By Roger Robinson
As featured in the September 2004 issue of Running Times Magazine
Jack Foster, who redefined what older runners can achieve, died on June 5, 2004, at age 72, when his racing bicycle collided with a car near his home in New Zealand. Universally admired for his modesty, wisdom, and brilliance as a runner, Foster, a hard-working married man with four children, took up running at 32. At 37 he was world-class, at 39 set a world 20M track record (1:39:14), at 40 placed eighth in the Olympic marathon, at 41 set a world masters marathon mark (2:11:18) that lasted 16 years, at 43 won the Honolulu Marathon, and at 50 ran a world marathon record (2:20:28) for his age group.
Foster is revered as what he jokingly called "the ancient marathoner," and the nearest he ever got to seeming proud of his achievements was to say "Not bad for an old beggar." But the childlike exhilaration of his running was even more remarkable. He was a man of few words, but when you ran with him through his beloved forest near Rotorua he was zestful and roguish. Claiming to be partially deaf, he would say, "Coom round to me good ear," and then take off up some hidden track through the pines. Such hilly terrain, he said, "works you over quite adequately." But in a race his focus and willingness to push himself were uncompromising: "I run my tripes out."
His joy in being outside, fit, and free to move came partly from escaping the constraints of his origins. He came from working-class Liverpool, his father died when he was seven, and then came the war. Eating an airplane meal together once after an international race, Jack and I shared memories of childhood hunger in wartime England. Teenage cycling outings in the moors gave him a first sense of freedom, and he became a serious, though not successful, bike racer.
Leaving school at 14, he worked in a factory for 10 years and hated it. At 24 he emigrated to New Zealand, where he found fresh air, open spaces, and a society without class prejudice or materialistic pressures. So he worked as a clerk, enticed wife-to-be Belle from England for what proved a strong marriage, began his family, and one day at 32 went for a run. The rest is more legend than history.
He deserves the last word. In his book, Tale of the Ancient Marathoner, Jack wrote, "the really fit person does have a higher quality life . . . and gets more for his time here than the unfit, half-alive person."
He lived by that belief to the last.