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Rest in Peace, Pat Porter!

I took this picture of Pat at the 84 Olympics.

A cross country legend died in a terrible plane crash yesterday and it makes me sad. Yes, I know that death is part of life but Pat Porter’s death touched me in a lot of different ways. First, there is just the tragedy of a life cut short (he was 53). Then when you consider that he died with his son, Conner, 15,   leaving behind his wife Trisha and their daughter Shannon it becomes even more heart wrenching. Lastly, while I wouldn’t claim to be a close personal friend or anything, I knew Pat Porter. And frankly, he was one of the good guys.

Pat Porter was the poster child for “local boy makes good.” A 4:29 miler in high school, he was passed over by most of the big schools and landed at Adams State after a short stint at Metro College. Through hard work and focus, he just kept getting better and better culminating in 8 straight National Cross Country Championships and berths on two Olympic teams. There will probably never be another runner who will dominate the US cross country scene the way Pat did.

I have four very fond memories of Pat Porter.

1) I was sitting in Coach Joe I. Vigil’s office at Adams State College the day I first met Pat.  I had made a ritual of stopping in to chat with Coach Vigil whenever I had the opportunity to make the drive from Monte Vista to Alamosa. We were having our usual discussion of training and such when Pat walked in. He introduced himself, sat down, chatted with us, reported his morning workout with his Coach and was on his way. I thought the fact that he participated in our conversation was pretty cool.

The thing I remember the most from our first meeting was that he clearly called me, Coach Sands that day. And the way he said it had this sound of respect to it, like someone who relished the coach/athlete relationship and valued the support of coaches anywhere. And why wouldn’t he? During his heyday, he and Coach Vigil were an incredibly successful team. In the dozen or so times I ran into Pat after that day, I was always “Coach Sands.” I thought that was pretty cool too.

2) I was able to watch him work out a few times in Cole Park. 16 x 880 once at a lung searing 7600 feet altitude. Most in the 2:05 range, the last ones under two. YIKES. And he was such an “all in” kind of runner. Terrain didn’t matter, the elements didn’t matter (and believe me, we could have some pretty interesting elements in the San Luis Valley), the task in front of him didn’t matter. He just went after it. He was a mudder, a blue collar kind of runner. And when he made the Olympic team in 1984, the entire Valley celebrated.

3) A struggling teacher and a nurse didn’t have a ton of money in 1984, but we had enough to pack up the boys (Matt was 3 and Ryan was about 6 months old) and drive to Los Angeles to see the Olympics. We could pick ONE session to attend in the Coliseum, we chose the evening of Pat’s 10,000 meter prelim. We yelled and cheered like crazy and figured we were primarily responsible for him qualifying for the final. We thought it was pretty exciting. 

What topped the race, though, was Pat coming over to the stands afterward and thanking us for cheering and supporting so much. We chatted for just a minute, mostly us oozing about how well he’d done, he did a little patting of the boys on the head, and he was off with the words, “Thanks again, Coach Sands.”

4) Of the two major movies about Steve Prefontaine, I believe the best is Without Limits. My reasoning is very simply, among other things, it has the best and most authentic running scenes. And those running scenes would not have been nearly as great as they were without Pat Porter in the role of Lasse Viren. I do not know who cast that role, but they couldn’t have done it better. Scruffy Finnish beard and all, Pat didn’t just give us a guy trying to act like Viren. He gave us Viren.

Just last Friday, Pat Porter was inducted into the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Hall of Fame. I listened to his speech this morning on youtube and the thing that struck me the most was here was this great runner, being given this great honor and all he did was talk about all of the people that had been there for him and guided him during his career. Typical Pat Porter.

I’ve never met Pat’s wife, Trisha. And I cannot even come close to understanding her grief to lose both a husband and a son in such a tragic accident. But my prayers are with her and their daughter, Shannon in their time of sadness and despair. 

The running world has lost one of the greatest of all time: the cross country king, the Panther, the great Pat Porter. Rest in Peace, Pat.