In Memoriam: Tom Fleming

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He was high energy, very empathetic, and had a remarkable ability to reach a wide range of kids, boys and girls. He didn’t run an easy classroom but it was a great classroom. Third graders who heard about him kept their fingers crossed that of our three sections of fourth grade, they’d end up in his.” – Tom Nammack, headmaster of Montclair Kimberly Academy, where Tom Fleming taught and coached

In this era of manufactured marathon heroes, I know the real ones. Tom [Fleming] was one.” – Bill Rodgers

On Wednesday we heard the sad news that Tom Fleming, one of America’s top marathon runners in the 1970s and more recently a fourth-grade teacher and coach at Montclair Kimberly Academy in Montclair, New Jersey, had passed away after suffering an apparent heart attack while coaching at a track meet. He was 65.

Fleming’s enthusiasm for running and his capacity for high mileage brought him success and victory in numerous marathons, including New York (twice), Jersey Shore (three times), Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Toronto, and Los Angeles. As his own running career wound down, he started a running specialty store, founded and coaches a national-class running club, and developed a love of teaching and coaching that would become his life’s work.

In spite of a nearly a decade of trying, Fleming never wore the laurel wreath at the Boston Marathon.

In 1973, in his second time running the race, Fleming made the fateful decision to run conservatively on the warm spring day and let Jon Anderson, a track runner with little marathon experience, burn himself out in front. But after Anderson had built a two-and-a-half-minute lead, Fleming realized too late that the Oregonian wasn’t burning out. Fleming’s desperate efforts to make up ground were futile, and he finished second in 2:17:03, exactly a minute behind Anderson.

In 1974, he entered the race as the favorite, but on the Thursday before the race, he twisted his ankle stepping in a pothole while out on a training run. For the next four days, Fleming didn’t run a step and waited to see whether he’d be able to run at all. On race day, he found himself able to run, but started conservatively to give the ankle a chance to warm up. He would never catch the leaders, and ended up second again, a mere 43 seconds behind Ireland’s Neil Cusack.

In subsequent years, Fleming would finish 3rd (1975), 6th (1977), 10th (1978), and 4th (1979). He also finished 5th in the Olympic Trials in May 1976, just failing to make the Olympic team in a race that also prevented him from having a chance to run Boston that year.

I didn’t know much about Fleming in his heydey. In the mid-1970s, I was just a high school runner more obsessed with Track and Field and middle-distance running than with marathoning. Of course, I knew that Frank Shorter had won the Olympic Marathon in Munich, but otherwise I paid little attention to the world of marathons. The only reason I knew Fleming’s name was because of his famous quote, hung on the wall of his room to remind him to train harder:

Somewhere in the world there is someone training when you are not. When you race him, he will win.

Every eulogy for Fleming mentions that quote. I find it somewhat strange that runners (like me) who knew little else about him, knew him for those words. Taken at face value, they sound more than a little paranoid:

Somewhere in the world there is someone training when you are not.

Surely, common sense tells us that one can’t be training all the time, so there is always someone out there preparing to beat you. By this formula, the runner faces an impossible task, and defeat is inevitable. What is to be done? The answer is to train more. Maybe you can be the “someone” training when others are not, the implacable foe in someone else’s running nightmare.

At least that’s how I always understood it.

But after reading about Fleming these last two days, I began to see another possible interpretation for those words he had hung on his wall 45 years ago.

Somewhere in the world there is someone training when you are not.

We are not, after all, alone in the world. In George Sheehan’s words, we are all athletes… but only some of us are in training. That “someone” who is training while you are sleeping is not your enemy, he (or she) is your inspiration, your running buddy who meets you at 5:30 a.m., or after work on a weeknight when you’d rather go straight home. I think Fleming’s quote acknowledges that the world is full of runners who have the potential to beat you, but only if they have the will to train as hard as you do. Accepting this and finding the will yourself is the key to reaching your own potential.


 

Among all the race photos I’ve seen over the last day or so, my favorite picture of Fleming is from the Boston Marathon the year that Gary Fanelli ran with the lead pack in a Blues Brothers suit and tie. Fanelli (#19) looks deadly serious. Most of the other runners have their faces set in grim determination. Only Tom Fleming (5) looks like he is enjoying the moment, as he casts a wry, sideways smirk in Fanelli’s direction.

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I have the feeling that in any gathering of runners, Tom Fleming was always the one enjoying it more than anyone else. Farewell, Coach Fleming, and thank you for sharing your love of and appetite for running with all of us.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for the past thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. About a dozen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past eight years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. I've been writing for as long as I've been running. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and after a two-year hiatus, began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. In my experience, writing about running is way harder than running itself. I also still have a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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