Publish date:


A forgotten expatriate, Buddy Edelen returns to Yonkers to prove he is the best American marathon runner ever

Marathoners are a breed unto themselves, and Buddy Edelen (he pronounces the name eedalen), the forgotten American who has run the fastest and third-fastest marathons of all time and may become the first from his country to win the event in the Olympics since Johnny Hayes's victory in 1908, is no exception. He runs races minus socks. Whenever he eats a beef sandwich he first removes the top layer of bread to rip all the fat from the meat. In competition, before pinning an identifying number to his chest he will tear off any excess paper from around the actual numeral itself, on the theory that the least amount of weight or wind resistance to overcome is best for his time.

His eccentricities begin early. His first action upon awakening each morning, even before he springs out of bed, is to reach for his wrist and check his pulse to see that it is throbbing along at a steady 38 per minute. His pulse, his weight, his hours of sleep, details of his workout and numerous other items concerning his well-being that day will be carefully recorded on paper before he turns in that night and eventually mailed to Fred Wilt, the old Indiana long-distance runner. Wilt is now an FBI man but he has never lost his taste for track, and in what spare time he has left from chasing down bank robbers and most-wanted criminals he carries on a voluminous correspondence with coaches and athletes around the world. He has coached Edelen by mail since 1960, and last Sunday the thousands of words and hundreds of 15¢ postage stamps seemed eminently worthwhile. In a U.S. Olympic marathon trial, Edelen fought off humid, 90° temperatures on the hilly 26-mile 385-yard Yonkers, N.Y. course and won by almost four miles, thereby becoming the first track man to be selected for the U.S. Olympic team.

Hardly a facet of marathon running exists that Wilt and Edelen have not investigated at some time, including running in training without taking a breath. Edelen reached a stage where he could exhale and sprint 300 yards before gasping another lungful. He once tried running to music by carrying a transistor radio, but the problem was keeping the set on the correct station as he pounded along. "I would love to run to the music of Quo Vadis," says Edelen, "but I get bebop." Wilt even had Edelen hypnotized, planting the suggestion in his mind that pain is pleasure, but the precaution was useless. If Edelen had not already become convinced of that masochistic theory he probably would not be running marathons in the first place.

Edelen's odd behavior could, with little trouble, guarantee him a place in the first ranks of health faddists. This, however, is exactly what he is not. Like almost no other finely conditioned athlete you have ever heard of, Edelen drinks beer almost every day, smokes occasionally to calm his nerves, has a fine sense of humor and pursues—and is pursued by—pretty European girls, who often grow quite emotional over "Boody's" light brown hair, hazel eyes, long, pointed ears and narrow, whimsical chin. A Midwesterner who went with a gang of roughnecks in his youth, skirting the edge of juvenile delinquency, Edelen has taught English to English schoolchildren at King John's School in Thundersley since 1960, and by living the way he does has done more to enhance the image of athletics in England than any other performer since Chris Chataway, who smoked a cigar in front of the Russians after beating iron man (and ulcer ridden) Vladimir Kuts.

But all is not just fun and games for Leonard Graves Edelen IV, a former resident, among numerous places, of Sioux Falls, S. Dak., where high schoolers spent their Saturdays this spring washing cars to raise money to bring him to Yonkers. At 7 a.m. on a damp English morning an alarm clock breaks the silence of his bed-sitting room in Westcliff in Essex, and he rises. Normally he would sleep naked, but to keep warm in his cold room he goes to bed wearing his running shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. This is useful because when he gets out of bed all he has to do is pull a sweat shirt over his head and put on his soft running shoes. Bunched up slightly, as if to ward off the chill, he next moves across the room, which is decorated with trophies, to a stove. He brews himself enough coffee for two cups, makes some toast, on which he spreads honey, and reads the morning newspaper. About an hour later, after pinning his door key to his shorts and pulling a woolen hat down over his ears, he goes downstairs to the street.

As Edelen snaps into action he looks somewhat like a surprised rooster in full flight. His feet peck at the ground with a precise rhythm, but he seems to be sitting back on his heels, and his arms frequently move as if they are in a transport of their own. The style is ugly and defies logic, but the pace is as regular as a Beatle beat.

The run takes him to school, where he has left the clothes he will teach in that day. It is four and a half miles long and most of it steadily uphill. When he arrives after 25 minutes he does 25 to 30 situps in the school gym before taking a shower. At lunchtime all he eats is a single cheese sandwich. If he ate more, he says, he would not be ready for the training runs he takes after school.

Each Sunday, Edelen goes for a 23-mile run in the morning, and then generally increases the total mileage for the day to 28 by going out in the evening to do a steady two-mile run followed by 10-times-110 easy strides followed by a two-mile run home. On Tuesdays he follows his run home from school with roughly a dozen quarter miles at about 64 to 65 seconds each, with a minute's jog between. After school on Wednesday he does a 15-mile run at a faster pace than the 23-mile run on Sunday. He totals about 120 miles of running a week, and when it is warm he sometimes has a swim in the sea. Frequently his training carries him from Westcliff-on-Sea into neighboring Southend, which is a minor sort of Coney Island, with gaudy signs advertising amusements, novelty hats—on which are printed slogans like "I am a Virgin (Islander)"—fish and chips, eels and oysters. In the summer when the promenade is crammed with holiday-makers, the sight of Edelen grinding out his relentless schedule provokes occasional laughter. In a rare moment of bitterness Edelen remarked: "You wonder where the hell they were in January."

Edelen's evenings are spent either with an English family or in a local pub. He drinks beer because his stomach cannot take food too soon after his vigorous workouts. Normally he manages two or three pints of his favorite drink, Guinness stout, which contains a mixture of vitamins, mineral salts and protein that not only replaces Edelen's lost body fluid but provides sustenance in an easily assimilated form. It also helps Edelen, an insomniac, to sleep and, as Edelen points out, England's national health service prescribes Guinness for nursing mothers.

Before dropping into bed each night Edelen cooks his main solid meal of the day, normally just a piece of grilled meat or fish. The only other usual items of his diet are a few peanuts and chocolate. Despite this, he seems almost absurdly convinced that he is a compulsive eater, but his concern is understandable. Marathon runners have to be thin, since a thinner body gets rid of heat more quickly.

By such strenuous methods Buddy Edelen has developed himself into the best marathon runner the United States has ever had. An American, however, could not be faulted for wondering whether, after Edelen's long residence in England, he was still an American at all. To hear him talk you would not think so. He says "shan't" when he probably should say "won't." He calls his apartment a flat. He refers to his track clothes as his kit. He speaks with a broad accent, causing his pupils in school to remark that while he does not sound entirely English, he does not really sound Yankee either. Touring Russia last summer with the American track team, he proved a source of amusement to his comrades because of his queer speech. After several weeks of associating only with Americans, however, his accent began to fade. "You're starting to sound almost human again," his teammates informed him.

Buddy Edelen was born in Harrods-burg, Ky., and his early life was a series of disturbing upsets and crushing frustrations. His mother was put in a hospital when he was only 7, and he has not seen her since. His father, now a successful Sioux Falls television executive, worked on the road during Buddy's youth and had little time for his son. Buddy lived for a while with his mother's sister. When his father moved to Wisconsin, he put Buddy into a Roman Catholic boarding school where, although not a Catholic, he began to contemplate a life as a priest. His father eventually remarried, and it was after this that Buddy, never getting on too well with his stepmother, came close to becoming a delinquent.

A life of crime eventually faded in favor of a life of track. In running Buddy Edelen found peace of mind. "No one really accepts you as being sane if you run as much as I do a week," he confesses. "But if I rest a day or two after doing this tremendous amount of exercise. I feel very irritable and nervous. It's as if something has been stolen from me. Training gives me a feeling of tranquillity.

"The reason I took up distance running as opposed to sprinting is merely that I'm virtually devoid of any natural speed," he says (although the facts do not support him). "I'm just a plodder. Track runners consider me very, very slow. They say I have no kick, and that if they're with me in the last 400 yards they're bound to get past. Marathon men, on the other hand, think I'm fantastically fast. "Beware of Edelen in the last mile,' they say. But this is only because I mix track running with marathon running. The fastest I've run the mile is about 4:16 or 4:17 on the way to two miles. I would say the more speed you have the faster you will be able to run the marathon. 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 and 50 minutes."

Edelen's first sport was not running but football. His father remembers him as a left end who "wasn't very good, but once he got the ball no one could catch him." Buddy scoffs at anything that tends to damage his largely self-made image as a plodder. Actually, he played tackle on the C squad at St. Louis Park High School in Minneapolis, where his family lived for a short while. A hernia operation before his sophomore year ended an unpromising football career. He was then four inches below his present height of 5 feet 10 inches, but weighed 155 pounds and was known, not always flatteringly, as "Butterball Bud." His stepmother urged him to run track to slim down. Though now 135 pounds, he still has a weight problem and can put on 10 pounds merely by not training for two days.

Edelen worked hard during his last two years of high school, spent in Sioux Falls, won the mile in the South Dakota state championships and received scholarship offers from Minnesota and Nebraska. He chose Minnesota, but because his father's financial condition was good, he could receive only partial aid. He had to work to support himself, and one of his summer jobs almost proved fatal. Repairing a roof in 120° heat, he collapsed. Rushed to a hospital, he was found to be almost completely dehydrated. He had also developed acute lung congestion and kidney trouble which even now bother him when he has pushed his training too hard.

At Minnesota, Edelen set several records in winning Big Ten track and cross-country titles and might have done better if he had not been dogged by injuries. The conference track championships in 1959 at Purdue altered his career. There he met Fred Wilt. Soon after, Wilt arranged through a Helsinki businessman for Edelen to travel to Finland that summer to work and compete in track meets. He was severely trounced by the more mature European distance runners, but he learned fast, returned to the United States, set an American record for 10,000 meters and then, stunningly, finished far back in the Olympic trials. Wilt blames the failure on Edelen's obsession with his weight. "I think he didn't eat enough," says Wilt. "He had a blood test right after the race and we discovered his hemoglobin count was down to 12.5 grams per 100 cc. This means he was even more than anemic."

Wilt later arranged Edelen's present teaching job through Derek Cole, an English friend. Edelen arrived in England in 1960 and, except for one brief visit to America to run in several indoor track meets, he has not been home since. Says Edelen: "I was so happy living in England that at the end of six months I decided to stay on longer. I kept saying to myself that next year I'd be going back home, but I never have."

In England he first gained prominence in 1961 by winning an important 20-mile road race. Then in April 1962, he won a 10-mile race in 48:31.8. This was the fourth fastest time in history and an American record. That June he ran the first marathon of his life, the classic Windsor to Chiswick race on the outskirts of London, a race that is occasionally started by the Queen.

Edelen says, somewhat facetiously, that he entered the event just for the chance to meet the Queen. After being introduced to Queen Elizabeth, it was all downhill, and he finished a bedraggled ninth. Edelen swore off the marathon. "I didn't ever want to go through as much pain, torture and hell again," recalls Edelen. "I was actually crying."

Swearing off the marathon is something that all marathoners do but, like alcoholics recovered from a lost weekend, promptly forget. Edelen's school headmaster persuaded him to have another go. In a gale-force wind, Edelen won the Cardiff marathon in 2 hours 22 minutes, missing Jim Peters' course record by mere seconds. "That's when I decided I'd found my event," says Edelen.

He truly had. Last May he entered the Athens marathon and won in 2 hours 23.6 minutes, cutting 38 seconds off the previous course record set by 1960 Olympic Champion Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia. Within four weeks he lined up for the Windsor to Chiswick marathon again. The Queen was not there this time, unfortunately, for Edelen was in good form. "I knew I was moving with tremendous mechanical efficiency," he said later. "At 15 miles I thought to myself, 'Not much more than 10 left,' and I went." With a slight breeze to push him, he averaged just over five minutes for each mile and won in 2 hours 14:28 minutes, a time that was 47.8 seconds faster than the world's best previous performance, by Toru Terasawa of Japan. The English papers groused for a while over whether or not the course was 60 yards short, a purely academic discussion since, because of varying terrains, no official world records are accepted in the marathon. But the importance of Edelen's performance could not be overlooked, nor could the fact that he duplicated his form at Kosice, Czechoslovakia, Europe's most famous marathon, four months later. There, before 30,000 spectators at the finish line (with perhaps double that number having watched him on the course), Edelen won by half a mile over Russia's Sergei Popov in 2 hours 15:09.6 minutes, the fastest time ever recorded on an out-and-back course and the third best marathon of all time.

Despite its obvious propaganda value, hardly a word of Edelen's victory leaked out to the United States. But then marathon running, outside of Boston, has rarely excited the juices of the American public. "Quite honestly they couldn't care less how I run over here," Edelen said before leaving England for the Yonkers' Olympic trials, "and you can rest assured the AAU will not lift a finger to bring me back no matter how well I run. I'm looking out for No. 1, myself, now, and I shall remain in the environment I enjoy until just before the trials."

A man of his word, Edelen arrived in Yonkers three days before the race. The midsummer weather could not have been worse for a person who had trained in the cool of an English spring, but Edelen ignored the heat that all but fried his nearest competitors. He finished a full 20 minutes ahead of Adolph Gruber and announced, "I did it on my alcoholic reserve."

Edelen is now confident that he is in the best condition of his life. "I believe in the theory," he says, "that if a man is subjected to a certain degree of stress over a period of time, his body gradually adapts itself to tolerate the strains. I think that each year you must become stronger and stronger. You either get better in this game or you get worse. You must move on to harder and faster training every year, to a certain degree. I have found over the past few years, apart from a few days and some minor pains, I haven't really been forced out of action at all. The longest period of time I've gone without training has been three days in the last four years."

If only because he has brought a stimulating originality to the exhausting world of long-distance running, Edelen would be a most welcome winner at the Olympics. After his triumph at Kosice another American marathoner, Hal Higdon, whose training habits are impeccable but who barely got back into the stadium to witness the award ceremony, was astounded to see the conqueror of the Soviets pull out a pack of cigarettes.

"That does it," sighed Higdon. "I'm taking up beer and cigarettes."

"No, no," pleaded Edelen. "First you must train bloody hard. Think of how good I might be if I didn't have these vices."