Catching up with this sub-350 miler was easy

October 23, 2003|by ANDY MASON

It's not very often that a 3:49.80 miler passes through this area.

Only four Americans have ever even run the mile in less than 3 minutes, 50 seconds on the track, with three-time Olympian Jim Spivey being the last to do it in 1991.

So, after being tipped off that Spivey was staying at the Holiday Inn in Chambersburg, Pa., on Tuesday night, I went to work on my night off, eventually getting him to meet me at the Applebee's down the street from his hotel.

I wanted to learn a little bit about what makes a 3:49.80 miler tick - besides a stopwatch.

We agreed to meet at 9:55 p.m. - 3:49.80 milers don't meet at 10. I arrived at 9:55, and he was already there - they're not late, either. Spivey ordered a milkshake, I got a beer and we chatted for about 30 minutes.


Because his baseball team, the Cubs, weren't the ones playing on TV, I had his full attention, because he wasn't exactly flocked by autograph seekers, either. Running stars tend to live more anonymous lives than those of other sports. I even checked out Spivey's mug on the Internet beforehand to be sure I'd recognize him, not that the physique of a 3:49.80 miler isn't easy to pick out in Franklin County.

Spivey, 43, retired from competitive running in 1997. Before turning pro in '83, he was a two-time NCAA champ and 13-time Big Ten champ at Indiana University. He represented the United States at the Olympic Games in '84, '92 and '96. His highest finish was fifth place in the 1,500-meter run in '84. He said the highlight of his career was winning the 1,500 bronze medal at the world championships in '87, the same year he also captured Pan-Am silver and set the still-standing American record for 2,000 meters (4:52.44).

I must admit, Spivey's stories were unlike any I've ever heard. Of course, I've never shared a table with any of America's other three sub-3:50 milers - Steve Scott, Sydney Maree and Joe Falcon.

I imagine they are all driven by the giant stopwatch in the sky as well. Spivey can seemingly recall not only his times to the hundredth of a second from every race he's ever run, but the splits along the way, as well those of the workouts leading up to them. He said he even times himself when he mows the lawn.

While Spivey is probably best defined as a three-time Olympian, it might be the Summer Games he missed in '88 that helped the husband and father of three define himself the most.

"I've been married for 18 years, but not making the Olympic team in 1988 kept me married," Spivey said. "I was making a six-figure income on contract with Nike, and when I didn't make the team, Nike dropped me. And in 1989, I made $16,000 for the entire year, and I still had a house payment.

"It made me realize I had to put my wife first and my running second. Prior to that, it was the other way around. ... Getting my priorities straight, I was rewarded by making two more Olympic teams."

From the rather poor state of American running these days to the hopes he has in young stars, such as Alan Webb, to turn it around; from his stint running for Nike to his later days with Asics; from being a 6:48 miler his freshman year in high school to becoming a national-class 4:06 one his senior year; from playing Ping-Pong with other elite runners to games of flashlight tag - he readily shared just about everything one can in 30 minutes at Applebee's.

That is, everything except what exactly he was doing in the area in the first place. That I promised to keep a secret.

Let's just say Spivey, who's now the head coach of the nationally ranked Vanderbilt women's cross country team, was on a recruiting trip. And it might not take being a 3:49.80 miler to figure out whom he's after.

Andy Mason is a staff writer for The Herald-Mail. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2334, or by e-mail at

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