What Was So Special About Dick Beardsley?

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I couldn’t get worked up about Monday’s Boston Marathon. After all, any American who might have been on TV ran the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in February, and is skipping Boston. So I followed this three-step program:

  1. Read John Brant’s consummate telling of the 1982 Boston Marathon, one of the most beautiful battles in sports.
  2. Take a timeout in the middle of that to watch this glaring, exhaust-soaked video of the finish. Note how close the crowds were to the runners, like a tunnel, and that there were no official water stops on the course, and certainly no elite drink tables, as there are now. Even the top runners took paper cups, hopefully of water, from random people along the way.
  3. Call Dick Beardsley.

You could know nothing about running. You could hate running. You could be dead and hate running, and yet this story would get you riled up—about running—or about seeing how good you can be at anything. Guaranteed.

Masterfully told by Brant—who later expanded it into his 2007 book, Duel In The Sun—the story is not about running. The story is about the stark contrast between two gladiators during the 26.2 mile trip from Hopkinton to Boston. Cocky, high-profile Alberto Salazar delivering on the promise of a stellar high school and college career was a no-brainer, but the other? Dick Beardsley, some guy from rural Minnesota. That’s what made it interesting.


A few days after the 1982 Boston Marathon, a bunch of size X-Lean people gathered in a house in south Minneapolis shared by runners—no furniture, lots of running shoes—to watch a grainy video someone had recorded of the local Boston TV coverage. To a person, they worked at a running store, ran well over 100 miles per week—22 of which was accomplished on Sundays—and had raced against each other in college (Macalester, Golden Valley, Hamline, St. Olaf, Carleton, St. Cloud, South Dakota State, St. Thomas—fucking Tommies). They continued to meet every weekend at such events as Roberts Good Neighbor Days, Excelsior Firecracker 10K, Corn Daze, Hennepin-Lake Classic, and Hopkins Raspberry Run, for the opportunity to hammer each other on an accurately measured course. In those days, a person could run 30 flat for 10K and be back, eighth or ninth, behind local boys.

This described Any Minnesota Runner 1982. Beardsley belonged to this group, ran the same races, covered the same miles, was just as poor, and yet here they were in Minneapolis watching Beardsley (“that skinny guy ... ran at Waseca a couple years ... not very good ... man, I beat that guy all the time ... remember at Hopkins? I went by Beardsley at four miles, he had nothing”) unbelievably hang and hang and hang—and more than that—actually put the hurt on Salazar, probably the top distance runner in the US.


That was gratifying regardless of who was doing the hurting, but of all people, why Dick Beardsley?


Beardsley grew up on a farm near Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and was taking people fishing, milking cows, and selling furs by the age of 12, a fun and practical way to make money. He attended University of Minnesota Waseca, a two-year technical school where he “ran everything—mile, steeple, 5K 10K.” Once all four events in the same meet. You could do a lot of things back then at a small school, he explained, that would not pass muster with the NCAA.

“I just loved running, loved to train, and the longer I went, the better I felt,” said Beardsley from his current home in Austin, Texas. (He is thrilled to be moving back to Minnesota next month). “The first marathon I ran was Paavo Nurmi, in Wisconsin in the summer of 1977. I finished in 2:47, thought I was going to die it hurt so bad. Well, I hadn’t trained at all—my longest run was eight or nine miles. I thought ‘I’m never doing that again,’ but a couple months later I ran City of Lakes, and that, too, hurt like crazy. Ran, I don’t know, 2:31 or something.”


He finished out his two years at Waseca with a 10K PR of 31:05, which was a school record and good enough to earn him a partial scholarship to South Dakota State University, but not even close to what guys in D1 schools were running. Guys like Alberto Salazar. Beardsley ran one season for SDSU, cross country in the fall of 1978, got engaged to a woman he’d met at Waseca, and quit school in December of that year.

“I said, ‘That’s it, I’m done with school.’ I wasn’t much of a student. I just started milking cows—didn’t run a step for three or four months. One afternoon I was getting ready to go milk cows, went out to get the mail and Runner’s World had come. I flipped through it and saw this article about the 1980 Olympic Trials Marathon. Said you had to run 2:21:56 to qualify. I’d run 10 minutes slower than that but I was thinking of when my coach at Waseca put his arm around me and said, ‘You know Dick, you can be as good a runner as you think you can be.’”


“Well I’m standing there in these dirty coveralls thinking, ‘I can milk cows and fish when I’m forty or fifty, but now’s the time to see if I can be a good runner.’ I moved down to Excelsior [a town near Minneapolis], got a room for $400 a month, and started training two, sometimes, three times a day. My dad thought I was nuts. That was in April 1979; we got married in June. Actually, I was going to run Grandma’s [Marathon in Duluth] but we got married that day.”

His wife, Mary, worked in a bank, and Beardsley, following 1980s runner protocol, got a job at a Foot Locker store in Minneapolis.


“One afternoon I’m working and this district manager comes in and says, ‘Listen Dick, you could be something here, you could be a manager. You’re never going to go anywhere with your running.’ I’ve got this dream, and here’s a guy in a striped referee shirt with a pack of cigarettes in his pocket telling me to forget it. I said, ‘That’s it, I’m done, I’m quitting.’ Best decision I ever made.”

Cobbling together workouts he’d done at Waseca and information gleaned from another Minnesota runner, Ron Daws, in his book The Self-Made Olympian, Beardsley consistently racked up 120 to 130 miles a week, most of it alone. At first, the wisdom of quitting at Footlocker was not apparent.


“Oh my gosh, we struggled. I was looking for nickels in the couch. I was down to this one worn pair of shoes. There was this running industry trade show at the Radisson in Bloomington, so I typed up a resume—triple-spaced it to fill up a page—and handed them out. Most of them laughed at me. Anyway, I had one resume left and the only booths I hadn’t been to were Spalding and New Balance. I went to New Balance and walked out of there with a pair of 620s under my arm—sixty-five dollar shoe, the most expensive on the market! Later I got a box with 10 more pairs, and in the fall they hooked me up with Coach Squires, who [also coached marathoner Bill Rodgers]. New Balance took a chance on me then, and has stuck by me all these years. I can’t say enough good about them.”


In the summer of 1979, on just three months of serious training, Beardsley ran the Manitoba Marathon in 2:21:54, a PR by ten minutes, and qualified for the following May’s Olympic Marathon Trials by a scant two seconds. While there were plenty of guys in the Twin Cities—to say nothing of the rest of the country—running six, seven, eight minutes faster than that, the improvement encouraged Beardsley to attack his training with fresh enthusiasm.

He laughed when I asked about cross training and weight work: “I did some crunches and 20 pushups a day, but honestly, if I had extra time, I put in more miles. I never stretched, still don’t.”


Long, hard, fast, day after gutting day, outdoors of course, through the winter of 1979 into 1980, Beardsley drove himself. “By early spring, I was tired all the time. I could barely get up the steps to our apartment. I thought I had leukemia, but turns out I had really bad anemia.” The only magic pill he ever took was iron supplements.

While almost to the crazy side of optimism, Beardsley was also pragmatic. He was newly married, dirt poor, and had never broken 2:20 in the marathon. He’d decided to give it everything he had until the Olympic Marathon Trials in May, then hang it up and move on with his life. He was half-way through the finish chute of that race, 16th place in 2:16:01, another massive five-minute improvement, when the plan changed.


“I’m not giving up now.”

With Coach Squires phoning his workouts (“I told him never to call after 9 p.m. because I’d be so pumped, I’d want to go out for a run right then.”), Beardsley ran, ran a lot, ran fast, ran alone, ran with guys, and raced nearly every weekend—Corn Daze, Firecracker Run, Anoka Gray Ghost—against local boys doing the same thing. Sometimes he fared better, sometimes worse.


“Nobody liked to train harder than I did. Long runs, 22 miles? Six-minute pace was a waste of time. I did those at 5:15, 5:20 pace, with a lot of surges—going hard for ten minutes then backing off. I ran the hills as hard as I could. Everything was pretty fast—even my recovery runs were six-minute pace.”

He ran everything near the red line, the prevailing philosophy being to go as hard as you could. If you blew up, you blew up. There was another race next weekend. Other than his unfailingly sunny outlook, there was nothing unusual about Beardsley, his training or his PRs, nothing that would signal any potential for greatness.


That changed in April of 1981, when the brand new London Marathon offered to fly Beardsley over. “I was like, Heck yeah. I couldn’t have been more tickled.” He won in 2:11, yet another five-minute PR. In two year’s time, he’d gone from 2:31 to 2:11, and crossed into another realm. “In my mind, 2:12 meant you were world class. I’d say to myself, ‘Now you can compete with anyone in the world.’”


Two months after that, he clocked a 2:09 win and course record at Grandma’s Marathon. At the time, only four men in the world had run under 2:10, one of them being Alberto Salazar.

Uncharacteristically, Beardsley spent the winter of 1981-1982 training in Atlanta, for the hills rather than the weather, and then settled in Boston to really know the course, in a Biblical sense. Of course, Boston was Salazar’s home turf. For a guy who was once described as “Mrs. Beardsley’s boy Dick,” Beardsley played a pretty mean head game, invading Salazar’s territory to train, and during the race, smiling, accepting water from kids, and hijacking the cheers meant for the stone-faced hometown hero.


“Alberto was a great high school runner, and a great college runner. On paper, I shouldn’t have had a chance against him, but as they say, that’s why you run the race,” Beardsley said.

Race day was sunny and hot—68 degrees at the noon start and in the 80s by the time it got down to two gaunt horses, with nine miles of hell to go. “Back then—I can’t do it any more—but back then, when I started hurting, I’d be able to take that pain and put it in the back of my mind. When I started to hurt, I’d say, ‘OK Dick, now run faster. See how much longer you can continue to push.’”


The surging he’d practiced was his strength. “I could put in more hard surges— four, five. It broke them mentally late in the race.”

Here’s how John Brant called the final miles:

Beardsley started to sprint. He put his head down and pumped his arms. He found another gear. He felt like angels were lifting him up. A hard right turn onto Hereford Street. He caught a glimpse of Salazar, like a glimpse of the pope in a motorcade, 20 yards ahead, then put his head down again.

At the top of the hill there was a hard left turn before the final straightaway. Salazar and the motorcycles made that turn and the crowd at the finish line went wild, screaming in their hometown boy.

Beardsley had to weave his way through the motorcycles. The cops thought he was finished, but here he was back from the dead. They looked pie-faced and astonished as he pushed past them.

Salazar glanced back over this shoulder, also thinking that Beardsley was gone. But instead he was right there, on his shoulder, bearing down on him. Salazar’s eyes grew as big as headlights. He turned to the finish line, the last hundred yards, with Beardsley in hell-hound pursuit.

Up in the TV booth above the finish line, Squires kept screaming, “Dickie! Dickie! Dickie!”


Ghastly and beautiful, Salazar staggered across the line in 2:08:51, Beardsley in 2:08:53. Both broke what was then the American record, and the times still stand as the sixth and seventh fastest U.S. performances ever. But considering where they started, it seemed like Beardsley had come a lot further.


As the runners in south Minneapolis leaned forward, shouting at the 19" TV, delight and pride and passion were mixed with a fair amount of disbelief—was this the guy they’d done that 20-miler with just last year, the guy they schooled in that one race? He’d never seemed that tough before, or that .. .great. Why Dick Beardsley?

Thirty-five years later, Beardsley, too, is at a loss to explain. “It just fell into place for me that day. I’m just very, very fortunate.”


Go out and get some exercise.