A quick note. I have known Mike Fanelli since 1978-79, when he competed in the Paul Masson Winery Marathon. I spent some time with Mike at the 1980 Olympic Trials, and we ran the Norcal 10,000m together in 1981. Since then, it was his time at Reebok, then Mizuno, then working with major events. But, Mike’s most lasting effect on the sport is the popularity of his daily affirmation on the glory days of athletics. Mike writes amazing columns on the sport, and from the best Track and Field Garage on the globe, photos, programs and artifacts that remind us how athletics is both global and a life long love for many.
We have asked Mike Fanelli if we may, on a much more regular basis, reprint his fine columns. This is the beginning of that relationship. We also encourage all track geeks to sign up for Mike Fanelli’s track geek daily journeys by friending Mike Fanelli on Facebook.
And, thanks again, Mike Fanelli, for opening the sport up to many…
MY BREAKFAST WITH CUNNINGHAM...the early morning fog in Golden Gate Park’s western edge had mostly lifted. We were situated under an expansive white tent at an extraordinarily long makeshift dining table, complete with red checkered table cloth. Glenn Cunningham, one of the earliest recognizable track and field pioneers in my fledgling fandom, was seated as the guest of honor in the very center. The fine public relations folks from the Quaker Oats Company seated me to his immediate right. This then 22 year old track nut had, after all, just ‘won’ * the Bridge to Bridge Run, San Francisco’s most recent mega -race.
It wasn’t the first time that I’d laid eyes on the Kansas Comet. Four years earlier, in the summer of 1974, I had raced the 2nd annual Charleston Distance Run in West Virginia. In conjunction with that race, was the induction of the inaugural class into the newly formed Track & Field Hall of Fame. The ceremony featured many of the greatest names in the history of American sporting annals. Jesse Owens was the keynote speaker. This first ever grouping were inducted alphabetically. Glenn Cunningham was introduced just after Dean Cromwell and just before Glenn Davis. The program from this epic event is pictured here.
Cunningham’s legend was one that I first began reading about in Boy’s Life Magazine during my Cub Scout days. I’d seen a film tribute to his legacy in my early teens. You couldn’t pick up a book on the sport’s vivid past without including the man to my left. Cunningham had set world records by the fistful. Outdoors, he broke the WR in both the 800 and the mile. Indoors, where he truly excelled, Cunningham set records in the one mile run twice, and the 1500 meters on three occasions. He finished fourth in the 1932 Olympics 1500 (after leading intermittently) and earned silver in the 1936 Berlin Olympic metric mile.
So, what does a young trackophile say to such a venerable athlete while slicing a banana on to his oatmeal? Just the ordinary nervous kid stuff for starters. Softball questions in an effort to gain rapport. I seem to recall inquiring as to how Glenn liked San Francisco. “A delightful city”. My follow up query was as to whether or not he’d ever competed in the City by the Bay. “Not yet” replied the 77 year old Olympian with a twinkle. That being said, we were gathered in this press conference setting for the following morning’s Quaker Oats 10K Run…so the possibility for a still trim Mr. Cunningham to compete, was not entirely off the breakfast table.
Over the years, I’d heard mention of Cunningham having claimed to run a mile in under four minutes…years before the 1954 ‘Incident at Iffley’. Everett Crum, he of the track nut cognoscenti, recalled, “In the old Sears warehouse and sales building, as you walked in the front door, they used to have several large sports pictures that covered the whole wall. I remember that one of them was Glenn Cunningham. He ran 3:58.9 on a dirt track in Elkhart, Kansas, 24 years before Bannister made history.”
Cunningham was once asked by a New York Times reporter about the sub four minute claim while the 6 time Wanamaker Mile champion was in NYC to accept the Vitalis Award for Sports Excellence…he had been unanimously selected by the press corps as the ‘top track athlete in the 100 year history of Madison Square Garden’.
“Amos Alonzo Stagg used to run a national scholastic championship in Chicago. When I was a senior in high school out In Kansas, they wanted to see If l could compete on that level. So I ran a practice mile and really opened up. They timed me in 3:58.9. In those days coaches were scared to work boys too hard, afraid they’d burn them out. The time frightened my coach. ‘Don’t tell anyone about this,’ he told me, and I didn’t for years.”
“If you could break four minutes as a schoolboy,” Glenn was asked further; “why didn’t you do it when you grew up?’ “Mostly because I wasn’t interested in records,” he said. “I just wanted to win a few races.”
Back in San Francisco, this tenderfoot track nut continued to grill the veteran trackster. “Mr. Cunningham,” I asked, “did your legs ever bother you or slow you down during your running career?” A furtive look later, he responded with words to the effect, “no, not my legs, but my rotten teeth did…they were abscessed and so I ran with constant poison.” At that moment, the servers came back out and offered second helpings of oatmeal. Cunningham declined, I accepted. He broke into a slight smile and, while I assume that he was referencing my massive 133 lbs. physique, said “you could really use it.”
NOW that we apparently had ‘rapport’ I steeled myself to ask the zinger. The time to do so was riper than the bowl of blueberries set in front of us. “I’ve heard that you once ran a sub four minute mile. Is that correct?” Not knowing what to expect, I tried to be as casual as a couple of kids in a sandbox. “That’s right,” he said. And with an ever so slight shrug of his shoulders and a tone of resignation, continued, “but it was just a practice meet and so never really counted.” I just nodded my head up and down like a bobble head toy, and replied, “Huh, I see.” then shoveled a few more scoops of breakfast down my nervous gullet and moved the conversation back to incidental small talk.
While all I actually have to show for having once rubbed shoulders with the famed Elkhart Express is this Hall of Fame program and third place medal from the 10K race, to this very day, I smile at the mere thought of oatmeal.
* SIDEBAR: regarding my alleged win at Bridge to Bridge, here’s the unadulterated ‘backstory’ : https://m.facebook.com/