The National Distance Running Hall of Fame, located in Utica, New York, honors the best that Distance running has to offer. Jeff Benjamin made the trek to Utica, New York for the famed event. Congrats to the late Fred Wilt, Kim Merritt and Tom Fleming, who were the class of 2014.
Larry Rawson, Tom Fleming, Kim Merritt, Roger Robinson
(for the late Fred Wilt), photo by Jeff Benjamin
It seems only fitting that the largest 15K race, the Utica Boilermaker, would also include on race weekend forums and an expo. But on the day before the grand race, runners, aficionados, friends, family as well as legends gathered once again for an annual ritual which has marched on for 12 years now-the induction of the worthy candidates into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame. Led by Tim Reed and Mary MacEnroe, the Hall recognizes those who have contributed to the sport in any capacity throughout the years. Blending nostalgia with inspiration, the inductions bring together people from all walks of life to honor those deemed worthy. Once again, the 2014 inductees perfectly fit that criteria. The Late Fred Wilt, Kim Merritt and Tom Fleming were honored.
Hosted by “The Voice of Running” Larry Rawson, the ceremonies began with a video of the Hall of Fame, which contains some of the sports greatest artifacts and various information and anecdotes going back to the late 19th century. Rawson then spoke shortly about the first inductee Fred Wilt, before turning it over to one of the great writers of the sport and noted historian Roger Robinson, who spoke in accepting Wilt’s honor posthumously.
Wilt’s contributions transcended his performances on the track. An Indiana graduate who won a total of 8 AAU Cross-Country titles, Wilt would also go on the compete in the 1948 and 1952 Olympic Games, and set an indoor World Record for the 2-mile. But it was beginning in the early 1960’s that Wilt’s influence would be profound. His book , “Run, Run, Run” set the standard for those learning how to excel in a very tough sport where many coaches advocated low mileage with not much quality. Wilt’s 8 books would prove those methods wrong. Rawson had said in his introduction that Wilt, “was on the cutting edge of coaching…his contributions were profound. He was getting his athletes to push harder than before and making them realize that they could go beyond their limits.” It indeed paid off, as Wilt would coach many of America’s top runners. Using mail (Not Email), Wilt would send workouts overseas to American Buddy Edelen who was living in England for a few years. This collaboration led to Edelen’s 1963 World Record in the Marathon, running 2:14:28. According to Robinson, “That was probably not his best performance. At an Olympic Marathon Trials race in Yonkers, New York, Buddy won the race by over 2 1/2 miles over his competition, running 2:24:25, despite 92 degree weather and over 90% humidity.
Wilt’s other books dealt with revolutionary new techniques, including plyometrics. But, his “seminal work” as Rawson called it, was, “How they Train”, a compilation of training schedules and methods used by the best in America and the world. “This book motivated and inspired many,” said Rawson. Not to be outdone, Wilt’s “Coaching Quarterly” which was sponsored by USA Track and Field and Track and Field News, contained the newest and revolutionary training/scientific methods not only for running, but for all of Track and Field.
Robinson then concluded with a story of how Wilt had finished in an undetermined tie in the Wanamaker Mile with Don Gehrmann at the 1950 Millrose Games. “The race was too close to call and the officials changed their minds three times,” said Robinson. “It was finally deferred to the National AAU Convention 6 months later, which was an unusual way of doing things for sure.” He concluded that, “Wilt may not have been in the front on that day, but today Fred Wilt is up front.”
Then Rawson introduced Kim Merritt. A High School State Champion, Merritt was from the era where there was not much support for women and title IX had, according to Rawson, “not yet kicked in.” But that did not stop her. Originally competing as a gymnast, she gravitated towards running and joined the boys team at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, where, through dedication and perseverance, brought around her chauvinistic, ex-Marine male coach and others to support her, even doing a fundraising event so she could compete in her first marathon in New York in 1975. She proceeded to win it, and then win Boston in 1976. But her best performance over the 26.2 mile distance was the 1977 Nike Oregon Marathon, where she ran 2:37:57, setting the American record.
“New York and Boston opened a lot of doors for me,” said Merritt, as she accepted her honor. “I am very proud of women and how far we’ve come. We’re just as tough as men.” She praised her coach, ” A man who deserves just as much of the credit.” Merritt then concluded with advice. “Hard work always pays off. Don’t let people discourage you from doing what you want to do-ignore them!”
Rawson then introduced the final inductee. “Tom Fleming set the tone and the standard for many marathoners during the 1970s and 80s. What is truly remarkable was that Tom did not even run track until his senior year in High School!” Upon accepting his honor, Fleming echoed Rawson. “I really wanted to play basketball for the Celtics,” he quipped.
Playing basketball and soccer in his teen years, he won the NJ state 2 mile Championship but “Flew under the radar as far as scholarships were concerned.” In 1969, he was accepted as the last qualifier to attend an elite distance running training camp with the best young talent in the country. After a week, “I wanted to quit and go home. I called my father and he said to me that I’d have to stick it out and I wasn’t coming home. Looking back, that moment changed my life.” Fleming returned more learned and determined than ever.
Gradually improving, he would go on to win 2 NYC Marathons (1973 and 1975) and run a PR of 2:12:05 in the Boston Marathon, his favorite race, where he finished 2nd twice and in the top 5 on six different occasions.
Training in his hometown of Bloomfield, New Jersey and NYC’s Central Park, Fleming’s consistent training of 130 miles per week over more than a decade led to American records at 25K, 30K, and the ultra distance 50K. Fleming then went on to coaching, where, once again by studying and learning from the best, inspired Anne Marie Letko to a 10th place performance in the 1996 Olympic Marathon, and Joe LeMay to run 10k in 28 minutes.” As a coach, I take great pleasure when my athletes set personal records for themselves. That is very rewarding to me.”
Fleming then went on to thank many who helped coach, advise, and train with him through the years. Among them were Joe Kleinerman, Kurt Steiner, Jimmy Rafferty, Joe Berard, Joel Pasternack, Joe Martino, and Bill Rodgers among others. But he saved his greatest thanks for his father, a former NFL player on the Chicago Bears. “My Dad Joe Fleming and I learned this sport together. I was very lucky to have been encouraged by him and all these others,” he tearfully said.
Like Merritt, Fleming concluded with some advice as well. “Be realistic and have attainable goals.” He then concluded with his trademark phrase, which he practiced and has preached throughout his running and coaching career:
“Somewhere in the world someone is training when you’re not. When you race them, they’ll win.”
That credo definitely resonated not only with the Class of 2014, but with previous hall inductees, and hopefully future ones as well. Who’s on the radar for the class of 2015? I hope to check back next year!!