The most important person in the history of American distance running is, ironically, someone who is famous because of walking.
That’s right. We have many heroes, and have no wish to disrespect to Pre, Frank, Joanie, Boston Bill, Billy Mills, Meb, Rupp, Desi — all great runners who have, no doubt, inspired thousands – but Jeff Galloway is one person to whom every runner in the US owes a debt of gratitude.
Don’t believe me? Let’s make the case.
Before Jeff was a guiding light for the masses, he was every bit the elite runner — an Olympian and US record holder for the 10 mile run. But lots of people have been Olympians and US record holders. So what makes Jeff’s impact so paradigm-shifting?
To start, he pioneered the idea of a “specialty” running store. In 1973, fresh off the Munich Olympics, he launched one of the first stores of its kind — a running store called “Phidippides” — in Tallahassee, FL before moving it to Atlanta, GA in 1975. His vision was to have a place where runners could get advice on the latest shoes and technology, and to learn from and get inspired by other runners. By 1978, there were 35 Phidippides stores nationwide.
Would running stores exist without Jeff? Sure. But he did it first. And if you have shopped at one of the roughly 1300 running specialty stores in the US, you can thank Jeff for pioneering the idea that there should be a store focused on you and your needs.
Don’t shop at running stores? Do you enjoy big spectacle races — the kind that bring together elite and recreational runners on one stage to share in the race experience? Like Atlanta’s Fourth of July Peachtree Road Race — the race that Jeff helped grow from 1,000 finishers in 1975 to 25,000 in 1980, and showed the rest of the world that a road race could be both civic event and elite sporting event.
Maybe the biggest inspiration in your running life was Joan Benoit and her victory at the 1984 Olympic Marathon. One of the figures deep behind the scenes of that indelible performance was, you guessed it, Jeff.
As part of the process to become an Olympic event, Avon organized a series of women’s marathons to demonstrate interest and create participation in the sport in different countries. The very first of those marathons was co-founded and directed by Jeff in Atlanta in 1978.
Hell, maybe you’re a fire and brimstone disciple to the gospel of Once A Runner.
Of course that cult classic never gets written if Jack Bacheler, Frank Shorter, and (yep) Jeff weren’t training with the Florida Track Club at the same time as John L. Parker. Part of the book was even written while Parker was staying at Jeff’s house. (Jeff once also opened his home to me for several months. Sadly, no classic literature came of that stay.)
But, ok, maybe you’ve never read Once A Runner and don’t care about running history, big races, or who’s slept on Jeff’s couch.
Do you enjoy being able to run local races pretty much any weekend you like? Chances are our race calendar would be looking more sparse these days without the thousands who started running thanks to Galloway’s Book on Running (the best-selling running book of all-time).
And maybe you yourself are one of the 350,000-plus runners who first took to the roads with the help of Jeff’s (in)famous run/walk/run method?
Ok, ok, the walking thing. “Gallowalking,” the purists (myself included in my younger, dumber days) like to sneer — as if Pheidippides himself chiseled on tablets “thou shalt not walk.”
How many people walk in the final miles of a marathon? And what exactly makes it different if you do it on purpose early in the race rather than when you’re forced to at the end?
And before you write off Jeff’s method as some form of milquetoast marathon training, you may want to look at what is actually in his training programs.
His program for a 4:40 time goal includes four runs of 20 miles or more (topping out at 28 miles), in addition to mile repeat workouts that build to 12x mile faster than goal marathon pace. And he tells you to run or cross-train six days a week.
You want to tell someone who follows that training plan that they somehow “cheated” and didn’t “earn” their marathon finish?
If you’ve ever heard Jeff proselytize the benefits of walk breaks — reduced injury risk, quicker recovery, and (Jeff swears) faster race times — it’s easy to see how he’s become the face of an entire running movement. His passion for running, for movement, and for bringing that to as many people as he possibly can is contagious.
It’s that passion that has led him to have his hand in so many parts of running history and so many aspects of the running world we know and love today. It’s what has made him the single most indispensable piece of American running history writ large.
Of course, often lost in this big-picture and these big numbers is his impact on individuals.
When I think about Jeff’s impact I don’t think of the hundreds of thousands of runners in his training programs. I think of him making marathons seem possible for someone like my then 50-year-old dad, who went from never running a step in his life to running marathons. I think of my brother-in-law qualifying for Boston taking a minute walk break at each mile mark.
And I think about his belief that running should be fun, enjoyable, and sustainable long-term above all else and how influential that has been in shaping my own coaching philosophy.
Because if you ask anyone who has personally met with Jeff, it’s not just his passion that sets him apart.
It’s his ability to connect, to teach, to care as much about the goals of the 8 hour marathoner as the 3 hour marathoner. That power — to make a newbie runner feel heard, supported, and encouraged by someone who has competed at the very top — is his super power that has helped start countless love affairs with running over the decades.
Jeff is a legend, but he’s not immortal. Earlier this month, Jeff suffered a heart attack. His doctors are optimistic, but there are many questions and unknowns ahead.
This much is known, though — the running world would not be the same had it not been for Jeff Galloway, and it will not be the same when he’s gone.
So let’s take the time now to appreciate him, as a runner in full — elite competitor, visionary businessman, tireless organizer, figurehead of two different running booms — and to offer up a “thank you” for the countless ways he has touched and shaped the running world around us.
Even with all he has done, I’m sure he would tell you he has plenty more left to do. Let’s hope so. I know we’ll all benefit if he does.