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Gayle Barron — September, 2011
Gayle Barron is best known for winning the 1978 Boston Marathon in a personal best time of 2:44:38. Three times she won Atlanta’s Peach Bowl Marathon. Gayle also raced to many top three marathon finishes including in Boston (1975), New York City (1975, 1977), Eugene, Oregon (1977), Honolulu (1976, 1977), Waldniel, Germany (1976) and Auckland, New Zealand (1978). Truly one of the pioneers of American road racing, she was the winner of the first Peachtree Road Race 10k in 1970 and went on to win five of the first six, earning her the endearing title of ‘The First Lady of Peachtree.’ Gayle raced at a time when young women did not have the opportunity to run and race in high school and college. She started running for fitness in college and before she was through with her running career had raced 26 marathons, with 23 under three hours. Accolades include being named ‘First Lady’ in running by Runner's World Magazine, one of America's Top Ten Healthy American Fitness Leaders by the U.S. Jaycees and one of the top 100 Georgia Athletes of the Century by the Atlanta Journal. Gayle was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Atlanta Sports HOF in 2007. She is author of ‘The Beauty of Running’ and was a radio and television commentator in the late 1970’s and 80’s. Gayle coached the Georgia Team in Training before starting her own Team Spirit. She was Spokesperson for Lean Cuisine, Crystal Light Drink Mix and Evian Bottled Water and is currently Fitness Expert for Waffle House. Gayle resides in Smyrna, Georgia. She was kind in spending over two hours on the telephone for this interview.
GCR:For anyone under the age of 40 or 45, it is difficult to fathom the lack of opportunities that girls and women had to compete in sports until sometime in the mid-1970s. Describe what it was like for you as a teenager in the 1960s.
GBI went to Druid Hills High School in Atlanta where the only opportunity in sports for girls was basketball and I wasn’t tall enough to be a basketball player. I loved the gym, recess and exercising. I loved to run which was just casual running in gym class. I didn’t think about it but figured that maybe sports were not feminine or weren’t good for our bodies. The things I did do were cheerleading and drill team in high school and then, at the University of Georgia, I was also a cheerleader. That was it as there weren’t sports for young women in college.
GCR:How did you get started running and what did your family and friends think of this unusual avocation?
GBWhen I was about to graduate from college I met my former husband, Ben, who was running stadium steps while I was cheerleading. At the time I was about 15 pounds heavier than ideal just from collegiate eating habits. I thought that maybe I’d run some stadium steps with Ben for fitness and to lose some weight. People thought I was crazy and would stand on a bridge and look at us as it was uncommon to run stadium steps, especially for a young woman. After a while I noticed I was losing a bit of weight and I started eating better because I enjoyed the taste of real food instead of junk food. I didn’t start running around the track until three or four months later when I started jogging. I could barely run a mile and took some walking breaks, kind of like in the ‘Jeff Galloway Program,’ but it was because I couldn’t make the mile with just running. My first goal was to run a mile and I slowly increased up to three miles.
GCR:You are in a group of women in the late 1960s that are referred to as ‘Pioneers of Women’s Distance Running.’ How did you make the transition from someone who liked to run to entering road races?
GBOnce I graduated from Georgia I was running at the Emory University Track and there were also a few guys running there. One introduced himself as Dr. Tim Singleton and said, ‘We don’t have any women in this new race. Why don’t you come out and run the Peachtree 10k?’ When he told me it was just over six miles I hadn’t run over three miles and it was only a month away. Ben told me he and some friends were going to run it and that is when my competitive juices started as I thought, ‘If you’re going to do it, then I will too and I’ll just see how far I can go.’ So that first Peachtree race with 110 runners of which three were women was my first race. It was a fun event for me as there was a close-knit group of runners that I met and whom I saw at other races. So it became a social activity for me. I was competitive with myself but not with other women as there was just a handful of women runners until 1977 when Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and others came to Peachtree and it became a popular race that attracted big crowds of men and more women.
GCR:You are famously known for winning five of the first six Peachtree Road Race 10ks. What was it like racing in the southern U.S. when it was a novelty before the late-1970s ‘running boom?’
GBI was happy to finish the first Peachtree Road Race as it was hot. The race didn’t start until 10:00 which is too late on a July day in Atlanta. The initial Peachtree course was very hard and I knew there was a treacherous hill toward the end. I had been training consistently on the track for a pace of 8:00 per mile. I always ran on a track and never on roads, so the hills on the Peachtree course were tough. When I finished I was excited as I was the first woman, but all I wanted to do was to cool down. There wasn’t any water to drink after the race, it was before finishers’ t-shirts were awarded and all everyone wanted to do was to get in this big fountain and cool off. I received my trophy from Tim Singleton who said, ‘I told you that you should run this race.’ So he gave himself credit for that which is true as he did inspire me in many ways.
GCR:Did you have any tight competition in your five victories and what is the story behind the one that you didn’t run in 1972?
GBEach year I was out in the front by myself. In 1973 I got excited as my time in my third victory dropped a lot from 49:13 to 45:17 to 40:37. In 1972 I didn’t race as we travelled to Florida to visit Ben’s grandmother who was moving into a retirement home. It was just easier to visit over the holiday and I didn’t care if I missed the race as I had already won it twice.
GCR:How tough was the heat in 1976 that stopped you from winning your sixth Peachtree Road Race?
GBI went out way too fast for me, meaning 6:10 pace per mile. There wasn’t any water to drink along the course and I was running very fast. But I felt good and was leading. I don’t remember much after about three miles but as we went up a very steep hill close to the finish I was tiring. My knees were wobbling and I kept pushing and pushing while I wondered what was wrong with me. I fell about 100 yards before the finish line but don’t remember it at all. I passed out as I was on my way to winning my sixth Peachtree – so talk about dehydration! Other people told me later that I stumbled and fell to the ground near a fire hydrant. I bumped my head but didn’t get hurt badly. A policeman was there and made me stay down. I was delirious and it was my first experience with heat exhaustion. The second place woman ran past while I was on the ground. When I saw her go by I wanted to get up and try to run across the finish line but the policeman wouldn’t let me. Someone told me that I said, ‘Don’t worry – I do this every day,’ but I don’t recall that either. When I did get up I received some help and Ben was looking for me and finally found me. Even after the race there wasn’t anything to drink so I drank a lot when I got home. I couldn’t think straight for several hours which was scary. I have had trouble running in heat since then and it is like what happened to Alberto Salazar when he had heat exhaustion or heat stroke at the Falmouth Road Race.
GCR:Didn’t you run your first marathon, the 1972 Peach Bowl Marathon, sort of on a lark without proper training?
GBYes I did and it was kind of crazy as Ben and I hadn’t run longer than eight miles at a time. But we thought we would just slow our pace from 8:00 per mile to 10:00 per mile and we would be okay. Well, I ran about a 4:10 marathon and I was miserable. The course was the hardest of any marathon I raced as it made two big loops that were very, very hilly. By the time I finished nobody was at the finish except one man with a stop watch as everyone else had gone to the awards ceremony at the gym. When I came into the gym everyone clapped for me, I got my trophy and I went home. I sat in the bathtub for hours and vowed never to run a marathon again as it was the most painful thing I had ever done. Ben said, ‘We didn’t really train and maybe we should.’ But I decided not to run another marathon and the next year I ran the Peach Bowl Half Marathon instead.
GCR:You decided to step up training for the marathon in 1974, won the Peach Bowl Marathon and qualified for the Boston Marathon. Why did you move up to serious marathon training?
GBI stayed with the six mile and 10k races until Tim Singleton suggested that I join a group of runners who were training for the Boston Marathon. He said, ‘I’ve run it before and you will really love it.’ So we got together and I started training with them. There was a group of eight of us and I was the only woman. Tim kind of coached me on how to do the long runs. My goal was to break 3:30, but I didn’t have much of an idea of my capabilities as I won the 1974 Peach Bowl Marathon in 3:06:40.
GCR:What was your training then in terms of days running per week, average weekly mileage, long runs and any intense training sessions?
GBI never kept records of my running though everyone else was doing so. Every day I ran six to seven miles by myself and I ran with the group on weekends. I drove to Tim Singleton’s house where we met and did a hilly, 18 mile course around Emory University almost every week. We never did less or more miles like runners do now. The run was on sidewalks and there was no water along the way. So we would stop about halfway and Tim always wanted us to each drink a Coke. I didn’t usually drink Coke, but it sure gave us a boost on the run. It got to where I couldn’t wait to get that Coke. We didn’t know anything about hydration. We didn’t do intervals. My training was basic though it did include plenty of hills. Once I ran the 3:06:40, Tim suggested that I do some intervals as he had been reading Runners’ World. So one day he had me do twenty repeat quarter miles! He marked them in the dirt with a line each time and after every fifth one crossed the first four lines to keep track of how many I had completed. I ran them in about 90 seconds. Years later some people told me that I could possibly have run faster with different training, but that was just how it was and I think it did help me in Boston.
GCR:You placed third at both the Boston and New York City marathons in 1975 and were the 12th fastest woman in the world. What do you remember from your first marathons in Boston and New York and were you starting to receive some notoriety?
GBI was considered a dark horse runner at the Boston Marathon. After I finished in 2:54:11 and got my third place award, Dr. Ernst van Aaken, a coach from Germany asked who I was and about my training. When he found out that I didn’t do much interval training and that I just ran distance running with my group of training partners, he said he would like to invite me to the Women’s International Marathon and to give me some training sessions which were flattering. I was getting more known in the running world, but amusingly I was receiving criticism because I always wore a ribbon in my hair and ‘good runners’ didn’t wear pony tails and ribbons. I wasn’t talked about much or considered a threat to win because I was consistently a few places from winning.
GCR:How did the hills on the Boston Marathon compare to what you had heard about them and did training in hilly Atlanta provide good preparation?
GBIt was a piece of cake running in Boston compared to the hills in Atlanta. It seemed easy because I was training on lots of hills. That 18-miler was a hilly loop and I got to where I liked running hills. Running down hills was my strength where I caught many runners. There is a road in Atlanta, Glen Errol Drive, which was a mile of rolling hills. I would run a mile very hard up that hill and could only do about seven minutes as it was such a hard climb. When I got to the top I’d rest a few minutes and run down the hill fast. That is what helped me to get ready for the pounding of Boston. We did 10 miles of hills – half up and half down. I tell people to run hills – maybe not as many as I did – but to do them and to do them hard.
GCR:In April, 1976 you placed fourth at the Boston Marathon on the day nicknamed the ‘Run for the Hoses’ when temperatures were around 100 degrees. How tough was that race and was there adequate hydration along the race route?
GBThere was some water along the way, but what really helped the runners were orange slices that they always handed out along the course. Dr. George Sheehan conducted a clinic before the race and told us to wear a cap and to put ice under it to help cool us. I didn’t usually run in a baseball cap at the time, but I followed his advice and kept putting ice under the cap when I could. I also poured water over my head a few times during the race. That day wasn’t as hard for me as for some other runners as I was used to the heat of Atlanta. I was disappointed that I only ran a 2:58 compared to a 2:54 the previous year, but I was drained in the heat. Back then there wasn’t any wick-away clothing for any of us and we all ran in cotton outfits.
GCR:Later that year in September you placed third at Waldniel, Germany at the unofficial World Championships for women behind Christa Vahlensieck, who was number one in the world at 2:45:24 and Kim Merritt at 2:47:11 with your time of 2:47:43. How did that race develop and was it a friendly or spirited competition?
GBThe U.S. runners were wearing USA singlets and started out together. That was a fast time for me and I was surprised to run that quick. Kim Merritt always beat me and it was shocking to be so close to her. We had become friendly competitors as she was always nice to me. She was a good track competitor so it was hard to beat her. I enjoyed running in another country and seeing the scenery. I’m not a good mathematician so Ben wrote the splits for 2:55, 2:50 and 2:45 marathons for every five miles on the back of my race number to help me know what pace I was running during the race. This helped me know what target I was going toward. I was consistent and could hold my pace though I didn’t have a kick. I followed the splits and realized I was between 2:45 and 2:50. My theory was to start more slowly than other runners, to move up and to avoid burning out. I had heard about ‘The Wall’ in marathons, but hadn’t hit it since my first marathon when I was improperly trained. I picked off some runners and passed quite a few women late in the race. When I went passed one foreign runner I could tell her coach was encouraging her to stay with me even though it was in another language. This spurred me to pick up the pace and to pull away from her. When I came across the finish line Dr. von Aaken was thrilled for me. I was stunned to finish third as I knew some of the women I beat and they were fast. I knew that Kim was in front of me and that Christa was as she was the World Record Holder. It was an exciting race as until the 1984 Olympic marathon this was the greatest competitive marathon for women each year.
GCR:By this time you had raced several marathons with great success. How had your training changed in the past few years and were you receiving any coaching assistance?
GBI had started doing some of Dr. von Aaken’s hard interval workouts. He sent me workouts and I had difficulty finding anyone to translate them as they were written in German. Finally I found someone’s aunt who could translate and we had our workouts. They were so hard that we all died trying to complete them. We did mostly ladders of 440, 660, 880, 1320, mile and back down. We also would do repeat 880s. He trained me like he trained the German woman, Liane Winter, who won the 1975 Boston Marathon. His workouts were so hard, but I appreciated his help as that got me to run that 2:47.
GCR:In late 1977 you placed second in Eugene in 2:48:34 behind Kim Merritt and third at NYC in 2:52:20 behind Miki Gorman and Merritt only six weeks apart. How was it racing at a high level so close together?
GBI ran way too many marathons and since I was always coming in second or third place I didn’t receive much credit from the running community. I went to Eugene to race because I wanted to visit the area. After those two races and running the Honolulu Marathon in December I ended up sick in January – probably from getting my resistance down from running too many marathons. I also had some type of Achilles tendon and calf soreness and had to take some time off.
GCR:In March, 1978 the inaugural Avon International Marathon was held in Atlanta. What are some special memories about the race coming together and the competition?
GBInitially I didn’t plan on racing because I wanted to race in Boston and the races were very close together. The newspaper people and others in Atlanta said I ‘had to run’ and so they pushed me to do it. I was working with a local television station and thought I could cover the event and conduct interviews, but that didn’t happen. Jeff Galloway designed the course which started at the Avon plant and ran several loops. I didn’t feel like I ran too well even though I did finish in 2:53:05. It was very hot that day and many runners dropped out which is why I ended up placing fifth. I didn’t feel too good in the heat either and couldn’t wait to get to the finish.
GCR:Just four weeks later you won the 1978 Boston Marathon by 44 seconds over Penny DeMoss in your personal best time of 2:44:52. What were your expectations going into the race?
GBEven though I had been training for Boston, I didn’t think I could turn around and race well only four weeks after the race in Atlanta. So I thought that I would just ‘blow off Boston.’ In the past I had always trained hard up until two weeks before racing a marathon. But I took off most of that month because my calf was bothering me. I went up to Boston not intending to race but to support my training group. But because I had rested I felt good when jogging a few days before the race. I noticed that my legs felt great and couldn’t remember ever feeling this good before a marathon. I wasn’t entered, but since I had five qualifying times in the past year I went to the B.A.A. office, they let me enter and gave me a race number. That is why I didn’t have a low number and was #225 that year. So I didn’t decide to race until two days beforehand.
GCR:How did the race develop?
GBBefore the race I didn’t know how I could race fast since I hadn’t trained as much as usual so I started out very slowly. It was a perfect day for running as it was about 48 degrees and overcast. After around eight or ten miles I caught up with Kim Merritt and her husband, who was running with her, said to me, ‘Do you know how fast you’re running?’ I said, No,’ and he said, ‘You are running about six minutes per mile.’ I thought this was too fast and backed off somewhat but kept Kim in my eyesight. She was in the lead but was having a bad day for her while I was having a great day. Gail Olinekova was in second place behind Kim for several miles until I passed her. On Heartbreak Hill the crowd had moved in so close to the runners that it was difficult to pass. When I caught some men I had to tap them and say, ‘Excuse me,’ to get past them as there was no crowd control. It was like running down a narrow path. I passed Kim and said, ‘Kim, are you doing okay?’ She sort of moaned, ‘I’m not having a good day – but good luck Gayle – you look great.’ That encouraged me because I had never passed her in my life. I went over Heartbreak Hill and going downhill afterward was a piece of cake. Penny DeMoss was behind me the whole way and it was a shock when she came in second place less than a minute behind me as Penny hadn’t run close to that fast. I had done some stride outs before the race and afterward Tim Singleton told me, ‘I could see it in your eyes – I knew you felt good.’ The special thing is that was the only race where my mother saw me win as she usually couldn’t come to races since she took care of my dad who had muscular sclerosis.
GCR:How were the crowds as you approached the finish line and were leading?
GBThe crowd was yelling ‘You’re number two or you’re number one,’ so I wasn’t sure as a woman could have been somewhere ahead amidst the runners and the crowds. The cheering and yelling was the loudest noise I had ever heard and was very exciting as they cheered for me, but I didn’t know if they were correct as to my place. I never really knew until I took the last turn toward the finish near the Sheraton Hotel when I thought, ‘I think I’ve won it.’
GCR:What do you remember feeling as you crossed the finish line and of the awards ceremony?
GBThe policemen were there and some said, ‘You just won this race.’ There is a picture of me arm-in-arm with a policeman. Then they put me up on the awards stand, put a wreath on my head and that was my Olympics – that was it – the most exciting time of my life! Bill Rodgers won that year and was already in the interview area. I had been doing some part-time television work for Atlanta’s Channel Five and Bill Hartman, the Sports Director, had asked me to call him to let him know how I raced as he knew I was always second or third in my marathons. I had told him initially that I wasn’t going to run though I did phone him ahead of time when I decided I would run. After I did my interviews with the press I wanted to call Bill, but I had to get a dime from someone for the phone call. I wanted my parents to know how I did so I let Bill know and it was on the news that night that ‘Gayle Barron, native Atlantan, and part-time sportscaster had won.’
GCR:How did becoming Boston Marathon champion change your life as far as recognition and opening doors?
GBBecause I was an amateur athlete I couldn’t get paid like runners do now. After winning in Boston I did get a shoe contract, a clothing contract and ING sent me out on some tours. We couldn’t get officially paid for racing, though I got paid ‘under the table’ for some races like everyone else did at the time. I got more press notice in Atlanta, started getting invitations to speak and that is how I made some money.
GCR:In November of 1978 you raced 2:45:20 to place a close third in Auckland, New Zealand behind Gillian File at 2:44:11 and Beverly Shingles at 2:45:00. What are your memories of that race, the crowds, your competitors and moves that broke open the race?
GBThe wind and cold were very tough. I had lost some weight due to running so much and had a low body fat percentage which made it feel even colder. We ran out for 13 miles, turned around and ran back. The first half marathon we had a head wind so it was behind us on the way back, but it was raining and cold. Ben was there but had dropped out of the race and was alongside the road with two miles to go. He yelled, ‘That woman is only 50 feet ahead of you – catch her!’ I thought, ‘You aren’t running, but I am and I’m dead.’ Somehow I ran close to my best time.
GCR:Are there any other road races or marathons that stand out for various reasons?
GBWhen I ran at Falmouth one summer I surprisingly felt good as I was on vacation for a week and the hotel didn’t have air conditioning. It was very hot and we had to run fans at night as we couldn’t switch rooms since all were booked. We had been relaxing, riding bikes and not doing much. Then we took the ferry over to Falmouth where I had a good race finishing behind Joan Benoit who was debuting at Falmouth. Since I was training for the marathon in New Zealand, I finished the race and kept running until I got in 16 miles – what an idiot I was in that heat! I ran the Gasparilla 15k in Tampa and the Azalea Run 10k in Mobile and many other races that would invite me to speak. I do remember getting paid big money of about $4,000 or $5,000 to run the Garden of the Gods 10-mile race in Colorado which was a very hard course. I was supposed to race Mary Decker who was a track runner at the time and it would have been a long distance race for her. However, from what I gathered, when she found out what they were paying me to race she decided not to run.
GCR:You didn’t win many of the marathons you raced, but you were often on the podium in the top three finishers and ran under three hours in 23 of your 26 marathons. What does this say about your consistency and tenacity?
GBI think that it was my tenacity that says it all. I was a strong runner who trained on hard courses with men. I started easy, picked up the pace and learned to push hard on training runs toward the end. I was also strong mentally as I raced so often that I felt in every race that I could run well.
GCR:As I noted earlier, you are one of the ‘Pioneers of Women’s Distance Running’ along with Kim Merritt, Kathryn Switzer, Doris Brown, Julie Brown, Miki Gorman, Jackie Hansen, Marty Cooksey, Sue Petersen and others in the early and mid-1970s. Was this a tight group of friendly competitors since all of you were trailblazers?
GBWe weren’t generally a real friendly group because we were competitors. Jackie Hansen and I are friends now but back then she seemed a little aloof. Kim Merritt liked me and we were friends. Marty Cooksey was a nice, friendly person.
GCR:Didn’t you have an issue with an eating disorder for at least a year and how did you overcome this malady which affects many female distance runners?
GBOne of the top women marathon runners had lost a lot of weight and everyone wondered how. She said, ‘I just eat anything I want and then I go throw up.’ I thought, ‘What a great idea,’ as I was one of the bigger runners and the group of women I competed against seemed to be getting shorter and thinner. I went through a phase of eating fatty foods and throwing up and it wasn’t doing anything good for my body. I was bulimic and it lasted about a year. Most people get addicted to it and the practice was getting widespread. When singer Karen Carpenter died of complications from bulimia it scared me so much as I realized what I was doing was dangerous and I stopped. I became a Christian about this time and got on my knees and said, ‘God please heal me of this.’ I thank God for healing me.
GCR:Despite the wonderful high from winning the Boston Marathon, didn’t you deal with tremendous lows in your personal life shortly thereafter?
GBThree months after Boston I lost my dad to muscular sclerosis and within a year my mom died as I think she lost the will to live after taking care of my dad for so long. So I went through a lot of problems during the ‘glory days’ of winning the Boston Marathon as I lost both of my parents. I wasn’t racing much since I was so sad and I ended up losing most of my endorsement contracts. But I didn’t care about the contracts as I had to take care of myself emotionally.
GCR:When Grete Waitz raced a World Record 2:32:29 to win the 1978 New York City Marathon and repeated the following year with a stunning 2:27:32 it opened the eyes of many to the possibility that women could race much faster in the marathon. How did Grete’s performances and the ladies graduating from college who had started running under the opportunities of Title IX change the landscape of women’s marathon racing?
GBAll of a sudden Grete Waitz shocked the world with her times and women believed they could run that fast. We didn’t think we could run times in the low 2:30s or below 2:30, but when women saw what Grete did it changed our thinking. I remember interviewing Grete before the race and she was very shy and quiet. She said she only ran 80 miles a week in training which was what I did compared to Kim Merritt and Krista Vahlensieck who ran up to 120 miles a week. Many cutting edge marathon runners came up from a cross country and track background like Joan Benoit did. Once marathon times got faster the women who entered the marathon scene followed the training of ladies like Grete and Joan and that helped everyone to get faster. As an aside, it is amazing that Joan ran a 2:47 marathon after turning 50 years old.
GCR:It’s amazing to think that in ten years women made strides from running being unusual to there being a women’s marathon included in the 1984 Olympics. How did the efforts of runners such as Kathryn Switzer, Jackie Hansen and you combined with the initial backing of Dr. Ernst von Aaken and later support of IAAF President Adriaan Paulen and IOC President Lord Killanin and the addition of corporate funding with the Avon International Marathon make inclusion of a women’s Olympic marathon a reality?
GBBecause women were doing so well during the 1970s in marathon running it set the stage for the marathon to be added to the Olympics. Dr. von Aaken’s race in Waldniel, Germany and the Avon International Marathon showed the powers that be that women could race a competitive marathon and that helped the federations to make the women’s Olympic marathon come about.
GCR:As your running career wound down you transitioned to other work endeavors and serving your community. How smooth was this change after being a top competitive marathon racer?
GBWhen I first backed away from competition I missed it. But then because I had a job to do to coach others and to be there for them it became rewarding to see others train and get better and better and better. I gave them encouraging words, they did well and I am still in touch with some of them to this day. It was exciting to take people who were running four hour marathons to times like 3:15.
GCR:With health, fitness and running becoming an integral part of many more people’s lives in the early 1980s you had the opportunity to represent many companies such as Lean Cuisine, Crystal Lite and Evian bottled water. How exciting was it to use your platform as a successful female athlete to encourage healthy food and nutrition choices?
GBIt was exciting even though Lean Cuisine’s lower calories were offset at that time by too much salt. I did have a nutritionist travel with me and we talked about fitness and nutrition for about nine months. I travelled for Crystal Lite and gave talks on being hydrated. So I stayed on the running scene and helped people in that manner.
GCR:You currently work with Waffle House to encourage inclusion of healthier food choices in one’s diet. How has this worked with a company that is historically known for delicious breakfast items such as pancakes, waffles, eggs and bacon?
GBWaffle House was known for food that may not have been the healthiest, but everyone liked it – people would go there to eat 24 hours a day and teenagers even would go late at night after their high school prom. Before I had the chance to meet Joe Rogers, Waffle House’s CEO, some of us would have meetings at Waffle House. I found out there was grilled chicken on the menu so I had that instead of bacon or sausage. Then I asked if I could get the hash browns steamed instead of fried, and they did so. My post-run meal became grilled chicken, two eggs, steamed hash browns and raisin toast and I turned many friends onto that breakfast. When I met Joe I found that we went to rival high schools as he went to Avondale when I was at Druid Hills and we got to be friends. I did talk to him about sponsoring Team Spirit but he said Waffle House didn’t do sponsorships. I told him about what I ate at Waffle House and about a year later he approached me with the idea that I should work with Waffle House part-time as their fitness expert. He didn’t want to dissuade customers from their traditional menu, but intended to have me head up an effort to inform patrons of healthy alternatives. In magazine articles and at races I discuss Waffle House’s healthy choices and give out free items with the Waffle House logos. It amazes me the long lines of people who can’t wait to get key chains or coupons from Waffle House.
GCR:Three decades ago you were the author of ‘The Beauty of Running.’ What are the main concepts which you championed and how are they applicable today?
GBThe book has chapters on unforgettable races, keeping running in perspective, outfitting yourself, relaxing with your own natural style, trying something new – speed work, stress and the mind-body system, running pain and injuries, whole body workouts, energetic eating, the beauty and joy of running and the marathon experience. It wasn’t a top seller as about that time Jim Fixx’s ‘Book of Running’ came along. In my book there are training schedules that are very similar to current training schedules. I wanted beginners to start easy and to not go so quickly that they grew tired of it. The book also discusses stretching and nutrition. I did a lot of stretching and yoga which helped keep me from injuries. I wanted people to enjoy running. I had lost some of my joy for running because I had been training so hard, but when I first started running I really loved it and I wrote the book to share my love for running. I wanted the title to convey my joy of running. The publishers wanted that title which I didn’t like because it made it look like I was talking about myself.
GCR:Let’s talk about one of your leadership roles in the community. When you were on the Board of Directors of the American Foundation for the Blind you started the ‘Gayle Barron Track Meet for Visually Impaired Children.’ How rewarding was it to help include these disadvantaged youngsters in athletic competition?
GBIt was so rewarding because they had to learn to run around the track with a guide. I organized the track meets for eight years for the kids. We were able to get other athletes in the community to help. I ended up donating many of my ribbons, trophies and awards to be refurbished and awarded to the kids. The kids were excited and it meant a lot for them to run and to get better and better in their own way.
GCR:You received the Allstate Healthy American Fitness Leaders award in 1988. What is the significance of this award that makes it special?
GBEach year it was awarded to ten people across the country and once you are an award winner you were invited back for the induction ceremony each subsequent year so I met many wonderful people on the national scene. I made many contacts and was able to give back by speaking to different organizations when asked. Unfortunately it was discontinued after about eight years when Allstate dropped their sponsorship. I felt sad as it was such a fine group of people.
GCR:Nearly two decades ago you became the Georgia Coach for the Leukemia Society Team in Training Program. About six years later you started your own Team Spirit Program to train runners to complete races from 10k to the marathon. How essential is it for inexperienced runners to have a team to train with and how important is it for the running community to give to charity through race-associated undertakings?
GBRunning with a group helps runners to stay motivated. It meant a lot to me to work with them as I was able to help others through my experiences. I liked helping new runners avoid injuries they often incur by pushing too hard too early in their training. At first it was hard to get people to raise money as people didn’t want to ask for contributions. We started with 13 people in 1992 and it grew to over 400 in 1997, which was a lot of people to train. By then runners were excited as they got to race in a nice location, raise money for charity and have their way paid to the race. The charity aspect was great as we built a Habitat for Humanity House and raised $150,000 for the Aflac Cancer Center. Giving back to the community was very rewarding as I like helping people.
GCR:You were inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 2003 and The Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame in 2007 and, as a result of your many years of service to the Atlanta community, were recently chosen by Atlanta Magazine as one of the 45 ‘Greatest Atlantans’ of the past 45 years. As you look back on years of service, is it both rewarding and humbling to be so recognized?
GBI was shocked as some of these awards have just blown me away. The list of inductees into the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame are unbelievable and I feel extremely honored to be a part of them both. It does make me feel good that others have acknowledged what I have done. Interestingly, many people don’t know about my marathon racing, just about my service to the community. The awards kept me in the public eye and make it easier to find me, though it is easy to find me – right on Facebook!
GCR:For those who are just beginning a running program, what are the major points that allow them to improve and to keep running rather than quitting?
GBThey should start out slowly, pace themselves and avoid comparisons to others. Patience is key. Listening to your own body is important as your body tells you how it feels. Massage is a great tool and it is surprising that we didn’t use it when I was competing.
GCR:Based on your own running background and those you have coached, when a novice runner finds that they have a previously unknown aptitude to run well, what are the most important elements of training that will help them to step up to the next level?
GBThey should be encouraged to read about running, interact with good runners and to run with a group. When running with a group it can tell you a lot about your ability. This goes all of the way back to when I was running with that group of seven or eight guys – if I hadn’t run with them I never would have progressed as far as I did. That being said, runners still have to run their own pace, train the way their bodies tells them to train, not just train like someone else and realize that not everyone can do the same workouts.
GCR:After over forty years of running in the summer heat and humidity of Atlanta, what advice can you give on successful training strategies in the summer with regard to building mileage, completion of long runs and proper hydration?
GBRunning early in the morning and putting out water and electrolyte replacement drinks along the course helps much. Runners also must slow down a lot on their long runs.
GCR:Hundreds of thousands of runners complete marathons each year and for many the ‘Holy Grail’ is to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Once a runner has qualified for Boston, what are your main training tips to help race one’s best there?
GBTo race well at the Boston Marathon you have to run hills in training. You have to do hill strides up and down hills. If you live in a flat area you may have to use a bridge or parking garage. As I mentioned earlier, I had great venues for hill training in Atlanta.
GCR:What is your current running and health regimen and what are your future goals both in the sport of running and in life as you enter the so-called ‘golden years?’
GBNot that long ago I had some tingles down the side of my leg, got an MRI and found that I have three bulging discs in my back. They told me I couldn’t run any longer and I cried and cried. I did only walking for a while and that just didn’t do it for me. Then I started running on a treadmill, found I could handle it and now I run 45 minutes a day on the treadmill. I do very little running on roads and run no more than six miles on pavement on the weekends. If I move anywhere it would be to a place that has trails for walking and running. I spend some time in the gym with personal training and helping others. I do yoga. My goal is to stay healthy and to help others. I have a website,, and I am hoping to add a blog or some interactive communication. I like going to races as it is fun seeing people I haven’t seen in years..
GCR:Are there major lessons you have learned during your life from taking the plunge as a pioneer of women’s running, the discipline and mental fortitude necessary to race at a high level, your service to others and any adversity you have faced that you would like to share with my readers?
GBMy philosophy of life is that you should find something you like to do and stick with it. Be patient and don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Don’t procrastinate. Move forward. Take one day at a time. Don’t get frustrated. If you have an athletic goal or another goal, stick with it, but take the opportunity to rest as you pursue your goal. Finally, with athletic goals, follow a plan that fits you, not a plan that fits someone else.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsYoga and weight training. I like biking, but Atlanta isn’t a good environment for biking and now it irritates my back. I have an interest in learning golf. I took ballet for thirteen years but dropped out of it in high school and would like to get back into dancing
NicknamesWhen I was a kid my brother couldn’t say ‘sister’ so I was called ‘Sissy’ by him and my family
Favorite movies and books‘Tuesday’s with Morrie’ because my dad had MS and it is a book about a man’s relationship with his former college professor who had ALS. The book is easy reading and talks about love, family and positive things they talked about every Tuesday when he visited. The book and movie meant so much to me because I could relate to the struggles faced when going through a neurological disease. It touched me because of my father. I plan to give some of my money to an ALS Foundation. Another favorite movie is ‘As Good As It Gets’ with Jack Nicholson
Favorite TV shows‘Family Ties’ from a few years back. Currently, I like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ as I like to dance
Favorite musicI love 1970s music by artists like the Eagles, Chicago, America, Seals and Crofts and Kenny Loggins. I listen to 70s and 80s music while driving in my car
First car1968 Chevy Impala that was two-tone tan and white
Current carWhite Acura TSX
First JobAt a shoe store selling shoes when I was about 14 years old
FamilyMy brother, Tommy, lives in Cumming, Georgia
PetsI love dogs. I had a dog, Toni, a Springer Spaniel, that was with my family for 16 years. The sad thing is that when I went away to college she died under a tree. It broke my mother’s heart, but all of the family had left and it was Toni’s time to go. That was my one and only dog
Favorite breakfastIn the summer I like to eat Greek yogurt with nuts and fresh fruit like almonds and blueberries. In the winter I substitute oatmeal for the yogurt. Sometimes I’ll have eggs with cheese and flatbread which I roll up and eat
Favorite mealMainly fish and steamed vegetables. I also try to eat healthy items like garbanzo beans in salads, couscous and tabouli
Favorite beveragesI mainly drink water. I do like a glass of wine occasionally. To help with hydration I drink Accelerade and Endurox
First running memoryWhen I was about eight years old I loved to run and the kids would play, ‘Who’s the fastest in the neighborhood?’ They were all boys, but I could outrun them all!
Running heroesSince I was there at the beginning of women’s distance running, I didn’t have any female running heroes. There weren’t any women to be heroes as there weren’t any running that I knew about. Jim Ryun was a runner who was very accomplished that I admired
Greatest running momentWinning the Boston Marathon – it couldn’t get any better than that because the crowds were extremely loud and thrilling and they made me feel so wonderful
Worst running momentThe marathon in New Zealand even though my time was good and I placed high. I think I finally hit the wall in that race which I hadn’t done before and it was so cold that my fingertips were freezing. However, I loved New Zealand and travelling around afterward when the rain and cold weather had passed. Also, the trails were great for running as they had rubberized mulch and I felt like I was bouncing along
Marathon running surpriseThe Honolulu Marathon had defizzed Coke along the course. I thought, ‘I haven’t had a Coke while running since we used to stop halfway on my 18-mile long runs early in my marathon training.’ Coca Cola gave everybody the boost we needed and every year the Honolulu Marathon had Coke – not Gatorade, not PowerAde, but Coke!
Interesting international racing experienceAfter I raced in the Women’s International Marathon in Europe about seven or eight of us runners including Penny DeMoss, Jackie Hansen and Joan Ullyot travelled together afterward for a couple weeks. We ended up running the 10-mile Sierra Montana race which started in the town of Sierra, Switzerland and wound up to Montana. We had raced a marathon the week before, so I don’t know who devised this plan for us to race the next week! We all wore our USA shirts and the fans along the course were chanted, ‘USA, USA.’ It actually bothered me as I just wanted some quiet so I could focus as it was a hard race to run the week after a marathon. I ended up coming in second behind a local woman from the town of Sierra who had trained on the course. Interestingly the Tour de France went over some of those roads this year.
Thought-provoking marathon numberWhen I stopped competing in marathons I had done 26 of them. I thought this happened to be a perfect number of marathons since a marathon is just over 26 miles
Childhood dreamsI loved dancing so much when I was young that I wanted to be a ballerina
Funny memoriesMy family went on a vacation and visited a zoo where there was a cheetah in an enclosure. I told my parents and brother that I could outrun the cheetah. So I went close to the fence, started running and the cheetah ran parallel to me. Of course I couldn’t outrun him, but everyone said, ‘Boy she does like to run!’ Another funny moment deals with snakes which is strange now as I can’t stand snakes. As a child I had a pet snake that died but it had layed some some eggs. When the eggs hatched I kept the baby snakes in a shoebox. My mother had ladies over for bridge once a week and I thought it would be funny to let the little baby snakes out in the living room where the women were playing bridge. The three snakes were out and the women were screaming and running around. It was funny to me but it wasn’t funny to my mother
Embarrassing momentIt happened on the day I mentioned earlier after racing at Falmouth and continuing on to get in 16 miles on a hot day to get ready for my upcoming marathon in New Zealand. Afterward, I went to a party where they had oysters, clams and beer. I usually don’t drink beer but that beer tasted so good. I ate oysters and clams and was so hungry and thirsty from the race and running 16 miles that I was having too much of everything. Then we had to catch a plane to go home that evening and I threw up on the airplane. I cannot eat a clam now – all of these years and I can eat oysters, but I still can’t eat clams
Favorite places to travelSwitzerland and Austria. I would love to visit Australia.
Final comments from interviewerIt was an honor to spend over two hours chatting with one of America's female pioneers of distance running. Women’s marathon times decreased greatly since Gayle’s running days as girls and young women have had equal opportunities to compete starting at an early age. Who knows what might have been if Gayle had started competitive running in her teens? Somehow she had the grit to discover the joy of running and competing and became a consistent marathon racer and Boston Marathon Champion. This candid, charming and witty lady is unknown to many distance running fans though she helped blaze a pathway for those who followed in her footsteps