MIDLAND RUN 1980 – WHERE HAVE ALL THE RACERS GONE?

Midland Run 1980

Midland Run 1980 in mile two

It was one of the defining races of the original running boom era, a veritable Who’s Who of the sport coming together for a competition that came and went with the speed of a flash mob. The 1980 Midland Run 15K in Far Hills, New Jersey had arguably the best elite field in road racing history (at the time). So glittering was the collection of running stars that Sports Illustrated even sent a reporter to cover it.  And when Joe Marshall’s story came out in SI on May 12, 1980, it featured one of the best opening lines ever penned about a race site: “Not all of New Jersey looks like the back of an old radio. It only looks that way.” (reference was to the fact that Far Hills, N.J. was one of the wealthiest towns in America.)

But it’s not the SI coverage, or the star-quality of the lead pack that grabbed my attention when somebody re-posted a thread on Midland 1980 yesterday on Facebook.  No, forget about Bill Rodgers (5), Lasse Viren (second from left), Henry Rono (9), and the other legends who came together that May day in 1980 to gallop through New Jersey’s tony horse country. Instead, I want you to look at the string of runners behind the stallions.

The lead pack may be 10-wide, but notice how the entire field is held in a solid string, no breaks at all. In other words, look at all the racers who came out to play back then!

Today’s road races may dwarf Midland 1980 in size, and the speed of today’s winners far outpaces what the boys of yore could do.  But in today’s races what we see is (mostly) a handful of East African gazelles formed into a pack followed by a yawning void stretching as far as the eye can see.

But unlike in society at large, where income inequality now animates discussion and concern, in road running the loss of a middle class seems to have raised few concerns at all, as long as the masses keep signing up.  But what’s been broken is the connection between the fastest runners and their most natural fan constituency.

Beach To Beacon 10K at 2 Miles (8:49, 4:29 split)

2014 Beach To Beacon 10K at 2 Miles (8:49, 4:29 split)

35 years ago Michigan-born, but Boulder, Colorado trained Herb Lindsay emerged victorious at Midland 1980, besting quadruple Olympic champion Lasse Viren of Finland in a spirited duel that emerged after Greg Meyer broke up the pack with a 4:27 sixth mile.

"When's this guy gonna break?" ponders Lasse Viren

“Who is this beast?” wonders Lasse Viren of Herb Lindsay

New Jersey native and ex-Marine captain Bob Bright was the race director at the 1980 Midland Run. While riding aboard the lead truck with fellow Jersey men Mike Roche and Todd Miller, Bob tossed away his impartiality, and kept encouraging Lindsay, quoting from the movie The Black Stallion, which Bob and Herb had taken in earlier in the week.

Todd Miller was co-host of my Runner’s Digest radio show, and was providing a spirited race call from the course.  I was the finish line announcer.  Throughout the final stages of the race when it had boiled down to just Herb and Lasse, I could hear Bright hollering in the background, “tough like the Black, Herb! Tough like the Black!!”

"Tough like The Black, Herb!"

“Tough like The Black, Herb!”

Lindsay beat Viren that day and was named Road Racer of the Year for 1980 (and again in `81).  From Midland 1980 Bright went on to head America’s Marathon/Chicago in 1982.  There he took on Fred Lebow and the mighty New York City Marathon for autumnal bragging rights as road racing reached the pinnacle of its mainstream sporting popularity.

Yes, running in general is much more popular today than in 1980. But foot-racing itself was once high-powered enough and filled with enough personalities and close followers (figuratively and literally) to command network TV coverage for both the Chicago (CBS) and New York City Marathons (ABC), and even warrant print coverage of a horse country 15K by America’s premier sporting magazine.

There are many reasons why fewer people seem bent on racing eyeballs-out anymore. Much has to do with the overall competitive nature of life these days, the continuing expansion of the global workforce, and loss of America’s economic hegemony. As such, there are many other things to concern oneself with other than road PRs.

Yes, the times have changed, for both good and bad, for “nothing,” wrote Heraclitus, “is permanent but change.”

Me at the Midland Run 1980 award's ceremony upsetting once of the age-group winners. Race Director Bob Bright in cowboy hat behind.

Midland Run 1980 award’s ceremony.  Race Director Bob Bright in cowboy hat behind. (I’m not giving this lady “the finger”, BTW. I’m gesturing for her to come look at the finisher’s list I’m holding.)

END

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16 thoughts on “MIDLAND RUN 1980 – WHERE HAVE ALL THE RACERS GONE?

  1. It may have been at the Pre meet in the mid-90s or so, with Bob Kennedy in the 3,000. He went out with the Africans, the other Americans lagged back, with a big gap even by on 800m, duking it out for 4th or so. I think Kennedy won, but regardless, he later expressed disgust that not a single American even attempted to go with them, even though the pace was not brutal. I seem to recall 7:37 or so for Kennedy. The second American came running through the finish “only” 10 seconds back, pumping his fist in his personal “victory”.

    And now we listen to complaints from those sorts of runners that they’re not paid enough. Kids, yer not paid to run fast, yer paid to put butts in the seats (and in your shoes). You give us no reason to do either.

  2. I started running in the late 70’s, probably part of “The Complete Book of Running” crowd. I remember driving an hour to Tampa to just watch the elite runners cross the finish line at some obscure race that I can’t even remember, because to me, they were stars. I was in awe.

  3. Your article got me wondering how badly things have deteriorated in Atlanta since the 80s. In 1984 I ran 33:46 at the Charles Harris 10K and I finished about 35th out of about 1,000. There was never a point in the race when I was alone, there were always other guys around trying to kick my butt.

    I was curious how that time would have placed me in recent years. Since 2010 my 33:46 would have placed me:
    2010 – 2nd
    2011 – 6th
    2012 – 4th
    2013 – 6th
    2014 – 7th
    2015 – 6th

    The race still gets 1,000 runners in some years. The numbers are still there but the quality has really taken a dive.

  4. Toni, the “real” runners have left the field, replaced in multiple by fun runners who have become the focus of road racing- i mean road jogging. It’s all about mass participation now. The athleisure crowd have taken over the sport like a gentrified neighborhood. The track nerds are long gone.
    I go to road races and can’t seem to find anyone who can talk about running. None of the volunteers and most, if not all the staffers, all the way up to the race directors are not in touch with the current racing scene.

    The idea that some “Kenyan” (even if he/she is from Ethiopia) won the race seems to have created a malaise in the public interest. At one time, perhaps, we were all carried away by the figure of the noble Africans coming down from the mountaintops to engage in mans oldest sport? But that emotion has passed.

    Whatever the reason, as I watched the World Cross Country Championships today and later the Prague Half Marathon, a stream of B and C East Africans defeated any and all the world has to offer. Again. Just like last week and the week before. I watched the European Championships just to see non Kenyans in the distance races (and even that has started to change)

    But we, the western nations created this talent drought, tied to the East African talent explosion. First title IX, which has been touted as a remarkable document, destroyed college and university men’s cross country and long distance squads.

    Also in this mix were guys like UTEP coach Ted Banks, who used the Rift Valley like it was a recruiting farm…I was at the 1978 indoor NCAA Champs, in Detroit, and it was a parade of Africans in the 1500 on up, even then..

    Take a look at the UTEP Hall of Fame webpage or Washington State and many others, If you were an aspiring American high school state champion your chances of being recruited by these coaches and many others was zero.. The ranks were filled with 25+ year old Kenyans who came to the states running sub 4. Also your chance of making an NCAA semi were also zero..

    The IAAF invested a lot of money in running programs and training centers in East Africa while the opposite was happening in the west. The obvious progress of that investment is to be seen at the head of every marathon, road race, Diamond League, World Championship or Olympic final, 800 meters up to 42K.

    I guess in the seventies and 80’s the present state of things seemed an impossibility so why not invest loads of development money in East Africa? It was 32 years ago but it seems like another universe when Steve Ovett was quoted at the 83 World Championship saying, “Britain is the home of the Olympic champion, World champion and World Record holder in the 1500 metres” – titles held by Coe, Cram and Ovett respectively. That was the peak the west has fallen from on the track.

    • You nailed it–another thing–I recall Runner’s World in the early to late 70’s–it was all about running fast–that meant doing the miles and the hard work. It had everything needed to encourage and instruct you on getting better. It was a force for the running community during that decade. As you well know–the mag morphed into more of a fun-run, health and wellness publication. Sad to see the state of things today.

  5. Great article, there were so many great races like this with fields that just blew each other apart. As for the quality of fields it is amazing where you would place into today’s races with the times you ran in the first running boom. Society has changed to a just finish frame of mind, with more concern over a finishers medal than a fast time. I think the drop in Boston qualifying times years ago also caused this. My first Bostons you needed a 2:50 to get in and everyone set that as a goal, got myself to the 2:50 and then down under 2:40. That 2:50 goal made as all better runners not finishers!

  6. Interesting and thought provoking Toni. I was in attendance at Midland in 79, 80 and ran in the 81 race.

    As you noted the race had runners of all ability. A+, A, B, C, and so on. They came to run and have their picture taken with their running heros. In today’s running world you can’t chat up folks from Africa who don’t speak English. No connection between the dedicated average runner and the race winners.

    A couple of years ago I met a guy wearing a Midland 80 T shirt in the SantaFe, NM. Whole Foods.. The highlight of his running days was running right behind Dick Quax for almost 7 miles and having a beer with him post race.

    These Africans are scary fast but they are actually a deterrent to fan interest and depth of field.

    The Midland 80 depth of field was the best non championship event in history.

    There is a solution to this problem dealing with appearance and prize money. But running never has had an appetite for change.

  7. Thanks for the memories, Toni! Fun to see my face in that awesome pack of studs…I even beat a couple of them! ah, the stories of our youth. RIP Todd Miller. Regards, will

  8. …pretty much the same scenario with the Falmouth Road Race for the same timeframes mentioned above…it used to be an American road racing slugfest in it’s early years…and then it morphed into a Kenyan slugfest, with generally no Americans in the top 20 of the men’s race…so sad to see it go that way…

  9. Toni,

    Here is an old shot of Midland from 81 with Jeff Neisse, NJ Sneaker Factory along of one of me, Billy and Dick Ruzicka at the St Pete 10 miller.

    [image.jpeg] Don Avjean Vice President Government Affairs[image.jpeg] Northeast Region 973-575-6900 630-235-8491 (cell) Don.Avjean@outfrontmedia.com

  10. Excellent stroll down memory lane, Toni. This is EXACTLY what we have been discussing for the last couple of years. And just as Michael Turmala says, I have been a first hand witness to the deterioration of the Falmouth field. I still get goose bumps thinking about not the size, but the depth of the old fields! My PR from 1984 that placed me 177th would have put me in 70th place in 2014!

  11. My first race was March 1980, a 3 miler in Bernardsville, NJ. Two months later I ran the 3 miler at Midland before the big 15K. What a way to start. I am one of those runners still out hitting 80% age grading at 68 years old. Yes, the times are ridiculously slow these days. Everyone takes a shortcut and runs the race instead of racing the race. Too many smiles at the finish line. Bill Reilly

  12. Just ran a half marathon here in Pristina, Kosovo. There was prize money on the line and the race attracted what I assume were B and C Kenyan runners who took the top 3 positions in 105-107 on a hilly, warm, unshaded road race. I don’t think its sad that East Africans have broken on to the world wide distance running scene. What is sad is that runners from other nations, including America haven’t been able to challenge them. There are many reasons for this dominance and lack of response to it. For one, in America, there are so many other sports to chose from-why bust your ass trying to hack it out in running? In those remote East African villages, there isn’t lacrosse, basketball, baseball, football, soccer, hockey, etc, not to mention video games. Also, the average American male is built much heavier than he was even a few decades ago (I remember being 60 pounds in 4th grade, and graduating high school at about 120 after lifting weights to ‘bulk up’ some) and certainly heavier than in an East African village. Also that average east African kids is doing a fair amount of running around rough terrain compared to the average american kid who is afraid to go outdoors. Also poverty is probably a factor-if the average earning is only $50/month at best, then running for a meager stipend and plus food/housing represent a real opportunity. Then, you build a recruitment and training program to develop this wide field of potential talent and you start to build momentum and take a life of its own with success begetting success. Mix in a supposed (but unproven) genetic advantage, and you build this mystique that seems to discourage non-East Africans from even trying-remember that running is mental as well as physical!

    Does the Midland run still exist? I grew up in Oldwick in 80s and 90s and did high school cross country and track and I have fond memories of thinking that I could win that race one day! It was always held around the group meet or MOCs for track, so I never did it in high school.

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