or seven minutes. We figured with a years training we could probably get it down to a good racing speed. Which I did. Everyday I went out and ran four times around the block as fast as I could. So in a year I went out for the track team as a sophomore at Camden High and was their best miler-- I ran a 5:10.
Everyday was the same thing, I ran a mile all out, as fast as I could. That was my training—one mile a day. I was the only person running year round that I knew of.
All the other kids came out in March and started training then for track.
Browning Ross
Jack: Who did you meet first Browning Ross or Harry Berkowitz?
Tom: Oh, Browning. He was essentially the first runner I ever saw. I began the running I just described in January or February of 1954. I read in September in the newspaper that there was going to be this big race in Atlantic City, the National 30 kilometer championship and it was going to start and finish on the Boardwalk at Steel Pier. I got myself a bus ticket and went down there and stood in front of Steel Pier and waited for this race. I remember thinking that runners must be very powerful people—big muscles, well developed like Mr. Atlas! And what shows up but all these skinny people. It was a national championship but I doubt it had more than 20 or Young Tom Osler at the Finish as Browning Ross wins National 30 kilometer Championship25 people in it. That’s how it was in those days. And then Browning Ross showed up and I couldn’t believe what a small rather insignificant looking human being this hero of mine that I’d read so much about was. The race was several laps so you saw them come by several times. The first two laps there was a Canadian champion with Browning, but after that there was nobody with him, it was just Browning. Somebody got me to hold the string at the finish line and you can see me at the finish line of the picture of the race.
Jack: How did you first hear about Browning?
Tom: My brother in law was a good basketball player and up on all sports and he knew about Browning and told me about him—“there was this guy in Woodbury, Browning Ross who was an Olympian.” Actually the first person I saw show up for the race was a guy who wasn’t dressed to run. This guy about 30, had a leather jacket and sunglasses on, his name was Helmut Gude. Gude had been on the Olympic team for Germany in the steeplechase in 1952, a great runner who immigrated to the United States and promised his relatives who sponsored him to come over that he would not race anymore because they were afraid he was going to come over and “waste his time”. In those days people thought running was a waste of time. He promised to “shake the habit”. He never did race. Helmut Gude showed me who all the runners were. He became a good friend of Jack Barry who became a mentor of mine.
Jack Barry
Tom: Jack Barry told me the story that he Browning Ross and Gude one time all went out to Medford Lakes to do a workout on the sand trails in the pines by Atsion Lake. Gude made the remark after the workout that if he could train there all the time he’d be the best runner in the United States. Browning looked at Barry and said “he doesn’t realize it but he’s already the best runner in the United States.”
Jack Barry came from a large family in Merchantville, NJ. He was considered the black sheep of the family, the only one who wasn’t successful. He was very funny, an iconoclast who only wanted to run. His father would wonder why he never settled down with a real job, but he would come out to cheer him on at races. He was about 15 years older than me, I owe a lot to him—he taught me a lot. Oddly he became very successful later in life when he stopped running and started painting. He worked for his brother in a gas station and during the long periods where there was nothing to do he started to paint-- pictures of horses etc. No training, when he would finish he would hang the painting in the gas station and people would come in and want to buy it. He would go to Cooper River and display his pictures and people would buy them. Then he traveled around the country where people had money selling his paintings, finally opening his own gallery in the Moorestown Mall. He told me that other artists would get Po-ed. Here’s an artist with no training, no credentials and people were buying his paintings, he was making all the money. He opened up a gallery of his oils on canvas in the Moorestown Mall and his dad worked for him. He had some paintings that took a long time to paint-- like the trails in the woods in Medford New Tom Osler, Rowan ProfessorJersey where we liked to run. He gave that painting to Jack Pyrah (Villanova Coach) who later gave it to me. He’d make all his money off things he would paint quickly like painting sail boats. He’d paint it very quickly and frame it himself in minutes.
When I met him Jack Barry was 32 at his peak and one of the best runners in the country. He was the 3rd or 4th best marathoner in the country. He didn’t like losing, when he stopped winning races he stopped racing and just trained.

Jack: When did you meet Harry Berkowitz?
Tom: I met Harry Berkowitz at the YMCA. My first race was Camden YMCA in 1954. The 1956 Camden Street Run was Harry’s first race that’s the first time we raced together. We ran track races together that spring, he for Woodrow Wilson and I for Camden. Browning left Woodbury High and went to Woodrow Wilson High to teach history and he founded the cross country team. Camden High did not have a cross country team and I asked my coach Nathaniel Enten if he would start a team and he did, laying out a course in Farnam Park. Coach is the wrong word for these people. He really didn’t coach—he organized. Made sure we had shorts and shoes, made sure we all got on the bus. He really never told us what to do. The coach would come out with his dog, walk his dog around the field and just let me do whatever I wanted.
Jack: You probably knew more than he did…
Tom: I probably did. I had read that runners should keep a steady pace. If you wanted to run 5 minutes you should average 75 seconds a lap, but of course the kids on the team didn’t do that. I was running steady pace and the coach was going nuts. He would see the race start and all of the sudden I’m last and everybody’s running away from me. And later I’m catching them. So the coach came up to me before a race and said: “Look this is not the way to do it. They are getting so far ahead of you and then you have to go catch them. Stay with them and then you won’t have to catch them.” Makes sense to somebody who doesn’t run. I tried to explain to him that all that Tom Osler approaching finish of one of his many races at Cooper River. Photo by Ed Doddwill do is make me tired right away instead of the later stages. But he didn’t understand why I wouldn’t do it. His next strategy was to deliberately walk up to the coach of the other team and say “I’ll bet your boy beats my boy.” I just laughed. I like the fact that he left me alone.
I’d seen coaches from other schools like Harry’s coach who I thought was horrible. Tom Forney was always hollering at kids and acting like a maniac. He treated the runners like it was World War II. Harry who passed away in 2008 was like a brother to me. We were very close.

Jack: Tell us about getting “arrested”.
Tom: It was probably 1964, I was running through the Cooper River Park in Cherry Hill. I came down a hill and was face to face with a police office who yelled “We got him!” and proceeded to grab me and put me in a police car. Now most people did their running in tracks then and it was rare to see anyone running on the streets except for street races. I was running in a pair of green pants like you’d see a workman wear and I had on a sweatshirt. I told the cop “Your making a big mistake buddy, you better let me go or you’re in a lot of trouble.” He told me they had reports of young people stealing cars in that area. When they saw me running towards them, fitting the basic description-- they grabbed me. The thought was there was no reason a person would be running on the streets then unless he was up to no good, running away from something. He eventually called in and checked my address and information and they let me go. It was quite common then to be stopped and questioned by the police while running.

Founding of the Road Runners Club

Tom: Browning invited Harry and I to New York to see the National Indoor Track Meet at Madison Square Garden. As a side show, Browning had asked representatives from other districts to get together before the meet to talk about the Road Runners Club. We went to the Paramount Hotel to meet. The Paramount had a second floor balcony that overlooked the lobby. We saw some chairs and pulled them all together into a circle and that was the meeting, it lasted about an hour and we decided to start this club. Some people were concerned the AAU might get upset about it. It turned out we operated within the laws of the AAU it allowed you to form clubs within the AAU. Like the Penn AC, and the Shanahan Catholic Club, the RRC now became such a club within the AAU. You were permitted to hold events that were for your club. So you joined the AAU, then you joined the RRC and you could run all the RRC races and not risk losing your amateur status. Hal Higdon and I are the only two people still alive that attended that meeting.
Jack: Can you give me an example of the kind of problems Browning faced starting the Road Runners Club?
Tom: We met at the Penn AC club, Browning had been a member for some time. The running part of it was run by Jack Sinclair Sr. Jack Sr was loud and sometimes drank too much. At one meeting when Browning was trying to organize the RRC, Jack Sr came in drunk and was causing a ruckus. Browning got very angry—which you seldom saw—but angry in a quiet way and he got up looked at Sinclair and said “I quit.” And Browning walked out. Sinclair started crying. “Why did he have to quit?” Browning was the star runner of the club. Browning never went back-- he started his own club Delaware Valley Track Club. I started out in the Shanahan Catholic club because Jack Pyrah introduced me to it. The next club I joined was the Delaware Valley Track Club. Browning asked me to join. Then later he formed the South Jersey Track Club.

Early Running Shoes
Jack: You said there weren’t many good running shoes around in the 50’s and early 60’s?
Tom: There weren’t any that you could buy in the store. The most common shoes that you would see for running were the Converse cross country shoe. It had a negative heel-- which is why Browning had such bad Achilles tendonitis. It was very common then because of the bad shoes. The really serious runners like Jack Barry would write to Europe or Japan and have their shoes handmade. Barry was using this shoemaker named Tishi Nishi in Japan. I got my first pair of handmade shoes from him. Then Barry caught onto the idea that Hush Puppy shoes would be very good to race in. Then I picked it up from him.
Jack: You said Browning designed his own shoes but they weren’t that great?
Tom: They were terrible. This was before Tiger shoes were available and they were out about 1966. So Browning’s shoes were out in around 1963 maybe. They were professionally made. Apparently in Browning’s mind runners were cheap, and they didn’t like the idea that their running shoes were wearing out so fast so he got these shoes that wouldn’t wear out. The bottoms were so hard that you wore out first before the shoes. They wouldn’t give.
Jack: Browning always said that running barefoot was best, and that you didn’t need fancy shoes…
Tom: I tried running in bedroom slippers as a transition to running barefoot. It didn’t work for me. I won my first national championship in street shoes.
Jack: When did you and Kathy meet?
Tom: In 1967 when I was teaching at Saint Josephs College. We met at a friends house-- Al Williams a marathoner friend of mine invited me and Kathy to New York. Kathy was a student at Hunter College in New York City. I lived in New York City from 1962 to 1966.
I met Ed Dodd around 1961 at races and I taught him math at St Joes. I met Neil Weygandt around the same time. Neil’s record of consecutive Boston Marathons (43) is unbelievable. For Neil to be healthy every year in the middle of April for Boston every year is amazing.
Dr. George Sheehan
When did you meet George Sheehan?
Tom: I met him at the Boston marathon. Boston had 200 runners then tops and we all stayed at the Lennox hotel. You knew a lot of people there, a sizable fraction of the field. Runners have always been a fairly upscale group of people. Professional educated people—it was that way then too.. A group of us met in the lobby and decided to get together the night before the race at a really nice Italian restaurant. There were really quite a few of us, 15 or 16. I happened to be sitting next to George Sheehan, who I had never saw before. I guess George was in his late 30’s and was relatively unknown.
We’re sitting there-- a fairly impressive group of people, one runner is an engineer, Ted Corbitt a Physical Therapist, and here’s George Sheehan who’s a heart specialist. We were sitting there eating, having a nice discussion, when all of the sudden George goes “Whahhhahhahhhhhhh!!!” – (a Tarzan yell). We all stopped and looked at him and George said “I just get so excited at these events.”
I thought here’s another one of these crazy guys…. I guess we won’t hear much from him again.
Of course George goes on to become a great running guru. I’m sure at that moment everyone thought we probably won’t see this guy again. Of course he became the most read and talked about runner of our time. He spoke for runners in his writing. He really seemed to hit the pulse of running. He was a very good writer and a very nice man. He had a dozen kids and was always very down to earth. He drove a little old car and always dressed in jeans and a casual shirt. George was the sweetest guy in the world. When I wrote my Serious Runners Handbook, he was at the time the famous running author.
Occasionally we were the featured speakers at a major race and he Kathy and I would go out to dinner. We were close, we got along really well. When he died I was surprised that one of his sons wrote a book about him that was very negative and critical. I thought “wait until you get older and you have kids, you might be sorry.”

Bill Bowerman
Tell us about meeting Bill Bowerman the famous Oregon and Olympic track coach and co-founder of Nike.
Tom: Bowerman was a real gentleman. Another very down to earth guy. You would never know that he was a famous track coach. He was very easy going like the guy next door. I met him at Runners World’s National Running Week between Christmas and New Years in Palo Alto. We were on the stage together in a panel discussion. A few years later I met him in Texas at the Houston marathon. Before the race I was taking my sweat suit off and looking around and he said “What are you doing?” I said “I’m looking for someplace to hide my sweat suit so I can find it when I come back.” He said to me “Give it to me I’ll hold it for you.” I looked at him and I said Tom Osler Photo Courtesy Tim Hawk SJ News“Wow! This will be a story to tell. An Olympic Track Coach holding my sweats while I ran the race. He just laughed. A couple of months later, at Christmas time my door bell rings and there’s the mail man with a big box. I open it up and there’s a big Christmas wreath on top. And inside are several pairs of different Nike running shoes, shorts, shirts and different Nike apparel on this box that Bowerman had sent me as a gift. This was around 1980.

Another Book?
Jack: Have you ever thought about writing another book based on lessons learned as a runner since your last running book over 30 years ago?
Tom: No. I didn’t like the idea of writing a book just to write a book. What I did like was writing a book because I had something to say that hadn’t been said. That’s why I wrote Conditioning of Distance Runners. When I wrote the second book I felt Conditioning of Distance Runners had been like a skeleton—it described the essence of the ideas behind training but didn’t go into details. Things like dealing with different kinds of weather and all of the things you run into as a runner. So I thought I would expand on that and that was Serious Runners Handbook. Plus I had experience with ultra marathons which I hadn’t had when I wrote Conditioning.
Jack: What have you learned since those books came out?
Tom: Not a whole lot. My days as a competitive runner, somebody to be reckoned with were over by the time I did Serious Runners Handbook. After that the only things that I can say that I have learned injury is caused by running hard when you are tired. I was just in Barnes and Noble and picked up Runners World. They had an issue titled “”Run Injury Free for the rest of your life”. I looked at it and it was just baloney. Do this exercise.. you are getting injured because your hips are this or that.. It’s much simpler than that. You get injured because you are doing something your body just can’t take. You are running hard and you’re tired at the same time—that’s when you get hurt. If you don’t do that you’ll really cut down injuries. However the problem is that’s what a runner does in a race.
He gets tired at the end of a race and he runs hard. You’ve got to be cautious and sparing of what you do in a race. You have to realize that the final stages of a race are destructive.
Jack: That’s the point where the coach will yell for the athlete to push even more. They don’t realize they may possibly be contributing to their athletes to get injured…..
Tom: You’re paying a price so you have to think-- is it worth it to you. Do you want to run for the rest of your life or do you want to run well now and to hell with the future. At least realize that the sport itself has its built in (injury) problem—you get a guy who is a serious runner and wants to go all out every time in races and its destructive. The older you get the more destructive it gets.
Jack: So what is your training like these days?
Tom: I’m careful to not push myself too much in races, I don’t want to get in any physical difficulty, under no circumstances do I want to go back to a hospital so I usually race comfortably-- no faster than a 9 minute mile pace. This makes it hard to find a comfortable training pace because I am starting to run so slow. It’s hard to run at 10 or 11 minute mile or slower pace. It’s almost more efficient to walk. So I invented what I call “slogging” Slogging is a running pace that is upright with barely forward momentum. I can cover two hours at a time at this pace comfortably.
It’s much more comfortable than running at a slow pace. With slogging I’ve been able to spend enough time on my feet to finish the Broad Street 10 miler and the Philadelphia Distance run (13.1 miles).
Jack: The hope is maybe other runners can learn from your experiences....
Tom: It’s been said that when someone passes away it’s like a library burning down. When a person passes away all their knowledge and experiences go with them.

Note: Tom Osler was honored last spring with a prestigious teaching award, the MAA New Jersey Section Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics.

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