Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 23 Mar 2002 14:40:22 -0500

Off the Record


At first look it seemed a strange book to attract me as it did. The title alone -- The Man Who Ate the 747 -- said "weird."

Ben Sherwood's work of fiction described a man's attempt to reach a Guinness-like Book of Records by eating through an entire jumbo jet that had crashed on his Nebraska farm. I gobbled up this book as eagerly as its character devoured the 747.

The writer grabbed me early when, unlike most novelists, he spelled out exactly what the book is about. That's an obsession with "ests" -- the biggest, best and weirdest.

That's also what sports and sportswriting are about: quantifying competition and celebrating the exceptional athletes who run to extremes.

"I sifted through the extravagant claims of the tallest, the smallest, the fastest, the slowest, the oldest, the youngest, the heaviest, the lightest, and everyone in between," said Sherwood's narrator. "I authenticated greatness... yet I admit that I am a supremely average man."

His story, he said, "may strain credulity, bend physics and biology. But let this place and these strange events into your life, and you will know a simple truth: We chase wild dreams and long for all that eludes us, when the greatest joys are within our grasp, if we can only recognize them."

The book's hero verified far-out feats for The Book of Records. This job took him to Superior, Nebraska, to confirm that a man was indeed eating an airplane.

I saw myself reflected in Sherwood's writing. I grew up a few hours' drive from this real Nebraska town.

I've spent much of my life chronicling and leading cheers for greatness, running style. Yet I'm a decidedly average-Joe runner who took a long time to see that the greatest joys of sport and life are easily within my reach.

Ben Sherwood ended his book by telling of settling in Superior, Nebraska. "I live in the middle of nowhere now, or the middle of everywhere; all depends on how you look at the map. This is where I belong, and I count my blessings that after wandering the world, I finally found my place."

It's not clear whether this is the fictional narrator speaking or the author's own voice. It doesn't matter which; the message is Sherwood's, and he won't let it fall between the lines.

"I've begun compiling a new book of records," he wrote. "I'm calling it The Book of Wonders, a chronicle of all the amazing feats that go unnoticed in this world, the achievements with no entries in the big books, no live shots on television, no roadside attractions. I'm looking for real stories about everyday wonders, authentic moments of greatness and splendor around the world."

I wish I'd written these lines. Short of that I'm thrilled to have found them, and to repeat them here, and to search out that type of stories to tell.

I'm happy to have led cheers for the record-breakers, most of all with Rich Benyo in our big Running Encyclopedia. But much as I admire the greats of the sport and appreciate all they do to inspire us, I recognize that they are physiological freaks. They're no more like the rest of us than are the actors in movies and models in magazines.

Ben Sherwood's writing reminded me: Never overlook the little feats of normal people, the well-hidden wonders of this world.

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