An icon who met another named Amby
by Beth Adair
Back in the winter of 2013, I had the opportunity to meetup for happy hour w/two insanely fast runners, Hal Higdon & Amby Burfoot. I had read one of Hal’s books, and had used his intermediate training plan back in ’99 for my second NYC Marathon. I also had seen many stories over the years in Runner’s World magazine by Amby. I knew they were both elite runners, and Amby was the ’68 winner of the Boston Marathon.
I first met Hal in 2011. I had flown up to NYC to see friends and check out the NYC marathon expo. I figured if I wasn’t running, at least I’d be around positive energy. I wanted to buy some books for my Godson and some kids I knew, and Hal was there. There were a few other elite runners like Dean Karnazes, Bart Yasso and Runner’s World editor-in-chief, David Willey, as well. (This was a treat, as I had read David’s column for years and loved it). Ryan Hall was working, too. He was signing autographs at the expo for fans.
My first meeting with Amby was at the 2012 Runner’s World festival weekend in Bethlehem, PA. He was there to answer questions and promote one of his books. It was great to meet such talent. I used to always think, “I can’t even qualify for Boston, how does anyone win Boston?”. Marge, 1 of my best friends went with me to do the 10K that year. We headed over to meet Amby after the race.
These two are veteran runners. They’ve got thousands of miles under their belts and over 50 years of friendship. Their friendship started as race rivals.
We all met up at the Lodge & Club (lodgemember.com). Amby and his wife Cristina were in town for a couple of weeks in January that year. Amby mentioned too he was getting some of his training done in Jacksonville Beach for the 2013 Boston Marathon. Hal’s wife Rose was unable to attend, unfortunately. I do hope to cross paths with Rose later on at the gym. A couple of other Jacksonville athletes were invited, but unable to attend.
Nothing about either of these two indicated “slowing moving”. If ever there was a cocky “20 something” wanting to throw around their fast race time, I’m pretty sure they’d get close to “losing face” after 20 minutes of talking to these two. Another thing I have to mention is there wasn’t a massive “ego” sitting at the table, either. Hal is over 80, but gets around the gym like someone in their 40’s. He’s very sharp, concise in his writing and has little patience for “lazy”. Amby is the same way. Amby still works at a standing desk and also works in a “mini workout” during the day with small breaks with exercises between writing and editing. Also, they both hold themselves to a high level of integrity.
Hal got started with published articles when he was asked to write an article for Distance Running News, what is now Runner’s World magazine. Bob Anderson had founded Distance Running News, and Hal wrote an article on Ted Corbitt who ran from London to Brighton, England. I knew where both places were & the article was initially commissioned for Sports Illustrated, but not used by them and was featured in the second issue of Distance Running News. It would make Hal the oldest regular contributor. You’ll see Hal’s name in the editorial section of Runner’s World magazine now. Hal sold to many magazines, and became a contract writer for Runner’s World in 1976, with previous articles written for free. Hal was always a full-time journalist. He split to go to The Runner around 1978. Rodale would later acquire Runner’s World and The Runner in the mid-1980’s. (I’ve learned mergers and acquisitions happen a bunch in the airline business, it’s also in journalism).
Hal first met Amby in 1965. THIS IS A GREAT STORY. I can’t make it any funnier than it is without using direct quotes from Hal Higdon himself, so enjoy. “I decided to vacation with my family on Cape Cod and run a lot of road races, since New England was the cornucopia for running back then. Road races barely existed elsewhere in the US. One of the races was in Warren, RI where I got 1st and Amby got 2nd. I was at the top of my game. Amby was a few years away from the top of his. Merchandise instead of money was offered as prizes. Because our family was crammed in a small car, I had to accept a Timex watch. Amby had brought a station wagon and was able to claim for 2nd a massive rotisserie grill that I coveted, but had no room for”. Hysterically, to this day, they still joke about the grill, and I was definitely laughing when I heard the story. Hal mentioned too, that he joked about that in an article he wrote for Sports Illustrated. Amby and Hal also participated in another race together where Hal took first place, at the World’s Fair in New York City.
The two of them were also used as “guinea pigs”, so-to-speak, on a product test. They both participated in a study where the two (along with others) were to run 20 miles a day for three days. Each were put on a treadmill at different times with three different testing’s. (Groups were given water, Gatorade or nothing). The result of the test would be that the groups given water or Gatorade would have improved performance, compared to no water at all. In my own experience, w/all 3 NYC marathons I did, drinking water for the first 13 miles, then alternating water and Gatorade for each mile after mile 13 proved my best performance. No injuries, no cramping and a fun post-race experience. I’ve always been under the notion too, that you are to take a look at the marathon you are doing and see when that specific marathon offers water and/or sports beverages. Adhere to doing that water and sports drink “alternating setup” in your training that’s offered in the race itself. You can also “adlib” by bringing gels with you.
As a kid, Hal didn’t think of running as being fun. It was something he did to impress girls, because quite simply, he was good at it. He went out for sophomore track to gain a letter and later took things a tad more serious when he got to Carleton College. His endeavors took him many places. Later on, Buddy Edelen would be his toughest competitor and both Hal and Buddy were coached by the same man, Fred Witt. These men weren’t “twiddling their thumbs” with a pace of 50:00 for a ten mile race. A five minute pace for that long? Me? No way. Now races offer money and appearance fees vs. grills and timex watches. I remember even reading too, some years back, a story in Runner’s World written by Grete Waitz and her experience being the female winner of the NYC marathon. There was no huge prize then. (I still regret to this day not saying hi to her at the NYC marathon expo in 1997. She was there signing autographs and I was too intimidated being it was my first marathon to say hi.)
Elite runners are very intriguing and there’s a talent I can’t fathom, because it wasn’t my gift. I love to run, and top 10% in the GRR (gate-riverrun.com) was the best I ever did in my “salad days”. Number one will never happen. For Hal and Amby, it seemed to come naturally.
I asked Hal how he met his wife Rose. It was at a bowling alley where he had just gotten out of the US Army and was looking for a lifetime mate. Hal bowled on Sundays with the club he joined and Rose was bowling in the next alley over. He mustered the nerve to get a conversation going and “she only said yes on the 3rd marriage proposal”, and they have lived “happily ever after” since. They have children and Hal also authored a children’s book “The Horse That Played Center Field”. It was later made into an animated feature on ABC-TV. Even now, in their daily activities, they both still strive to be active. At the Lodge gym, (frequented by many a retired pro-athlete), Rose participates in Aqua classes and Hal does work in the gym and uses the bike with him around the neighborhood in Florida. (The Higdon’s also have a residence up North).
Amby met his wife Cristina on staff at Runner’s World. He said she continues to make him laugh everyday. I remember reading too that she bakes amazing cakes, just perfect for dessert after a 10 mile run. Cristina is an attractive brunette, thin, tall and also spoke of a love of running. She mentioned too that she qualified for Boston using a run/walk method. She was a the Boston marathon in 2013 to cheer on Amby and let him know during the race when the bombs hit. Amby was quick to write an article on the experience at the race, and afterwards. It was a heinous halt to a perfect day to run. We will never forget. Cristina & Amby ran Boston again.
Hal continues to be a motivator in his fitness training and running and is always interested in motivating the next generation. The best example of mentoring I witnessed from Hal was over a year ago. I was walking up to the gym sidewalk and Hal was on his way out. He was whizzing towards his car when another young man, in his 20’s, was walking in. He said “Jonathon, how’s your training going?”. It was a quick conversation I didn’t interrupt with a “hi” and it just made Jonathon’s day. I later saw Jonathon in the gym “putting in his time” in the weight room. It was encouraging, and both Amby and Hal practice what they preach.
I’ve often said, “telling a runner not to run is the same thing as telling a squirrel not to have nuts”. Both men said they were very lucky not to be injury prone or ailments preventing them from fitness. Amby mentioned he has completed the Manchester Road Race for 53 consecutive years. He had three big challenges over the course of 53 years. Not wanting to break the continuous streak, one year he had walking pnuemonia (and wheezed whilst running), another with severe tendinitis (where he ran gingerly) and in 2013, he was challenged with clostridium difficule (which induced severe depression). In 2013, he was 15 pounds under normal weight, and unable to enjoy any part of the event, but was able to mentally force himself through it. Good news, in 2014 he fully recovered, had a wonderful time and completed the 2015 race 8th in his division.
Hal continues to write and inspire and books can be found on www.halhigdon.com. Amby still writes for Runner’s World magazine, (online and in the printed publication) and is currently writing a book on training. His contact is www.ambyburfoot.com.
You can’t go wrong dropping either a note or question on your training. Their books are full of knowledge and you’ll get nothing but a positive vibe.