Ted Corbitt, Pioneer Known for "Quiet Activism," on the 100th Anniversary of His Birth
January 31, 2019, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ted Corbitt, the founding president of New York Road Runners and a towering figure in running. Corbitt died in 2007 at age 88 but his pioneering spirit lives on. In celebration of the anniversary, we spoke to Ted Corbitt’s son, Gary Corbitt, about his father’s life and legacy. Gary Corbitt will be at NYRR Club Night on January 31 as part of a special tribute to “the father of long-distance running.”
New York Road Runners: What are your early memories of your father’s running?
Gary Corbitt: I was born in 1951 and I followed running religiously. Instead of reading comic books, I read Track & Field News and Long Distance Log.
When my father made the 1952 Olympic team in the marathon, the first African American to do so, the team paraded down Broadway and my mother and I were there to watch. Sometimes I have a vision of the noise and excitement, but it’s not realistic that I actually remember it. But to know that I was there is special.
Four years later, at the 1956 Yonkers Marathon, he tried to make his second Olympic team and finished fourth, so he missed by one spot. My mother and I were there to meet him at the finish, and in the post-race photo my face is up against his and his whiskers are tickling me. It’s a happy memory for me—little did I know how disappointed he was.
He never dropped out of a race. At the 1963 Yonkers Marathon, I saw him at the 10-mile mark, leading a small pack. The image of this group, running at a good clip in a picturesque area, is still vivid to me 56 years later. I saw him again at around 14 miles, climbing a hill, running with a noticeable limp. Despite this injury, he finished in 2:52.
NYRR: What are your thoughts on your father’s legacy as “the father of long-distance running”?
GC: I consider my father one of the founding fathers of long-distance running in this country, and the father of ultra-distance running and of course measurement, but there were others. Browning Ross also gets called the father of long-distance running, and neither of them would’ve cared one way or the other who’s called that [laughs]. I think they both get called that because of all their accomplishments and contributions to our sport. Browning Ross started the Road Runners Club of America, but at that point my father was more concerned with his athletics. When Ross had the first meeting of the RRCA, my father chose to work out that day.
NYRR: Your website, Ted Corbitt Archives, calls your father “an American pioneer.” What’s meant by that?
GC: As a runner, he held a lot of firsts, and as an African-American distance runner he held even more firsts. He wasn’t the first great black distance runner—there were plenty before him—but he set the stage for those who came after. The Archives has a Black Running History Timeline that puts his accomplishments into context.
He introduced weight training to running. In the 1950s and 60s, there was no one advocating weight training for any athletes except for body builders. So he was a pioneer in that respect. He also was an early advocate for interval training and speedwork for distance runners. And his ultramarathoning exploits, particularly his experimentation with high mileage, was both extreme and pioneering.
He would tell you that his most important contribution was in the field of course measurement. For our sport to be legitimate, it had to have a system for measuring courses and verifying records, and he developed that. He would say that this was his greatest contribution to the sport, and I would agree. In the 50s and 60s, race distances were all over the place. When he won the marathon national championship in 1954, that marathon was 26.8 miles! It was a tremendous problem. Recognizing the need for accurately measured courses motivated him to do all he did, along with others, to get the course certification movement in motion.
Being the first president of NYRR and the third national president of RRCA were other contributions. He was part of the first generation of leaders of our sport, those who turned it into the sport we have today. Also pioneering was his work with the NYRR newsletter, which he founded and edited for around 20 years. The newsletter was groundbreaking as a communication with the members.
In physical therapy, I can make the case that his contributions far exceeded those in running. He traveled all over the country and internationally to learn from the masters of the profession and share what he learned. And he was a master clinician. I’ve heard countless stories of patients who were told they needed surgery and my father healed them without surgery. He was the first of a group of physical therapists to bring the latest connective-tissue massage rehabilitation techniques to the U.S. in the 1950s.
NYRR: How did your father manage to accomplish so much?
GC: I often marvel at all that he accomplished. Certainly, running fueled a lot of it. He used to tell me he felt like a king after his 20-mile run to work each morning, and I think this played into his ability to do all he did. He was a workaholic—as a runner, in his profession, and in all that he put into the administrative side of running. The paperwork alone was staggering. For years he signed off on the measurement of all the courses in the United States, so the paperwork would come through our apartment and he would review it and give the OK if the course met the standards. I have many memories of him, past midnight, pecking away on the typewriter. He’d run home from work, have dinner, take a nap, and then get up and be up typing until 1 or 2 in the morning. And then be up again at 6 to run to work again. That was his routine.
NYRR: Did he run to and from work every day?
GC: During his base training, 40-mile training days were common, 20 miles each way to and from work. On two occasions he did 50 miles on workdays, adding a lunchtime run. He would make it seamless—once he was home in the evening, he didn’t go out again. And my mother gave him full freedom; there was never any friction. She was a big part of his success.
He taught me that if you see a need and have the ability to fill it, fill it. Where he saw needs, he was motivated and had a passion and sense of mission to fill them. Also, throughout his life he was motivated to keep learning. On the Ted Corbitt Archives site, I list all the courses he took over the years. I remember a conversation we had when he was in his mid-80s—I had been trying to get him to write his life story and he told me he didn’t have time because he was still seeing patients, still learning from them. He saw patients up until two months before he passed away.
NYRR: Your father and Jackie Robinson, another African-American sports pioneer, were born on the same day, January 31, 1919. Did they ever meet?
GC: No, they never met. They’re buried about 200 yards apart in Cypress Hills [Cemetery] and were born about 300 miles apart, Jackie in Georgia and my father in South Carolina. Maybe they would have met if Jackie had lived longer. [Robinson died in 1972.]
NYRR: Like Jackie Robinson, your father had to deal with racism. What was that experience like for him?
GC: I found a letter that my father received in the early ’70s from a black runner. It said I wish I had known about you when I was in college. The experience of black runners was that they were almost without exception steered to the sprint events. For this athlete, his strength would’ve been in long distances, but he was never encouraged to pursue that. This was a huge problem, and I think it can be an issue even now, though not as much. My father set a standard, along with others, that blacks could excel in long distance running.
What hurt my father the most was that after he graduated from college he didn’t race because he was fearful of racism that was possible when he was traveling. He was limited to doing time trials, and missed opportunities to excel in competition. Even in college he competed only against teams that would accept an integrated team.
Some stories about other things he faced I had to learn from other people because he didn’t talk about them, but I’ve verified them. While coming home from the Boston Marathon in 1958 he wasn’t served in a restaurant. In the ’60s he traveled to Poughkeepsie the day before a 37-mile race and couldn’t find a place to stay, so he had to come home and get a ride up the morning of the race. Another incident that I couldn’t verify was that he made the team for the Pan Am Games in 1955 as the second runner and was told shortly before he was preparing to go that the team was not taking a second runner that year.
He couldn’t compete in the Comrades Marathon in South Africa when he was at his most competitive. [Non-white runners were not permitted to run Comrades until 1975.] He chose not to fight that, and I never asked him about the policy and how he felt. He was an athlete trying to do his best. He was not trying to take up the mantle of integration or civil rights. He was making history in these areas. I’d call it quiet activism, letting his actions speak volumes.
NYRR: What was the New York Pioneer Club and what was its relationship to NYRR?
GC: The New York Pioneer Club was started in 1936 by three black gentlemen in Harlem, and in 1942 they changed their charter to open up to all races, creeds, and abilities—so you had an integrated running team that predated the integration of pro sports.
There would not have been a New York Road Runners in 1958 without the New York Pioneer Club. Over half the founding members were Pioneer Club members; the co-founders, my father and John Sterner, were Pioneers. They brought the Pioneer Club culture of inclusiveness—all runners, all races, all abilities welcomed—to NYRR. The inclusiveness of today’s big-city races, all over the world, started in the early 1940s. It’s a civil rights story that very few people know.
NYRR: If you had to pick your father’s greatest accomplishment, what would it be?
GC: I don’t think there was a single greatest accomplishment. He lived by the axiom of in giving, you receive. He was all about giving back to people. A person would write to him, and without knowing who that person was he would write back, offering advice or whatever had been asked. That sums him up in a lot of ways.
NYRR: Do you think he left any unfinished business?
GC: In 1969 he ran his fastest London-to-Brighton race, and afterward he said he couldn’t have run any faster, but he could’ve run another 10 miles at that pace. So, there are a lot of what-ifs. In 1974 he developed asthma and that halted his competitive career, but he kept running. He only had the opportunity to race 100 miles and 24 hours on the track once, and both of those days he set American records but was well off his goals. He talked about running across the country—he thought he could do it in 42 days—and running Pike’s Peak, running 600 miles in six days, and walking 100 miles in 24 hours.
NYRR: When did you become a runner, and what is your current routine?
GC: I’ve run pretty much all my life, and I’ve had a unique perspective. Our family was all a part of my father’s work with NYRR. My father would print out the newsletters on our kitchen table using a mimeograph machine, and I would hand them out at races to all the members. And my mother would address and mail out any that I missed. That was how our family operated. At races I’d hold the finish line tape or stand along the course and point the runners in the right direction. As a child I ran little races in our neighborhood, then I sprinted in junior high, high school, and college and when I moved to Jacksonville, Florida, about 40 years ago I took up distance running.
I love being active and in shape, I’m still doing it currently—like my father, I feel like a king after I finish a workout and I love that feeling. I try to run three times a week. My father overdid his training and that cost him. I realized you need to incorporate rest and you need to diversify. Up until a couple of years ago I just ran. Now I do the elliptical, weights, steps, and I’m enjoying it. I hope to compete in the masters 800 at the national level, so I still have running goals ahead.
NYRR: You often run the NYRR Ted Corbitt 15K. What does that race mean to you?
GC: I’ve run the Ted Corbitt 15K most years. In 2016 I was running well and thinking about my father's last lap of the 1975 New York City Marathon, before it became a five-borough race. I was following him that day on my bike. Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming—in a good way—to be participant in a sport that my father helped to invent.
I represent the New York City chapter of Black Men Run when I race here. They have honored my father in a special way the last three years by awarding commemorative medals. They also gave me a BMRNY jacket with my father’s and my name inscribed. I very much appreciate the love and support that BMR have shown to me and my father.
NYRR: What else are you doing to preserve your father’s legacy?
GC: I want to develop the Ted Corbitt Archives into a 501(c)(3) to preserve not only his legacy, but that of all the pioneers of the sport—Kurt Steiner, Joe Kleinerman, Lou White, and so many others. I knew all these gentlemen and it was a family, so I want to ensure that their lives and accomplishments are never forgotten, and to use this history to help inspire others to stay fit and continuously learn. We want to develop scholars to study the sport and properly record and preserve this history, and then get it out to people who don’t know it.