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Buddy Edelen, The Amiable American

Buddy Edelen, the Amiable American Who Relished British Road-racing 


“Buddy” Edelen was a very capable but not outstanding college runner in the USA who had the good fortune to meet up with Fred Wilt, a competitor in the Olympic 10,000 metres in 1948 and 1952 and now in the late 1950s established as a highly respected coach. Wilt saw some potential in Edelen, even though his style of running was by no means graceful, and gave him two main pieces of advice – go to Europe, where the competition is much stronger, and make sure that speed-work remains a significant part of your training programme, whatever distances you run. Wilt, who was an FBI agent by profession, later wrote an immensely successful training manual, “Run Run Run”, published by “Track & Field News” which ran and ran and ran to six editions. Also the author of eight other books, Wilt died in 1992.

Edelen paid close heed to what Wilt had told him and in a questionnaire in the British publication, “Athletics Weekly”, in April 1961 was to say, “Never have I met a coach with more enthusiasm and complete unselfish attitude to share all of his knowledge with anyone who asks”. Edelen was by then living in England, working as a school-teacher in Essex, and accommodated at first by Derek Cole, an athletics enthusiast and business contact of Wilt’s. Edelen then moved residence to an austere one-room apartment near the seaside resort of Southend, joined Chelmsford Athletic Club, and pushed his training mileage up to as much as 135 a week while still being coached by post by Wilt.

The relentless dedication paid off handsomely because on 15 June 1963 Edelen ran the World’s fastest ever marathon – much to everyone’s surprise, not least his own. His time of 2:14:28 on the classic Windsor-to-Chiswick course beat by more than three-quarters of a minute the previous best set by Toru Terasawa, of Japan, four months earlier. The Saturday prior to his marathon breakthrough, Edelen had selflessly played the role of true club-man, running the 880 yards, the mile and the 4 x 110 yards relay for Hadleigh Olympiades, to which he had transferred because it was nearer his home.  

The following year Edelen won the US Olympic trial marathon by 20 minutes, contested in horrendously hot weather in New York, and despite suffering from the onset of sciatica managed to finish 6th in the Olympic marathon, in which Abebe Bikila, of Ethiopia, successfully defended his title. Edelen’s running career came to an end a year or so afterwards.

Leonard Graves Edelen was born in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, on 22 September 1937 but brought up in South Dakota, where he showed no early promise as a runner – far from it! He was an overweight teenager derisively nicknamed “Butterball Buddy”, but his life-style was soon to change dramatically and he became undefeated as a miler in state high-school competition – good enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Minnesota. Fred Wilt saw Edelen for the first time in 1958, winning the Big Ten two miles, and was immediately impressed. “When he ran, a change came over him”. Wilt was later to write; “You could see the amiability in him right to the time the gun sounded. Then his eyes darkened, his features flattened, his chest expanded, he stood up a little straighter. As the race progressed he had a quality almost like meanness. He just would not let up”.   

Edelen’s life story was related in a 1992 biography written by Frank Murphy, an American track & field coach, who was clearly given full access to the training schedules which Wilt regularly sent to Edelen after his move to England. These make fascinating reading, and in particular Wilt’s comments when he remonstrated with Edelen time and again for not taking enough rest days. “Buddy” Edelen was an obsessive runner who clearly thought that a day without training was a day wasted, and there were occasions when – because of injury or the need to recover from a hard race – he should have taken a break. He ran six marathons in the year leading up to his World record, and that would be unthinkable for the single-minded professionals of this day and age. There was another significant difference those 50-odd years ago. The most that Edelen ever earned from a race in that nominally amateur era was $500. 

Naturally, Wilt is credited by Murphy for his help with the biography and Edelen is thanked for his “complete co-operation”, but the clear impression remains that Edelen was not actually interviewed, and this is a pity because it would have been interesting to learn what his updated opinions would have been. By 1991, as Frank Murphy’s book was being prepared, the World record for the marathon was down to 2:06:50 by Belayneh Densimo, of Ethiopia, three years before.

Sadly, Edelen died of cancer at the age of only 59 in 1997, and there might, therefore, have been good reasons for the way in which Murphy constructed his account. Having been a lecturer in psychology at Adams State College, in high-altitude Alamosa, Colorado, and  persuaded the AAU to hold their 1968 Olympic marathon trial there, Edelen changed direction completely in later life – not an unusual American trait, of course. He moved to Oklahoma and worked for the Pepsi-Cola company as a promotions manager and then for the state’s Department of Human Services, surviving a near fatal car-crash in 1971.  Despite his World-record marathon, he was by no means a celebrity in the USA, and a well-informed writer, Don Sikorski, was to tell the poignant story that when Edelen introduced himself to Rod Dixon, the New Zealander who had been an Olympic 1500 metres bronze-medallist and New York marathon winner and had just taken first prize in a race in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Dixon innocently responded, “Buddy who?”      

There’s just an implication that Edelen’s life was by then in some disarray, and certainly his terminal illness would have ensured that, which is a sad thought for all British distance-runners and those followers of athletics in the early 1960s who recall with great affection the cheerful disposition of the visiting “Yank” who took so readily to the comradely harrier club-running system.

The advance of US distance-running – who was the leader?

Frank Murphy’s book, entitled “A Cold Clear Day: the athletic biography of Buddy Edelen”, published in the USA by Wind Sprint Press, is well worth reading, but I rather think that Murphy places a bit too much emphasis on his conclusion that Edelen was alone responsible for giving US distance-running respectability. Admittedly, it needs a detailed study of performances in the late 1950s to contradict that statement, but the fact is that Wilt himself had set a World indoor record of 8:50.7 for two miles in 1952, and the only two men ever to have run faster outdoors by then were Gunder Hägg, whose World record stood at 8:42.8 from 1944, and the reigning Olympic 5000 metres champion, Gaston Reiff, who had run 8:50.0 in 1951.

Another US distance-man of undeniable talent, who like Edelen was restricted to racing no further than two miles for his university, and is scarcely remembered now, is Max Trues, who set a national record in 6th place in the 1960 Olympic 10,000 metres, having been a non-finisher four years before.. It should have caused more of a stir than it did when Truex beat  all three highly reputable Britons, John Merriman, Gordon Pirie and Martin Hyman, in Rome. Truex had an even shorter life than Edelen, being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 40 and dying at 55 in 1991.

Another severe American-inspired jolt to Britain’s distance-running self-esteem closer to home had been applied at the British Empire-v-USA match at the Whiter City Stadium, in, London, back in 1952. The three miles had been won totally unexpectedly by Charlie Capozzoli, ahead of GB’s Olympic representatives, Pirie, Frank Sando and Alan Parker; and “Track & Field News” carried a headline which read, if I remember absolutely correctly, “Capozzoli downs Doug Pirie”, which was understandably gleeful but a shade uninformed. Pirie’s first names were actually “Douglas Alistair Gordon”, though no one ever knew him as anything other than “Gordon” – a common British custom unfamiliar, no doubt, to American readers.  

“Buddy” had arrived in England on 16 November 1960, having spent a few months in Finland, racing at every distance from 3000 to 25,000 metres and keeping body and soul together by teaching English. Having found accommodation in Essex with Derek Cole, Edelen started teaching in a local school, encouraged by an athletics-orientated headmaster. Wasting no time to throw himself into a new and exhilarating competitive environment, he ran his first race for Chelmsford AC only three days after arriving in England and won a local league cross-country event from a club-mate, Brian Hill-Cottingham, who had been the 15th fastest British three-miler on the track that year.

Considering that Edelen’s best six-mile track time would not have ranked him in the top 40 for the year in Britain, this was a noteworthy start. Weekly inter-club cross-country events followed, and he received his first international invitation at the end of the following January, taking part in a race in San Sebastian, in Spain, and finishing 7th ahead of all five Britons, including John Anderson, Alan Perkins and Mike Wiggs. Though the results were given in “Athletics Weekly”, there was no mention of Edelen.

A first road-race appearance, and a win

Even 4th place over the country to Hyman, Jim Hogan (later to be European marathon champion) and Perkins in the Southern Championships got only a passing reference in the “AW” report, though a team of international standard could have been formed from those who were behind him in the first dozen – most notably, Wiggs again, Hugh Foord, Stan Eldon, Bruce Tulloh (European 5000 metres champion the following year) and Pirie. Not yet eligible by duration of club membership, Edelen was barred from running in the English National Cross-Country Championships, and might otherwise have become the first American ever to do so. Instead, he made a serious venture into road-running in a nearby half-marathon at Romford, in Essex, on 8 April, which he won in 1:04:37, and he no doubt derived extra pleasure in leading his club to the team prizes Half-marathons were still very much a novelty in those days.

His most important victory to date in 1961 came in the classic annual Finchley 20-mile road race, on the outskirts of London, on 22 April in 1:45.40 ahead of an immensely experienced Bristol Athletic Club pair, Ivor Edmonds and John Edwards. This time “AW” did Edelen proud, and their quirky road-racing correspondent, Sam Ferris (the Olympic marathon silver-medallist of 1932), finished his extensive coverage of the race with a heartfelt tribute – and maybe just a hint as to where Ferris saw Edelen’s future, even if Edelen himself hadn’t given it too much thought as yet

“These two popular Bristolians were the first to congratulate Buddy Edelen, who is quickly gaining well-earned popularity by his grand sportsmanship amongst us, his new-found friends. He is at present teaching in Southend and plans to stay with us for at least another year as he likes it over here. Make it longer, Buddy, because we enjoy having your sort around. We could help you to make Tokyo wearing your country’s emblem”.

Sam Ferris, always so perceptive in his irresistibly eccentric manner, had thus set the tenor of the press coverage of Edelen’s exploits from then onwards, though on the track during 1961 there was not a great deal to enthuse about. Edelen didn’t make any marked progress – 9:01.8 for two miles, 13:54.4 for three miles, 29:02.2 for six miles. There were 11 Britons under 29 minutes that year – Hyman, Basil Heatley, Mike Bullivant, Merriman, Eldon, Roy Fowler, Brian Craig, Foord, Mike Freary, Gerry North and the Irish-born Hogan – which was equivalent to the top 60 in the World at 10,000 metres. Only one other American, John Gutknecht, reached that metric level (equal 40th at 29:46.8), and there were no Africans at all even in the top 100.

In his book Frank Murphy neatly summarises this stage of Edelen’s competitive career: “Entering 1962 Buddy was a marathoner in search of the right moment. His mileage was well over 100 a week, most of it fast, and it included a weekly long run, which he gradually increased over the winter and early spring to a full 26 miles. Buddy had in mind the marathon of the Polytechnic Harriers, scheduled in June. Between the year’s start and the ‘Poly’, however, lay a thousand and more miles of training and a number of important races, each one of which could profit from and be part of the marathon work which surrounded it”.   .

Valiantly setting aside the disappointment of his 9th place in the “Poly”, almost 10 minutes behind the winner, Ron Hill, Edelen slashed his six-mile time to 28:26.0 at the AAA Championships, though he was off the pace before two miles was reached, and Fowler and  Bullivant went on to stage a photo-finish in setting a joint Commonwealth record of 27:49.8.  If any further pointer was needed regarding Edelen’s eventual destiny it came in the prestigious Fukuoka marathon, in Japan in December, where he finished 4th in 2:18:56.8 behind three runners from the host country. Taking his fond regard for quaint British customs to its extreme, Edelen wore on his head a handkerchief knotted at all four corners.

On schedule for a World record, but hopes were blown away

After a brief early-season cross-country campaign in 1963 – 2nd to Alan Perkins in the Essex Championships, 20th in the Inter-Counties’, 15th in the Grand Prix de Hannut, in Belgium –. Edelen finished off his marathon preparations by sharing the pace mile-by-mile with his training partner, Mel Batty, in the AAA track 10 miles at Hurlingham, in London, on 13 April before Batty pulled away to win, 48:13.4 to 48:28.0. The pair of them had gone off at a terrific pace (9:28.6 at two miles, which was 47:23 schedule), but strong winds cost a possible World record. Batty’s time was still the 3rd fastest ever for the event behind Basil Heatley’s 47:47.0 from 1961 and Emil Zátopek’s 48:12.0 a decade earlier. Edelen ranked 8th. Batty, incidentally, was to make the World record his own by a comfortable margin a year later ‘(47:26.8).

The Saturday following his duel with Batty, Edelen doubled the distance, winning the Finchley 20 again, and by more than six minutes, though even the astute Sam Ferris was unable to explain a moderate winning time of 1:45:12. No matter, he paid Edelen further effusive compliments by saying of him that “he has now been with us so long he’s beginning to look like an Englishman”. Then in May Edelen beat Bikila Abebe’s record for the historic and demanding Marathon-to-Athens course, with 2:23.06. The month beforehand the Ethiopian had lost his first marathon in 10 starts, finishing in 5th place as the Boston race was won by Aurele van den Driessche, of Belgium. In 2nd place, just to prove that Edelen wasn’t the only American marathon-runner operating at top level, was Johnny Kelley, with Britain’s European and Commonwealth champion, Brian Kilby, 3rd. The indefatigable Kelley was to run 32 Boston marathons between 1953 and 1992.

The details of Edelen’s record-breaking marathon remain surprisingly sketchy. The “Athletics Weekly” report gave the 15-mile time as 1:17:40, but in Edelen’s biography it is listed as 1:17:03. No one seems to have taken a time at 25 miles. In his “AW” report, Sam Ferris readily admitted that he was not able to get to the 20-mile mark before Edelen passed it but noted that Edelen reached 21 miles in 1:47:55, with Ron Hill 2nd in 1:49:20. The other reported intermediate times were the following: 5 miles – 26:15, Robin Campbell, Barry Collins, Edelen, Hill, Bob Roath, Don Shelley, Juan Taylor, Alastair Wood. 10 miles – 52:20, Edelen, Hill, Shelley, Taylor, Wood. 15 miles – 1:17:40, Edelen, Hill Taylor. 20 miles – 1:42.52 Edelen.

Edelen was interviewed at great length by Mel Watman for “Athletics Weekly” and lucidly explained the transformation that had occurred in his running: “What amazes me is the amount I’ve improved since 1960. I can almost pinpoint it from the time I first set foot on English soil. I only went on three long runs – longer than six or seven miles – before coming here. Now I knock up 100 miles a week. I feel very indebted to the English. Those aren’t just empty words. If it wasn’t for the English club set-up and the competition that I get regularly, I hate to think how I would be running back in the States”. He recalled that after his discouraging marathon debut in the previous year’s “Poly” (2:31:52), his initial reaction had been that “I honestly wasn’t prepared to go through that amount of torture and pain again”. Fortunately, he very soon changed his mind.

The leading finishers after Edelen in his “Poly” record run were 2nd Ron Hill 2:18:06, 3rd Juan Taylor 2:22:08, 4th Don Shelley 2:22:34, 5th Bob Roath 2:22:57 and 6th Jack Haslam 2:24:30. Three weeks later Brian Kilby ran 2:14:43 in the Welsh marathon, thus missing Edelen’s record by a mere quarter-of-a-minute. The “AW” report by a local official, Ted Williams, contained the unexplained (and unjustified) statement that it was “the fastest time ever recorded for what is claimed to be a full-distance marathon”.   

Reflecting on his “Poly” record, Edelen was self-effacing about it, and certainly not euphoric,  admitting a month or so later that “I just didn’t feel that I was capable of running 2:15. I mean 2:17, yes, but not 2:14:28, at least not yet. I could foresee it maybe in the next four or five years if I could continue to improve, but when you get down below 2:20 you don’t simply chop four minutes off your time in one race – at least, you shouldn’t do!”  Edelen also moved into the front rank of distance track runners later that summer, as he took 4th place in 28:00.8 in the AAA six miles, and only five men in the World during the year were to beat the comparable 29 minutes for the metric distance.

Proof that Edelen’s “Poly” record was not a “one-off” was provided the following October by his winning the annual Kosice marathon in Czechoslovakia – then regarded as one of the most prestigious races in the world – in 2:15:09.6. After his Olympic 6th place, Edelen had a final fling at the “Poly” in 1965 and matched strides for 18 miles with the three Japanese invited over by the confectionery-manufacturing sponsors, Callard & Bowser, before a recurrence of his sciatic problem got the better of him.

Morio Shigematsu won in a World record 2:12:00, beating Basil Heatley’s 2:13:55 on the same course the year before and Abebe Bikila’s Olympic-winning 2:12:11.2. I was watching the finish of the “Poly”race from a privileged in-field media position at Chiswick Stadium and remember to this day how serenely unaffected Shigematsu seemed, just as had Edelen when he had crossed the line smiling beatifically two years earlier. On this latter occasion Edelen “stuck to his task magnificently” (Sam Ferris’s comment) and was 3rd in 2:14:34, just a few seconds outside his former record. Maybe Ferris was for once lost for words, describing Shigematsu’s performance simply as “a piece of spirited running the likes of which I have never witnessed before”. The last “Poly” marathon, by now suffering from traffic density, was in 1996, a year before Edelen’s death.

Edelen’s World record at the “Poly” had stood up well as the marathon began to gain wider recognition, and even by the end of 1968 he still ranked 21st fastest in the World.  Shigematsu was succeeded by the English-born Australian, Derek Clayton, who made a massively significant improvement of almost 2½ minutes to 2:09:36.4 at Fukuoka in 1967 and then by more than another minute to 2:08:33.6 in Antwerp the next year. The all-time top 20 in the marathon was largely a Japanese and British affair: eight from Japan, five from Great Britain. In addition, there were two from New Zealand (one of them born in Scotland), the English-born Clayton, of Australia, and one each from Ethiopia (Abebe Bikila), East Germany, Rumania and Turkey. Edelen’s US record had barely survived as Ambrose Burfoot, who had been coached by Johnny Kelley, had run 2:14:28.8 for 6th place in Fukuoka in 1968.

So close to Buddy’s US record but totally unaware!

Almost half-a-century later, Amby Burfoot is still running, and he has not only set what is surely an unapproachable record by taking part last November (2016) in his 54th consecutive annual 4.78-mile road race in Manchester, Connecticut, but won in the 70-to-74 age group! Burfoot was an eminent journalist as executive editor of “Runner’s World” and consequently his recollection of his oblivious near-miss in Japan is still bright: “For sure I did not know my time versus his as I entered the track to run the last lap at Fukuoka”, he answered to my e-mail. “That is, no one was screaming, ‘If you sprint at the end, you can break the American record’, but. I’ve kicked myself through the years that I did not sprint”.

Confirming Frank Murphy’s view that Edelen was under-rated in his homeland, Burfoot  says of the 1960s, “There was very little coverage or recognition of any kind; I was an early reader of ‘Distance Running News’, and so I followed world marathon events. I’m not sure I knew that Edelen had run 2:14:28, but I mainly remember thinking, ‘Damn that Windsor-to-Chiswick course, wherever it is. It seems to be damn fast’ The US knew virtually nothing about distance-running until Shorter won the Olympics on national TV”. .

The unheralded 1964 Olympic victories at 5000 and 10,000 metres by Bob Schul and Billy Mills gave US distance-running a gloss – at least elsewhere in the world – that Frank Shorter was to embellish with his marathon win eight years later, and so Edelen has tended to be overlooked in retrospect.

Did “Buddy” Edelen start this American revolution? It doesn’t really matter whether or not he did. He was a cheerful and courageous runner of the highest order in his era and deserves remembering for that alone.

The inimitable Sam Ferris style of road-race reporting

Here’s an extract from one of the numerous reports which Sam Ferris wrote for “AW” about Buddy Edelen’s exploits – in this case, the Bernie Hames Memorial Half Marathon on 23 September 1961, which Edelen won in 1:07:43.4, beating the course record by almost two minutes. Ferris’s verbosity is almost incomprehensible but still wonderfully entertaining!

“Around the second lap Buddy Edelen was merely running ‘on a shoe-string’, and as this policy was foreign to his way of life off came those American ‘sneakers’ to ‘Tullohise’  the rest of his effort to break up Frank Seal and Gerry McIntyre, who never want to meander round a course admiring the scenery. The ‘Buddy Effort’ came at about nine miles when the lithe form dialed ‘TUM’ for more guts, but Tum was in no mood for immediate response since the Edelen fancy for lunch had been Sardines!” Note: translation provided on request!

Author’s footnote: There’s a curious and frustrating side-issue regarding this article about Buddy Edelen. For various  reasons – usually because of being overtaken or diverted by other events – my research continued on and off for several years, and late in the day I came across a hand-written note in my dog-eared files which quoted someone as predicting that one day the marathon would be run in 1 hour 50!  Unfortunately, there was no source listed, and I have serious doubts that Edelen himself would ever have put his name to so bold a declaration, particularly as in the immediate aftermath of his World record he contented himself with saying that a much more conservative time of 2:11 was feasible.

Yet, clearly, I must have seen the comments somewhere and – expecting to commit myself to print soon afterwards with the memory still fresh – unwisely did not preserve details of the original source. The exact wording of the prediction was as follows: “If you have  God-given speed to run a mile in four minutes, and the mental tenacity to develop the endurance, there’s no predicting what times are possible. I foresee men running the marathon in 1 hour 50 minutes”.

Inquiries to the two leading British marathon experts, Andy Milroy and Roger Gynn, showed that this statement is not familiar to them, and neither is it to Don Sikorski, who wrote about Edelen, and nor is it to Amby Burfoot, with all his knowledge and experience as a marathon-runner and journalist.  

Yet it’s not a figment of my imagination. Who said it? Does any reader know?

























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