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

Sun, 16 Apr 2006 05:38:09 -0400

Glenn Cunningham, Miler


(rerun from April 1998; posted now to mark the release of a Glenn Cunningham biography, titled American Miler, by Paul J. Kiell and published by Breakaway Books)

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. (I learned from Dr. Kiell's book that 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 much younger then, at 51, than I am now. 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."

This Glenn Cunningham story has a followup. Almost 20 years later 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. 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.

(Glenn Cunningham died in 1988 at age 78.)
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