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Dr. J. on Running

Arnie Briggs 1916-2000

His Passion Was Running

Published November 20, 2000 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

"Kamal," said the woman's voice on my answering machine. "This is Kathrine Switzer. I have some sad news for you. Arnie died yesterday. Please, can you write about him?"

Arnold G. 'Arnie' Briggs was born in Binghamton in 1916, and a short time later, his father died in the forests of Argonne, fighting for our country. Arnie's mother supported herself and her son by working at the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company in Johnson City, and with a small pension from the government.

Although Arnie excelled in fall and winter sports, he was not a large person. At 129 pounds, he described himself as "a triple threat: walk, stumble, and fall over." During his senior year, his high school football coach offered to double as track coach. That was the beginning of Arnie's long-term relationship with running. He ran any distance and earned his letter.

Arnie was supposed to go to West Point as a presidential appointment. Between the time he graduated from high school, and the time he took the college entrance exams, he joined the Army to earn money. Even though he was a multiple-sport athlete in high school, Arnie failed the physical exam; he was bow-legged. However, military physicians determined that Arnie had, "sufficient muscular development to overcome the deficiency, and Arnie was accepted as a cadet.

In 1939, Arnie left the Army and married Catherine Ruston, sister of an Army buddy and "his one and only girl." He found a job at Rollway Bearing in Syracuse, and started to settle down when the Army called him back to serve. This time he had no difficulty passing his physical exam, but he was a year beyond eligibility to be commissioned as an officer. On his way from the physical, he passed by a sign that stated, "Go Airborne," so he did. Arnie became a paratrooper.

While recuperating in the Philippines from a jump where "the parachute didn't work right," Arnie returned to running and finished a 4:30 mile, before he saw action in Japan and southern France in preparation for a march into Normandy.

Arnie returned to Syracuse after the war, and went to work for the U.S. Postal Service where he kept fit for 30 years as a postal carrier. In his spare time, Arnie befriended Syracuse University track and field coach Bob Grieves, and ran with a few track athletes. Arnie ended up working as an assistant coach at the university for more than 40 years.

Arnie found joy in running and made his personal mark by running marathons. His most notable accomplishment was in 1952, when he placed tenth at Boston in 90-100 degree heat in a time of 2:58:46. Two years later, he ran his fastest all-time marathon in Guelpt, Ontario in just over 2:30. In his lifetime, Arnie ran 99 marathons: 24 in Boston, 26 in Yonkers, and various others in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Champlain Valley and Paul Smith. An Achilles' tendon injury prevented him from achieving his goal to run 100 marathons, and as Arnie once said glumly, "I never did break 2:30."

In 1966, a young transfer student from Lynchburg, Virginia asked if she could train with the men's cross-country team at Syracuse University. Sports Illustrated had identified her as one of the "Faces to Watch" and her request was granted. By the winter of 1967, Kathrine Switzer and Arnie Briggs trained on the hills of Syracuse and occasionally on the long roads to Cazenovia, in preparation for the Boston Marathon. On 19 April 1967, entered as K. Switzer, Kathrine became the first woman to receive a bib number and compete officially in the history of the race.

Kathrine remembers telling Arnie how she wished she had worn something else during the race; something that would have kept her hair covered until she finished so there would not have been such a fuss when the hood of her sweatshirt fell off, revealing that a woman had been given a bib number.

Ironically, Roberta Gibb, who had finished unofficially the previous year, finished first woman in 1967 with a time of 3:27:17. However, the headlines and pictures were of Kathrine Switzer and her struggles to run unimpeded. Consequently, Arnie Briggs became a symbol of men's struggles for women's rights. Five years later, women were allowed to officially enter the Boston Marathon.

Arnie was active in central New York running clubs including the Syracuse Harriers, who changed their name to the Dewitt Optimists, then to the Olympic Club (until the U.S. National Olympics Committee objected), then back to the Syracuse Harriers.

As a result of the debacle in Boston, the New England Track authorities told the Syracuse Harriers they were not to return to Boston. Some of Syracuse's best runners were included on the Harrier's black-list: Ed Stabler, Tom Homeyer, Tom Coulter, Tom Miller, Herb Mohls, Arnie Briggs, and, of course, Kathrine Switzer. "So, we changed our name," said Arnie. "It was Kathrine's idea." The Syracuse Harriers became the Syracuse Track Club.

In 1986, retired from the mail department at Onondaga Community College, Arnie had a heart attack, but kept jogging to keep in shape. He was an integral part of the lives of central New York runners as he officiated at track meets. He inspired young runners with his quiet optimism and devotion to the sport.

Arnie was with Kathrine Switzer in 1998 when she was inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, New York. Kathrine was with Arnie Briggs when he died Wednesday in Syracuse, New York. "Arnie was the wind beneath my wings. He was a funny, sweet, modest man with an extreme devotion to the people and causes that were important to him. He filled me with a love for the marathon and for being out there on a long run, and he spurred me on to fight for the equality of women's sports."

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. Dr.J. created TrackMeets.com, webcasting live Every Lap of Every Race. He receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


Copyright (c) 2000 The Herald Company. All rights reserved. The material on this site may not be reproduced, except for personal, non-commercial use, and may not be distributed, transmitted or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Syracuse OnLine.



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