(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)
2006. Glenn Cunningham was a hero of my dad’s generation. I grew up hearing how his legs were badly burned in a childhood fire that killed his brother.
Glenn began to run as therapy, and eventually developed into one of the world’s best milers. He held world records and was an Olympic silver medalist in 1936.
Twenty-five years later the Kansan earned his living by touring the Midwest, giving motivational talks. His average fee was just $30.
By happy coincidence my small high school in rural Iowa booked him as the speaker on the day I graduated. He rode a bus to the nearest station, then hitchhiked the final 15 miles.
I remember none of his formal speech that day, but all of what he said in an earlier talk. The school principal called me to his office, where he’d arranged for Cunningham to talk with me privately. He was using that office as his locker room and was changing into a white shirt, tie and jacket as I arrived.
Cunningham was 51 then. He had the weathered, wiry look of the miler he had been and of the rancher he was. (His ranch took in homeless or troubled kids and put them to work.)
He looked like he still could have bared his scarred legs and shown me how a mile is supposed to be run. And I’d just won a couple of state titles and was headed off to college as a runner.
He was the first famous person I’d ever met. Adlai Stevenson didn’t count. I was struck mute a few years earlier when introduced to this former Presidential candidate as he visited our farm.
This time I found my tongue. As we talked, Cunningham asked, “What kind of training do you do?”
I’d fallen under the spell of Arthur Lydiard by then, and told of emphasizing the Lydiard-like longer and slower runs. Cunningham disagreed with this approach.
“If you want to race fast,” he argued in words I would hear repeated often in years to come, “then you must train fast.” He recommended reversing my emphasis, especially in hot weather when long runs are “too draining.” He said, “I never ran more than five or six miles in my life.”
I didn’t put his training advice into practice, then or later. I did follow in his footsteps as a speaker.
Later. Almost 20 years further along, the two of us shared a stage the night before a marathon in Boonville, Arkansas, near where he now lived.
We spoke to a sparse crowd that seemed largely unaware of or unimpressed by the featured speaker’s credentials. Glenn Cunningham won them over with his message.
That night I told Cunningham, still a powerful figure in physique and personality at 70, when he said “nice to meet you” that this wasn’t our first meeting. He appreciated hearing this, but I could tell that mine had been just another face at hundreds of his talks over the years.
He didn’t remember me, and I didn’t expect that he would. But I’ll never forget him.
(Photo: Glenn Cunningham in the 1930s.)
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Running With Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]