Thirty years ago sportswriter Kenny Moore published a compilation of his best writing about runners for Sports Illustrated.
His stories included profiles of people such as David Moorcroft, the British runner who ran 13:01 for 5000 meters, breaking the world record by a full six seconds. About that day, Moore quoted someone who said that Moorcroft had gone “wonderfully mad.”
There are few instances in an athlete’s career when everything comes together that way. Moorcroft was already a successful miler with times in the low 3:50s. That meant he had the speed to run the 5000 meters at a fearsome pace and not feel like he was burning out his jets.
But when he let loose and ran six seconds faster than anyone else in history, that was a wonderfully mad moment.
Moorcroft’s record stood for two years until a Moroccan named Said Aouita broke it. The continued to drop until 2005, when Kenenisa Bekele set the current world standard of 12:37.35. It hasn’t budged since. But I’m not about to take a shot…
My personal best 5000 is essentially two minutes slower than the world record. I ran 14:45 in the year 1984. That race was an all-comers meet at North Central college. The gun did not go off until midnight, but we all raced as hard as we could. The personal triumph of my PR was essentially my own to share except for a female friend that had come back to watch me race. I thanked her for that. It always meant a lot.
The time I ran that night was roughly equivalent to the women’s world record at the time. A Briton named Zola Budd ran 14:58 in 1985 and a Norwegian named Ingrid Kristiansen ran 14:37 a year later. The women’s world record for the 5000 meters now stands at 14:11, run in 2008 by Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba.
There’s a chance I could have run a bit faster with other opportunities to race. But likely not by much. We all have limits to our natural abilities. I honestly feel that I ran as fast as I could that evening, and every other race in which I competed. If I ever dogged it on purpose, I cannot recall.
With 99.9% of my races, I don’t look back at my best efforts and say that I could have done better. There is only one exception. During my senior year at Luther College I won the conference steeplechase while holding back for a double in the 5000 meters. That entire race felt easy, which is saying something in an event like the steeplechase, which consists of 3000 meters of running over 35 barriers and seven water jumps. I ran 9:20 that day, and felt like I could have run 5-10 seconds faster.
My teammate Paul Mullen finished second in the steeple that afternoon. But he was coming off a victorious 10,000 meters the night before. Think about that double! His performance was exceptional. He later ran 9:14 to place 7th at the NCAA Division III national meet, missing All-American by just one place and a single stride.
Perhaps I had that 9:14 in me too. Running that fast might have delivered a nice boost in confidence going into nationals had I let loose that afternoon in Pella, Iowa and gone “wonderfully mad.” But our priority that day was trying to win the 18th consecutive IIAC conference title, so it was “all hands on deck” for the distance events where our school had always been dominant.
But times were changing before our eyes. Our competitors from Central College and Wartburg had caught up and even gotten faster than us during my four years. We’d given them something to shoot and they took aim and succeeded. We lost the meet that by a couple points, but learned a life lesson in the process. You can never, ever try hard enough.
I did try to double back in the 5000 meters but did not produce any points, finishing right in the middle of a quick pack of competitors. In both races I put forward my best effort in the moment. It was disappointing not to place in the 5000 or help the team, but some of us are superheroes, and some are not.
These days I can’t run a single 400 meter repeat at the pace I once used to race. My best efforts are a full minute-per-mile slower than that. There’s no shame. It still feels good to run as fast as I can. Unless you’re the best in the world at a given moment, all our best efforts are always relative. We all try to go “wonderfully mad” in our own way. May you find your wonderful madness your own way.