Our Olympic feet: To Montreal at 10 miles a day

Do you remember watching the Montreal Olympics in the summer of 1976?  It was the summer where the world met Nadia Comaneci, Romanian gymnast, who scored seven perfect 10.0s and won three gold medals.  

It was the Games of the XXI Olympiad, and brought to the forefront boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and decathlon runner Bruce Jenner, who set the world record in that event.

For me it was an even more memorable event because I was there. And how I got there was even a more amazing part of the story.

A delegation of area runners is shown here running alongside many of the world’s greatest runners at the mid-point of the group’s trek to Montreal for the 1976 Summer Olympics. From left, No. 97 in black, Jack Foster, British runner who was representing New Zealand; third from left, No. 39 USA Frank Shorter, (second-place finisher); No. 29 Lasse Viren, Finland, winner of the 5,000 and 10,000 meters gold medal in the Montreal Olympics); No. 51 Waldemar Cierpinski, East Germany,(gold medal winner in this race); No. 31 Jerome Drayton, Canada’s best marathon runner, (who finished 6th this event), and to the far right USA No.1 Bill Rodgers, who was
the pre-race favorite but finished 40th.

Living in Hagerstown, Md., and a member of the Hagerstown Run for Fun Club at the time, I, along with a bunch of friends, dreamed of going to the Olympics in Montreal and watching the marathon run with our favorite U.S. runners, Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter.

We needed a low-budget plan, as we were runners, with many students, and little cash resources. We decided we could run to Montreal – only 630 miles from Hagerstown and probably the closest the Olympics might be in our entire lifetime. We would run in relay fashion so that no one had to run more than 10 miles a day. We each would run five miles at a time. It seemed very doable.

The idea took wing. Runners came forward and said they wanted to go. Before long, 10 runners had signed up.  Among those who joined the trip were Chris Fox, John Bires and Larry Printz, all runners from Martinsburg High School; Terry Baker, an Auburn University runner, and Greg Holder, who with Baker were students at Williamsport High School, and Mike Spinnler of North Hagerstown High School. Two female runners, Mary and Maureen Devlon from Pennsylvania, were an integral part of the team. The other two runners were Frank Ogles, also of Auburn University and me.

It was my job to plan the route, make arrangements and set up the public relations, as I was the only adult runner on the trip. It was a six-month job.

I had to contact every police agency and highway department from Hagerstown to Montreal (covering two countries) for permission to run on their highways. I had to give them our schedule and stick to it so that we arrived in their jurisdiction when we said we would be there.  Remember this was a time when we didn’t have email or Internet or cell phones.    

The press was enthusiastic about the trip and we milked it for all it was worth. Articles in many newspapers along the way printed our schedule and then covered us as we passed through. Because of the coverage prior to the run, many runners waited for us and ran along. West Virginia Legislator John Overington and his wife Joanne Overington ran a weekly newspaper in Hagerstown at the time and gave us outstanding coverage.

We left Hagerstown, running north, following U.S. 11 almost all the way. A camper provided by the Spinnler family carried the other runners and our gear. A car followed the runners to give them additional protection. Flags and signs on the vehicles alerted motorists to runners on the roadway. 

We were treated like celebrities by newspapers and TV and radio stations. We were mentioned in Runner’s World Magazine and interviewed by Armed Forces Radio. We were even mentioned by Jim McKay on the ABC TV coverage of the games.

There were very few problems along the way, but many surprises. In Pulaski, N.Y., we received the key to the city. At lunch time on another day, the whole town came out and provided a picnic for us. In Binghamton, N.Y., a runner took us all home to dinner and we slept on the floor of his family room.

Several grocery stores did not charge us for groceries. A campground in Montreal charged us $1 per person when their sign clearly said the charge was $7.50 a person. A Holiday Inn along the way charged us $36 total for three rooms because their manager was a runner and had read about our adventure.

We made it to Montreal at about nine miles per hour in six and one-half days.  The last 10 miles we had a police escort into Montreal, with sirens blazing. The Provincial Police provided the escort of two police cars, a van and eight motorcycle policemen. They noisily led us along a route down Boulevard Gouin that included the blue line painted on the street of the marathon run. We ran 10 abreast across both lanes of traffic on Rue Viau and Rue Sherbrook. People lined the streets to applaud our arrival. Many waved American flags and shouted “U.S.A.” I am pretty sure most of them had no idea who we were or what we were doing. None of my runners wanted to get into the camper as we completed the final sprint to the finish. It was certainly an adrenaline high.

We were greeted near the Olympic Stadium by Jean Paul LeBlanc, a representative of the mayor’s office. The group presented him a letter of introduction from Hagerstown Mayor Verner L. Paddock.  Without even reading it, Mr. LeBlanc said “anyone who has run 630 miles to Montreal needs no letter of introduction. What you deserve is congratulations.” 

We had a great time, except for the marathon run (26.2 miles), which we watched, but was disappointing. The event was won by Waldemar Cierpinski from East Germany with Frank Shorter of the U.S. second. My personal favorite, U.S. marathoner Bill Rodgers, had a foot injury and finished in 40th place.

The trip was incredibly inexpensive, costing a total of $667.53 total – with each runner chipping in just $34. Definitely the “el cheapo” Olympic experience if there ever was one.

We also thought it being the Bicentennial Year, we perhaps captured the “pioneer spirit” of both the founding of America and the Olympic Games better than anyone who was there.

If you ever get a chance to go to the Olympics, I would highly recommend it.

My second recommendation is to not go on foot!

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