Newton North Varsity XC at Franklin Park, November 10, 2001
“Once thinking I was destined to be mediocre at pretty much everything, the fact that [Coach Blackburn] believed in me made me more confident and driven than I’d ever been on the track and off it. From two and three-lappers in the SOA to that ridiculous hill across from school, we always had it every time he yelled ‘You Got It!.’ I learned so much about hard work, self-belief, and motivation from coach. Thanks for always teaching, coaching, and believing that we could win it all.” – Noah Jampol, Newton North Class ’06
In athletics, the word “legendary” is chronically overused, applied almost automatically to anyone with a reasonably long tenure and modest name recognition. That’s a shame, because it leaves us at a loss when we want to talk about someone as unique and legend-worthy as former Newton North Track and Cross Country coach Jim Blackburn, who passed away Tuesday, March 19 2019, and whose life offered up a series of remarkable stories told and re-told down the years by generations of runners and fellow coaches with a mix of admiration and astonishment.
Those stories began with Coach’s own career as an athlete and his almost limitless capacity for unfathomably hard work. At Somerville High, Jimmy Blackburn was an outstanding sprinter who won multiple indoor and outdoor state titles. One of the most familiar stories, immortalized in the local papers of the time, was how he won a state indoor championship while running on a broken foot. Years later, that story would appear (when needed) to provide a new generation of runners with perspective on the importance of desire in overcoming obstacles.
After high school, Blackburn went on to a successful collegiate career at Villanova, competing in the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 200m and helping to set a collegiate record as a member of the school’s 4×400 relay team. His teammates at Villanova included two Olympic champions, Ron Delany (1500m) and Rindge Tech’s Charlie Jenkins (400m), who won each won Gold at the 1956 Games in Melbourne. One time when I was arguing with Coach about the particulars of workout that he had assigned to our milers, he put me in my place by describing how Delany had run it.
In truth, Coach didn’t need Ron Delany, Charlie Jenkins, or anyone else to make his case; he could have as easily cited his own training to impress upon me and his athletes the virtues of workouts that pushed the limits of what seemed possible. I knew, for example, that one of his own most reliable workouts as an athlete was to run 5 x 300m all out. If that doesn’t seem all that impressive, consider that a High School 400-meter runner will manage two, maybe three of these before curling up in pain on the infield, bargaining to be excused from any more suffering. Of course, 300s became a staple of the training given to generations of Newton North athletes. During indoor season, these were known as “two-lappers,” that is, two laps of the flat, slippery, 155-yard yard track in the SOA (the auxiliary gym in the old high school building). Knowing how hard these were, runners inevitably and instinctively held something back, but Coach had an unerring ability to sense the effort level of each athlete, and when he perceived a lack of intensity, it just meant more two-lappers and more of Coach’s motivational talk about how Brockton’s kids were working harder.
One reason his athletes believed in that work ethic was that Coach Blackburn continued to live by it. Unlike those coaches who were athletes back in the day, but settle into middle-aged comfort, Blackburn had an ageless ability to push himself. Even into his 70’s, he retained the hard lines and physique of an athlete, and looked like he was perfectly capable of doing more push-ups than you, or outlasting you on a long run. Incredibly, after his fast-twitch sprinting career was over, he had taken up long-distance running, and – training 100 miles a week and as often as three times a day – had managed to run a 2:40 marathon in his 40s. A staple of his training was four-hour runs on the weekend. Those long runs spawned another legend, that his wife Charlotte had once called the police to locate her husband when he failed to return as expected from a long run. She disputes that she ever made that call, but admits that she thought about it often. All I know is that in his 60s he was still running with the cross country team, and didn’t stop until a bad hamstring injury slowed him down and limited his running. At that point, he began walking 2-3 hours a day, instead.
I got to know Coach Blackburn because he gave me my first coaching job, accepting me as a volunteer coach for the 2001 Spring Track season, and then hiring me the following September. At the time, he was already 12 years into the 30-year run at Newton North that would be the magnum opus of his coaching career. I knew something of his reputation, and was more than a little intimidated to approach him about a job. I needn’t have worried. After a short conversation with me, coach decided that I knew enough about running (and specifically, about competing) to be of some help. The first day of practice, he directed me to a group of 20 distance runners and left me alone with them. There was no discussion of training and no words of advice about how to organize the practice or relate to the kids.
I would learn soon enough that he did not obsessively plan practices or write individual workouts for different runners. He believed, fundamentally, that training was just running hard, over and over again. It wasn’t much more complicated than that. But what was complicated was the psychology and motivation of each individual. Coach spoke often about need – the champion’s need to win, and then win again. The coach couldn’t endow an athlete with talent or courage, but he could fan the flames of that need, show the athlete how to use it to push through pain, how to recognize that the difference between doing one more rep and giving up was simply a matter of how much you wanted it.
This is not the way ordinary coaches operate.
Most of us in the coaching biz think we’re pretty smart, and we spend a lot of time writing out detailed and individualized workouts based on our supposed understanding of the latest exercise science. We are convinced that there is an optimum amount of work for each runner, and so we strive to find the right balance without ever pushing the limits too far. That’s especially true these days, when kids seem to break easily. I fear. Sometimes, that this approach deprives our athletes of responsibility for their own success or lack of it.
Coach Blackburn took a different approach. Every day he asked his runners to decide how much they wanted to improve. He rarely forced his athletes to do the extra miles or the extra rep, but he made it clear it was only by confronting and overcoming the suffering of that extra rep that a runner became great. It took me a while to get used to his approach, and I still think that running fast every day is not always the best training strategy for all runners, especially distance runners, but there was no arguing with the powerful lesson that hard work and desire were the foundations of success.
Coach wanted his athletes to care about winning, and so learn to embrace the sacrifices required to be winners. He developed a program that won over and over, and he used that streak of winning to motivate each new team to keep the tradition going. At the same time, he wasn’t obsessed with statistics. In fact, it was frustrating to me to see his disregard for exact times and precise records. For years, he maintained a homemade record board on which he would capture the legacy of the athletes he had coached. He never did bother to record FAT times to the hundredth of a second, which drove me crazy. If I ever brought it up, he would just chuckle and go on doing things the same he they probably did them in the fifties.
But that was typical: Coach was the kind of person who had no interest in changing the way he did things just to make things easy for you. He could be exasperating, but by the same token, he never seemed to take offense if you let him know that you were exasperated. He understood that it wasn’t his job to change his ways; it was your job to deal with it.
When it came time for me to leave Newton North, Coach Blackburn wrote me a wonderful recommendation. That, too, was typical. He was hugely generous to his assistant coaches, and always made sure to give them shared credit for the team’s success. In fact, Coach rarely talked about himself and had little interest in self-promotion or feeding stories to the papers. There aren’t a lot of pictures of Coach by himself; he’s almost always with his team or his coaching staff. This isn’t an accident. He didn’t crave attention. Instead, he preferred to win everything in sight and let others draw their own conclusions.
To say that I learned a lot from Coach would be a huge understatement. And this was true despite, or perhaps because, I had to reconcile my gentler ideas about training with his uncompromising approach. At the same time, I never felt that he expected blind agreement with his methods. He knew that he was an outlier, an old-school coach in a new school world, but he was charitable to those who, like me, he considered too “nice” to share his views – whether those views were about training, politics, or what motivates people.
But the more I observed the alchemy of his Track teams, the more I appreciated the fact that he was unapologetically out to make champions of us all. He told his athletes that they could do more, be more, if only they cared enough to push through the suffering, and he was right.
In the days since he passed away, I’ve thought a lot about how much affection Coach Blackburn had for the athletes he coached. His workouts might have seemed pitiless, but underlying them was a great deal of compassion. He knew what it was like for his runners because he’d been there himself. And his runners, in turn, believed in him and wanted to follow on the same hard path.
He remembered them all, his runners, and never tired of telling stories about them. Even as he approached the end, he was still fond of recalling specific races, and not just the championships, but meaningless dual meets that produced small moments of courage, like the cross country race where one of North’s JV runners out-kicked a sub-50 400 guy.
He told those stories out of affection, yes, but also because each story illustrated how important it was to care about the race, to care about winning. We didn’t all have the talent to be Olympic Champions, but we all had the choice to write out our own legends.
A final note of thanks to Josh Seeherman, who corrected me on several details and provided additional information about Coach Blackburn’s teammates at Villanova. Josh, who now works at the Penn Relays office, shared splits and stories of Villanova’s championship 4×400 relays team of Manion, Blackburn, Stead, and Collymore, who won the title in 1959. Josh ran Track for Newton North in the 90s, before I got there, and still remembers the elation and pride of running his first 39-second two-lapper in the old SOA.