Book Review: Wannabe Distance God by Timothy Tays and Blue Collar Runner of the Month #2

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Tays is Our Blue Collar Runner Of The Month For October

By Jonathan Gault
September 2014

Editor’s note: Earlier this summer, we were on Amazon.com and their algorithm put the book Wannabe Distance God on our screen. We absolutely loved the title, so we looked around and were very impressed by the book’s rating. To be honest, we’re not sure if we’d ever seen a book with a 5-star rating (it’s actually 4.9, but all five stars are filled in visually). 38 of the 40 reviewers gave it 5 stars. Not even the cult classics Running With the Buffaloes (4.6 stars) or Once A Runner (4.5 stars) can equal that. Given all that, we were stunned we’d never even heard of the book. As a result, we ordered one and had Jonathan Gault review it. His review appears below.

Survey the landscape of running books and you’ll find several archetypes. There’s the biography of the elite runner documenting what he had to go through to win an Olympic medal. There’s the book about that great race from yesteryear, explaining how the combatants came together and what they’ve done since. And there’s the training guide, which explains how you, too, can run your best by following the author’s philosophy.

But when Timothy Tays looked at all the running books out there, he didn’t find any that gave a voice to runners like him — a very good but not great runner that never quite accomplished his dream of running with the lead pack of elites. Sure, books like Once a Runner and Running with the Buffaloes conjure up feelings familiar to anyone who’s ever run on a college team. But (SPOILER ALERT) their protagonists were distance gods — Quenton Cassidy took down the world’s greatest miler and eventually won an Olympic silver medal; Adam Goucher broke everyone and won NCAA XC by 23 seconds.

The vast majority of college runners, even pretty good ones like Tays, who would set a school record and win a conference title at the University of Kansas, never scale the heights of a Cassidy or a Goucher. Tays wagered that he was not the only one who saw his Olympic dream slowly fade away as he waited for a breakthrough that never came. He thought that there would be an audience of readers just like him, who would want to read about a guy who had the drive of an Olympic champion, if not the talent. The result was Wannabe Distance God: The Thirst, Angst, and Passion of Running in the Chase Pack (2013).

Ironically, Tays started his running career believing just the opposite — that he was different from everyone else. “We all deserved to win — at least we did from a politically correct revisionist perspective,” Tays writes, “but in some Orwellian spin, apparently some of us deserved it more than others, and by some of us I meant me, the guy who gave all.” That brutal honesty is what makes Wannabe Distance God appealing. Tays is upfront about his flaws — he was cocky, given to delusions of grandeur and abused alcohol as a young adult. He shares the high of a PR and the low of a bad race. And he opens up about his darkest moments — such as the death of his mom when he was 20 — in a way that he was unable to do at the time. The writing process proved cathartic for Tays, and it makes for a powerful read as the emotion pours off the page.

“I said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to be truthful,'” Tays said when I interviewed him. “And if people hold it against me, the stuff that really did happen, then that’s on them. I went ahead and told the truth and the response that I got was people very much appreciate honesty, transparency and truthfulness because almost everybody has a history. We were young once and we made mistakes. Do you hang on with regret or can you admit it and let it go?”

Tays opens the book by explaining his psychology as a runner — how and why he strove to be leading the pack at the big road races that dominated the running scene in the early 1980s. He shares anecdotes from his post-collegiate career, such as an embarrassing run while banditing the Marine Corps Marathon and a marathon gone awry in Boston in 1983.

“I thought, well I’m going to have to talk about being a chase-pack runner because my personal experience will hopefully be universal,” Tays said. “I tried to immerse the reader as quickly as possible into what it was like to be a wannabe distance god — to be running in these incredible races against these distance gods but never quite being there.”

Slow Start, Strong Finish

It’s a valid explanation, but the problem with Wannabe Distance God is that this immersion takes nine chapters. From the title alone, it’s clear what the book is going to be about. All Tays needed to do was spend one chapter explaining his mindset and perhaps sharing a story from a race. Instead, he meanders through the first part of the book, and it feels directionless and repetitive — particularly because he revisits the same post-race interaction with 1984 U.S. Olympian Paul Cummings several times.

In Chapter 10, Tays finally begins a traditional linear narrative and the writing improves tremendously. He’s focused, has a clear direction and a compelling subject matter, describing his childhood OCD and how he was raised by his mother as a Christian Scientist. From there, Tays tells his story as a runner: how he turned to the sport in order to overcome his inferiority complex and validate his self-worth; how he ran in high school in Albuquerque and later at Kansas under the legendary Bob Timmons; how he struggled to make it as a semi-professional.

Wannabe Distance God succeeds because Tays the character is more than just a runner — some of the book’s strongest writing comes when he reflects upon how he dealt with the loss of his mother to breast cancer — but the good stuff is when Tays shares his thoughts and you catch yourself thinking, “Hey, this applies to me too.” Some highlights:

  • ”I needed to be good, and I defined good as anybody who beat me or clocked faster times than mine…It was relative to me, you see.”
  • “A PR was a transient rush that gradually became not so thrilling, then mediocre, then embarrassingly slow, and then crappy; finally it provoked anger over having to live with it. I compared my PR to my not-yet-realized lifetime PR and then to what the elites ran, and I knew I was still too slow.”
  • “A few weeks later at NCAAs, I thought my goal was reasonable: to make All-American. I wasn’t even close at 78th place. I’m a late bloomer, I told myself, but something not buried very deeply knew that future distance gods did better than that.”

Put it all together and you get a portrait of a runner gradually coming to grips with his dreams’ mortality. You can only go on so long before you start to run out of excuses and realize that those Olympic dreams may go unrequited. Looking back three decades later as a psychotherapist — he’s now Timothy Tays, PhD — Tays doesn’t regret the effort he put in to be the best, but he knows that he didn’t fully appreciate what he had. He hopes that younger runners don’t make the same mistake.

Timothy Tays – September 2014 – Blue Collar Runner of the Month

Last month, we named former University of Maryland runner and Army captain Flo Groberg as LetsRun.com’s first Blue Collar Runner of the Month. After reading Timothy Tays’ story, we believe that he is deserving of the title of Blue Collar Runner of the Month for September 2014.What makes Tays a blue collar runner?

  • Ran under coach Bob Timmons at Kansas, where workouts included 10 x mile and, after the season, the Crow Flight Marathon — which could end up at over 30 miles.
  • Didn’t give up on his dream of becoming a distance god and tried to make it as a semi-professional even though his highest finish at NCAA XC was 78th.
  • Waited tables to support himself as a semi-professional; then joined the Army so that he could keep his running dreams alive.
  • Decided that there weren’t any books out there that gave a voice to the good-but-not-great chase pack runners so he sat down and wrote one. “I was close enough to see the guys in front of me and the great runners like Bill Rodgers passing me and Greg Meyer and those guys,” Tays said. “But I hardly considered myself a middle-of-the-pack runner. So I thought, well you know, I’m just going to write to the guys that I knew who were all really good Division I runners but none of them became distance gods. All these guys, I knew they were working just as hard as me — they wanted it — but none of us really made it to the very top.”
  • Recorded PRs in a wide range of events from 800 to the marathon:

Tays’ Personal Bests
800 – 1:57.0
Mile – 4:07.3 (road), 4:10.5 (indoor)
Two mile – 8:51.5 (indoor)
Three mile – 13:36.9 (indoor)
5,000 – 14:09.3
10,000 – 29:44.4, 29:57 (road)
10 mile – 48:56
Half marathon – 1:06:01
Marathon – 2:20:39

Accomplishments at Kansas: 1980 Big Eight Indoor 2-Mile Champion; 78th at 1981 NCAA Cross Country Championships; indoor 3-mile school record holder (13:36.9)

Know someone you think would make a good Blue Collar Runner of the Month? Email us and let us know.

“I think I lost some of what I could have gotten in terms of satisfaction,” Tays said. “I did enjoy the ride, but on the other hand, it was never good enough because I wasn’t the best. If those are your standards, then you’re not going to enjoy the relationships and the experiences as much as you can.”

Running For “Timmie”

Another appealing aspect of the book is when Tays shares stories about Timmons, his coach at KU who also coached former mile world record holder Jim Ryun. Tays’ love of “Timmie” is clear, but looking back, he knows that Timmons’ training might not have been the ideal for a developing runner (though Tays did improve in college under Timmons).

“It was an awful lot of intensity and volume, and in some workouts my first season there as a freshman, he told us that we had to finish every interval in the top seven if we wanted to stay on the travelling squad,” Tays said. “That had to have taken not just a physical drain but a psychological drain; I probably left a lot of races in workouts.”

No “workout” — if you want to call it that — was more poignant than the Crow Flight Marathon. Timmons would take a protractor, a map of Lawrence and its surrounding areas and draw a circle with a radius of 26 miles, 385 yards, with Timmons’ house at the center. Then he’d drop off his runners at different points on the circle and leave them to traverse the distance on foot — which could range as high as 32 miles some years, depending on how strong a runner’s sense of direction was — until they arrived back at his house. Many college programs have traditions, but I’ve never heard of one as grueling as Crow Flight.

In the end, Tays succeeds in giving a voice to the chase-pack runner, those for whom the only people that matter are the .0001% of the Earth’s population they can’t beat rather than the 99.9999% they can. You cheer his successes and understand his failures, but Tays’ biggest success is his growth as a person and his ability to forgive himself for what his running alter ego, Timmy Two-Mile, may have done in the past. Overall, it’s an entertaining read and a reminder that you don’t need to be an Olympian to have a running story worth telling.

Wannabe Distance God: Available now on Amazon.com.

(Disclosure: LRC receives a commission if you buy from the amazon links on this page).

Miss Our First Blue Collar Runner of the Month? A Real Running Hero: The Flo Groberg Story Two years ago today former Maryland track and field and cross country runner Flo Groberg helped thwart a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan.  This is his story.