Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Famous runners I met in high school

I started running in the fall of 1984, when, as hard as it is to believe unless you were alive and sentient at the time, there were two basic ways to interact with people in real time: You talked to them in person, or you spoke with them on the phone. Video footage of pro athletes was limited to television and VCR recordings; a few people might have their own photos of star sportspersons that they had taken themselves, but for the most part, pics of these luminaries were found only in magazines and newspapers. There was, for better or otherwise, a far clearer boundary between famous folks and the rabble (and between citizens of Earth more generally).

At the Space Coast Marathon in Cocoa Beach, Fla., Nov. 2005. One of us won the half that day; 
the other won four Boston Marathons.
In the summer of 1985, after my freshman year, a runner from Colorado traveled to Manchester, New Hampshire to run a now long-defunct summer road race called the Bud Kings 10K. It was de rigueur at the time for alcoholic beverage manufacturers to sponsor road races, mainly because during the running boom that had started after Frank Shorter's 1972 Olympic Marathon victory, someone noticed that runners liked to drink like fish, or, almost equivalently, that abusers of ethanol liked participating in road races. A cursory search failed to uncover any real evidence that this race ever existed, although this is somewhat helpful.

My coach at the time had connections to this runner, or so he said, although in retrospect I think he only established these after the athlete's participation in the 10K was confirmed. (I believed a lot of questionable things this coach told me at the time, because I trusted him and also because there was little means of refuting some of the more questionable ones.) He asked me if I wanted to go watch the race with him, which, being 15 and a high-ranking virgin and nerd, I did. So off we went -- my coach was a sub-32:00 10K guy himself but not racing this time -- and that's how I briefly met Pat Porter. (At this point, you should be asking yourself, how do I know this story isn't total bullshit?" Trust me, it's probably true.)

The race had put up a cash bonus for -- and here I admit I am guessing -- any male who broke 28:45, or maybe it was 28:55. It was under 29:00, I remember that with certainty, and either mark would have been a new state record. (Today the record is 28:55, and it has lasted since 1987.) My coach assured me that Porter would break the mark with relative ease. This was not an unreasonable thing to say, because Porter was smack-dab in the middle of his amazing career, during which he won eight straight U.S. Cross Country Championship titles and recorded a 27:46 10,000 meters on the track. But had I been in a position to guess how he'd fare, knowing what I know now, I would have said that Porter might do it. The course was two loops through downtown Manchester, which was and is not entirely flat and was and remains not entirely pleasant. Porter would have no real competition. He probably didn't really care about the race and only showed up because someone paid him to attend. It was well worth it to him because if he was having an off day, he would still almost certainly win the race and whatever cash went with that. In fact, he wound up running 29-something (I want to say 29:08) after being on pace for a 28:40 or so for the first loop.

In any case, I really only "met" him in the form of a quick handshake. But it was still really cool.

I got a great deal closer to running fame a little over a year later, at the start of my junior year. Concord High School always hosted an alumni race on our home course in White Park, and the winner that fall was a CHS alumnus in his mid-thirties who ran 16:38. (I was third, I think, in 17:21.) This fellow was dating another cross-country runner of some note, and she was there taking pictures. When Porter had come to town, I'd had no idea who he was. I had never seen a copy of Track & Field News, and Porter was not on the radar of the only regional running magazine available at the time, Boston Running News (now New England Runner). I had not yet started reading The Runner or Runner's World, but that changed sometime in 185 (just in time for the latter publication to absorb the former).

But I knew who Lynn Jennings was. Not only was she the holder of a 15:08 5,000 meters and the winner of the 1985 U.S. Cross Country title, she was also a Massachusetts native who was based in nearby Newmarket, N.H. She had already beaten me by substantial amounts in a couple of road races. Her best was in front of her, though, as she would go on to run in three Olympics win a total of nine U.S. titles in cross-country and take three consecutive World Cross Country crowns from 1990 to 1992. I saw her win that last one, which was in Franklin Park in Boston in light snow (how I wish the IAAF would return World Cross to the U.S., even though I would find a way to not go).

I was introduced to Lynn after the Alumni Race, but I talked to her more substantially a few weeks later after the Manchester Invitational, then a "big" event and now a truly prestigious one on a regional scale. I came in 10th, and afterward she congratulated me on my kick. She also pointed out that I had big feet, which is not really the case (10.5) but often looks that way because my feet don't point where they are supposed to when I run, a malady that was already in evidence in my teens but has since been rendered less obvious by progressive deterioration in other aspects of my form. She was extremely friendly and very studious. Nerdy. And obviously very confident. She remains one of the toughest competitors I can remember watching in person. No one excels at cross-country without being extremely committed to high levels of pain -- and I don't mean tolerating it, I mean embracing it, maybe reveling in it.

I think that was more or less it in terms of elite runner meet-and-greets when I was a teenager. I did get passed by Bill Rodgers (whom I later met for real, in some depth, when we both spoke at a marathon dinner in Florida in 2005) in the last half-mile of a five-mile race in November 1985, which he was running as a workout. This was at the also-now-long-defunct Salem Screen Five-Miler in New Hampshire. I ran 29:07 and finished well outside of the top 100, I believe. A Brit named Steve Binns won that one in 22-something. Now that I look back, Jennings won the women's version of that race in 25:34 (it may have been an 8K, but was advertised as a five-miler) in 25:34, still an all-comers New Hampshire record. That would have put me about a kilometer behind her. Like I said, she had already beaten me by substantial amounts before I met her in 1986. And I bet no woman breaks that record anytime in the next 20 years unless some enterprising Baby Boomer decides to throw together an event offering lots of money and probably lots of bullshit for the unwashed masses as well.

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