Many of my college teammates like to memorize the big names in running. They pore over records and evaluate and reevaluate runners, both historic and contemporary. They talk about these guys the way most talk about football stars.
I never entered these conversations. I had nothing to say, because I just give running history the same level of scrutiny. I never had much of a memory for names and numbers, and furthermore, I just didn’t much care. I’m self-centered like that. I focus on breaking my own records, not venerating others’.
And so it came to be that I met one of the greats without even knowing it. I was at the High School XC banquet, eating and waiting for my part in the presentation to begin. There was a small, unassuming man sitting next to me at the Coach’s table, asking me about my running background. I took him for a parent of one of our athletes, displaced. He was pleasant, though, and spoke with a slight Irish accent that inclined me to like him.
He had introduced himself as Marcus O’Sullivan. Many of my college friends would have recognized the name; I, on the other hand, didn’t know that Marcus O’Sullivan is the name of a former Olympic runner. It wasn’t until the head coach introduced him that I found out this guy had won three golds in the Summer games, or that he is one of only three people to have broken the 4-minute-mile over one hundred times (!).
I like to say that I don’t care about finishing times. They don’t always reflect effort, and it’s effort that I respect. But a 3:33 mile… I’m going to say that Mr. O’Sullivan wasn’t coasting on talent. I don’t think that anyone can go that fast for that long without an iron will.
And here he had been, listening patiently while I told him about my own adventures. I was humbled, and a little embarrassed.
Mr. O’Sullivan did have a great message for the high-schoolers. He talked about being a small kid in Ireland who yearned to be an athlete. He idolized the powerful mid-distance runners whom he would later race and beat. And he climbed to the top through hard work and discipline more than any talent.
He began and ended his speech by saying that the lessons he learned through running apply to life in general. That his experiences had implications bigger than mere sports. Mr. O’Sullivan, I could not agree more.
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