PROFILE--Woody Harrell has been running for 50+ years

Blessing of the Athletes,
pre-Boston 2014
(10-18) Woody Harrell fell in love with running during summers on the beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. However, a general lack of natural speed meant no coach, high school or college, would ever look at him as any sort of track prospect.  They should have. In 1975, he ran a 2:36:27 at Boston at age 28. Harrell identifies himself as a runner before anything else. He lives in Corinth, MS.

Started running: June 1, 1964. I’m 71 (DOB 7-47) 

Why did you start running?  My running career started the day I read an article in the June 1, 1964, issue of Sports Illustrated about American expatriate Buddy Edelen, who had run the first- and third-fastest marathons of all time, and had just returned from England to win the US Olympic marathon trial at Yonkers, New York, by over 20 minutes.

I was fascinated! I was amazed. I was inspired! So much so, I put on my tennis shoes and headed out the door to run five miles for the first time in my life. In fact, to run further than a mile for the first time ever…

When I made the half-way turn-around at the extreme edge of my hometown, both the excitement and the adrenaline were long gone; and by the time I got back home, I was dehydrated, physically spent, and had two feet resembling raw meat, with blisters on top of blisters. I collapsed into bed and didn’t try to crawl out again until it was time to go back to school on Monday. But in spite of the experience, the running bug had bitten…

In grad school (sandwiched around a stint in the army), I encountered a group of ex-collegian runners looking to extend their running careers in pursuit of the ’72 Olympic marathon trials. Encouraged by their support, and more importantly
inspired by their example I raised my sights from recreational running and became a serious marathoner at the dawn of the Golden Age of American road racing.

This stretch continued until I read an article in a medical journal in the late 1970s saying you lose ten per cent of you IQ every time you run a marathon. At that point, I had already run nine and decided I better salvage what gray matter I had left before it was too late. And so I retired from running 26.2 miles. 
Running the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim
in 1977

Did you have an early inspiration or person who motivated you?
In 1970, I was doing some running at Nags Head, North Carolina. I somehow stumbled on publicity for an upcoming ten-mile beach race near Morehead City, NC, and although at that time, ten miles sounded like a really, really long way, I thought I would give it a try. A headwind, an incoming tide (causing Atlantic Beach’s famed hard packed sand to quickly disappear under the waves, as runners were pushed further and further into the soft sand of the upper beach, making every step a Herculean effort), and a miss-measured extra mile thrown in to boot, all made the race itself a spirit crushing experience. However, afterwards, I was fortunate to meet members of the North Carolina Track Club, whose runners had dominated the race. This informal group of ex-collegian distance runners included several Top 20 Boston finishers, guys with the realistic goal of getting an invite to the upcoming U.S. Olympic Marathon Trial. I found this bunch to be a very welcoming group, and when asked, I quickly joined their number. They set a very high standard, and just reading their race results in the club newsletter opened up a whole new world for me. Being on the outer fringe of this circle of elite runners certainly expanded what seemed possible as goals, even for an obvious non-athlete like myself.

As someone who I have never met, but had a huge influence on me, Kenny Moore would be at the top of the list. Although most people would credit Frank Shorter with kicking off America’s distance running boom, it was Moore’s account in Sports Illustrated of Shorter’s 1972 Olympic win that brought the event home for me. And Moore’s fourth place finish at Munich was inspirational in its own right! 

How much did you run per week in your peak years? Now?
In my late 20s, I ran between 65 and 70 miles per week, always with one day off. [For my only 100-mile week, I ran as part of a relay team across North Carolina to raise awareness for cystic fibrosis (and took two days off along the way!).]

Currently I am running 55 miles a week. This has changed slightly over the last five years, when I was running fewer miles per week, but with a higher percent of those miles in a long weekend run.

What were some of your better/memorable races?
National A.A.U. Championship/ Yonkers 1974: Three laps on a “sloppy” Yonkers Raceway track, with Ron Wayne nipping John Vitale by 2/10 of a second for the win. Only the sixth best runner for our 2ndplace North Carolina Track Club team, but my second fastest marathon ever.

Boston 1975: A top notch runner friend (a 2:18 marathoner) finagled me a spot on the starting line (right on Tom Fleming’s shoulder), where I survived the initial stampede of runners behind me, then rode the infamous “tail gale” all the way to the Pru for a PR of 2:36:27.

Grandfather Mountain 1978: Over 2,000 feet of elevation gain in a race ending on the track at the Southern Highland Games, making my goal of a sub-three-hour marathon on that tough course, and taking third place when the runner ahead of me got lost.

Completing the Appalachian Trail (2,184.2-mile trek) with my wife Cynthia, after I retired in 2012. This hike took five and a half months. Afterwards, this accomplishment revived my long-dormant aspirations for one more Boston Marathon, as all that walking rejuvenated a chronically weak left ankle, plus allowed us to take off over 30 pounds apiece. A by-product of the hike is that Cynthia took up running, after resisting my entreats for 37 years.  I am now coaching her to complete the Abbott World Majors.

Virginia Beach 2013: 40 years later, to the day, I returned to the site of my first marathon (St. Patrick’s Day 1973) to qualify for Boston. I fought through strong northeast winds and cramps in the last few miles, but after thinking for several years my Boston days were way behind me, earning a BQ left me right teary eyed.

How did you train differently in your younger years?
I ran a lot of two-a-days, with four or so easy miles at daybreak, followed by a harder six or seven miles in the afternoon. My favorite track workout was decreasing intervals: full lap, ¾ lap, half lap, ¼ lap, recover, repeat. Always thought those helped build character.

Early on, someone told me if you took a tenth of your two-month mileage average, that would tell you how far you were ready to race (i.e., 258 miles one month, then 267 the next, averaged 262.5, divided by 10, meant you had the base to run a marathon.) I tried to train at least that much.

How do you train now? Do you attend coached workouts?
Still follow the advice of the Good Book: “Six days shall you labor, but on the seventh day, rest your ox and your ass.” Or at least run an easy day after a hard day.  Our local running group enjoys a Saturday morning run on the nearby “Alps of Mississippi” [Note: it doesn’t take much of a hill here in Mississippi to earn this designation!].

Has your diet changed through the years?
Certainly less red meat these days. And a lot more blueberries! Back in the day before a big race, always did a depletion run, followed by three days of a high protein,  no carb diet, then switching to three days of high carb, no protein. In hindsight, don’t know if this did any good physically, but, boy, mentally did that keep me focused on the upcoming race!

Hiking the Appalachian  Trail (2012)
with his wife, Cynthia
Cross Training:
In my 40s and 50s, I did a lot of long distance bicycling. More recently have used spin classes to save wear and tear on the body. Have never had much luck with stretching/ yoga programs, but wish I had.

How important is social running to you? If you were/are a competitive runner, can you adapt to the slower times and enjoy a social run?
I enjoy being part of the runner community, but still find many of my best runs these days are in the solitude of the “loneliness of the long distance” runner, challenging myself, by myself.

I sometimes marvel that my 1975 Boston time would today bring about the same overall placing, even with ten times as many participants. Today I’m at the stage where every day I can run is a gift, and even at a slower pace, not something to be taken lightly.

Obstacles along the way:
Back in the 1970s, while running barefoot on the beach, I landed on a sharp post hidden just under the sand, cutting several ligaments to my toes. The doctor chose to let my foot heal itself, rather than try to reattach the cuts. For many years, this seemed to be no problem, but as I approached middle age, I seemed to lose a lot of stability in my left ankle, that finally caught up with me when I tried to train over six miles. This condition seemed to worsen and I gave up on further marathons. However, when I started hiking the Appalachian Trail, I went from a heavily braced left foot, to eventually no brace at all, to a point at the end of 2,000 miles where I could start running again with no ankle weakness. I’ve had some more recent problems with my right foot heel (first tendonitis, then lord knows what), probably from changing my gait and overcompensating, but as long as I am able to keep moving, I won’t complain.

A favorite quote:
II Samuel 18:23 - “Come what may, I will run.” (Famous motto of the Ahimaaz ben Zadok Track Club)

“AS FOR THE RACE, if your left leg takes you 13 miles and your right leg does the other 13, all you have to worry about is the final 385 yards!”  -The last item on the BAA’s final letter to runners in 1973 “This is the only instruction sheet you will receive.”

Running-training philosophy:
Back in the day, I remember runners looking down their noses at “joggers” with arguments about at what pace did one slip from one group down to the other. For me, I always felt somewhere around 8:00-mile pace was the magic number beyond which you were not to be taken as a serious athlete. Well, my 8:00-minute mile days are long gone, but I still try to respect the sport and push myself to be the best I can be. 

How has running helped you with the aging process? 
My 2012 Appalachian Trail thru hike with my wife was a life changing experience for me. For the last several years before retirement, the stress of the job, poor diet, aging, etc., took their toll. However, like many AT hikers, I came off the trail in great shape. After all, I was walking a half marathon a day for five and a half straight months! And lost over 30 pounds. In the following year, many of my fellow hikers quickly returned to their pre-hike weights. But ramping up my running has allowed me to keep the benefits of my hike, and feel like a very young seventy-one-year-old. 

When Woody runs Boston, an American
always wins.
What are the biggest lessons (life lessons and running lessons) you have learned from running?
Every single time I run Boston, an American wins. While walking through the finish area at the 2014 Boston, I heard someone say an American won: “It’s Meb!” He wasn’t even born when I first ran Boston in 1973. That year Jon Anderson won. When I ran in ’75, Bill Rodgers won. Following the two years I ran, there seemed to be a lingering effect from my participation, with eight of eleven American wins from ’73 to ’83. Then that magic wore off, as the next 30 years produced no American winners. Then, after 39 years away, I went back to run Boston for a third time, and once again we had an American winner. Obviously, I am the Boston U.S.A.’s good luck charm.  

[Dave McGillivray’s got my number, and if he really wants another American victor and if he is willing to waive my entry fee or just reduce it back to the 1975 rate, I’d be willing to come back for one more Boston.)

Some more realistic life lessons: Running is a life-long activity. Safer than contact sports. Much cheaper than golf. Can be done anywhere. Very therapeutic. Leave your headphones at home and just enjoy the world around you, lost in your own thoughts.

What do you know now about running/fitness that you didn’t know way back when?
That I beat Bill Rodgers in 1973. I dug into his life story, discovering that Boston 1973 was Rodgers’ very first marathon, and on that hot, hot day when I staggered to the Prudential Center in very demoralizing 358th place, Bill Rodgers was having an even tougher day, dropping out at 22 miles. I had beaten Bill Rodgers in 1973! Of course, I had to get a t-shirt made to tout this accomplishment, and wearing it while training was a tremendous motivational tool. I was also wearing it when I bumped into Bill before a race in Jackson, MS. He was signing books at the expo and happened to glance over my way. Certainly a high point of my career, the day when Bill Rogers asked if he could take my picture wearing that tee shirt!

And, not necessarily something new I’ve learned, but certainly realize now: all those good things we thought about running back in the 1970s are still true today… Working for 40 years as a National Park ranger, I have been fortunate to run in many special places, including a three-year stint living on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.