When Running Was Young and So Were We - An Interview with Jack Welch

“We knew all that, even back then.” Jack Welch, sitting in his home in Florida and chatting with me by Skype, continued. “I even put it in the book. I wrote that article in 1975.”

When I talked to Jack, he was in the midst of getting back into training, which in his case meant two runs a day for four months straight. Not bad for someone in their 30’s making a comeback, a bit amazing for a guy in his 67th year. The book he refers to is When Running Was Young and So Were We, a compendium of stories and articles from Jack Welch’s pioneering days as the co-publisher of Running magazine.

“I’m planning on taking a rest day when I travel,” Welch explained.

Understanding the disconnect between Jack Welch, the writer who chronicled so many great athletes and the way they trained, with Jack Welch, the seniors-age runner tackling a regimen that would give most younger folks a moment of awe, requires one more piece of information.

For Jack, there is no halfway. He is, as I like to describe some people, an “all-or-nothing” guy, the kind that finishes races with nothing left in the tank and possibly something tweaked that he pushed through. When you read his book, that attitude of total commitment shines, nowhere as clearly as when he discusses his list of greatest runners.

Steve Prefontaine, Alberto Salazar, Mary Decker Slaney, Joan Benoit Samuelson. The admiration he holds for these athletes goes beyond the results they had on the track and the roads—it’s the toughness he admires. The stories are close and personal, told in a voice of a man that was there, chasing after them on the roads even as Welch co-founded a magazine that could tell their stories.

He also tells his story, a brief bit of it at least, when he writes about his marathon PR of 2:46:07. It wasn’t a world-class time, but the people that cheered for his success were world-class. That’s a testament to the man and athlete as much as the later success of the magazine (Welch and co-founder Ned Frederick sold Running to Nike in 1980) was to the writer. They saw in him the same passion that they had for the sport.

Welch maintains that the mindset of the sport changed when running became a popular – and social - activity.

“In the old days, we wanted to go fast. They’re just trying to have fun.”

Welch isn’t dismissive. He sits somewhere between confused and bemused. The runners in “tutus and clown outfits” aren’t running the same event he is – or used to, at least. I asked him why runners seemed to have slowed down. Back in the day–this is where both of us sounded like our grandfathers-- “Slow people didn’t run. It’s like a martial artist, if all that you do is you get beat up, you might find something more fulfilling.”

Welch notes the average marathon time is now in the high four hour range. In part, he thinks, people don’t treat the race as a race. Instead, marathons in particular, have morphed into celebrations on the move. Thousands show up where mere hundreds used to, which is good for running as a whole. It’s just not what Welch and other racers do.

Disinclined to boss people around, and even more disinclined to bash folks, he suggests two different events – “fun-running” and “foot racing.” Let each group run its own way but understand the differences.

The running magazines reflect some of this difference. His preference is for the longer form found in Running Times, but subscribes to Runner’s World, too. All the magazines show the signs of change; jog bras were unheard of forty years ago. Welch knows, because he knew the ladies that started the company that first developed them. Likewise, the thousand accessories that reside in the glossy pages, ranging from new earbuds for your phone to tech fabrics to safety vests for a four-legged running buddy.

All the magazines cater heavily to the personalities found in the sport.

“This country doesn’t like just genius and hard work, they also want flair and glibness.”

One of his favorite magazines is New England Runner. He started racing in 1973, in Connecticut, in races featuring a couple of dozen racers instead of twenty thousand. Today, Welch sees names he recognizes, still racing, some of them still winning age group awards as they move into their 80’s. They’re the runners who stuck with it, never took a break from running and managed not to get broken either.

The focus on the top end of the running community gets balance from “a million runner blogs.” Welch thinks that the magazines are doing just fine, even if the material gets recirculated every half decade as a new cadre joins us on the roads, trails, and treadmills. The blogs tell the story of everyman, the overweight guy who loves to run that he doing a twenty miler on a bum knee on Sunday, or the mom with too little time who runs in the dark even in summer so she can get her kids going and get to work on time. Those stories, about the rest of us, get written by the bushel.

Welch acknowledges a joy in running (something he never got from writing, as skilled as he was) but his passion, where his prose surges, lies with the racer, the warrior who steps to the line to measure himself one more time.

His book, When Running Was Young and So Were We, celebrates that style of runner, a hardcore racer that left everything on the course. He wrote the book to be evergreen, as a means for the rest of us to see the beauty and dedication of the sports in the first wave of the running boom. In each of the vignettes, you learn more of the great runners, their hopes, some fears, and total dedication. Patti Catalano, the first American woman to break the 2:30 minute marathon barrier in New York in 1980. The articles in the book cover dozens of runners, the great and nearly-great, who shared a deep-seated need to go fast and a willingness to hurt.

“No one,” he maintains, “could hurt like Joanie,” and that made Benoit Samuelson a favorite.

My youngest daughter dips in and out of the narratives in When Running Was Young, seeking to put her sport into perspective. For her, the stories of “Joanie” are history, not memories. She thinks of Mary Decker Slaney as a name in record books, not pig-tailed “little Mary Decker” who fired the imagination of so many girls in 1973. The stories still inspire.

When asked, Jack Welch offers a list of criteria for inclusion on his list of greatest runners. The primary element at the world-class level is that the runner “stand on the line next to the East Africans and isn’t afraid.” Names like Galen Rupp, Shalane Flanagan, Simpson, Colson, and Davida roll off his tongue. Kara Goucher. There’s more but he admits the women are doing a better job of competing than the men.

He doesn’t know why.

Other names exist, but not in the national magazines. Some will be found in New England Runner, or Northwest Runner, hidden in the age group brackets. Many won’t even be at the top of the finishers. You can recognize them–Jack Welch certainly will–by the faces at the finish, a special look in the eyes.

And look to the local cross country races and high school track meets. The next generation of racers is already standing there, at the start line waiting for a gun.

As much as When Running Was Young and So Were We was written for the runners who lived through the period, it’s an inspirational manual reaching across generations, a nod from the oldster who recognizes the racer in the kids.

“I understand. You need to go fast.”

Jack Welch still yearns for that feeling. I don’t know if Jack ever took that day off. I’m betting against it.

You can find Jack Welch's book at all fine retailers and Amazon. My thanks to Jack for letting me turn the tables and be the guy doing the interview. 

Paul Duffau

Paul is the author of two fictional tales of runners: Finishing Kick (recognized by Running Times in their Summer Reading list July, 2014); and his newest novel, Trail of Second Chances. He blogs on the running life and interviews people that he finds interesting.