I was hanging out at the Fan Fest at the 2008 Olympic Trials. A TV screen was showing a video of the 1964 Olympic men’s 5000 meter final, and I quickly figured out the man standing next to me describing the race was Bob Schul, its winner. Then in the back of the tent, I saw something like striking gold: copies of Kenny Moore’s Best Efforts for sale.
It is one of the classic track books – maybe second only to Once A Runner, and similarly hard to find. It was back in print again! And then I saw a skinny grizzled man sitting there ready to sign the copies he sold. It was none other than Moore. I nearly fell over myself and wanted to kowtow like Wayne and Garth did to Alice Cooper. We must have talked for a bit—I don’t know what about—because he signed mine with “Thanks for understanding”. That book is something I’ll never part with.
Yesterday’s news that runner and author Kenny Moore passed away was a hard pill to swallow. He was 78. It hit me harder than most celebrity deaths, even though I’d only met him once. Runner’s World has the best and most complete obituary, by Roger Robinson, the only one really up to the task.
I began running and following track in the late 80s and early 90s. This was before the internet existed (in any widely used form, at least) and that means the past was easily forgotten. There was no SI Vault, no YouTube, no IMDB and no repositories of information. Ten years ago was ancient history, especially to a high school or college student. Few of us even had much understanding of who Steve Prefontaine was, let alone Kenny Moore. But I did like to poke around in our public library and the neighborhood video store, and I found Best Efforts and Personal Best. They were different, and they filled me with delight.
Let me tell you what track and field was like back then. It was still kind of a big deal. It was still common in the major sports media. There were major meets that drew attention and mostly in the media hotbeds of New York and California. The attention they garnered was all about the sprints and the hurdles, though. Distance running was a sideshow filled with freaks and weirdos because you kind of had to be one to do it—in 1987 there were only seven marathons in the US with more than 1,000 finishers, and only New York had more than 9,000.
Through Moore’s magazine articles and the film he wrote, I learned about Eugene, Oregon. To a teenager who felt even more outcast than most, the place felt like a magic forest where everything was damp and cool and green and they had a special little stadium just for track and most of all people LIKED distance races. The 5,000 meters wasn’t a bathroom break or time to catch up on field events, it was a real race, dammit. In Oregon, marathoners weren’t nutjobs…well, maybe they still were but in Eugene that wasn’t considered a bad thing.
Moore’s articles weren’t just interviews or features, somehow he got to the core of people in the small amount of space a magazine offers. I discovered that he’d come to my little college town, Bowling Green, to do a feature on Dave Wottle. This was back when an Olympic champion and world record holder would just return to his college team the next year. Moore immediately clued in on how brutal the sparse landscape could be, but even more so he understood how Wottle’s teammate Sid Sink (then my coach at BG) was the hard-driving leader of the gang who made everyone around him better. Sid was and still is like a weird combination of George Patton and the little engine that could all be wrapped up in a stereotypically-understated Midwesterner. Moore communicated that.
After 25 years at Sports Illustrated, Moore began working on the film Without Limits. He is probably as responsible for the cult of Pre as much as any one person can be. That inspired him to write his Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. It’s stunning to think that his magnum opus was his first attempt at book-length writing.
Moore’s Best Efforts is not just a collection of brilliant writing, it’s put together in a way that feels familiar to athletes as they age. It begins with his first-person account of the 1972 Olympic marathon, full of energy and about himself. As the years go by he became more interested in others, profiling athletes whose events and experiences were much different than his own. It ends with his account of his participation in Hawaii’s Great American Footrace, where the competition really isn’t the point as much as the enjoyment of pushing himself and the camaraderie of the race.
My best running buddy summed it up for me: “He captured what it was like to push yourself to the limit. He made running interesting to non-runners. He had the ability to grab your attention and keep it.”