“See, what I called confidence then rings of cockiness now… The cockiness got smacked out of me over the years, but I’m not convinced that being brash and loathing to lose were bad for a runner striving for elite status. What’s that conviction — that mettle — that made so many of us think we could run in front of all others? Running was a common thing, after all, so I competed in a huge pool. A veritable crowd vied for the top spots, and were we not all worthy human beings with a right to draw breath, wear skin, and win races? We all deserved to win — at least we did from a politically correct revisionist perspective–but in some Orwellian spin, apparently some of us deserved it more than others, and by some of us, I meant me, the guy who gave all.”
– Tim Tays, Wannabe Distance God
I’ve been meaning to write about Wannabe Distance God for several months, having borrowed the book from Kevin (and having kept it so long he probably thinks I’ve forgotten).
Most running memoirs fall into one of two categories: the first includes autobiographies of famous champions, in which we learn about their early years, the awakening that led them to their athletic calling, and their eventual triumphs; the second type of memoir recalls the exploits of a group or team that achieved some special distinction, and the “best-days-our-lives” feeling of being part of it all.
Numerous examples of autobiography come to mind, some really good and some not worth the trouble. Among the good ones, Bannister’s The Four-Minute Mile, books from Lydiard protogés Murray Halberg (A Clean Pair of Heels) and Peter Snell (No Bugles, No Drums), both co-written by Garth Gilmour. I also remember really liking the autobiography (now long out of print) of three-time British Olympian and former two-mile world record holder Brendan Foster, although I can’t recall the title.
Stories of teams aren’t as common. Chris Lear’s Running With the Buffaloes — although it’s not really a memoir — includes a lot of first-person material from runners on the 1998 Colorado cross country team, and reads like a journal of that season. Another book that comes to mind is Juggernauts, by Steve Adkisson, in which he looks back nostalgically at his high school cross country team and their run to the Kentucky State Championship in the 1970s.
What makes Tim Tays’ memoir, Wannabe Distance God unusual is that it doesn’t really fit into either category. By his own admission, his younger self — “Timmy Two-Mile” — longed to be a champion runner and devoted ten years of his life to achieving distance god status. But he never quite made it. He chronicles in agonizing detail his near-misses, including a second place in the two-mile at the New Mexico State Championships, his one conference championship in college achieved only by virtue of the fact that the winner was disqualified for a silly infraction, and other self-described humiliations. when his post-collegiate running career ends with an Achilles tendon injury, he finally abandons the runner’s life and all its trappings, and doesn’t run again for twenty-five years.
Wannabe Distance God is unique in other ways, too. Tays’ first-person narration is grounded in the present, a middle-aged man recalling and trying to make sense of the experience of his younger self, but it also moves easily into the voice and mindset of that kid who was full of arrogance and striving. When he describes his childhood, including being raised by a Christian Scientist mother who believed that illness and suffering were the result of living mental “error,” we feel his suffering but aren’t asked to feel pity. And yet, it’s hard not to be appalled at what he went through, what his family went through when his Mom falls ill and eventually dies, her death surely hastened by lack of early diagnosis and medical care.
It seems inadequate to say that the book is “about” running. Running is, or was, the absolute most important thing in the world to the person telling the story. That person wants to succeed so badly that he gladly suffers workouts so off-the-charts hard that reading about them makes me question my own commitment to running. And yet the persistent question is what it all meant, and what it means so many years later. The adult Tays is a psychotherapist. He analyzes his own motives with the critical eye of a mental health professional and what emerges is an unsparing and hard-won self-knowledge, also a kind of gratitude for the searingly intense camaraderie he experienced with his teammates at the University of Kansas team and for the guidance he receives from legendary coach Bob Timmons, the architect of the unfathomably difficult training those runners endured.
By the end of the book, Tays as a fifty-something has made an uneasy peace with the remnants of his competitive running self. It’s obvious that he’ll never truly be a “recreational” runner, but he seems to accept that there are other reasons to run than being the best, the top of the pile, an acknowledged distance god. He no longer needs to burn off through running all the error that stands in the way of who he is truly meant to be.
Few of us have ever committed ourselves to the project that way Tays did, but we have all had to come to terms with the fact that we’re not, in fact, special. For some of us, that’s not particularly troubling because we’d never choose to pay the price anyway; the prize just isn’t that important. But I think that reading the memoir of someone who willing to pay the price and still didn’t reach the brass ring is worth something. Over the long haul, being a runner is as much about the ability to redefine goals and continuing to move forward as much as it is about single-minded pursuit of times and titles. Races end but there’s always another race. Our running bodies weaken and slow but we somehow manage to ignore the watch and run our pitiful intervals because that’s just what we do.
And there’s always someone, somewhere who seems to glide past us without effort or concern. Well, we can read about them, but thanks to Tays, we can read about ourselves, too.