Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Spokane Sparrow: an Unlikely Hero of Distance Running by Ruth Seabrook

An interview with Gerry Lindgren

By Ruth Seabrook, Northgate High School assistant cross country coach (above on right)

Ask any person to name a world famous runner and you might get a handful of contemporary names: Mo Farrah, Galen Rupp and Usain Bolt.  If you asked about historic runners, you might hear a couple more: Jesse Owens, winning four gold medals in front of Hitler at the1936 Olympics, Roger Bannister the first man to break the four minute mile in 1954, or maybe even the 1970’s hero of track, Steve Prefontaine who held seven American track distance records when he upturned his convertible at the tender age of 24 and was so publicly lauded and mourned by his fans.

Gerry Lindgren is not a name you would hear if you asked this question.  However, the most cursory research reveals that he was an incredible runner with many sources praising him as “the greatest high school distance runner ever.”  In high school he set records in the mile, 3,000m, 2 mile, 5k and 10k races and further qualified for the Olympics as a senior in high school. He went on to win 11 NCAA championships as a collegiate runner at Washington State, and was one of the few who could beat the better-known Steve Prefontaine.  When the popularity of running rose during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s only Gerry could wear the “STOP Pre” tee shirt with any air of authenticity.

So why hadn’t I or any one else I knew heard of him?  Was it because he lacked the long haired flamboyancy of Pre, who had then been further immortalized by his tragic rock n roll death?  Was it because he faded away rather than burning out?  Or was it because he eschewed publicity, had little or no ego and referred to himself as “a little wimpy guy with a high voice?”

Living a quiet life in Hawaii, Gerry Lindgren had surprised us when contacted and readily agreed to come and speak to our small team of high school runners and talk to them about his own running career and philosophy while we were in Honolulu for the Iolani Invitational this past September.

A tidy bespectacled smaller man in his late 60’s walked over with a certain intensity and sense of purpose to our small group of runners warming up in Kapiolani  Park by the Honolulu Zoo.  After some low key introductions Gerry started to tell his story, and what a story it was – not many people could hold a group of high schoolers still bleary from the long plane ride, about to start their work out in a steamy humid park in Hawaii and keep them standing for an hour standing in rapt attention.

Maybe it resonated so much because Gerry started his story at about the age of most of our runners, the sophomore year in high school.  He had gone out for track, and was probably the slowest kid on the team.  Skinny, short with a high pitched voice, he hadn’t even been strong enough to open the heavy set doors of the school on the first day of freshman year, needing a young girl to open it for him.  The humiliations of freshman year followed him onto the track. While running 440 yards in training sessions he was miserable, in pain and was consistently last.  Punched and derided by his peers who had no time for the skinny slow kid, he finally ran one of the quarters with a rocket start, out of both fear and rage, before dying 150 yards into the lap and again finishing in his usual last place.

In all our lives there are major turning points.  This was probably one of the biggest for Gerry as that 440 proved pivotal.  His coach pulled him to one side and explained that the entire team had run faster through that last quarter because they did not want the skinny slow kid to beat them, and though he hadn’t done well himself, he had inspired his team.  At that moment he gave Gerry a purpose and mission in life for the first time, and one that has created the man he is today.

Emerging from an abusive and alcoholic home it appeared that all Gerry needed was someone to give him that purpose and direction and he took to running with a mission:

When I think back, because I wasn’t as good as other people when I started out, I knew that I had to do more to help lead the pace. So I started getting up early in the morning and running five or six miles of easy running that wasn’t even taxing. Then I would run with the team after school. Then in the middle of the night I started getting up at one or two o’clock and running a 10-mile run so that would give me extra mileage. I did this so I could run as well as the other runners but it turned out a lot better I guess. I think the people who are slower and not as athletic have the chance to do better than those who are athletic and have ability because if you have the ability you don’t have to do a lot of extra work to “get there.”  If you have to do extra work you develop an ability to do more so that you can get where you want to go. So in some ways it is much better to be slow than to be naturally fast. In running it is always the person who does the most work who gets to where he wants to be.

Gerry’s running philosophy didn’t need sophisticated visuals or overheads, as he simply described it with one hand.  Each finger of the hand describes one of the components of running.  The strong opposable thumb was the running base, that extensive aerobic base he built running uncountable miles each summer up and down Mount Spokane or to the lake to fish, often running 50 miles or more each day with no thought of speed or pace.

The next finger, the important forefinger, signifies direction. For Gerry that was curiously never about winning, or beating others, but was instead based on that first idea of his track coach, to be that wimpy kid who could inspire other runners to be better.  He mentioned those tactical passionless distance races you see at major events that sees runners today often staying steady and unchallenged until the final sprint 400m.  Gerry believed you dishonored the race to run that way and I am pretty certain if he had been in the 10k he would have been running a killer all out sprint quarter or 800m much earlier than the bell lap.  In Gerry’s world it seemed an overwhelming desire to win could crush and sink your ability to run fast; he was instead known for some signature risky moves during his races that would scare other runners to death.

The next finger was of course the middle finger – one that Gerry said had been firmly pointed in his direction much of his life.  Running at midnight was clearly a risky business and he had been arrested, shot at and screamed at countless times due to his unconventional training hours and methods.  Still, back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s there were no recreational runners and seeing a kid running fiercely at midnight clearly was an unusual sight and one that the local cops couldn’t help but respond to in their inimitable fashion.  His broader point was that many will deride the distance runner and tell you either your knees will give out at age 30, or you are just plain crazy, but if you have belief in your own direction that should not deter you.  The criticism of others was often based on fear of the unknown and their own insecurities rather than any substantiated fact or belief.

The ring finger was there to signify commitment – the commitment to hard work and training.  The pain in your legs, the cold weather, the difficulty or misery in running, the injuries, were all part of that commitment.

Finally he held up his little finger.  Gerry reminded us of the need for humility.  Being small and insignificant that finger was to remind us that seeking greatness as a runner was not a good idea.  Gerry had never sought greatness in that way – he left as a legacy countless records and amazing races, but his real legacy was his part in the running revolution where American distance runners finally believed they could be the best in the world.  An illustration of this was his famous race against the soviets in the dual US/USSR meet in 1964 in Los Angeles.  With the cold war at its height the Russians actively used sport to promote the notion that the “lazy Americans” would never beat them.  That had been proved true on many an occasion. His training for the US/USSR meet saw him running 250 miles a week with workouts three times a day.  A 15/18 mile run to work up appetite for breakfast, speed 440’s at lunch time to get some intensity in, then an easy 7 – 10 miler just before bed.  With the eyes of the world on him, Gerry defied the odds and managed to beat two world class Russians, Ivanov and Dutov by a huge 150m lead.  Instead of describing every detail of this heroic feat, he recounted being scared to death as he had expected not only to lose, but probably to get lapped by the Russians in the race.  Only on his cool down did he realize that the ominous tap of spikes on cinder that haunted his every effort had been the echo of his own spikes, not the Russians closing in on him.

Gerry had crazy anecdotes such as nearly missing the USSR meet as he had got lost on a training run in LA just before the race.  Wearing jean shorts, sweating profusely and miles from the meet point with his coach,he had doors slammed in his face every time he tried to borrow a phone, as he no doubt looked like a feverish addict rather than the accomplished athlete he had become.  Despite being an Olympic athlete and NCAA champion he had been shot at by police who thought he was fleeing crime scenes and been arrested countless times in different towns for running at night.  Here he was a guy in a leafy park in Hawaii park telling his stories to a group of kids.

I was curious as to what they would make of him?  The kids seemed to be fascinated by his intensity, passion and astounding stories of his running past.  His unusual training methods clearly had an effect.  Several started to talk about a “Gerry move” in a race, which was doing an all-out sprint at an unlikely moment – perhaps running the entire first mile of a race much harder than was advisable, or getting to 2.5 m in a 5k and sprinting way before any one else saw the end in sight.  The idea was crazy – but crazy good.  The only difference was Gerry didn’t just pull a move like that in the race, he trained that way. He did it in races because he knew it and practiced it every day. If he wanted to learn to go out hard in races he would run a 10 miler every day and try to hit a 4 minute mile for the first mile (he never quite got there, but did hit 4:08).  He said the body would fight you for weeks, then finally it would relent and allow you to do the impossible.  His self belief and disregard for the boundaries of his own physicality were inspiring.

Gerry’s faith was in his will, desire and imagination would allow him to achieve it.  He knew that it was the mind that set limitations on our efforts and that the body was capable of so much more.  One of the boys started eye-rolling as soon as Gerry remarked that the pain he felt in his legs at the start of the season was terrible, but that he realized it was making him a better stronger runner, so next season he tried to hold on to the pain by working harder, and counted it as a huge success as he had managed to stay in agony for eight weeks instead of six.  It clearly put some of our harder workouts into a more positive context – the runs that don’t feel good are often those that do you the most good in terms of transforming you as a runner.

The messages that hard work, dedication and the embracing of pain were part of what had created this legendary runner were not so surprising.  The vivid accounts of how he had achieved those feats and the use of his alternative reality where he described imaginary saber toothed tigers chasing him whenever he wanted an injection of adrenaline induced speed were riveting -- like the time he imagined all his competitors as knife-wielding lunatics ready to stab and kill him if he let them get anywhere near him -- were dramatic and intriguing.

What the high schoolers got to witness in meeting the Sparrow of Spokane was that any one of them could be an incredible runner.  Gerry had taken the worst of circumstances, an unstable hostile home, an unathletic physique and through sheer will and the powers of his imagination had transformed himself into a world class Olympic athlete with the humility and philosophical wisdom of the Dalai Lama.

Gerry’s five-finger philosophy had reached out and touched five new runners that day.

September 19, 2013


Anonymous said...

No offense but a running coach or anyone they know has never heard of Lindgren?

In other running news Frank Shorter won gold in 1976 in the marathon.

I was hoping for an interview...

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous. You must be a super genius...Shorter won gold in '72 not '76. Pure genius...I suggest you stop poking other people in the eye until you get a clue.

Anonymous said...

really inspiring article!

Coach Tim said...

This is an excellent contribution, thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

Right....Lindgren ran a 4:08 mile at the beginning of 10 miles, just like he ran sub-2 hour pace for 26 miles of a marathon until he passed out with 100 yards to go.

Jered said...


Nice proportions there. Going all out for 10% is totally the same as going all out for the first 99.2%.

Thank you for an inspiring article. I also appreciate how the article specifically addressed the "haters" as they're called today, so we know exactly the issue(s) with those posting negative comments here.

Peter Brewer said...

Dear Anon at 10:31:

The formatting of the post did not carry through the italicized paragraphs that were Gerry's direct quotes, so the query-reponse aspect was lost there. Additionally, the only question that was asked was "Tell us a bit about running." Then he spoke for almost two hours without any further prompting. Hence the interview turned out to be more of a synopsis and commentary. And to speak to the anonymity issue - - the reference was to the high schoolers we brought on that trip. About the only "name" they know in national running is Sarah Baxter.

Popular Posts