Running Heroes: The Early Years
Last week was PreWeek. In celebration of what would have been Steve Prefontaine’s 60th birthday, there has been a week long celebration of sorts at www.trackfocus.com/preweek. Some good stuff. Pre’s was/is alot of runner’s hero (or at least one of them). I fall into that group as well. Before Pre, however, I had some other “favorite” runners that I looked up to with great respect, admiration and sometimes, awe.
The first was Jim Ryun. I read the Jim Ryun story in junior high and was amazed at how fast he was during high school (not too shabby later, either). What I related to the most, however, was a trait we shared. We walked slowly. People used to hassle me about how lazily I saunter around. Most of the time I’d barely make it to class before the bell rang. Even today I’m slow at the mall, slow in the grocery store, just slow (and still get hassled, now by my speedy wife, Linda).
I remember feeling bummed when Ryun was beaten at the Mexico City Olympics, ecstatic when he returned to form in the ’72 Trials and bummed again after the “fall” in Munich. My biggest Jim Ryun moment was warming up in the same deserted field as him prior to the 1972 Florida Relays. We were both prepping for our races. His was the 4 X 800 for Club West, mine was the Steeplechase. We chatted a little as we were the only two using that space. It was pretty cool.
|Jim Ryun ’72 Trials|
Once a high school cross country guy, my hero quickly became the coolest guy on our team, Al Ruffner. Alphonse was the defending state champion in cross country and had taken the state’s fairly new two mile event to a higher level. As a sophomore on one of the best CC programs in Michigan, it was not easy to be noticed by the big varsity guys. That changed the day I won the JV race at the Albion Invitational. Junior Varsity runners pretty much got nothing. No medal, no ribbon, nothing. But Al Ruffner, in his own cool way, found one of the best awards I have ever won. He gave me his race number (which was #1). I still have it to this day reminding me of the day I made varsity, won a race and was recognized by my hero!
As a wide eyed college freshman, my first race was a study in American collegiate distance running. Five lowly cross country fellows from Wayne State University drove down to Bowling Green to run in a meet with Bowling Green, Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan and the University of Michigan. 58 guys ran that day and we finished 50, 51, 52, 54, 57. Talk about baptism by fire!
The front of the race however, was a veritable who’s who: Mike Hazilla (WMU’s cross country All American) won. The other three in the top four were Sid Sink (US Steeplechase record holder for years), Dave Wottle (Olympic 800 meter gold medalist in ’72) and Jerry Liebenberg (great steeplechaser, awesome hippie looking dude and the person most responsible for me pursuing the 3000m steeple). Pretty cool day, especially looking back. The BGSU pack is pictured below.
|the Bowling Green pack|
By ’71 or so, we’d begun to hear more and more about Steve Prefontaine. Al Gore was in his early 20’s and had yet to invent the internet so information was hard to come by. Track and Field News, an occasional newspaper were as good as it got.
My running world was changed for the better at the Florida Relays. In 1972, 73 and 74 some of us Wayne Staters headed down for the relays during spring break. In my three trips to Gainesville I had run the steeplechase once and the three mile twice. In 1974, however, it was for my marathon debut.
For a boy from Michigan, Florida in the spring was a GENIUS idea. I liked the racing, I liked the training. Mostly, I liked having my running world a little expanded. I ran a Steeplechase PR and was lapped (same thing happened in one of the three mile races). I watched Frank Shorter play pick up the straightaways and cruise the curves while beating a pretty good six mile field. The biggie was watching an entire Jack Bachelor workout and then having him spend 15 minutes chatting with me about training afterward. Frank and Jack became instant hero-like dudes!
In the marathon, I was the victim of a poor training idea. Keep in mind, it was 1974 and we didn’t know that much about marathon training and frankly, my college coach knew even less. In 1972 you had to run around 2:36 to qualify for the Olympic Trials marathon (might have been 2:32). My coach’s plan was for me to run a twenty mile time trial at the Belle Isle Marathon seven days before the Florida race, drive with my buds to Florida and then run a qualifier there (which by the way, would have been a moot point when they dropped the standard to 2:23).
The 20 miler went fantastic. I felt relaxed, smooth and easy. At 20, I wanted to keep going. I was 1:52 and change (on 2:27 pace), but succumbed to the plan and stopped. In Florida, I was on schedule through fifteen miles (around 1:23-24) but then had a knee blow up problem and semi-limped home to 2:58:24 and 14th place. Ken Misner, Florida Track Club, won. I think he was 2:18 or so.
|Me, 1974 in Florida|
Coulda, shoulda, woulda…
Next, heroes of an adult time.