Runners are not invincible

Running and Racing: Christopher Goss
August 10, 2001

There is much that running gives to us. It gives us time for private reflection and gives us peace. It gives us opportunities to learn more about our friends and gives us understanding. It gives us chances for glory from unheralded personal records to shiny trophies and gives us pride. It gives us kids to coach and new runners to encourage and gives us joy.

But running can take from us, as well.

The unfortunate deaths of three football players last week reminded me of this sobering fact. Every time that a young athlete of any sport dies on his field of dreams, I am taken back to a dreary Saturday in the fall of 1977.

Before the glory days of the great North-South cross-town harrier rivalries of the '80s, there was an even more intense, but different, cross country rivalry in Indiana.

In the '70s, if you ran the southern hills and creeks of the Hoosier state, the teams to beat were Bloomington and Terre Haute North. My father, Marshall, was the coach of the Panthers and his best friend and my spiritual mentor, Bill Welch, piloted the Patriots.

As a young boy, I idolized the runners from both of these teams. I would run the warm-up with them before practice. I tried to act nonchalant, but it was an all-out race for me. They let me feel like I was one of them, if only during one lap of Bryan Park each day.

Even though I was a couple of years from being infected by my own set of teenage hormones, I had no trouble believing that these young men could live and run forever.

But that all changed on Saturday, Oct. 22, 1977.

Coach Welch's team was here in Bloomington for the regional cross country meet. High school races at that time were 2 1/2 miles and could still be fit into Bryan Park. The running path used today by hundreds of recreational runners began as that cross country course.

My favorite part of the course was the finish. It ran through the center of the park and then up the hill toward the tennis courts. My father knew that his runners did more hill work than other teams, so he planned the course to take advantage of their strengths. It also made for one of the most exciting cross country finishes I have seen to this day. There was always a lot of passing in the final 150 yards.

I was used to seeing runners fade on this section of the course, but on that day I saw something that wasn't right. One runner was running particularly slow at the end of the race. It was one of Coach Welch's well-coached Patriots. That was strange in itself, but the runner was also running with a slow bounding stride — almost as if he was trying to pretend that he was walking on the moon.

I don't know how long it took him to get to the top of the hill, but it seemed like hours. He had been running well, but was now being passed by dozens of other runners.

The crowd just stared. Bud Greenspan's Olympic movies were popular at the time and those watching the runner too keenly remembered the Italian that was helped by officials and then disqualified in the 1908 London marathon. On this day, no one would come to the runner's aid. He continued up the hill, crossed the finish line and collapsed.

The runner was Tim Sullivan. He was one of Coach Welch's favorites and one of the Terre Haute runners that I knew well.

I waited at the corner of the park to lead the ambulance to the finish area. Tim was loaded into the truck and now in the care of the medics, the dread I felt on the hill had somewhat dissipated. The fading sirens still made me nervous, but I knew that nothing could actually happen to a young, talented runner like Tim.

An hour later, a Bloomington runner found me out on the course picking up flags and explained that Tim had died at the Bloomington Hospital.

I had already experienced the death of one of my father's runners by a boating accident, but never had I heard of any athlete, anywhere, dying during competition. The details of the day end there in my memory, but not before the feeling of the knot at the bottom of my stomach was cemented forever.

The doctors speculated that Tim's heart was out of sync with the rest of his body during the long trip up the hill. All of us there are still haunted by the memory, wondering what might have happened if he had been stopped. To die doing what you love may be poetic when you are 80. To an unstoppable 17-year-old, it is the ultimate ironic tragedy. To an admiring 12-year old, it is impossible — or at least was impossible.

As you hit the roads, please don't let the recent gridiron tragedies and the memory of Tim Sullivan's death go in vain. We get much from our running, but not invincibility. Take care of yourself, and most importantly, take care of each other.

Carpe viam.