01 January 2008, 8am
Born in South Carolina in 1919 Corbitt’s family grew corn and cotton. Growing up with farm duties from an early age, he developed a tough, wiry physique and strong work discipline. In the segregated society of the time, he had to get to school on foot – and discovered the joys of running. After his family moved to Ohio he competed in high school meets and then at the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a Masters degree.
In 1950, after marriage and qualification as a physical therapist, he resolved to run the Boston Marathon, preparing himself according to what he could find out about the legendary Emil Zatopek’s training methods. “I used a lot of the resistance exercises that were a part of physical therapy treatment to build up my legs,” he said. He also used Zatopek’s “interval” sessions for speed endurance and long, slow runs for stamina.
In the 1951 Boston Marathon he placed 15th but the following year he made the Olympic Marathon team. It was the Helsinki Games, in which Zatopek won 5000m 10000m and marathon in Olympic record times. His success redoubled Corbitt’s resolve and his training leapt to between 200–300 miles a week. Corbitt set US records for 25 miles on the track, the marathon, 40 miles, 50 miles and 100 miles – this last at the age of 50. He won US and Canadian Marathon Championships but retired from serious competition in 1974 after a bout of bronchitis, although he continued to run marathons and ultra races. In 2001, aged 82, he walked 303 miles in a six-day competition.
But Corbitt left his greatest mark in administration of his sport. He was the first president of the Road Runners Club of America, and co-founder of the New York Road Runners Club. He was formative in shaping masters’ competition and in developing reliable methods of measuring road race courses.