Thursday, May 1, 2014

Minority Report and Ted Corbitt

(Ted Corbitt circa 1957)

If you were to ask relatively new ultrarunners who the pioneers of American ultrarunning are you might get some varied answers. While most younger people in the sport, perhaps my age and younger, would have a hard time naming anyone before Dean Karnazes' book came out in 2005, some might still be able to identify Scott Jurek, or David Horton. I, myself, must admit that I did not realize people were already accomplishing great things internationally in the world of ultras long before it became more mainstream in the US in the mid 2000's. If you were also to poll a large group of ultrarunners and ask if they knew who Ted Corbitt was, they likely wouldn't know, and would probably be even more surprised to find out that he was an African American.

Ted Corbitt is to American ultrarunning what Yiannis Kouros is to European ultrarunning, and yet so few people know this. Mr. Corbitt's accomplishments include competing on the US marathon team in the Helsinki Olympic games and having the athletic range to win road marathons and also hold national track records in almost every conceivable distance from 25 miles to 100. Corbitt was also notorious for his intense 30 mile training days, 200 mile training weeks, and sometimes running as much as 300 miles per week. But, unlike some runners who peak and fade within five to ten years, he remained competitive into his 50's and even completed 68 miles at a 24 hour event at age 84. So the big question is why, despite Corbitt dominating the long distance scene from the 1950's to 1970's, did American ultrarunning fizzle out? Was it because of the resurgence of the popularity of the road marathon in the 1980's, the rise of European ultrarunning on the shoulders of greats like Kouros, or simply the fact that Corbitt's feats slowly became forgotten in the dusty lore of ultrarunning cannon?

In case you were wondering, here are some of Ted Corbitt's personal bests: Marathon 2:26; 50 miles 5:35; 100 miles 13:33, 24 hours 134.7 miles(at age 54). It's amazing to think with all the faster times we are starting to see as runners are specializing in certain distances that Corbitt was able to run a 13:33 100 miler in age 50.

For some reason ultrarunning continues to associate the Western States 100 as the birth of North American extreme distance events, but it's far from the truth. The first years of Western States running events were held on an 89 mile course, and did not become an official 100 mile event until 1985. Thus, the Old Dominion 100 in Virginia is technically the oldest true 100 mile course, given that it's measured distance of 100 miles came six years before Western States . But, again people like Corbitt had already been running fast 100 mile events several decades earlier without the pomp and circumstance of some more current athletes who would have you thinking nobody has ever done the distances they have.

This brings me to my second thought.

Where are the minorities in our sport? Is it on par with the ethnic breakdown of Americans as a general population, or is it less? Road running, while dominated by mostly African Americans, attracts a fairly yuppy demographic. Even more specifically with ultras I see more of the same kinds of people. Most are college educated, have better than average incomes, and are also most likely to be upper middle class Caucasians between the ages of 35 and 60. While I agree the personality types and sociopolitical beliefs of ultrarunners is quite diverse, the trend is that regardless if they are bearded long haired, craft beer drinking hipsters in Boulder, or suit toting lawyers in DC, they will probably be white. And in terms of growing up in an urban environment and possibly living in a lower income area, I don't see that as a barrier to running ultras, which from experience tend to be one of the least expensive sports to have as a hobby. Another unique aspect of ultras is the plethora of "fat ass" events and bare bones events that cost anywhere from under $50 to completely free. If you can afford shoes, you can participate, and due to the growing popularity of barefoot running, you may not need shoes either. Ultras are also growing in number and are more accessible than ever to people from various localities.

But, alas in my ten years running I rarely encounter more than a handful of minorities at ultras. There might be a couple Asians, a couple black people, maybe a Latino, or Indian, but in a race of 300+ runners, I would be shocked to see more than 10-15 minorities combined. Per 2010 census data, 72.4% of the US was classified as white, which means if a 300 person race held the same percentages there should be roughly 82 non white runners. I'm sure I could write extensively on the cultural attraction, or non attraction to the sport, but it seems like minority participation has grown in almost every major American sport, except running/ultrarunning. Football and basketball are inversely majority African American now, baseball has attracted more Asians and Latinos, soccer globally attracts all ethnic groups, and even golf is more diverse now than it was before Tiger Woods. So if breakthrough minority athletes like Tiger Woods, boxer Joe Louis, Yao Ming, Jeremy Lin, Hideo Nomo, the NBA's Earl Loyd, Jackie Robinson, Fernando Valenzuela, and many others have opened the gateway to other minorities entering their respective sports, why didn't it happen with Ted Corbitt? It's most likely that as gifted and respected as he was, the sport simply did not have the mainstream limelight to make any resounding noise between cultural barriers.

I certainly hope we can see minority participation increase, or at least see some elite minorities enter the fold. Unless they travel from other countries, it seems the US doesn't really have any elite minority participants aside from maybe Joseph Gray, Yassine Diboun, Jorge Pacheco,David Goggins, Oswaldo Lopez, Jorge Maravilla, and maybe Sage Canaday who is half Asian. If we look to elite female minorities the numbers are basically non existent.

Speaking of elite female ultrarunners, I have witnessed a dramatic decrease in the number in the mid Atlantic. Not to take anything away from the women that are winning local ultras, or ultras in Virginia, but the talent pool has shrunk dramatically in the past 7-8 years. Some of this is due to the top runners leaving for the West coast like Amy Sproston and Jenn Shelton, but others seem to have fallen off the grid entirely. In the mid 2000's the mid Atlantic had both Amy and Jenn, Justine Morrison, Annette Bednosky, Anne Lundblad, Michele Harmon, Regan Petrie, Bethany Patterson, Sarah "Space Cadet" Johnston, and a slew of other fast ladies. A lot of these women were competitive on a national level and could show up to any given race in the country and win. While some of the women still make appearances at races, and still do very well, the overall depth of women's competitive fields has decreased. For every new fast female like an Eva Pastalkova, Holly Bugin, or Martha Nelson, it seems we've lost several others. While the decrease in top female runners is not in the same category as the low number of ethnic minorities, it does make you wonder why the mid West and West coast own most of the female ultrarunning talent in the country.

1 comment:

Kirstin C said...

I don't have the data but I'd venture to say very few people who aren't middle/upper class run at all.
In Kathrine Switzer's book Marathon Woman she talks about working with Avon on getting more women from all walks of life involved in running.
It's too bad that trend hasn't continued. Yes, races and shoes and clothing are more expensive now but I don't think that's the only reason. Food for thought.