University of Minnesota Alumni Association


In it for the Long Run

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the U of M’s Buddy Edelen changed the face of long-distance running and put himself in the record books.

Youngsters trail former U of M track star Buddy Edelen at the New York World’s Fair on May 22, 1964.

ON MAY 25, 1958, BUDDY EDELEN, a wispy, 5-foot-10 University of Minnesota distance runner, had just won the two-mile at the Big Ten Track and Field Championships at Purdue, holding off a stiff challenge from Michigan State’s Crawford “Fordy” Kennedy and setting a conference record of 9:03.2. 

It was a towering high point in an illustrious career at the University for Edelen (B.S. ’60), who was the reigning Big Ten cross country champion and ranked among the nation’s best collegiate runners.

But the dogged, overachieving junior was approaching a personal crossroads. Looking ahead to graduation the following year, Edelen (pronounced eedalen) faced the prospect of a career in which running, his obsessive compulsion, might necessarily become a sidelight. 

Among the spectators that day in West Lafayette, Indiana, was the former Indiana University track star and two-time Olympian Fred Wilt. 

Wilt, who'd become an FBI agent, had continued to research, write, and theorize about his sport after graduation, and, when not chasing bad guys, worked with a handful of elite distance runners, coaching them by mail.

Immediately after the two-mile event, Wilt made his way down to the Purdue track and briefly visited with the victorious runner. It would be a life-changing few minutes for Edelen.

Counting Seconds

In Buddy Edelen, U of M Coach Jim Kelly discovered a sports innovator. At a time when taking liquids during a race was considered almost a sign of weakness, Edelen carried squeeze bottles in long workouts—just to practice drinking.

A few years later, Sports Illustrated reported that “Whenever [Edelen] 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.”

Each morning, Edelen would reach for his wrist and check his pulse to see that it was pumping at a steady 38 beats per minute. Of Edelen’s obsessiveness, the famed runner and training guru Hal Higdon, whose books include Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide, said: “The seeds had been planted when he was at Minnesota.”

“At that time, all our runners were quitting just after college,” Wilt recalled years later. “There was no money in the sport and a young man, no matter how talented, had to make a living, and that might not leave room for running. So, I wanted to see what his attitude was, with an eye toward coaching him—although adviser may be a better word for it—and more importantly, just helping him stay with running after he graduated.”

Wilt had advanced some novel ideas for how distance runners might train and was looking for a chance to put them into action. In the distinctively self-disciplined Buddy Edelen, he found his man.

In just a few years, Edelen was competing on a global scale. 

This June 15 marks the 60th anniversary of Edelen’s victory in the “Polytechnic” Marathon, which started at Windsor Castle and finished before a meager crowd at Chiswick Stadium near London. Edelen’s time of 2:14:28 broke the world record set four months earlier by Toru Terasawa of Japan, and was 48 seconds faster than renowned Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia ran to win the Rome Olympics in 1960.

Edelen became the first American in nearly four decades to attain the world record and was the only U.S. record-holder between 1925 and 2002. Today, the five years Edelen spent in England after graduating from the University remain among the most intriguing stories in the history of U.S. long-distance running. In fact, Runner’s World magazine once called Edelen “the forgotten man of the American marathoning history.”

The story of how he helped revolutionize his sport began at the University of Minnesota.

BORN IN HARRODSBURG, Kentucky, in 1937, Edelen relocated with his family to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for his senior year in high school. He was state champion in the mile and cross country that year, having never lost a high school race. A high school teammate, Bill Erickson, recalled that the young Edelen always exceeded expectations. When runners were ordered to run four quarter-mile repeats in training, Edelen would usually do eight. Erickson said the industriousness carried over at the University, where Edelen accepted a partial scholarship in 1955, as did Erickson. 

Edelen’s high school coach, Roy Griak, had steered his star to Minnesota. Griak himself had run for Coach Jim Kelly at the University. (In 1963 Griak would also come to the U of M, succeeding Kelly as the Gophers’ track and cross country coach.)

Kelly had overseen the Minnesota track and field program since 1937 and was something of a legend. His 1948 Golden Gophers captured the NCAA team championship. Indeed, Kelly was so renowned that he was named head coach of the U.S. men’s track and field squad for the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. His American athletes led all others with 15 gold medals in track and field events at the Games.

(Kelly’s specialty was actually field events and in the 1940s, he introduced a new discus-throwing technique. Two beefy Gophers coached by Kelly, Bob Fitch [B.S. ’42] and Fortune Gordien [B.S. ’59], set new world records and won Olympic medals with a rotational method that became known as the “Minnesota Whip.” Fitch went on to coach and Gordien wound up in Hollywood, appearing as an actor in a few minor roles, including in The Cisco Kid.)

With Buddy Edelen, Kelly took a hands-off approach—perhaps a result of his preoccupation with the Olympics during Edelen’s first track season at Minnesota. He “wisely let Buddy design most of his own workouts: coaching by acquiescence,” wrote Frank Murphy in his 1992 biography of Edelen, A Cold Clear Day. “Coach Kelly knew that Buddy would do what was required and that he was smart enough to do it right.”

Left to his own devices, Edelen blazed to glory on the Gopher course at Lake Nokomis and became the University’s first Big Ten cross country champ in 43 years.

After graduating, and under Fred Wilt’s tutelage, Leonard Graves Edelen (he never signed with his given name; it was always “Buddy” and always in quotes) would develop into the first great American marathoner of the modern era. His training mileage increased exponentially after college, and he began competing in longer events than the four-mile cross country races he ran in college.

While he would never run the Boston Marathon and his Olympic career was a disappointment, from 1962 through 1966, Edelen managed to reconfigure how world-class athletes prepare for a marathon.

Sports Illustrated writer described his running as ‘somewhat like a surprised rooster in full flight.

BOTH IN TRAINING method and running technique, Edelen had his own style. Watching him at that 1958 Big Ten meet, Wilt said people in the stands remarked about Edelen’s unusual gait. A Sports Illustrated writer would describe it as “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.”

Wilt felt Edelen’s stride was fine, but he was more impressed with the young man’s attitude. “When he ran a change came over him…. As the race progressed, he had a quality almost like meanness. He just would not let up.”

Edelen finished his college career in the spring of 1959, but had to pass up the Big Ten track meet that season because of recurring injuries, including his knee. It would be the fourth time during his senior year that a championship had evaded him because of ailments. A leg rash prevented Edelen from winning the Big Ten and NCAA cross country meets the previous fall, and a foot injury hampered him in the Big Ten indoor two-mile in early 1959.

"Wrong Turn, Buddy!"

Edelen was as big a man on campus as a cross country runner could expect to become. An article in the November 19, 1957, issue of the Minnesota Daily led with: “Mud-spattered Buddy Edelen galloped out of the muck and slush of Chicago’s Washington Park course to cover himself with the glory of the Big Ten cross-country championship Friday.”

Coach Jim Kelly told the Daily it was one of the most thrilling races he had ever watched. “Buddy led for three-and-one-half miles … and [Michigan State's Fordy] Kennedy traded off the lead. Kennedy was ahead of Buddy with only 30 yards to the finish, when Buddy started a terrific sprint that just left him behind. I just wailed at the finish and yelled at Buddy to take him. And then he began that beautiful kick that killed Kennedy.”

The race in Chicago was renowned for another reason, again involving Fordy Kennedy. With the course underwater, Edelen became confused and veered off the path. The second-place Kennedy yelled “wrong turn, Buddy!” Edelen got back on track, leaving Kennedy to finish as the runner-up as reward for his sportsmanship.

He spent the summer of 1959 in Finland—arranged by Wilt—before returning to campus that autumn to complete his degree from what was then known as the College of Science, Literature, and the Arts, with plans to become a teacher. While abroad he competed in about 30 races of distances ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 meters. He didn’t win any but did “pick up a lot of spoons for second place,” as he said later.

The bum knee that marred his senior year at Minnesota had improved and Edelen told a journalist he thought he had a shot at making the 1960 U.S. Olympic team. He spent several months training with the Minnesota varsity while setting his sights on qualifying for the Rome Games in the 10,000-meter run.

His ultimate failure to make the U.S. squad at the Olympic trials at Stanford led to a crucial decision—once again prompted by Wilt. Edelen moved to England, a global hothouse of distance running at the time, arriving in November 1960. He stayed for five years, teaching at King John’s Secondary School in the town of Thundersley, in southeast England.

Besides increased roadwork—more than 100 miles a week, compared to the 25 or so he ran at the University—Edelen and Wilt hit upon a new training pattern in England. It consisted of a weekend long run, medium-long midweek run, speed work, and easy running sprinkled between.

According to Sports Illustrated, “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 [mails it] to Fred Wilt.”

Though he had never attempted a marathon at the U of M, he was now focusing on the event. Between 1962 and 1966, he ran 13 marathons against top international competition and won seven, never placing worse than ninth. The big payoff was his world record at the Poly on June 15, 1963. That drew overnight attention to the former Golden Gopher—at least within the relatively small world of marathon competitions. His celebrity was elevated by two long feature articles in Sports Illustrated in an era when the magazine was at the pinnacle of its influence.

Edelen won the 1964 U.S. Olympic Trials on a hilly, 26-mile 385-yard Yonkers, N.Y. course, finishing with a time of 2:24:26: more than 20 minutes ahead of the runnerup. The race was run in humid, 90-plus degree heat. More than 70 percent of the field failed to finish. Edelen had prepared for extreme heat by training with double and sometimes triple sweat suits, but historians still ponder the long-term effects of that hot day in Yonkers.

Edelen went for a run a few days later and noticed that he felt tight in his hips. Lifelong sciatic problems which plagued him started soon after.

When Edelen was posthumously inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2016, his son Brent said: “He was everybody’s friend, droll, always joking, always optimistic. He even joked after he got cancer.”

Edelen succumbed to cancer in 1997 at age 59. He was inducted into the University of Minnesota’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2001. 

Rick Johnson is a freelance writer in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

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