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.
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.
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!!”
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.”