The longest run: The story of Gerry Lindgren
Running never gave Gerry Lindgren the celebrity of his contemporaries, guys like Steve Prefontaine and Jim Ryun and Billy Mills. They are the generation...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Running never gave Gerry Lindgren the celebrity of his contemporaries, guys like Steve Prefontaine and Jim Ryun and Billy Mills. They are the generation of American long-distance runners that made it cool to run around a track. They are pillars of the running revolution, icons, movie subjects, famous men.
And Gerry Lindgren beat them all.
Running did make Gerry Lindgren infamous. His story is also about the runner who abandoned his wife and kids, left his friends and his life and a note on the kitchen table, and moved across an ocean.
It took Steven Lindgren more than 20 years to find his father and meet him in person in Hawaii. According to Lindgren's ex-wife, Betty Caley Lindgren, Gerry told Steven that he'd call. Four years later, he never has.
It took Art Chmura more than 40 years before he reunited with his high-school classmate. He discovered Lindgren was scheduled to speak in Seattle to distance runners and promote the book he published about his life. Toting a 1964 yearbook from Spokane's Rogers High School, Chmura stopped by a Queen Anne coffee shop where Lindgren was scheduled for an interview.
"We had our 40th reunion last year," Chmura says to Lindgren. "And everybody was saying, 'Where's Gerry?' "
It's a question that has been asked before.
Rules to run by
In "Gerry Lindgren's Book on Running," written by Lindgren as "The Shadow of Gerry Lindgren," he lists 15 rules of running:
1. When you run unselfishly for the benefit, happiness and welfare of other people, you tap into an energy source you could never imagine.
2. You must prove yourself worthy.
3. If you do more you hurt more.
4. Race with your heart — not with your logical mind.
5. Be humble and appreciative. Never loud and boastful.
6. Race your workouts as if you are in a race with your toughest opponent right behind you.
7. Dream an enormous dream.
8. Attack your barriers with courage and perseverance.
9. Be aggressive in training and in racing.
10. Attack injuries aggressively but never fear them.
11. Don't run just to run; run to be you.
12. Make sprint training a part of every week.
13. Focus on one event.
14. Make training the only thing in your day.
15. Reward is greater than effort; you did so little, you got so much.
So adored by his classmates, so worshipped by his city, more than 40 years after the greatest distance runner in the history of this state put Spokane on the map, they still remember him for strength and courage, still wonder where he went and what became of him.
The question still resonates. Where's Gerry?
Lindgren (or his dead-on impersonator) answers his cellphone in Hawaii. He says he doesn't know where Gerry is. Three calls and two messages later, same man. Different answer.
"I let my shadow write it. My shadow was there through every step, knows my deepest thoughts and the agony I kept hidden deep inside my heart."
— from the foreword of"Gerry Lindgren's Book on Running"
For 25 years, Gerry Lindgren tried to write a book. He ended up writing dozens, none of which he published. One rambled 900 pages, and still, Lindgren says he couldn't find a candid-enough voice.
He says that his shadow provided "the vehicle for truth." Only the shadow also has a selective memory, blending fact and fiction and conveniently ignoring three-quarters of Lindgren's life.
The shadow writes about race strategy, including its 15 Rules of Running, and all the adventures and inspirations and accolades that Lindgren amassed during high school. It also touches on his life as an abused boy, the third son and "lost child" of an alcoholic father.
The full title is "Gerry Lindgren's Book on Running: A Runner's Guide to Courage and Strength." Yet Lindgren exhibited neither quality as often as he did both. Like the high-school reunion. He didn't have the courage to go, the strength to face the questions.
"I should have been there," Lindgren tells Chmura, eyes focused on the wall ahead. "That was awful."
Beyond a single paragraph — the last paragraph of the last chapter — the shadow ignores Lindgren's failures and instead compartmentalizes the four-year period of his running career when everything went right.
It mentions only one of his Olympic shortcomings — the sprained ankle in 1964 — but not the inflamed Achilles tendon in 1968 or the car that hit him while training for the 1972 Olympics in Munich. It doesn't mention the day his wife woke up in 1980 and found this note on the kitchen table:
Get a divorce. Sell the business.
It doesn't mention the three kids he never got to know. The three kids he never calls when he returns to the Puget Sound area they call home. There's no mention of Lindgren's ex-family in his book. He has told reporters they don't exist.
This is the dichotomy of Gerry Lindgren. Courage and strength, sometimes there, sometimes not.
"I was a little surprised at his choice of title for his book," Betty Caley Lindgren says. "He showed a lot of courage and strength when he was running. That's about where it ended as far as I'm concerned."
"Running set Gerry free."
— from "Gerry Lindgren'sBook on Running"
Running gave Gerry Lindgren an identity, a measure of self-worth, a reason to overcome all the obstacles a self-professed wimp encounters. That's an image that stuck with Lindgren for more than 40 years. An image he sees today.
"In my heart, in my mind, I still look in the mirror and see a wimp," Lindgren says, sipping coffee on the top of Queen Anne Hill in mid-September. "I still have the high, squeaky voice. I still have the skinny body. I used to hate myself as a kid for those same qualities. I'll always be a wimp.
"But I want people to know that my strengths as a human are my wimpy body and my high, squeaky voice. If I hadn't been a wimp, I never would have been able to have the influence over people that I've had. I've been blessed in life with wimpiness."
Running set Gerry Lindgren free from fear. Fear of the kids who bullied him at school. Fear of the father that he says drank too much and slapped his family silly. Because of the abuse, the shadow writes that a young Lindgren twice tried to commit suicide.
Also fear of winning races when a wimp did not deserve to. Fear of the police he says harassed him and even shot at him one time.
"I had a bullet crease my head," Lindgren says, taking another sip of coffee, speaking nonchalantly like it was an occupational hazard.
That fear, coupled with a coach who believed in him, boosted Gerry Lindgren into a spot at the head table of the running revolution. That's where the speed came from, from fear and from longing and from doubt, and that's how the boy with the wimpy body became arguably the greatest high-school distance runner this country has ever known.
The argument for Lindgren is a simple one. At one time, he held national high-school records in the 1,500 meters, 3,000 meters, mile, 2 miles and 3 miles. And he didn't just break these records. He shattered them with a running style that wasn't smooth or fast, but frighteningly consistent. Lindgren the machine.
He broke the national 2-mile record by more than a minute, and it took 15 years before someone came along and topped it. His high-school 5,000-meter record stood for more than 40 years. He lapped Ryun, beat Prefontaine when nobody else could, and bested Mills, who went on to the Olympic glory that eluded Lindgren.
At times, Lindgren's wimp-that-could rants can be a little much, too programmed, too easy of an explanation for success, with no mention of the failures.
Because that fear stayed with him as he moved out of running and into life. Fear of fame and notoriety and all the expectations. Fear of his responsibilities as a husband and a father.
The shadow spends a good portion of the book detailing the relationship between the wimpy boy and the coach at Rogers High, Tracy Walters, who believed in him. Even now, Walters believes Lindgren's self-image is not an act.
"He sincerely means that," Walters says in a phone interview. "It isn't schtick. He's very humble. Sometimes to a fault. He doesn't think he's really much of anything. He finds happiness in that.
"He went through some things that maybe we have to work through that we wouldn't want to. But he's spent most of his life being a gracious, caring person. I think of him as family."
"The truth about running is that every pain, every agony you suffer, brings tenfold reward. Every American runner of that era took heart in Gerry's victory. They all dreamed bigger dreams because a wimp like Gerry could beat the best runners in the world."
— from "Gerry Lindgren'sBook on Running"
One race in July 1964 serves as the climax of Lindgren's book, the ultimate picture of his courage and his strength. Talking about it 41 years later, his eyes dance and he leans forward, gesturing wildly about.
"The Russian meet was the culmination of all of this," Lindgren says. "Because what I wanted to do as a runner was to inspire people. The Russian meet was the key to doing this. Because the world was looking at the Russian meet."
One day in January 1980 serves as the ultimate argument against the title of Lindgren's book. One morning, Betty Caley Lindgren found the note. Gerry Lindgren didn't have anything to say about it then. He doesn't have anything to say about it now.
"If I had to live my whole life over again, I'd probably do it the same way," Lindgren says.
In July 1964, Gerry Lindgren ran.
United States coaches picked the skinny wimp to run against the Russians in the 10,000 meters. No one had ever beaten them at that distance. Because Americans were lazy. Because Americans were more suited for sprints than the struggle of long distances.
"It is a mistake to put your boy in a race with our giants," Lindgren remembers the Russian coach saying to anyone who would listen.
Yet here comes this high-pitched, high-strung, high-school-aged runner down to the track. There were more than 50,000 people in The Coliseum in Los Angeles. Robert Kennedy, eight months after the assassination of his brother, sat among them.
So Gerry Lindgren did what he always did best. He ran. The whole race he swore he could hear the footsteps of the Russians closing in. Even when he asked his coach how far ahead he was, he didn't believe it when the answer came back 120 yards. He broke the tape and Robert Kennedy wept and the footsteps stopped.
Lindgren turned around. The Russians had not finished yet. So he started jogging. The footsteps were there again. He stopped jogging. Gone again.
"And I turn around, and I start to jog, and there's that sound again," Lindgren says. "It was my own feet. Probably helped, yeah?"
The ultimate high. Courage and strength personified.
"He had so much courage," Walters says. "He would stand up to anybody."
In January 1980, Gerry Lindgren ran again.
He and Betty already had their issues. There was the woman who filed suit for child support in California. There were the times that Gerry disappeared for weekends or for weeks.
But they also owned a business together, Gerry Lindgren's Stinky Foot, a running-shoe store in Tacoma. They had a home together. And three young, beautiful and healthy children who now have only fleeting memories of their father.
In the Queen Anne coffee shop, Lindgren says he went to Hawaii to help a friend start a business. He never told his ex-family that. In fact, he never told his children he was coming into town in September.
Betty asked their daughter if she wanted to go and meet him, the same way his former classmate did. By just showing up, unexpected, unannounced. Her response?
"Why would I want to?"
"He's been back several times since he left," Betty Lindgren says. "He just never contacted us. That part's tough. He's pretty much in denial about what he did. Well, I don't know if he's in denial. Maybe he just doesn't want to tell the world about it. I don't really blame him."
The ultimate low. Where's the courage and strength in that?
"Gerry would sheepishly tell them he was only a wimpy body and that anyone could run better than he does. Gerry was telling them the truth. His whole life was built on failures."
"The pain and agony is the accomplishment."
— from "Gerry Lindgren'sBook on Running"
Gerry Lindgren still lives in Honolulu. He's an assistant coach for track and cross country at the University of Hawaii.
The bio on the university Web site, posted in September of this year, says Lindgren is 55 years old. Other accounts place his birthday in either March or December of 1946, meaning he's really 58 or 59. A search of a driver's license database indicates Lindgren was born in March, making him 59 years old.
Gerry Lindgren is still running, although at 135 pounds he calls himself fat, and he says he's so slow he can't "even keep up with the college girls anymore." He's still inspiring runners. Because of that, and his recent induction into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Lindgren's place in the running revolution is secure.
Walters and Lindgren met this summer in Spokane, "ate huckleberry pie and swapped lies," Walters says. He says that Lindgren's good deeds should be noted. But he doesn't want to talk about Lindgren's disappearance, although he does admit to worrying that something had happened to his prized pupil.
"I'd rather not deal with it at all," Walters says. "It's a painful thing for him. It's hard for him to deal with, even to this day. With all the guilt and all the things he's done and is doing. I just hope that he can effectively deal with it.
"He hopes that someplace in life he did some good things. And, by the way, he has."
The speaking Lindgren did in Seattle was part of a "Legends Tour" organized by Steve Bertrand, cross-country coach at Cascade High School in Everett. Because of engagements like this, Lindgren finds himself back in the spotlight, a place that always made him entirely uncomfortable.
"I seem to be undergoing a renaissance," he says. "Maybe it's because they've made such a big thing of Pre. I'm just barely edging him out in some photographs. I don't know. It was 40 years ago.
"I should be forgotten about already."
Lindgren never really wanted the attention, anyway. Later in the same interview, that's another reason he gives for moving to Hawaii. Again, he doesn't mention his ex-wife and kids.
"It seemed like all the attention was focusing more for me than it was for what I wanted to do," Lindgren says. "Living in Hawaii was a good thing. It served me well for 15 years or so because nobody knew what I'd done over there. I was kind of incognito."
Lindgren says he should be forgotten, that he liked living incognito. But there are people who will never forget, many of whom never got their explanation for why Lindgren disappeared.
He says he has found peace in Hawaii. He's coaching, inspiring, living. When he's stressed out, he sits in the backyard in the shade of the bamboo grove, puts his feet into the koi pond, relaxes in a chair and stares at the sky. You have to wonder what he thinks about.
"I have found amazing peace," Lindgren says. "I've influenced people. I've done more with my life than I ever thought a wimp could do with his life. I've had a hand in changing the world. That's what I live for. To help other people and make the world a little better than it was before."
So is Gerry Lindgren a redemptive figure? Does the good outweigh the bad? Like in his life, there is a conflict, a dichotomy, a yes and a no.
"How did he make peace?" Betty Caley Lindgren asks. "He might have made it with himself, but he certainly never made it with his kids. How can he be at peace with that? It's got to eat at him."
Betty Lindgren is asking the questions now. She's wondering where her ex-husband is speaking on his trip to Seattle, asking the same question everybody wants to know.
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or email@example.com