Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Giants

Ain't no chain strong enough to hold me.
Ain't no breeze big enough to slow me.
Never have seen a river that's too wide.
-- Clarence `Gatemouth' Brown 

What makes a champion? What makes a certain person an inspiration or motivator for running and for life? Everyone will have a different answer to these and related questions. I would like to share with you thoughts about those runners who have inspired me, taught me about true championship, and have motivated me in running and in life.

The winners --

There, of course, are the winners. Those who set a goal, worked hard, planned well, and achieved greatly. We are all inspired by the winners. Those that stand out for me include:

Joan Benoit Samuelson, "Little Joanie" - In 1984 I watched as she and other great marathon women circled the track at Santa Monica College, a track I had run many, many times. Joan had won the US Olympic Trials Marathon just weeks after knee surgery. On that day in August, she and the other women were finally running the first Olympic Women's Marathon, an historic event. Joan turned that into one of the greatest runs by a marathoner, man or woman, as she committed to taking the solo lead early and stayed there. A marathon is hard on any day, but doing one alone, in the lead, with no one to push you except yourself, to me is something that makes a true champion.

Then there was the man who simply would not lose, Edwin Moses. Over the course of 9 years, 9 months, and 9 days, he was undefeated in 122 races. He broke his own world record 4 times. 

The icon Steve Prefontaine. Jackie Joyner Kersee. Bill Rodgers. Too many more than can be cited here. 

These are the winners. The greats. The ones who made it happen. But, there are others for whom the winds of victory did not blow on the day. Those who gave it all and came up short. The ones whose attitude in not making the dream happen, made others dream and motivated beyond anything their position on the podium that the day could have predicted. Those are the ones that matter in the end. The ones that teach us that there is no failure in trying. There is championship in coming in 2nd or last, if on that day, you gave more than you had and did not stop. These are the ones that remain in my memory as true greats.

The ones that gave it all, and then gave more --

My first memory of someone who lived the word champion was from my high school years. Curtis Beck was my cross country and track team mate at Santa Monica High School in the early '70s. He, however, was in a different league from me, indeed a league of his own. His smooth running style, his grace in action, and his unbelievable speed always turned everyone's head when he was on the track. As a junior (16 years old) he ran from the front, with no pacers or other support, a mile in 4:04 during a meet at the Los Angeles Colosseum. That same year he ran an 8:48 two mile, also alone in the lead. These are times few have exceeded even as seniors, and those that have done so rank with the greatest ever -- Jim Ryan, Steve Prefontaine, Gerry Lindgren. He did this on high quality 25 mile weeks. It seemed Curtis would go on to track greatness. In his senior year, the team expected to have only the 4th sub-four minute high school miler. When I once asked him when he might try, he told me he would not, that he would be staying with the two mile that year. I thought that strange. His two mile times did not exceed those as a junior. Craig Virgin was the 1973 two mile star with an 8:40 best time. Curtis trained hard, smiled all the time. It was always good to be around him, and his brother Steve. Curtis never suggested there might be a problem. Years later, while wondering what became of Curtis and his promising career, I learned that he was dealing with very difficult physical issues that he never let on, or complained about. During his senior year, he was plagued with bronchitis and an increasingly painful back. At UCLA, this apparently congenital back problem prevented him from upping his training to the collegiate level. Ultimately, it forced him to stop running. 

Curtis taught me that his personal misfortune did not need to be shared or used as an excuse. He continued to give his best for himself and his team. He never complained. He just ran. Curtis, I do not know what has become of you, but thank you for being a true example of sportsmanship and grace that I have held on to for the many years since we parted ways.

The same year that Curtis was running his best, was the Munich Olympic Games. The tragedy that befell those games was imprinted on my young, still idealistic mind and will never be erased. But, what came after, in the resumed games would leave a different kind of imprint, one of greatness in the effort -- striving for a goal and never giving in to anything else. A still inexperienced Steve Prefontaine would have nothing to do with strategy. He ran from the front to win. He would accept nothing less of himself. And so was the case until the final laps of the Olympic 5000m race. With three laps to go, Lasse Viren pulled up to Pre's shoulder and Pre picked up the pace to push him back. At two laps to go the more experienced racers began to up the pace. Pre was pushed back to 4th. Unaccepting of that position, even for a moment, Pre opened up and within 50m he resumed the lead. By now the leading five runners were at full gallop. There could be no more. As the lead three crossed the line into the bell lap, Viren and Gammoudi, working off Pre, resumed the one/two position. Again, Pre came back. But, Gammoudi fought him and took the lead from Viren, keeping Pre in 2nd. After leading every lap, giving it up, and fighting back at speeds beyond his limits, Pre gave his all. As they entered the final turn, Pre's stride broke and his speed fell -- briefly. Viren attacked and Pre attacked one last time with him. But, for Pre the finish line was just 100m too far ahead. His body quit steps from the line and he fell to 4th. There would be no medal of any color for Steve Prefontaine. He ran the only way he knew how, the only way he could accept. On that day, I saw that there could be no failure in trying. And try he did, like no one else could. Steve Prefontaine would not see the next Olympics, but his lessons of how to run and how to live with passion continue on.

In 1982, twenty three year old Julie Moss was leading the Hawai'i Ironman Triathlon. As night fell on Kailua-Kona, Julie was clearly exhausted as she neared the finish line. She was in trouble and her legs simply gave out beneath her. She rose to her feet, only to fall again, presenting the strange image of a marionette with its strings suddenly cut. A few hundred yards left to complete her 140 mile journey, she rose again and walked. Soon she ran. Then, again, her body went limp and she was down. No longer having control of her simplest bodily functions, Julie Moss literally battled to regain her feet. With her legs now covered with feces, she rejected support from bystanders and moved forward again. Wobbly and weak, she went down again. Now urgently refusing assistance, she was surrounded by helping hands, hands that could bring her a disqualification. Just yards from the finish, Catherine McCarthy strode by to assume the lead and the win. She knew nothing of the drama she had just passed. Her victory gone, her body completely drained, there was nothing left for Julie to do but to quit at that point. No! That is not what she did. In perhaps the most dramatic moments in the history of ABC's Wide World of Sports, we witnessed the meaning of true championship. With a tears steaming down a multitude of faces staring astonished and moved at our television sets, we watched as Julie Moss literally crawled on all fours to cross the finish line, reaching one hand out to do so before collapsing totally. It does not matter how, or even if, one makes it to the finish line. It is the quality of the effort that matters most. Julie Moss helped me to find the finish line, no matter how hard, no matter how far, and taught me that there is dignity in effort. 

Every weekend all over the world there are stories like these being played out. They are The Unknowns, those that strive to be the best that they can be, to go where they did not think they could go, and go beyond. If you want to be inspired, go to a local race and watch. Go to the last mile of a marathon and see the people who will not quit. They are your neighbors, your friends. They achieve for no one but themselves. You will see Steve Prefontaine-like attempts to meet a time. You will see Julie Moss-like efforts to finish. If you have never done it, find a race and be there for those people, like they have been for you. You will be amazed. You will be motivated. You will be inspired. You will see things there that will surprise you. You very likely will see yourself, and you will like what you see.

For me, the greatest inspiration has not just come from the way someone ran a race, but also how they have lived their lives. Running can be a powerful metaphor of life. A run can kick you, drag you down, hurt you, and it can make you great. Life can do the same. In 1982, I read a report on the Boston Marathon. We did not get the coverage at the time in Los Angeles. Known as the "Duel in the Sun" this race is considered by many to be the greatest marathon race ever run. Dick Beardsley was a kid from Minnesota who had been having some success at the marathon. His times had made him world class. But, in this race he would be running against the best and most experienced in the world, including the likes of "Boston Billy" Rodgers and the world record holder Alberto Salazar. Dick Beardsley could not win this race. He was in over his head. Everyone knew that. No knock to Dick. His time might come later. The only person who did not know that fact was Dick Beardsley. The story of the race is the stuff of legend. I will not recount it here. The essence comes in the last half mile. After battling with Alberto Salazar for the lead in the hot sun, Dick had started to trail by a few steps. At this point, Alberto's speed would leave Dick behind and the race would be over. But, in spite of a cramp and confusion with a police motorcycle, Dick fought back. Dick and Alberto had raced away everything they had. Alberto just had a little more speed than Dick. Both could not take another step, but they had to -- Alberto had to keep the lead, Dick had to take it. Never, not once, in 26 miles, 385 yards did Dick Beardsley not try to win that race. Even after Alberto had crossed the line, Dick pushed through it as hard as he could just two seconds behind. Two seconds. A battle for the ages ended with a separation of two seconds. Dick did not lose that race. He just did not cross the line first. Alberto knew this. He brought Dick onto the awards platform with him and raised his arm in a shared victory. 

Neither man raced as well again. Both had given that one run everything they had. Alberto was taken to the emergency room and given 6 liters of fluid intravenously because he had not drunk during the race. He had some further success, but it was limited. Dick had injuries and raced only a little until tragedy would strike. Dick's leg was nearly torn off in a farming accident. His recovery was just short of miraculous, when other accidents took their toll. Dick was, to put it mildly, a mess. While endowed with great genetics for running, he was not so lucky when it came to addiction. Pain was an inevitable result of the trauma placed on Dick's body. He found himself addicted to narcotic pain killers, and not in a small way. The crisis came to a head when Dick was arrested for forging prescriptions.

If this were any other man, this story would be a tragedy from beginning to end. But, not Dick Beardsley. His local fame helped keep him out of jail, but he still had to face recovery. There is no one who can tell his story better than Dick himself, so please read his book. I will only say that that day in Boston could not have been a better metaphor of how Dick would live his life afterward. He never gave up. He was going to win that race, no matter what. Now "winner" did not mean coming in first, it meant survival. It meant everything. He could not fail, or he would be lost. When he had to, he would crawl on all fours to his meetings. It was the hardest thing to do. And he did it.

Today Dick is still with us. Still achieving. Still running. His body has been broken and put back together more than anyone's I know. His leg does not track just right. His back has more fusions than not. He has two artificial knees. In spite of all of that, he still gets up each morning and runs. It is what he does. He also still dreams and has goals for his running. His goals have perspective and are attainable, but just hard enough to keep things interesting.

I have known Dick Beardsley for about ten years now. There is no man who inspires me more. He is why I am still trying my best. Because I have a bad back, I cannot run long and fast without risking great pain and further injury. But, I can move forward. Without that inspiration and knowledge that I could do something, I would not be living my dreams in Death Valley. 

I do not know if Dick is a hero. Hero is a word that means many things to many people. Dick is just a man. He is a unique and valuable man, but flawed like the rest of us. That is one of the things I like about him best. He and I are the same age, and I thought I acted young. When I am around Dick, I feel much older, because he is the real kid in the room. 

More than anything else I have said here means more to me than these simple words -- Dick Beardsley is my friend, and he always will be.

Next week I get to share some time with him at the Dick Beardsley Marathon Running Camp. I can't wait!


"Badwater" Bill
Tujunga, CA


  1. Great post, Bill!
    Reminds us all that there are many definitions of winning. "First to cross the line" isn't even at the top of the list. "Following your dream" is. Keep on keeping on!


  2. One of your better essays and truly inspiring... I had forgotten about the heroism of Julie Moss. Thank you for reminding me.

  3. Excellent, THANK YOU!!