PROFILE--Amby Burfoot has been running for 56 years

(7-18) Amby Burfoot is 72 (Aug, 2018) and lives in Mystic CT, very close to where he did his best running 50 years ago. These days, he covers many of the same courses as a half century ago, but it takes him 50 percent longer. Burfoot won the Boston Marathon in 1968 (2:22:17), and ran 2:14:29 later that year in Fukuoka, Japan.
Amby & wife Cristina
after 2014 Boston Marathon

In 2018 Burfoot completed Boston on the 50th anniversary of his victory (and also for the sixth year in a row.) He has also finished 55 consecutive Manchester CT Road Races (4.74 miles) on Thanksgiving, winning nine times. He has run the 54-mile Comrades Marathon in So. Africa twice, and covered about 110,000 total running miles in his life.

Started running/years running? I started in 1962, so I have been running about 56 years.

Why did  you start running? I was the son of a YMCA director, and became very skilled at many sports. I dreamed of playing major league baseball or basketball. However, in high school I learned that you need more than skill; it takes speed, strength, power, muscle, which I didn’t have. Still, I wanted to be good at some sport. I switched to cross country my junior year in high school, and more or less succeeded from the get-go. I was maybe top 5 in CT xc country the fall of my senior year, and won the CT 2-mile track championship the next June in 9:39. I’ve been running ever since.

Did you have an early inspiration or person who motivated you? I was crazy lucky to attend the high school where the country’s best runners was on staff. That was John J.Kelley, 1957 Boston Marathon winner and two time U.S. Olympic marathoner. He was so much more than a coach. He showed us how to make running enjoyable--by getting off the track and into the parks and available wildernesses.

He was a brilliant, foreword thinking renegade in all areas of life--running, the environment, organic living, politics, a belief in the common man/woman (especially the underappreciated writers, singers, and other artists.) At a time in U.S. history when everyone else believed in Progress and Bigness, Kelley cast a skeptical eye and saw many causes for concern. He would say things like “Homo sapiens may have the biggest brain in the animal kingdom, but we don’t know for sure if that’s a good thing.”

How much did you run per week in your peak years? About 110 miles/week. I probably averaged 100/week from 1966 to 1976.

What were some of your better races? Boston and Fukuoka already mentioned. I hit 12 miles, 100 yards in a one-hour on the track. I never had particularly good or fast track times. I suspect I would have been close to 14:00 for 5K. I often say, “I was good enough to run against Jim Ryun and Gerry Lindgren, which is when you learn that you aren’t one of the super talented.”

I did very well on the New England road running scene, which was basically the national road scene in the late 1960s. I think I had a calendar year when I didn’t lose any races, winning perhaps 20 at distances from 5 miles to 25K. I always ran better in the heat than many others, and a lot of New England races started at noon (like Boston) even when held in June, July, August, Labor Day, etc. We ran under some brutally hot, humid condiditons.

How did you train? I was one of the pioneers of Long Slow Distance training. I didn’t like running hard; I liked running at a comfortable pace around 7:00/mile, and staying out there for 10 miles at a time. Occasionally I would run 4 x 880 on the track in 2:24. That was a solid workout for me. In the months before my 2:14 in Japan, I did a lot of “Osler 880s”--steady, gradually accelerating 880s in the middle of 10-mile training runs.

Your running now? I run about 15 to 20 miles a week in three or four runs. My regular easy-day pace has now sunk to 10:00. My 5K time is around 25:00.

How has your weight changed? I weighed 138 lbs (at 6’ tall) on the Boston start line in 1968, about 20 pounds more in my 40s and 50s, and about 148 now at 72.

Diet through the years? I’ve been mostly vegetarian since I was 18. I was stricter in younger days, began eating some fish based on all the good research, and had a few hamburgers this week because I had a blood test showing low hematocrit. But mostly I eat big salads, with lots of nuts and fruits on top, as well as my own raw granolas with oatmeal, raisins, coconuts and many nuts/seeds, and Greek yogurt with fruit and granola. I make whey protein shakes occasionally, and eat 6 to 8 eggs most weeks.

Alcohol: I like sweet mixed drinks and sangria too much during the summer. I’m always thinking about quitting alcohol, but haven’t so far.

Cross Training: In my prime, I did almost nothing but run. Now running makes up less than 50 percent of my daily exercise time. Most days, I ride a recumbent bike in my office for 60 minutes while reading articles, books, journals, etc. It’s barely training--I make no attempt at intensity, but it keeps me awake and alert.I also go to the gym 3-4 times a week for more recumbent cycling and reading, plus about 20 to 30 minutes of strength training. I’m very haphazard about my strength work, but hope-assume I am hitting a variety of muscle groups. I’ve also discovered podcasts in the last year, and enjoy a brisk outdoor walk (a bit under 16:00 pace) for 40 to 60 minutes while listening to podcasts.

I still don’t stretch, and am highly inflexible. I do pushups, crunches, planks, squats, and lunges haphazardly through the day in a small exercise room at home.

Social running: I love running with others, but it is getting hard to find people as slow as I am, and also to coordinate schedules. I don’t have to get up at 6 am or anything like that, and choose not to. I have several running partners that I meet once or twice a week. During the summer, we have many local 5K fun runs, and I often attend several a week to get in a few miles and also to see friends.

Obstacles along the way: Five years ago I had the weirdest running problem you’ve never heard of. I fell hard on a trail run, with several open wounds and bleeding. An emergency room nurse freaked out and gave me several strong antibiotics. These apparently threw me into c diff--clostridium difficile--a very nasty infection where you have diarrhea for weeks. I lost 15 lbs, and fell into major clinical depression. I had never had a bad mental day in my life previously, but now I could barely get from my bed to the sofa, where I spent most of the day. I was wracked by severe anxiety thoughts--I believed my new house was going to fall down, etc, etc. I saw some quack psychiatrists who were no help, and I went to an outpatient hospital depression group for six weeks.

Nothing worked. The post-bombing 2014 Boston Marathon was coming up in four months, and I saw no way I could run it, which added to my depression. I didn’t have suicidal thoughts or plans, but definitely felt that life wasn’t worth living. Through the only effort I could summon, I managed to run about 2 miles most days, but not a single step felt good.

One day in early Jan, my body just bounced back a little. I felt good enough to run 4 miles. The depression started to lift, though I wasn’t sure it would continue lifting. I found a wonderful group of family and friend runners who were preparing for Boston, and started to join them on longer and longer (slow) runs. We all finished that glorious, warm Boston, and I haven’t had a bad day since. But I can’t begin to tell you how “low” I was at the worst of my c diff.

I also have sky-high coronary artery calcium--I’m at 90 percent where 100 percent is the worst. This is basically coronary artery disease, except that mine is calcified, which perhaps makes it less dangerous than the soft gooey deposits that break free and cause strokes and heart attacks. Still, it’s not something you want to have. (It has been found in a perhaps disproportionate number of other lifelong marathon runners.)

A favorite quote: “It’s never too late to start exercising, and it’s always too soon to stop.” Walter Bortz

Another favorite: “A (wo)man’s reach should exceed his/her grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” Robert Browning

Running-training philosophy: I always ran a very high percent of miles at an easy pace--perhaps as much as 90 percent. This allowed me to log a lot of miles, and stay healthy. I never heard of tempo training when young, and wasn’t one of those who tried to run the same course harder every day or week. I tried to run it at the same modest effort. Over time, I got better because I could go faster and farther at the same relative effort:

Exercise philosophy: Keep moving forward. I don’t see any alternative. If you’re not moving, you’ve stopped living. Doesn’t matter how fast you go, or how slow. As long as you’re still moving, still exercising the cardiac system and skeletal muscles, still breathing clean air (if you’re lucky in where you live), you’re maintaining your whole body (including the brain) as best you can. There’s never a reason to be less than your best, so keep moving.

What are the biggest lessons you have learned from running? That everyone suffers setbacks but it’s possible and worthwhile to get back on the exercise path. There are no shortcuts; patience and persistence are crucial values. To every thing, there is a season. The practices and skills that we utilize in running are the same that will lead to success in education, career, family, and other communities. Smile; it’s contagious.

How has running helped you with the aging process? That’s tough to answer as I don’t know what life would be like without running. However, looking around at others my age who don’t run, it’s pretty clear that I’m in better mental and physical shape than most. It’s almost embarrassing to go to reunions where everyone notes the physical differences between me and them.

I don’t want to sound too happy. I know this isn’t going to go on forever; I simply try to live every day as active, vibrant, and engaged as I can. Also, I hate getting slower. I just try to remind myself that “every mile is a gift.” That’s basically become my personal motto and mantra.

What has running and high-level fitness given you in life? A lot. Specifically some esteem-boosting races, an unbelievable job, and an ecstatic, loving, running wife. Also, a whole lot of wonderful friends. Most importantly, it makes me feel better--almost every day, in almost every way.