Runners love to tell their stories, and Chris Cooper has compiled 50 of the best stories for us to enjoy. My Best Race: 50 Runners and the Finish Line They’ll Never Forget is full of inspirational stories and lessons about racing. Former Olympians, mid-pack runners, and others candidly share their uplifting stories about the best race they ever ran.
Just weeks before the 1985 World University Games Marathon in Japan, Paul Gompers lost his father Stephen to a massive heart attack at age forty-three. Paul was suddenly alone and without his greatest supporter. Adrift and beyond consolation, his coach and teammates convinced him to run in Japan to honor the memory of his father.
Driven by grief and fueled by love, Paul toed the line on an incredibly hot August day to run against one of the best fields ever assembled. At mile 14, he found himself battling with the former (and future) winner of the NYC Marathon, Orlando Pizzolato. Having run only one previous marathon, Paul knew he may have been in over his head, but he was determined to give his absolute best.
Paul finished third in that race with a finish time of 2:22 after bonking at mile 24. As he recovered in the medical tent with IV fluids and ice packs all over his body, tears flowed freely as he realized his father would not be there to welcome him home. It was not the best performance of his running career, but it was his best race. The 1985 World University Games Marathon helped him begin the healing process by honoring his father with a gutsy race effort against the world’s best runners.
Marla Runyan was inspired by the voice of a stranger. A little girl’s voice reached her ears amid the din of 10,000 screaming fans and inspired her to defy expectations. She would go on to win the 2002 Prefontaine Classic 3,000 Meters race by less than half a second.
Runyan’s story is an amazing one. She is legally blind and suffers from a form of macular degeneration called Stargardt’s Disease. She can see clearly at 20 feet away what others see clearly at 200 feet away. Unlike other runners, Marla has to use auditory cues to figure out where she and others are positioned on the track. The crowd, the announcer, and the sound of footsteps are all she has to track down other runners.
Runyen was ready to accept a fourth place finish right from the start. She knew there were three very strong runners in the race, and she was not a 3,000m specialist. But that changed when she heard a young girl’s voice say “Come on, Marla. You can do it.” She couldn’t bear to disappoint her hometown crowd.
Runyen picked up the pace and chased down the leaders in dramatic fashion. As she ran down the final stretch she searched for the finish line. But, not being able to see it, she settled for the blurry finish area. As she raced the final 50 meters neck and neck with Irish runner Sonia O’Sullivan, she patiently waited until just 20 meters before the finish line to surge past her and claim victory.
This 19-year-old patriot beat the Russians in the 1964 USA vs. USSR 10,000 Meters race. His race unfolded in front of 40,000 spectators in the Los Angeles Coliseum and proved to everyone that American runners were both tough and determined, despite what the Russians said about them being too lazy to compete in distance events. Nobody would have guessed it possible for Gerry Lindgren to win this race just a few years earlier.
Lindgren grew up as a wimpy and unlikely athlete. But, he soon discovered that he could run and rapidly took flight during his high school years. Doggedly determined, he regularly did three-a-day workouts. A long run in the morning, 400m repeats before lunch, and another long run in the evening.
His audacious training approach paid off when he was chosen to represent the United States in the 10K event at the formidable USA vs. USSR Dual Track Meet. He had never run that distance before, so his strategy was to simply hang on as long as he could and run with the leaders until mile four. Surprising everyone, he passed them at mile four and never gave up the lead after that. In part, because the sound of his own footsteps made him think the Russians were on his heels the entire way.
My Best Race is a great book for those times when you have just a few minutes for some running inspiration. I put my copy in the glove compartment and took it out while waiting for my kids to finish practice. Every story in My Best Race connects on some level because we’re all runners, but many of the stories connect on a much deeper and emotional level because we’re all people.
A complimentary copy of this book was sent to me by the author. This review includes affiliate links.