|Long After the Finish Line|
Marc Davis, Todd Williams and Bob Kennedy met at Balboa Park in 1986. Who can say where a friendship begins? Who can say where it leads?
by Dave Devine
Twenty years ago this week, three high school boys were preparing for the Kinney Cross Country National Championships in San Diego, California. They would finish 1-2-3 that day, an early step that would eventually take each to the heights of American distance running in the next decade. Their names were Marc Davis, Todd Williams and Bob Kennedy. This is the story of the beginning of a friendship that continues to this day.
Who can say where a friendship begins?
Who can predict where the inevitable misgivings that accompany casual introductions will give way to trust and acceptance? Where the capricious crossroads of respect and shared experience will intersect to form the sort of relationship that lasts a lifetime?
What if it begins here, on a sunny day in San Diego, with three boys preparing for a footrace? Three boys who scarcely know each another, don’t necessarily care to, are primarily interested in punishing one another until only one remains as the best schoolboy in the nation. Could a friendship be born in that sort of discomfort, that kind of intentionally-inflicted pain? What if it could? What if the race they author today so alters their lives that all three are still talking about it twenty years later?
Is that possible?
* * *
It’s early December, 1986.
Tom Cruise is flying a Navy fighter jet in the Mediterranean and Ferris Bueller is taking a day off in Chicago and Wang Chung wants everybody to have fun tonight and The Bangles have half the country walking like an Egyptian. America spends their Thursday nights in the Huxtable’s living room and the Keaton’s kitchen and the Cheers bar. The President of the United States has just withdrawn from arms negotiations with the Soviet Union and is dogged by questions regarding deals with Iran and the Nicaraguan Contras. Compelling events, all of which feel very far away right now.
And why shouldn’t they?
It’s a gorgeous Saturday morning in San Diego. Three high school boys are preparing for a cross country race against 29 other competitors. A small field, certainly, but this isn’t just any race, one more invite to fill a Saturday morning. It’s The Race. The big one. Kinney Nationals. And these boys have been working for an entire year to get here. They shake out their arms, double-knot their spikes, steel their bodies for 5,000 meters of steadily ratcheted suffering. They slip effortlessly into routines that have delivered district titles, state championships, Kinney regional wins. Headphones and self-absorption for one. A two-mile jog and sixteen striders for another. Bread-and-butter stretches and sprints for the third. They eye each other and stamp out their warm-ups and hear the words of their coaches echoing in their ears.
This is your home course; you know every inch of it.
You’ve run through Michigan winters. You’ve done everything you can to get ready.
Trust your preparation.
They have exceedingly common American surnames—Davis, Williams, Kennedy—the kinds of names that fill several columns in any decent-sized phonebook. In the next 10 years, each will achieve the sort of athletic success that allows them to pass, at least among aficionados, by first name alone. Marc. Todd. Bob. A decade from now they will all be in Atlanta, preparing for the 1996 Olympic Games. They will toe the line in separate events alongside rivals with less common monikers—Kiptanui, Boulami, Bitok, Hissou, Tergat, Gebrselassie.
One will storm into the steeplechase final, waving to the partisan crowd in his victorious semi, only to injure his ankle clearing the first water barrier in the final and hobble home last. One will carry the weight of expectation and his own zealous preparation directly into the wall, stepping off the track in the eighteenth lap of his 10,000 meter heat—a concession that will haunt him for years. And one will charge to the fore of a sluggish 5,000 meter final two laps from the finish in a move that will electrify the packed stadium and still be recalled, long after he has faded to sixth, as one of the great moments in American distance running.
There is no possible way they can know this now.
Kennedy, a junior, is sixteen years old. Davis, a senior, is only days from his seventeenth birthday. Williams, also a senior, is halfway to eighteen. They have zits and homework and crushes on girls they’ve just met. They have hometown hopes riding on their shoulders and local newspapers awaiting their phone calls and recruiting letters choking their mailboxes. They are confident in their abilities, but mostly in the dark about their competition. The only reliable information arrives a month late, courtesy a glossy track and field magazine or a xeroxed regional newsletter. They’ve read these, scanned the results, recognize some of the names. One guy from New York, a couple of kids from California. Runners like themselves, gifted and hardworking and determined. There are no Moroccans, no Kenyans, no Ethiopians. There are only these three, twenty-nine others, and the starting line.
* * *
Marc is mercurial, driven, intensely focused. A casual observer might say he marches to the beat of a different drummer, except Marc is the drummer. Sandwiched around a packed school day and his daily run are a morning rehearsal with his rock band and an afternoon practice with the school marching band. Two days a week he hustles over to the San Diego Zoo parking lot after cross country practice to drum for yet another ensemble—the Optimist Club Marching Band.
He is passionate about three things: music, running and drama. They overlap and merge in his head. The music provides the beat for his running, the psyche-up soundtrack for his dreams of victory. He zones out to the music, allows it to foment the rage necessary to push his body past the pain. The music and the running are inextricably linked. And the drama—well, that’s part of it too.
He receives key roles in schools plays, but the acting bleeds into the rest of his life, especially the running. One day he has a dual meet immediately following an afternoon production of The Death of a Salesman. He arrives at the course with barely enough time to change, much less warm up. It doesn’t matter; he proceeds to dismantle the field, still wearing his stage makeup. His opponents suffer the indignity of losing to a cocky kid in rouge and eyeliner. And the role he’s rushed away from to attend the race? Biff Loman, of course. The dreamer. The young man desperate to get somewhere with his talent, but unsure of where to begin.
Marc begins with running.
He tries other sports, but if he’s not hitting the ball, catching the ball, or kicking the ball, he soon loses interest. He stands around, watching and daydreaming. His aunt, who helps raise him while his mom is working, suggests he try running. At least he won’t be standing around. He has some success in middle school, but it’s the San Diego High School coach, Eduardo “Ed” Ramos, who hones in on Marc’s precocious talent. Coach Ramos invites Marc out for the team, and in his first race Marc defeats the reigning, 3-time city champion. The former champ is about to enter his senior year. Marc is about to be a sophomore.
Although still a young man himself, Ed Ramos ends up a father-figure to Marc, a confidant with whom Marc can outline his hopes and dreams, his aspirations for greatness. Ramos is many things to his young charge; he is not, however, a technically knowledgeable coach. A good portion of his energy at the tough city school is devoted to keeping kids off the street by convincing them to run. There’s no time or money for clinics, workshops or big meets in other states. The Kinney Cross Country Championship takes place every December a half mile from the high school, but Coach Ramos has never sent any runners there. He and Marc are forced to learn together, each becoming more informed as Marc becomes more successful.
Marc places eighth at the Kinney West Regional his junior year, then equals that finish at the national meet, running with confidence on the familiar Balboa Park layout. It starts to sink in that this running thing could take him somewhere. He revels in the attention, the adulation, the girls fawning at meets. Yet even then, after a top-ten finish at Kinney, Davis and Ramos are remarkably uninformed about training. In the spring of his junior year Marc qualifies for the California state meet in the 3200 and finds himself trackside the day before the race, chatting with some of the top runners in the state—the Mastalir twins and the Stonerock twins. After listening to them banter for a while, Marc bolts back to the hotel room to find his coach.
Hey Ramos, he says, some of the other guys at the track were talking about this stuff called splits and pacing. Something called “even splits.” You ever heard of it?
Ramos admits he hasn’t.
Maybe, Marc says, we should give it a try.
So the coach and his star runner sit down in the hotel room and figure out the “even splits” that will deliver Marc a 9-minute 3200. It seems ridiculous, even outrageous; the separate 400 segments add up to an eighteen-second PR. Nonetheless, the next day Marc abandons his customary approach of going hard from the gun and instead hammers out the splits he’s discussed with Ramos. Lap after lap, clicking them off.
He doesn’t win, but he drops an 8:58.
One more lesson learned.
* * *
Todd reaches San Diego the way he reaches all of his goals, by running his ass off. It wasn’t always like this—the countless summer miles, the icy trudge through Michigan winters. Running starts off as a means to an end for Todd, another way to get involved in the holy trinity of sports that all the other kids played in his blue-collar town: football, basketball and baseball. Todd doesn’t ask to be good at running, it just happens.
It happens first in eighth grade, when he goes out for football with the rest of his buddies. He’s not especially big for his age, but he’s gutsy and persistent and he hustles like crazy. Before every practice the football coach requires the team to run a Big Lap, all the way around the fields.
If you hustle in the Big Lap, the coach promises, you’ll force me to start you.
Todd starts a lot.
By ninth grade, the football coach takes him aside and suggests, strongly, that Todd consider focusing a bit more on running. He’s either tired of starting Todd or tired of watching his football team get decimated in the Big Lap. Todd skips baseball that spring to concentrate on track and ends up running a 4:32 mile and a 9:51 two-mile. Not bad for a freshman. The track coach, a man named Dave Bork, recognizes the nascent talent that will make Todd one of the best runners to ever emerge from the state of Michigan. He becomes the latest coach to pull Todd aside.
Forget this football thing, he says, and give cross country a shot.
Coach Bork introduces Todd to an ambitious, elite fraternity that he has created for his runners—the 500 mile club. Membership gained exclusively through summer mileage. Todd agrees to go out for cross country and tackles this latest challenge the same way he tackled all those Big Laps, head on. He brings a football player’s mentality to a sport of lanky ectomorphs. He lifts weights and tolerates the humidity and carves 500 miles into the wavering Monroe asphalt that summer.
The next summer he joins the 750 Club.
The summer before his senior year he creates his own fraternity—the 1000 mile club. Todd Williams, founder and sole member.
With Todd, Coach Bork tells a Michigan newspaper, it almost got to the point where I thought he was running too much. But he wanted to get that 1000.
Part of the motivation comes from a fierce sense of unfinished business at the Kinney Midwest meet his junior year. He was ninth that day at Parkside, the most demoralizing place possible in a race that sends eight boys to San Diego. It opened his eyes to the difficulty of making it to the national championship. The memory of that race fuels a junior track season that brings him a 4:15 mile and a 9:11 two-mile.
Then he flips the script, pulling someone else aside for once.
He informs Coach Bork that he plans to not only qualify for Kinney his senior year, he plans to win it. Most of his friends are still playing football, basketball and baseball. He remains part of that crowd, still hangs with them at the Friday night games and the Saturday night parties, but he’s starting to love this sport that requires him to put one foot in front of the other as fast as he can. There’s no waiting for the ball to get passed, no sitting on the bench hoping to get sent into the game. Just goals and hard work. Put the effort in, see the improvement. It meshes nicely with his baffling work ethic.
He bears down that summer, works his way up to 90 miles a week, gets after it.
* * *
Robert is his given name, but only his grandmother calls him that. To everyone else he’s either “Bob” or “Bobby.” The name unavoidably echoes a famous politician from an earlier generation, but Bob’s not the student body president-type at Westerville North. Not a glad-hander or a baby-kisser. He’s too reserved for that, quieter and more disciplined than most. He’s a varsity athlete, so he manages to siphon off some measure of suburban high school popularity from the jock connection. It gets him invited to the cool parties and ensures a seat at the right cafeteria table, but it’s mostly a fringe association. Sure, Bob stops by the parties, but he calls it a night way before things wind down.
Sorry guys, have to head out. Get my sleep.
Big race tomorrow.
He’s that guy. The one who crosses the t’s and dots the i’s. Executes all the small things necessary to get where he wants to go. Does that make him boring? Only if people driven to success are boring. Does it make him lame, never blowing off the cool-downs after practice, leaving parties early to get in a full eight hours? Only if state champions and national champions and American record holders are lame. Beneath the unassuming, whitebread exterior is an intense competitiveness on slow burn, an uncanny ability to push the pain aside and zero in on the goal at hand. He’s not an immediate star, even with a father who was the New Jersey state two-mile record holder. Soccer is his first love, from the time he’s five until the time he enters high school. He plays on the traveling squads, the elite teams, moves through the standard youth soccer routine.
Freshman year he runs cross country and makes All-Conference, but doesn’t qualify for the state meet. By his sophomore year he’s the state runner-up. Like most high school kids toiling away on tracks and trails around the country, he has no real sense of how he stacks up against the national competition. After his sophomore breakthrough he springs for a magazine subscription, begins reading the Track & Field News tea leaves, scanning the agate type for hints on where he might fall in the class pecking order. The magazine’s high school lists are fine for track, where everyone runs in the same circles, but this is cross country season. What do hot times at “Mt. Sac” or “Van Cortland” mean to a kid from Westerville, Ohio? Bob knows he’s good in the Buckeye state, but that’s about as far as his knowledge extends.
Still, the competitive fire is lit, the slow burn ignited. Westerville North is not a traditional cross country powerhouse, so there’s little talk of the Kinney national meet from Coach Christenson or Bob’s teammates. He manages to find out about it anyway, from one of those Track and Field News issues, and enters the Midwest Regional the fall of his junior year.
From the gun, he takes off after a confident runner from Michigan named Todd Williams, trailing him in second place all the way to the finish line. He’s still unsure of where his talent measures up in the nation, but at least he knows where he stands in the Midwest.
* * *
There is a moment in every cross country race, between the clipped phrase Runners set-- and the report of the starter’s pistol, when anything is possible. The entire race is contained in that moment. Nothing more can be done to prepare; the psyche-up soundtrack has been absorbed, the miles accumulated, the t’s crossed. The sweats are off and the prayers are uttered. Everyone is frozen on the line. Lean bodies crouch forward and wait. Fans crouch forward and wait. Time crouches forward and waits. Champions are still possible in that moment. Upsets are still possible. Disaster and deliverance is still possible. Every runner is still possible in that moment.
Marc Davis crouches forward and waits.
He’s surrounded by the largest throng of supporters to ever turn out for one of his races, a hometown hero on his backyard course, and he’s never been more withdrawn. Headphones? Check. Game face? Check. Billy Idol and The Clash and whatever other driving rock music he can pack onto a cassette tape to funnel confidence into his ears? Check. He loves the effect this seems to have on the competition, the wide deference the other racers provide him. Loves how the headphones and the music and the aloof persona keep his rivals from getting in his head. He’s not withdrawn, just focused. Acutely aware that there’s nothing left to do physically; all he can work on is the mental game. And the mental game is his strongpoint.
He flashes back to his amateur visualization sessions, which somehow never include any portion of the race but the finish. Just Marc Davis, over and over, crossing the line first and diving into the masses. Inhaling the love.
No one wants this race more than me, he assures himself. No way. They can say they do, but I guarantee they don’t.
He burrows down into the dreams and the promises and the lessons and waits.
There’s only one problem.
Someone else does want it just as bad, or at least believes he does. Todd Williams is crouched forward and waiting too. He’s got the confidence of mileage on his side. A solid grand worth of running through the hot months, plus the workouts and the weightlifting and the wins straight through the fall. Michigan summers and Michigan winters—that has to add up to something, right? Who’s worked harder than Todd Williams?
He’s done his homework, knows who the players are. Knows that a kid from San Diego named Marc Davis won the West Regional, and isn’t especially happy about the fact that Davis gets to run what amounts to a home meet at Morley Field. Just one more thing to deal with, he figures, one more factor beyond his control. He shrugs it off, does his two mile warm-up and his sixteen striders off the line and focuses on the things he can control.
When that gun goes off, he vows, I’m going to hammer everybody in this field and make sure they know Todd Williams is in this race.
He burrows down into the mileage and the hard work and the promises and waits.
And what about Bob? Kennedy is crouched forward and waiting too, but he’s more like a deer caught in the headlights. This is his first national-level competition, and he’s a bit overwhelmed. The fire is burning, but he doesn’t have the confidence to stoke it, not yet. He knows Williams from the Midwest Regional, figures he can key off him and maybe crack the top ten.
Run hard, he thinks, finish high.
Then the gun goes off and shatters the moment.
Thirty-two runners in four different singlets storm forward and jockey for position. Davis, with a topographic map of the park imprinted on his brain, plans to make his move on the second climb of a slope known simply as The Hill, but the race doesn’t unfold that way. Not even close. He breaks the pack on the first ascent instead, and never looks back.
It is an act of withering, devastating confidence.
Williams, solidly in second, tries desperately to close the gap. He had planned to get a jump on the competition and wear them down with his grinding frontrunning, but it’s Davis who gets the jump. Hard to hammer the field when he can’t even catch the leader. By the time they reach The Hill for the second time, Marc’s gambit has completely strung out the field. He’s a hundred meters clear of Todd. Bob is simply trying to maintain contact with his fellow Midwesterner, staying as close as he can, all by himself in third.
Marc puts it on cruise control and wings toward the finish. Years later, friends and fans will nudge him good-naturedly, reminding him that he might have broken Rueben Reina’s Kinney record if it hadn’t been for the celebration he was unfurling as he flew down the homestretch.
One-point-three seconds, they’ll say. You could have had it.
But how could Marc focus on the clock when he was focused on the crowd?
All those amateur visualization sessions? The ones that conveniently left out the first and second mile and only included finishes and fans? This is how they unfolded. Marc streaming home with an insurmountable lead and a mob, five-deep, going crazy. He revels in every second—every quarter of a second—fist in the air, finger to the sky, making sure the crowd knows exactly what place he finished.
He slows time down and then stops it altogether.
The second-fastest Kinney race ever stamped into the grass at Balboa Park.
Todd comes in second, almost twelve seconds back.
He doesn’t appreciate Marc’s showboating. It’s not how he would have done things, if he’d had the chance.
Bob finishes third.
A year later he will return and win it all. The following year, as a freshman in college, he’ll win the NCAA title. He’ll win it again as a senior. He’ll carve out his niche and win national titles and set records and become one of the dominant American runners of the next decade. They all will, but there’s no way they could possibly know that now. They are sixteen and seventeen years old. They have zits and dreams and friends and crushes and the rest of their lives to run.
Who can say where a friendship will lead?
What if it leads to mutual respect and parallel careers and pitched battles and pitchers of beer? What if it takes time to coalesce, because all three of these guys are so darned different, and stubborn, and because, as Bob says, you need a strong ego to compete at the elite level, and because, as Marc admits, it took him a long time to grow up, and because, as Todd says, they all had such different personalities? It’s not hard to imagine these three failing to connect right off the bat. But what if the seeds are planted on a perfect day in December and watered in Eugene and cultivated in Indiana and tended to in Atlanta and harvested in Oslo and Zurich and Stockholm and London?
What if eventually there are phone calls and e-mails and baby photos and business advice and retirement advice and three guys who crack on each other like fraternity brothers?
What if all of it leads here, to a soccer field in Jacksonville, Florida, where two former Olympians sit and watch a team of six year-old girls play soccer. One of the girls is Todd Williams’ daughter. He’s watching the game with his friend, Bob Kennedy, who can appreciate the action on the field because ages ago, when he was six, he played soccer too. They smile and tell stories and commiserate. Maybe they call Marc Davis, just to give him a hard time too.
The girls on the field are quicksilver fast, loping and laughing after the ball, but Todd and Bob keep losing the game, keep missing the action, so focused are they on the gleaming, angled field of their own shared memories.
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