I believe that all of us, in our quest to be better runners, have been helped and encouraged by another runner along the way. In an activity such as running, which can sometimes lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with self, there are those who freely give guidance to runners who are new to this sport. For me, that person was Ralph Zimmerman.
I first met Ralph in the early '80's when he had a group of runners that met for weekly runs out of the local YMCA. He was at that time a legend in our local running community. He had placed 28th at the 1978 Boston Marathon finishing in 2:18:55, a record for runners his age (37 yrs). Also, this race had an incredible 54 runners go under the 2:20 barrier, something never seen before at that distance. A year later, Ralph ran a 2:17 at the Mardi Gras Marathon in New Orleans setting yet another age-group mark. Then, at the '80 Olympic Trials marathon, he raced to an age-group best of "2:20 and change".
Interestingly, at this Trials', a new mark of 56 was established for the number of runners faster than 2:20. Ralph was regularly featured in Running Times for age group wins and records throughout the '70's and '80's. I'd be remiss not to add that he ran many marathon's in the 2:20's throughout the '80's as well as winning countless races overall. Blessed with natural foot speed (51 second quarter in high school), Ralph knew what he had to do to get better, run lots of miles. For a period of time he ran 20 miles a day while working a physically demanding full-time job. As a believer in the Lydiard system, he knew that with mileage came the inevitable transition to hill training which he did at Chesnut Ridge Park outside of Buffalo, N. Y. Then of course came the interval phase. I'll always remember hearing several younger runners, who were top finishers at one race, talking about seeing one of Ralph's interval workouts which were comprised of his running 20x 400 mtrs. in 65 seconds. They were amazed at the apparent ease at which he seemed to be able run them. Let me quickly add that Ralph was probably just a little over 40 yrs. old at the time.
Ralph loved running and training, he didn't have to say a thing, you knew he did by just taking a run with him. My purpose in writing this is not just to give a listing of Ralph's considerable racing accomplishments. As mentioned previously in this blog, the worth of a man is not always measured in the races won and the acclaim received. The thing that made Ralph special is that he would always take the time to talk to and encourage those who sought his help. I recall being very excited when he first invited me out to Chesnut Ridge Park with a few other runners for one of his long runs. From this I developed a lifelong love of running in this type of area, in the natural surroundings with the hills and the quietness. I appreciated the advice he gave when he told me to move my arms more when I ran, particularly when going up the hills. His staggered weekly time trails over the "Big Mother" loop gave me a kind of physical and mental toughness that I probably couldn't have gotten anywhere else. I can still recall anticipating his catching up with me about 3/4's through the loop. Perhaps I learned most from Ralph by his example, by just running and training with him. It's no exaggeration to say that I would not be the runner I became, and still am 3+ decades later, if it wasn't for Ralph's influence. I am deeply thankful to him for this.
In closing, Ralph still gets "out there" but he has changed his running priorities in recent years. For the last several years, he has coached a local high schools' track and cross-country teams, passing on his knowledge, enthusiasm and love for the purest of all sports, running.
Thanks Ralph, more people appreciate what you've done than you'll probably ever know.
May we learn from your example.