Running into Obsession

Since many teams are embarking on some long training right now, we thought we’d post this extract from a piece about Arthur Lydiard, the pioneer of long-distance training. It is a lot longer than this, but there’s no way we’d want to publish twenty-five pages right here…

“Running into Obsession: The Church of Arthur Lydiard”
(extract)
“They still say I’m wrong, but it doesn’t worry me.”
- Arthur Lydiard, in an interview with Lochaber Athletic Club, 1987

By Jane

In the haze and cloud that rise off Manakau Harbour, the hills that stretch beyond West Auckland are known for little but their slightly flashy suburbs and relative inaccessibility from the city by public transport. The town’s better-off citizens find their homes at the end of evergreen crescents and avenues for a few miles up into the Waitakere Ranges, but after the clean streets of Titirangi give way to bush, Auckland’s city limits are thought to come to an end.
Once the sharp, clean asphalt has surrendered to dirt roads and steep inclines, unsuitable for the well-to-do people living below, there begins a trek through the ranges that has become synonymous with a coming-of-age of runners. Numbering ten miles, a handful of people began pounding out this route through Auckland’s volcanic hills in the 1950s because a burgeoning coach called Arthur Lydiard told them to.

People like Arthur Lydiard shouldn’t be trusted. Normally, you’d be advised to steer clear of someone as zealous as this man, a young man in the late 1950s, who had some brilliant ideas, completely at odds to the common practices in New Zealand athletics training. His idea that runners should complete one-hundred miles per week of endurance training for ten weeks before embarking on speed work was unproven and virtually untested, but the sharp-tongued, gruff Lydiard managed to convince a small number of people that he was right. Not often are
someone’s initial guinea pigs the most successful athletes in a nation’s history.

Short, wiry and weathered, Arthur’s utterance of “hello” felt like a lecture. The sparkling blue eyes at the top of a prominent, Roman nose were visible from quite a distance and you always knew when you were being watched. Arthur Lydiard did not waste his time on people who did not want to spend their time doing what he told them. He did not ask questions and he did not make suggestions. You, he’d say, can be a champion. No reasons, unless you probed him. No explication. You can.

Arthur Lydiard was born in 1917, and he died on a December afternoon in 2004 after going running in the morning. His critics will tell you that it was his training that killed him; all that damned distance can’t be good for the heart, after all. Sometimes, it seems that people were waiting a good forty years for him to kick the bucket just so they could blame his ideas on physiology. A man who avidly practiced what he preached, Arthur’s idea was for athletes to ultimately achieve supreme fitness by running extreme distances. If being supremely fit means that one dies at the age of eighty-seven, then maybe that’s just the price you have to pay.

Long periods of aerobic running (that is, running at a pace that can be sustained without a person going into oxygen debt and having to stop) aren’t all that much fun. Neither are long periods of aerobic swimming, kayaking, or cycling, and to top off the fun, an “aerobic” pace is by no means “slow”. There is an intensity involved in completing an Arthur Lydiard-style programme that will wear a person’s body down to their last shreds of fat, sometimes producing athletes who look like they would be better off in hospital, or at least at Jack in the Box, than out
being athletic.

All that running around in the hills behind Auckland definitely prepared one athlete rather well for his Olympic event. Barry Magee competed in the marathon at Rome, a race whose passage up the Appian Way took runners over ancient rocks, in the dark, with the flashbulbs of photographers going off in their faces.

Magee first came to believe that Lydiard was onto something decent when he was eighteen, eight years before Rome, and “all the boys in Arthur’s stable were improving faster than anybody in the country.” Up and down New Zealand, Arthur’s name was gaining infamy, but true to human nature’s stubborn form, nobody outside of his small circle was listening.

New Zealand is sometimes laughed at on an international scale, when it comes to sport. We think we’re pretty hot stuff, much of the time, and then we leave Auckland airport. We think we own the sport of rugby and we get beaten by France. We think we own cricket, but Australia has other ideas. We know we’re no good at soccer, but there was one time in the eighties when we made the World Cup finals and we still talk about it. We’re good at netball, but Jamaica is better.

Arthur dragged three men in particular through his training programme prior to the Rome Olympics. As per usual, nothing much was expected of New Zealand, and in the first week of the Games, nothing much was presented. The Kiwis did not even field a swim team in Rome, and the medal count was low until the second of September, when both Peter Snell and Murray Halberg raced.

Snell was a twenty-one year old from Opunake, a small town in western New Zealand. His family moved to Mount Albert while Snell was still in high school. A big-boned, muscular man who was talented at many sports, some doubted whether his size would allow him to be a good runner. Lydiard, however, had noted Snell’s talent and speed in 1958, and had promised him that endurance training could turn him into a great middle-distance athlete. On September second, Snell had made the final of the 800 meters.

Murray Halberg wasn’t nearly the size of his training partner Snell, but he was a hard-working distance runner, who, on September second, had qualified for the final of the 5000. Within thirty minutes of each other, the two men who lived in the same suburb of Auckland had won both their finals. Halberg was waiting in the call room for his race when he heard of Snell’s victory in the half-mile. To add to this astounding duo, Barry Magee won the bronze medal in the marathon. It appeared to be proven beyond doubt that Arthur Lydiard was right: ndurance training is the way to achieve optimal results.

“There were no shades of grey with Arthur,” says New Zealand swim coach David Wright, who also coached runners during the seventies and eighties, using Lydiard principles. “He was your very best friend and would die for you, or you didn’t exist. Your dedication and your faith determined how you were treated.”

Wright was also responsible for much of the work that went into converting Lydiard training from running to swimming, spending almost ten years perfecting a regime in the pool. He has published two books on the subject, Swim to the Top and Swimming: Training Program. As orthodox as they come in terms of Arthur’s believers, Wright made sure to adhere to the doctrines initially set forth in the 1960s.
“The job I had was to use what I knew about swimming to adapt his principles for the pool, but not to change them one bit. To change them would be virtually sacrilegious.”

Sacrilege. Unorthodox. Believers. Passionate people use words like these. They hint at an element of obsession. One could wonder why Arthur Lydiard cared so much about what he did. A man who died on tour in Texas, coaching Houston’s offering of athletes, something drove him to distraction about both his principles and those who believed in them. Renowned teacher, writer and runner Roger Robinson thinks that Arthur’s fixation with athletics stemmed from a few places. First and foremost, his obsession was
personal.

“(His programme) wasn’t just a scheme,” Robinson says from his home in New York City. “It was not just a teacher teaching chemistry; he was teaching something that he had invented. It was highly personal.” Robinson, who lived in New Zealand for many years, knew Arthur well. Amongst Robinson’s achievements in sport was a victory in the Master’s section of the New York Marathon. He sees Lydiard’s personality as being highly fueled by personal interaction, and he had respect only for people who showed him their worth through actions, rather than words.

“I wrote to him after the death of his (second) wife, Eira,” Robinson says when recounting how he and Lydiard first became friends. He had met Arthur and Eira at a function only six months before she died of cancer. “I told him that I felt bad for him. Arthur never forgot that. The personal contact. From then onwards, we were friends.

“What frustrated him the most was when people didn’t work,” Robinson continues. “He realised that hard work had made him successful. He felt betrayed when people expressed an interest and then didn’t work. Why am I wasting my time?”

This sentiment is echoed by Magee when he recounts the first time he met Lydiard. His coach, Gil Edwards, had decided that Magee was too talented for him to handle and that Arthur could do Magee justice. “Son, are you prepared to run 100 miles per week? If not, just tell me, because you would be wasting your time and mine,” Lydiard said. Having “stuttered out the word yes,” Magee found himself in Arthur’s are for another twelve years.

The refusal to be shortchanged by anyone, whether it be by someone’s criticism (which he took extremely badly) or by their lack of dedication, could often come across as qualities bordering on stubbornness and an opinionated vanity. However, those who knew him recognized that what was really present was, in Roger Robinson’s words, a complete conviction in himself. He was a “compulsive teacher” whose passion in life was helping others. Incidentally, he used the word “coach” very, very rarely. He referred to himself as a “teacher” and claimed to have “helped” people with their athletic careers. “I helped the Finnish national team,” Arthur would say, referring to his time in Finland as a national coach. He’d say the same thing about being in Mexico and when referring to various other places he’d visited and runners he’d known. From his words, you’d have thought he’d just sent these teams and people a few letters, watched them run a couple of miles and went home. In some ways, his program was all about him – he invented it, he fought for it and he believed in it fervently. On the other hand, once his own running career was over, it was not about him in the slightest. When I was in his home, it was all about me.

Young people won’t recognize how pioneering Lydiard’s attitude towards women athletes was. Women and men who grew up in the eighties and nineties have spent their entire twenty or thirty years understanding the notion of sexual equality in sports. The marathon was made an official Olympic event for women in 1984, and many athletes will not remember a time when it was not included. Of course, to a certain extent, hangovers from the days when women were not considered fit to partake in heavy exercise still exist; however, in the time when Lydiard was developing his initial program, the idea of anyone, let alone a woman, exercising as tirelessly as he proposed was truly revolutionary. He was an avid feminist in his refusal to entertain the thought that women couldn’t take part in his training.

Someone who should know about sexism in sport is Kathrine Switzer. She was the first woman to officially enter and run the Boston Marathon, because her 1967 entry of “K.V. Switzer” was assumed to be male. She survived race co-director Jock Semple’s attempt to forcibly remove her from the event by leaping from a press bus and grabbing her. With her coach and boyfriend, Switzer finished the race in around four hours and twenty minutes, even though her time was never officially recorded and her participation not made official, either.

Her experience in Boston, and in future races, gave her the determination to work for equality in sport. Seven years after her first Boston Marathon, Switzer completed the same race in two hours, fifty-one minutes, smashing the three hour “barrier” and running the race officially, as women had been welcomed to the event in 1972. Her efforts in Boston and worldwide are remarkable. She is married to Roger Robinson and talks about Arthur Lydiard like he was a rock star.

“He believed in women’s ability to succeed when most people didn’t. He thought there was no difference. It was just a matter of making them believe,” Switzer says. But his belief in women, she thinks, also stemmed from a more personal source. “Another motivation was his sex appeal. He was a sexy guy. Charismatic. Vain. He loved women’s attention, but didn’t like silly women. There were sunbeams bouncing off him! He was quick and critical and witty. Because of his personal belief in his success, he radiated a kind of aura. Arthur really knew that he was charismatic and he loved the attention that this brought him. He was motivated by his own charisma.”

Switzer’s other belief is that he was convinced of his idea that there were talented, hard-working people on every street corner in every country; they just had to be found and given the right training and motivation. “At last week’s Boston Marathon, I was talking to
some athletes going into the international hall of fame. They all came from one area of Boston. Arthur showed us that “talent is everywhere”. These boys (Snell, Magee, etc) went to the Rome Olympics and they were from the same neighborhood.”

Robinson and Switzer also point out Lydiard’s egalitarian qualities when it came to runners. Not only did he take people to international glory, he also made people get out of bed after heart attacks and do some exercise. His knowledge of the human body and its physiology led him to believe that exercising after an illness is often the best way to a speedy recovery. Now, Nike does a roaring trade and “joggers” are prolific worldwide. Also laying claim to the coinage of the term “jogging,” Lydiard wrote the first book on the subject, Run For Your Life. The single person who sparked this trend that now has everybody from high school students to pensioners pattering around the sidewalks, a half hour in Italy in 1960 is most certainly not the defining moment of Arthur Lydiard’s life.