By Timothy M. Tays, Ph.D.
For Enchantment Sports
I wanted to be a distance god.
There. I said it.
I would’ve broken out of the lead pack and surged away, thrown down some impossible late-race splits, devastated the elites as I stretched my lead—merciless, alone, almost floating. The field would’ve strung out and withered behind me as I burned and buried the best runners on the face of the planet.
Was that too much to ask?
As it turned out, yeah, that was too much to ask for. I never became a so-called distance god (i.e., a famous distance runner). The fact was, I wasn’t even expected to amount to much in the first place. Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the 1960s could be somewhat neglectful for a thin-armed, myopic bookworm with a heaping-helping of introversion. Plus, as a latchkey kid, I was generally unattended. That sounds great if you’re a Huckleberry Finn-type, but I was a bit neurotic and lonely, so the blank slate of life’s possibilities intimidated me.
Then I discovered distance running.
I worked hard enough, and had enough talent, that in high school I didn’t lose to an Albuquerque two-miler for three straight years and broke city records in the mile and two-mile (They called me “Timmy Two-Mile”). My self-esteem soared. Thank goodness I lived in a city that was populated enough to have over a dozen high schools so that winning kind of mattered — at least to other runners and me — but small enough that the local papers and TV stations covered many of our meets. I took it for granted then, and only today do I realize how lucky we high-schoolers were to rate any attention at all. It’s also true that Albuquerque is special for distance runners due to the high-altitude training that attracts the elites. But in 1973 I was a freshman. I thought it was normal to have Mike Boit, the 1972 Olympic bronze medalist in the 800 meters, speak at my cross-country banquet. (It just so happened that Boit’s coach was my coach’s older brother.) Hanging out with Boit and seeing the other elites at UNM made me think that I could be elite too.
After high school I ran for the University of Kansas because that’s where the great miler, Jim Ryun, had run. I broke a couple of school records, one of which still stands, the indoor three-mile. It can’t be broken because the American track measurement has switched from miles to meters. I’m not crowing; it’s just that I’ve always been lucky. The harder I work the luckier I get, as they say.
After college I ran semiprofessionally on the roads—marathons and shorter—and hoped, as a late bloomer, that I’d blossom into a distance god. I managed to rise to the sub-elite level—top two percent—and was sponsored by Brooks shoes. That meant I waited tables to actually pay my bills.
I decided to join the infantry because I’d heard the Army liked distance runners. Initially, they put me in The Old Guard, the Presidential Honor Guard, because I was tall and thin. I became one of those guys who bury vets in Arlington National Cemetery. Eventually I was sent to The Presidio in San Francisco to run on the Army track team. In my last race I developed a severe injury on my heel, but refused to drop out (because I had never quit a race, which I thought was honorable and tenacious rather than poor judgment). The injury ended my running career. I’d like to think that’s why you’ve never heard of me, never saw me in any Olympics, and was never the guest of honor at some kid’s high-school cross-country banquet. You’ll never see my name in the same sentence with the likes of Haile Gebrselassie unless I put it there myself. I just didn’t have distance god ability; I was talented enough to be the best of the worst and the worst of the best, to quote other people cleverer than me. So, at 25 years old I needed to grow into somebody other than Timmy Two-Mile.
I mustered out of the Army and attended graduate school at UNM. I taught English and coached distance runners at Manzano High School in Albuquerque. Eventually I taught at Memorial Psychiatric Hospital, which got me interested in psychology. So, I went back to grad school, and yadda yadda yadda, now I’m a clinical psychologist in a private psychotherapy practice in Scottsdale, Ariz. I also write books about how life—including distance running—is really metaphor for deeper motivations, a search for personal meaning, and for self-actualization.
Distance running taught me not to live down to people’s expectations, but to rise up to our own potential. It taught me that persistence and resilience pay off, not necessarily as much as we’d like, but enough to make it worthwhile. It taught me when to step off the track, and when to develop other parts of myself. It connected me to lifelong friends and made me a part of something larger than my own self-centered universe.
You may be wondering if I still run. Kind of. I jog now. But I did return to the Boston Marathon in 2011, and then wrote a book about it. Oh, and Haile Gebrselassie is one of the greatest distance runners who ever lived. Now he, he is a true distance god. Me? Still not. Now I’m the guy who sits in the chair and helps others figure out why they thought they had to be a distance god in the first place. I’m the guy who points out that the journey is more important than the destination.
Timothy M. Tays, Ph.D., was born and raised in Albuquerque, N.M. He is now a clinical psychologist practicing in Scottsdale, Ariz. Between cases he writes memoirs: “Wannabe Distance God: The Thirst, Angst, and Passion of Running in the Chase Pack” (2013) and “The Chameleon Complex” (2017). Books are available at online booksellers such as Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. Visit his website and blog at www.timothymtaysphd.blog