Browning Ross was truly the father of road racing in America. He was a member of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field teams in 1948 and 1952, and Pan American Games 1500 meter (metric mile) champion in 1951. He won many hundreds of long distance races through the streets of North American cities. “Barefoot” Charley Robbins, also a U.S. national champion, called Browning the “most versatile runner of all time.”
• In 1957, he founded the first city-wide running club with regular races, the Philadelphia Road Runners Club.
• In 1958, he helped to found the first national organization created run by runners, the Road Runners Club of America. This was an alternative to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which was operated by non-runners who did nothing to organize running programs and made all sorts of rules that excluded people from running events. Today, The Road Runners Club of America has more than 1500 running clubs with more than 200,000 members.
Early Running Career
As a high school freshman in 1939, at age 14, Browning Ross won several cross country meets. However, he was more interested in baseball, pole vaulting and broad jumping. His future was set when he was cut by the baseball team and proved to be a mediocre field event competitor. He was an outstanding distance runner who was so fast that he was eventually able to run a quarter mile in about 49 seconds. By his senior year in high school, this skinny little kid in canvas shoes won the state cross country championship and three weeks later finished third in the National Championship Scholastic Cross Country meet. He also won the state and national scholastic indoor mile championships.
Three weeks after he was graduated from high school, he was drafted into the navy and served in World War II. He was unable to train during the war, but soon after the war ended he won an indoor two-mile championship in Madison Square Garden while running for the Navy. He was recruited by coach Jumbo Elliot for the Villanova track team, where he had a very successful college track and field career and was the National Steeplechase champion. In the 1948 London Olympics 3,000-meter steeplechase, he finished seventh. In the 1951 Pan American Games in Buenos Aires, he won the 1,500 meters, finished second in the steeplechase and fourth in the 5,000 meters. In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, he sprained his ankle during a training run and did not qualify for the steeplechase final. He continued to run at an elite level into his 40s. In 1964, he set an American Masters record in the mile, and won the first Caesar Rodney Half Marathon in 1:07.
Battles with the Amateur Athletic Union
Browning started the first U.S. running magazine, the Long Distance Log, that listed the names of finishers in long distance road races throughout America. He financed the magazine out of his own pocket. He had very limited funds, so he tried to support the magazine by selling running shoes out of his car. Because of this, the idiots in power at the AAU declared him a professional and suspended him from competing in running races. These were the same idiots who tried to kick me out of the AAU because I held women's running races of longer than 1.5 miles. I still have the letters that were sent to me claiming that running long distances would forever keep women from being able to have children, in spite of the fact that there was no evidence to support such nonsense. Browning was also suspended by the AAU for permitting and encouraging women to run in the Philadelphia Marathon.
The same AAU authorities ruined Wes Santee's chances for Olympic greatness by declaring him a professional for accepting a meager income for competing in races. Santee could have been the world's first four-minute miler. Santee’s AAU ban prevented him from racing Browning in the Camden Street Run in the 1950’s while both were in their prime.
At the time that the AAU suspended Browning, he had already won eight individual National AAU championships in distance races. He was in his late forties and no longer competing at his very high level, but he was still running because running was his life. Eventually Browning was reinstated as an amateur and became chairman of the AAU's national long-distance running committee. He was the coach of the U.S. international cross-country team in the late 1960s. (I also made peace with the AAU, started and became chairman of the AAU age group long-distance running committee and directed their age group programs).
Teaching and Coaching Career
Browning taught history in Woodbury and Camden, New Jersey, high schools and directed exercise programs for teenagers at the Penns Grove Y.M.C.A. In 1972, at age 47, he started coaching track and cross-country at Gloucester Catholic High School. Despite a lack of track facilities, he was able to produce champion runners and teams. Meanwhile, he continued to race at a high level as long as he could, and supported other runners by:
• hosting road races for serious runners and "Run for Your Life" runs for everyone,
• organizing running camps for kids,
• publishing his monthly Long Distance Log to list how runners finished in road races throughout the country, and
• operating a sporting goods store.
He won the Berwick PA nine-mile race 10 times, and hundreds of other races.
Browning spent his entire life running races until 1998, when he died suddenly at age 74. The newspapers listed his death as a heart attack, but I think it is unlikely that he had a conventional heart attack, In which a plaque breaks off in an artery near the heart, followed by formation of a clot that completely blocks the blood flow to part of the heart muscle. No autopsy was done. His wife reported that on the night before he died, he had developed a pain in his leg that was so severe that he considered going to the hospital, but he was used to pain as a world-class distance runner, was in good health and had no history of chest pains, so he stayed home. The next morning after his usual three-mile morning run, he got into his car and backed out of his driveway. Minutes later, a neighbor noticed that his car had backed into another car and Ross was sitting in the car unconscious with the engine still running. Resuscitation efforts failed to start his heart beating again. Evidently, on the night before he died, a clot formed in the calf of his leg and the next morning it traveled in his veins to block blood flow to either his heart, lungs or brain to kill him.
A Fitting Tribute
Jack Heath, a competitive distance runner who was coached by Browning and later coached with him at Gloucester Catholic High School, has written a wonderful book about this man who did more for long distance running in the U.S. than any other person. Look for Browning Ross: The Father of American Distance Running. Those of you who have competed in running races will see many familiar names of people who ran in American road races from the 1940s to the present. It is also inspiring reading even for people who have never been in a race.
April 26, 1924 – April 27, 1998