by Tom O'Grady
In light of the setbacks many have face in 2020 related to COVID-19 and the civil unrest related to politics and racial discrimination, it seemed fitting to review a book that covers persistence, inspiration, and motivation. When people think of top performers in any domain, including running, they naturally think that the results they see are effortless. For some the gains are harder fought than for others. Dick Beardsley’s tale is one of an athlete who saw the fruits of his labor blossom later than most and then saw his life and career take several unanticipated and unwelcomed side turns.
Beardsley’s initiation into running was not unlike many young athletes, as he first attempted to make the high school football team. Because of his small stature, Beardsley made it through one practice before setting his sights on running instead. Surprisingly, Beardsley did not excel as a youth and did just well enough to earn a varsity letter. After high school, Beardsley continued running in community college before starting a career in dairy farming. After college, Beardsley ran his first marathon during the famous first running boom. His first time of 2:47:14 in 1977 was respectable, but far from the kind of time needed to make a career as an elite racer. Beardsley proved to have a huge engine and a voracious appetite for training. This stick-to-it attitude saw Beardsley making huge improvements. He quickly lowered his personal best in the marathon to 2:31:50 after only four cracks at the distance.
Beardsley’s improvement trajectory was, and is, unprecedented. From 1977 to 1981, Beardsley ran 13 marathons and improved in every effort. This lowered his personal best to 2:09:37 and gained him an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for running the greatest number of consecutive personal bests in the marathon distance. Beardsley’s 2:09:37 in 1981 at Grandma’s Marathon also earned him first place and a course record that held for 33 years. Beardsley had a very successful 1981 campaign, as his 2:09:37 personal best at Grandma’s came two months after a 2:11:48 co-win at the London Marathon. Yes, that’s correct – a tie. In 1981, at the first London Marathon, Beardsley and his Norwegian counterpart Inge Simonsen had battled treacherous conditions and instead of trying to “break” each other in the final stretch instead chose to cross hand in hand in an act of sportsmanship.
Beardsley’s 1982 campaign was not dampened by the fact that his 1981 campaign had ended with a 2:16 marathon time in Stockholm that ended his streak of personal bests. In January 1982, Beardsley started the year in Houston with a 2:12. From there, Beardsley was runner-up in the Boston Marathon. The race between him and Alberto Salazar was historical, as they both ran under 2:09:00 and finished within two seconds of each other. The race itself has been called the “Duel in the Sun” because of the high temperatures and intense sun that was present throughout the race. The impacts on both men of that 1982 Boston effort are well documented, as each has stated they never felt quite the same as athletes afterward. The price of victory for Salazar was particularly steep, as he faced years of depression and injuries related to overtraining. Crowd control and athlete escort policies at Boston were revised, as the involvement of the crowd and police motorcade during the 1982 race may have potentially cost Beardsley the victory. And the race ended up moving from noon to 10:00 a.m. to avoid the highest temperatures of the day.
After Boston, Beardsley ran into his first troubles as an Achilles problem cropped up. This era is labeled “A Change of Pace” as the tendon injury would need to be addressed surgically, derailing his efforts in 1983. With his training impacted, Beardsley was not granted a waiver for the Olympics based on past merit, and was forced to watch the 1984 Los Angeles games as a spectator. The stress of a quick build up and failed Olympic attempt forced Beardsley to step away from running altogether after a second surgery on his Achilles. While sidelined from athletics, Beardsley turned back to farming and also became an angler. As a sports fisherman Beardsley wrote a best-selling guide to the sport.
During the period from 1987-1989, Beardsley once again attempted to come back and was unsuccessful. He failed to make the Olympics in 1988 and did not break 2:15 in the marathon again, running a post-injury personal best of 2:16:20 at the Napa Valley Marathon. Unfortunately for Beardsley, being injured was not the worst that was in store for him. During the fall of 1989, became entangled in a tractor auger and was almost killed during the incident. Although lucky to be alive, Beardsley was facing what would be some of the worst years of his life. In addition to the farm accident, Beardsley was involved in two car crashes in 1992 and 1993. Each of these accidents required additional surgeries and compounded the effects of the farm accident. During each of the recoveries, Beardsley was prescribed a cocktail of painkillers. This exposure led to addiction that was very hard to break. By 1996, Beardsley was an expert forger of prescriptions and was taking 80-90 or more potent pain killers a day. He was arrested for this.
Beardsley's life was saved from further derailment because he only consumed the painkillers and never resorted to selling them. Instead of jail time, Beardsley faced rehab and psychiatric treatment to address addiction. From that point, he dedicated himself to bettering his life. This was achieved through farming, bettering the sport of running as a public speaker, and serving as an ambassador for mental health and addiction rehabilitation. The book leaves off in the early 2000s, as it was published in 2005. But since that time, Beardsley has accomplished a lot and also has seen some setbacks.
The book is a well-rounded read with nuggets of comedy interspersed with the serious issues Beardsley faced. There are tales of him trying to stay race fit on his farm through shoveling. Imagine shoveling and re-shoveling farm fields the size of football fields and including “threshold shoveling,” “fartlek shoveling,” and more. There are the tales of early sports nutrition and carbohydrate loading that were gospel of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Through most of the book you get the sense that Beardsley is an incredibly driven individual, loves the sport, and was derailed by an unfortunate sequence of events that can happen to anyone. Beardsley’s tale of adversity and commitment to the sport are inspirational, and all of these aspects related to perseverance during difficult times are good to visit during the present times.
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Thomas J. O'Grady, Ph.D., M.P.H., NASM-CPT
Tom is a public health professional and researcher who is also a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and a USATF Level 1 and VdotO2 Certified Running Coach. If you have had trouble reaching your fitness goals or staying in shape during the COVID-19 pandemic, you can contact him for the month of June at OGrady.Strategies@gmail.com to set up a free 20 minute consultation on how to improve your health and reach your fitness goals this summer.