By Will Mason
Great thing about our sport: you can go right up to the champ and converse on equal footing. Great distance runners I have met are just like you and me—the differentiating factor being speed. Here are some examples.
You live near Boston, you have seen and probably talked to Bill Rodgers. He is in real life just about what you see in print, perhaps shorter (not Frank Shorter), and perhaps less focused than he is on the roads (okay, a lot less focused!). Once I saw Boston Billy in really bad running shape, but in the best personable shape I have ever seen in a star. It was at the 1979 Montreal Marathon. Billy got in trouble in the heat and his finish was, well let’s just say I could have whipped him over the last five miles. Most stars after a rough performance would have headed away from any human, but what did the expected winner, but lagging finisher do after the race? He plopped himself down at the end of a row of smelly porta-potties and signed autographs. It was hot and he was tired, but he signed for a very long time and did so with a smiling face (okay, sort of smiling—maybe it was a grimace). Billy congratulated hundreds of marathon finishers from the muckers’ race of the previous day. All those runners knew about heat and bad runs and appreciated Bill’s plight. To chop up a phrase from Billy’s sound alike name and folk character Will Rodgers: “I never met a man that didn’t like Bill Rodgers.”
Another New England local just like you, no doubt a bit more withdrawn, is Joan Samuelson. Talk about modesty. After the Falmouth Road Race in, I think 1978, my wife and I lounged on a blanket next to a female runner who sat there alone in her thoughts. The female runner broke the spell by asking me about my race, so I gave the unknown female a very detailed account of my 7.1 miles. A bit later Joan Benoit walked from the blanket to collect her first place trophy. Hey, this is understandable: at that time she couldn’t have known me. My wife described Joan’s racing strategy perfectly: get in front and stay there. Since then I have discovered that Joan has, like you and me, real fears about racing. Her biggest fear is not the competition; it is whether she will get back to her beloved Maine soon enough after the race. You enter a race against this homebody, alls you got to do is phone her the night before and whisper: “Hey, I heard the bridges back to Maine are going to close.” Joan will not show.
Frank Shorter, Olympic gold and silver medalist at Munich and Montreal, and legally not qualified to run for President because he was born in Munich (how many runners have won a gold medal in the town in which they were born?), needs little introduction. So when I was introduced to him at a Greater Lowell weekend racing extravaganza (something that happens only 52 weeks a year), I simply said: “How are you.” Now you know that that a real runner decodes that kind message as something like “How’s your hammy?” And sure enough Frank launched into a long explanation about his back problem. I could not follow the talk exactly (runners mimic both science and medicine when discussing their own injuries), but the gist of it was this: Frank had his spine extracted, spot-welded, reinserted, and sealed. So, guess what Mr. Bad Back Olympic Gold and Silver did that Sunday. He ran the race. Sound familiar?
Frank Shorter is convinced that he suffers from the Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect” syndrome. He believes—I am not making this up—that he will be more famous when he is dead, like Pre. Course, he won’t be able to star in that movie, but what the hell, you can’t have everything. Can’t say I am looking forward to that Frank, but the lack of respect, or acknowledgement, reminds me of another world-class runner, Grete Waitz. In 1990 Grete was the guest speaker at the dinner before the marathon in Greenville, South Carolina. A more engaging, affectionate person in the running world is not to be found, but there was something that really irked Grete and it came out in her talk. Grete was still miffed (and probably is even today) about her press after her first New York victory, when the media had her as a surprise winner, but worse, an unknown. Said Grete, whose statue stands outside Oslo’s famed Bislett Stadium: “Unknown vas not troo. I vas alretty goot.” “Goot” was an understatement. Grete had been a champion cross country runner long before her New York triumph. This was a fact that the media should have known. Would you want to be listed as a nobody after a great race?
But we can identify even with the by-everybody-well-known. The organizers of the 1982 Frankfurt (Germany) Marathon talked Emil Zatopek into being part of the starting ceremonies. Now here was (Emil passed away recently) a guy who won the 5K, 10K, and marathon at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics (something that will never be duplicated), so you would think he could be a little aloof about all those runners getting ready to run just one race and not too fast. Nope, you couldn’t cache that Czech. He pumped as many hands as he could and seemed happy to be amongst the runners. We all understood his personal sadness on that day, when he sighed and said simply: “Gee, I wish I could run.” Wouldn’t that be your wish too?
And then there is Johnny Kelley. Johnny is a national pride, a Boston hero, and a Cape Cod treasure. Like to meet him? Just bop on down to Cape Cod at many a road race. Perhaps even a race named after him. Be careful, however: Johnny is very outgoing and you must be cautious about hitting the start button. This guy can talk! And he has a lot to talk about, so you must be prepared to listen for a very long time. And when you listen you will be surprised to understand that, in addition to his legendary running, he has other talents. An all around artist in his 90s, Johnny Kelley paints and sings too. You going to do that when you are 90? No, me neither! So, here is the exception. Johnny is not like you and me. Nobody is like Johnny Kelley.
Happy New Year.