CATCHING UP WITH JIM SPIVEY: LEGENDARY MILER LEAVES MARK ON TENNESSEE
by Dave Milner | published 11.15.06
I am riding shotgun in Jim Spivey’s car, a white Volkswagen Passat in whose back window one of this three son’s has fingered the message ‘Clean Me.’ The rear seat is chock-full of Asics uniforms bound for local high school cross-country runners. Attached to the rear view mirror is a stopwatch. Spivey uses it to take splits. Not his running splits, or anyone else’s for that matter. He uses it to note his driving splits.
This is a man who is, by all accounts, obsessed with times, positions, and statistics; a man so meticuluous in nature that he is rumored to time himself mowing the lawn. Ask him how long it takes to drive from, say, Nashville to Chattanooga, and, rather than give you a guesstimate, Jim will give you his PR to the minute, and if you exhibit enough interest, you might get his intermediate splits at the Murfreesboro and Monteagle exits too! For almost a quarter-century, Spivey kept detailed training logs with splits to the tenth of a second. Pick a day - any day - between 1977 and 2000 and Jim can tell you where, how far, and how fast he ran, who accompanied him, and what the weather was like that day. But it is this attention to detail, this meticulousness, this obsession with time that contributed to such a lengthy and successful world class running career.
Pop quiz time. Who was the last American male distance runner - at 1500 meters and up - to medal on the track at a major outdoor championship? Yep. That’s right, the gray-haired fella in the ballcap here; the one holding the stopwatch; the one that, until a few months ago, lived right here in Tennessee for the last four and a half years. And many of you didn’t even realize that you had a miling legend on your doorstep.
Jim Spivey is, by any objective measure, one of the best middle distance runners that the United States has ever produced. After running for Indiana University, where he was twice an NCAA champion, notched a staggering thirteen Big Ten conference titles, and was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame, Jim went on to qualify for three Olympic Games. Twice at 1500 meters, a distance at which he placed 5th in 1984 and 8th in 1992, and then at 5000 meters in 1996, when he advanced to the semi-finals.
In World Championship competition, he won the bronze medal in 1987 and was fifth in 1993. He has run 3:31.01 for 1500 meters - the third fastest all-time by an American, 3:49.80 for the Mile - good for 6th on the all-time list, and he still holds the U.S. record at 2000 meters.
Until recently moving back to his hometown of Chicago, Jim lived in Brentwood, just south of Nashville, from 2001 until this fall, and until December 2005, was the head cross-country and assistant track coach at Vanderbilt University. He is now working for Asics, the shoe company with whom he has had a long-standing relationship as an athlete, a coach, and now as a corporate employee.
James Calvin Spivey was born on March 7, 1960 in Schiller Park, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. When he was fourteen, he enrolled at Fenton High School in Bensenville, right next to O’Hare aiport. But the teenager didn’t run until his sophomore year, and even then, it was with some degree of coersion. “As a freshman I played basketball,” he says, “and in the first day of gym class, the coach, John Kurtz, had us run a mile. I ran 6 minutes and 48 seconds. The coach asked me if I’d sign up for the cross-country team and I said ‘No, I play basketball,’ and he proceeded to give me a ‘B’ in gym class for running.” Jim knew he’d done well and hadn’t given the teacher any trouble. He confronted Kurtz, who still coaches at Fenton to this day, about it many years later and he flatly told him, “Jim, you probably deserved a B.” Jim, still appearing a little ruffled that his stats were messed with cracks a half-smile now, saying “He refused to admit that he’d docked my grade because I didn’t try out for the team.” As a sophomore, the following year, Jim’s class was asked to run the mile again the first day of gym class. This time, Jim ran over a minute quicker, clocking 5:45. Once again, Coach Kurtz asked Jim about joining the team. Remembering the docked grade, Jim said ‘Sure, I’ll give it a try’.
Jim takes up the story: “That was on a Tuesday. I got my physical that night, ran 2 miles Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and then on Saturday ran a 19:05 for 3 miles in my first cross-country meet, in Keds. The following Saturday, I ran 17:27, and the following Tuesday, I ran 16:48. By the end of the season, I ran 15:41, which was the fastest a sophomore had ever run in Illinois.” Spivey carried that momentum, and obvious talent, into the following season and in the spring clocked 9:21 for 2 miles making it to the state meet.
Too short and too skinny for basketball, the pencil-thin Spivey had found his calling, it seemed, as a distance runner. He quickly realized that there was a direct correlation between the quality of training done and subsequent performance in competition.
So in the summer of ‘76, preparing for his junior year of cross-country, young Spivey upped the ante. “Between June 1 and August 31, I ran 1000 miles that summer.” Why 1000 miles? York High School was 3 miles up the road and the York runners, guided by legendary coach Joe Newton, ran 1000-mile summers. “Coach Kurtz said he would buy a long-sleeve ‘1000 mile club’ t-shirt to anyone who achieved this goal. I wore this shirt in almost every race under my uniform, even during the indoor season. I was proud of the work I’d put in that summer. The fact that it went a long way to hiding my 5’10”, 100-pound frame, might have been a factor too.” Jim, years later, went back and re-measured those courses in his car and discovered they were all about 20-25% off, so he really only ran between 750-800 miles. But, hey, he got a solid summer base in and he got the shirt.
Jim tried out for basketball again as a junior, but it just wasn’t the same. In basketball, he had to rely on someone else giving him the ball before he could perform. But with running, he saw the rewards for his own hard work, and he was reliant on no one but himself.
Initially, his parents were less than enthusiastic about their son’s running. “I remember going to buy my first pair of running shoes,” Spivey recalls. “They were Adidas Countrys. My mom really didn’t want to spend $35. She thought it was a lot of money and couldn’t see why we couldn’t just go to K-Mart and buy three pairs of Keds for at ten dollars a piece.” They started to take him more seriously when he finished second at the state meet, behind Tom Graves of Carl Sandberg High. The following spring, Jim clocked an eye-opening 9:00.5 for 2 miles in finishing second at the state meet, behind Graves again.
In his senior year, after finishing second again in the state cross-country meet, Jim and Coach Kurtz switched focus, from the 2-mile, to the 880 and mile. Jim’s splits at the previous fall’s state cross-country meet were 4:38, 4:38, and 4:44, while his nemesis, Graves, went 4:38, 4:28 (9:06 for 2 miles), and 4:50. Graves had essentially dropped Spivey with a mid-race surge and coasted in to win. Still, Spivey had clocked 14:00 over the famed Detweiller Park course in Peoria, tying future National Cross-Country champion Jorge Torres for 4th on the all-time list. Only Graves, Lincoln Park’s Dave Walters and Lebanon’s Craig Virgin (with the course record at 13:50.6), who went on to win the World Cross-Country Championships, have ever ran faster there. “I was strong, but I had been dropped by Tom halfway through that race, and figured I needed to work on my speed,” Jim recalls. And so began Jim’s love affair with the mile.
The emphasis on the shorter stuff sat well with Jim, whose rail-thin frame belied a wealth of fast twitch muscle fibers. He ran 1:57 indoors on what is essentially a square track, and knew he could run a lot faster outdoors. He developed great leg speed to match his strength. At his conference meet that spring, he won the 400 in 49.8 and, just eight minutes later, clocked 4:13.5 to win the mile. At the state meet, Graves won the 1 mile and 2 mile races, but Jim won the 880 yards, in an impressive 1:50.20 - a school record that still stands. The following week at the Keebler Invitational he ran the mile and won in 4:06.2 mile - another still-standing Fenton record, and the second fastest mile by a prep runner in 1978.
Not surprisingly, a runner with Jim’s ability and range was heavily recruited, but Spivey quickly drew up a very short list of schools at which he thought his running could be taken to the next level, and “had it down to five schools,” he remembers.
Dellinger asked Jim how many miles a week he ran. “I have no idea,” he responded. Dellinger pulled out a sheet of paper and jotted down more numbers while Jim went through a typical training week. Dellinger figured Jim was running about 39 miles a week, on average. “If you get that up to 55, you’ll beat Tom Graves, [who went on to attend Auburn]” he said. But Jim, who loved to race, looked at the Ducks’ schedule and noted that they raced very sparingly. “If you were healthy, you’d race maybe nine times a year,” he said. “I needed to race more than that.” Spivey would not be a Duck.
“Eventually,” Spivey recalls, “it came down to two schools: Wisconsin and Indiana.” Both had good cross-country programs, but Indiana had a far better track program, and coming from a high school program that was strong in the fall, but weak in the spring, Jim wanted to go to a program that was good all year long. He seemed to click right away with Hoosier coach Sam Bell and signed with IU.
He arrived in Bloomington in the fall of ’78 and made the transition from high top school runner to top college runner with little difficulty. He managed to stay injury-free despite hiking his average weekly volume from 40 miles to 80-90 miles. In February, 1980, his sophomore year, he traveled to Louisville, KY and became America’s 100th sub-4 minute miler.
That sub-4 came a week after coming agonizingly close to the barrier in Bloomington, clocking 4:00.03 to hold off Steve Lacy. “Coach Bell told me on Monday that I would be running in Louisville, against the great John Walker. He was my hero as a high schooler, running in the all-black uniform, long hair, and beads around his neck to win the ‘76 Olympic 1500m.” Walker was also World record holder for the mile until just the year before. The Flying Kiwi and Irishman Ray Flynn (who still lives near his alma mater, ETSU) went out hard, and pulled away from the Hoosier with a quarter-mile to go. Spivey closed on the last lap, to draw level with Flynn, but they gave the nod to the Irishman. Both clocked 3:58.9, while Walker won in 3:57.0. Spivey had become America’s 100th sub-4 minute miler.
At IU, Jim was twice an NCAA Champion, winning the 1 mile indoors (‘81) and 1500m outdoors in ‘82. He even earned all-American status at cross-country, finishing 20th in 1981, and finally got revenge over a certain Tom Graves from Auburn (right). Jim won a staggering 13 Big Ten titles. And in 1982, based on his outdoor NCAA title and five conference titles that year, he was voted Big Ten athlete of the year, beating out Michigan football player, Butch Wollfolk (who would go on to play for the New York Giants) by a single vote, 33-32.At the U.S. outdoor championships, Jim finished 4th in the 1500 in ‘81 and ‘82.
Spivey graduated in May 1983 with a business degree. While at IU he and Coach Bell chiseled down his PRs to 1:46.5 (800m), 3:37.25 (1500m), 3:55.55 (1 mile), and 13:33 (5000m). A few months after collecting his diploma, he was on his way to Finland, having been named on the U.S. team for the World Championships in Helsinki at 5000 meters, after finishing second at the U.S. Champs, just behind Doug Padilla. It was Jim’s first major international championships, and was out of his depth over 12½ laps at this level, finishing 9th in his semi-final heat and did not advance to the final won by Ireland’s Eammon Coghlan, but he did run impressively in Oslo a month earlier to finish second (to Steve Scott) in the Dream Mile.
That year he also moved to Indianapolis to work for the Indiana Pacers, where, for two years he sold magazine and radio ads, and then worked for Network Indiana, selling more radio ads, before deciding to concentrate full-time on running in 1985.
But before that, in 1984, Spivey, just 24, won the 1500 at the U.S Championships, which incorporated the Olympic Trials, beating pre-meet favorite Steve Scott, with a blistering 53.3 last lap. It was his first senior national title. And a 2:52.2 1200-meter time trial three weeks before the L.A. Olympics indicated Jim was peaking just right. He made the 1500-meter final and kicked his way to an impressive 5th, but well behind Brits Sebastian Coe, who retained his Olympic title, and Steve Cram, who got silver. Jim’s 5th place marked the first time an American runner had placed in the top 5 in the Olympic 1500-meter final since Jim Ryun’s silver-medal run in 1968.
With hindsight, he thinks he was fortunate to have made the final. “From January of ‘84 to the L.A. games, I averaged just 41 miles per week,” he recalls. “To go into the games, run a heat, a semi, and then expect to make the final and try to medal, off that kind of mileage, was pretty naïve. I was really tired by the time the final came around. But I was too dumb to know any better.”
That fall, he and Cindy Moyer, who met while undergrads at IU, married. Cindy would teach French at high school while Jim began thinking that being a full-time athlete was probably the route he needed to go if he was to catch up with the Brits.
In 1985, he was crowned U.S 1500m champion again, and but was not ranked in the world’s top 10 by Track & Field News. He was holding his own, and doing okay financially, but was still a good way from earning a medal on the world stage.
But just six years after cracking 4 minutes for the mile, the following year, 1986, saw Jim take his running to a new level. Steve Scott, the U.S. record holder at the mile, won the U.S. 1500m championships in Eugene, but when Jim went over to Europe for his summer track campaign, he set his sights on breaching another huge barrier.
“It feels like the crowd is right on top of you,” Jim says. A 4-feet wall separates them from the runners. Metal billboards hang on the front of these walls, colored with advertisers’ logos and products. Children lean over the walls and use their hands to bang out a metronomic rhythm as the runners go by. Parents, behind, them play back-up percussion, clapping at a steady rate. “It is so loud,” Spivey recalls, “that you cannot hear yourself think or breathe when you race.”
The race starts late, at 11:15pm, to accommodate live TV viewers in the U.S. The runners mill about on the home stretch near the start line. Finally, they are called to the line, and silence briefly falls on the rabid Norwegian track fans, until they, and the runners, are released with the crack of the starters pistol.
Spivey remembers the race very vividly. “My game plan consisted of starting fast, so as not to get left in the heavy traffic at the rear of the pack.” With a swift opening half-lap, Spivey moved into fifth position, out of trouble. “Coming up on the first lap, the rabbit pulled us through a 55-second opening 400. Down the backstretch we flew, the crowd urging us on by increasing their clapping rate as we went by. We came through the 800-meter mark in 1:54, close to world record pace.” At that point, Britain’s Steve Cram made his bid for victory, pushing on ahead and gapping the pack.
“I could hear the crowd’s claps begin to diminish as I went by, because I was still in fifth place. The claps were following the leader, not me. I knew I had to move up, not only to close the gap on Steve, but also to stay in the applause vacuum.” The visualization of effortlessness running in this space gave Jim the motivation to move up. “I moved into 2nd with 700 meters to go. Again, down the back stretch we flew. Glancing to my right, the crowd whizzed by, faces a blur. Truly, it felt like flying. No pain, just effortless running.”
Around the turn and into the next straightaway, the gun sounded, indicating the final circuit was about to be completed. Jim’s three-quarters split was 2:53.2, his fastest ever in a race. Through the curve the crowd roared with approval. “On the back stretch, I felt myself closing in on Cram, and the adrenaline began to rise. ‘I can win this race!’ I thought to myself, and then cautioned myself: Don’t get too excited. You need to maintain form and relax!’”
With 200 meters to go, Jim felt someone nearby on his inside. Steve Scott went by. “I put my head down and tried to go with Scottie, but he continued in his mad pursuit of Cram.” The Brit was fading from his long drive for victory. “A hundred meters to go, and my body was losing oxygen rapidly. I looked up the straight. I could hear nothing but the crowd. I was becoming disoriented, and had tunnel vision. Only my lane, lane two, and the two lanes on either side, were clear; everything else was a blur. I kept telling myself, ‘Hold the form!’ ‘Keep your feet straight.’ The finish line is quickly approaching... oh come on, come on! Finally, a quick lean and it was over.”
Jim found his sweats and jogged off to cool down alone. About a half-mile later he came to a halt. “I went down to one knee, tears streaming down my face. I looked at my watch. 12:30am. The practice track was almost deserted. I asked, “Lord, what did I do to receive such wonderful talents?” The tears fell heavier now. I thanked Him many times.” Jim knew he had run the race of my life, but the question resurfaced in his clearing mind: What was the time? Jim picked himself back up, smiling now, and finished his jog.
Back at the hotel, the results were posted. He quickly scanned down to third place. He saw the first two digits – a three and then, after the colon, a four. He didn’t need to know the next number. He had run under 3:50! He looked skyward, said a ‘thank you’ and then looked at the results a second time. His time was 3:49.80. He had sliced three quarters of a second off his PR, and had become the 13th man in history under 3:50, and the 3rd fastest American of all-time. “Even today,” he says, “I can remember that feeling of kneeling on the warm-up track at Bislett, and my eyes get moist.”
Jim wrapped up that ‘86 campaign with a 3:52 mile in Rome in September. 1986 was a good year. Track & Field News ranked him 9th that year, one spot ahead of his teenage idol, John Walker. Scott ranked third.
After the 1986 season, Jim made some big changes. He switched coaches, from Sam Bell to two-time Olympian Mike Durkin, changed agents and began working with a new agent, the late Kim McDonald. He and Cindy also moved house, to Glen Ellyn. All these changes occurred within an 8-week period. That kind of upheaval will often see a tightly-wound elite athlete come apart at the seams, but these changes would yield a year that would unfold to be even better than the stellar ’86 campaign.
Durkin, who made the Olympic team at 1500 meters in 1976 and 1980, began writing Jim’s daily training in March, and Ken Popejoy, a former Michigan State stand-out who was aiming to be the first master to run a mile in under 4 minutes, became Jim’s training partner. One of the biggest changes was an increase in mileage and greater emphasis placed on aerobic development.
Under Coach Bell, Jim had relied far more heavily on his speed and, remarkably, Jim had never run over sixty minutes before, in his life. Durkin wanted him to run ninety. “I didn’t like it,” Jim recalls. “The first time I tried to run 90 minutes, I got to 60 and couldn’t believe that I would have to keep on running for another 30 minutes.”
The track workouts were different too. Under Bell, many of Jim’s workouts were flat out, faster than race pace, but under Durkin everything was slowed down and more controlled, and more volume was added, sometimes totaling seven miles of hard running. Durkin’s training philosophy borrowed from that of legendary Hungarian coach Mihaily Igloi, and was more about levels of perceived exertion than hitting concrete goal times. And in the middle of winter in Chicago, where Mother Nature often didn’t facilitate fast clockings, that was a good thing. It was more about running fresh, good, and hard paces – terms with which Spivey’s coaching protégés would become very familiar a few years down the road. Jim wouldn’t run for a specific time until the last two months of the season. If, in March, he was supposed to run 800s fresh and hit 2:16, it was okay. If the weather was better, and he felt good and hit 2:10s, that was fine too. Each workout was a block in a long building process, each week building on the previous one, with a view to peaking in August. And peak in August he did.
A steady diet of 70-mile weeks in the first half of ‘87 saw Jim stronger than ever, and a 38.9 closing 300 to win the U.S Championships 1500 over Scott in June in San Jose indicated he wasn’t lacking in the speed department either. At the Pan-Am games he won a silver medal in the 1500 meters, being beaten only by Brazilian Joaquim Cruz, the reigning Olympic 800-meter champ.
In Rome, the heats were on Thursday, the semi-finals were on Friday, and the final was on Sunday. Three races in four days. In L.A, three years previously, Jim had felt shattered by the time he lined up for the final, but as the 12 finalists lined up for the final on Sunday in Rome’s Olympic Stadium, Spivey was a much stronger and much savvier runner. He had done as little as was necessary in the first round heat, and then placed 2nd, right behind East German, Jens-Peter Herold in the semi.
“Mike had said to be with the leaders with 300 to go, no matter what,” Jim recalls. From 500 to go to 300, the leading trio of Cram, Somalia’s Abdi Bile and Jose-Luis Gonzalez were a half-second up. Spivey was in 4th with Kenya’s Joseph Chesire in tow. Jim (right, beside #1080 Scott) covered those 200 meters in a sizzling 25.3 to get into medal contention, and yet he lost ground on Bile, who ran 24.9! Bile was in a class by himself that day and pulled away for the gold with ease. The Spaniard ran strongly to get the silver, while Spivey’s big kick around the last turn saw him catch a fast-fading Cram with 80 meters to go to move into 3rd place and claim the bronze medal. It would be the last time a U.S. male distance runner would medal at a major championships until Meb’s silver medal in the marathon in 2004.
Shortly after the 1500-meter final in Rome, Jim flew to Switzerland to take a stab at Sydney Maree’s American record at 2000 meters. It’s a rarely contested distance, but the record was far from soft. Maree’s 4:54.20 mark was set two years before. On a balmy evening in Lausanne, Steve Scott towed Spivey and Bile through the 1 mile marker in a speedy 3:54.2. Bile swept into the lead, but failed to shake Jim and he outkicked the World Champ to win in 4:52.44, hacking almost two seconds off Maree’s mark to set an American record that stands to this day. Another great ending to a great year.
If he could have had his time over again, Jim says he would’ve switched coaches sooner, maybe right after the L.A Olympics. “At age 25, you need someone watching you. At age 31, either you do it or you go home.” And he should have changed agents earlier, he concedes. “In ’85 Kim [McDonald] approached me about being my agent, and I said ‘no, I’m with Pete Peterson’ (of Nike). But a year later, when I approached him, he said ‘let me think about it.’” In the span of a year, McDonald had gone from being a rookie, scraping together a living while working out of a tiny room above the Sweat Shop, a specialist running store in southwest London, to being arguably the top track agent in the world. “Knowing what I knew later in life, about how he did business, I should have switched right away because, under him, my income tripled.”
1988 rolled around and the 3:49 miler, World Championship medalist, and U.S record holder over five laps, was licking his chops at the prospect of getting an Olympic medal in Seoul. Winter training under Durkin had gone well, and Jim, stronger than ever, looked like a good bet to climb the medal rostrum in Seoul.
Jim was told to train 4 weeks in the pool; unable to run until May 27. That left just six weeks of running until the trials. The first week, he was so despondent, that he didn’t go to the pool at all. The next week he went every other day. The third week he went twice a day, trying to play catch-up, fighting a losing battle against the calendar. “I should have been in the pool from Day one,” he admits, “but I was discouraged and, looking back, depressed.”
Figuring the aerobic miles were still in the bank, Durkin had him do a series of hard 600 meters time trials to assess his charge’s anaerobic shape. Five weeks before the trial, Jim ran a pedestrian 1:42. It felt flat out! He went home exhausted, telling Cindy “it’s never gonna happen.” Five days later, he clocked a 1:31, and another five days later he coasted to a 1:25, feeling great, like his old self.
Jim hopped over to Europe to sharpen up and ready himself for the rough ‘n’ tumble of Olympic trials racing. A 3:50 Mile at Bislett and a 7:48 3000m in Gothenburg buoyed his confidence, and then, back in the States, a 1:47 clocking for a low-key 800 in Chicago let him know that, physically at least, he was firing on all cylinders again. But Jim is a perfectionist, who likes to stick to a plan like glue. The fact that his plan had gone awry at a crucial time, and he had lost four weeks of running to the stress fracture, weighed heavy on his mind as he drove down to Indianapolis for the Olympic trials in early August.
In the final too, the early pace was pedestrian opening up the race to anyone with a decent kick. An even-paced, fast run would have left Jim with few serious rivals, but the opening half was practically glacial, and Durkin and Spivey never really had a pre-race game plan for if that happened. They were too busy trying to get Jim to the starting line in one piece, physicall and mentally.
All that remained for Jim - ironically, Deady’s landlord at the time - was the opportunity to race the clock, take some scalps, and make some dough in what remained of the European racing season.
Not making it to Seoul was painful enough for Spivey, but when began to round into extraordinary shape in the late summer, it added salt to that wound.On August 28th, in Koblenz, Germany, Spivey lined up for a 1500 meters. There were two rabbits in the field: Lewis Johnson (he of Olympic commentary fame) was slated to rabbit for the first two laps, with Ken Washington (now an agent) taking over. In Johnson’s slipstream, with Washington beside him, Spivey cruised through 800 meters in 1:51 - world record pace. Johnson peeled off and Washington assumed the lead. “I remember yelling ‘Go faster’ at Ken at 1000,” says Spivey. They had gotten to that point in 2:20. Washington, spent, went another half-dozen steps before realizing he could no longer help his countryman.
Despite the 3:31 clocking, Nike, who had been Jim’s shoe sponsor since 1984, when they gave him a $12,000 per year initial deal, told him they were essentially dropping him at the end of the year. It wasn’t good news, and Jim was upset. Nike offered Jim a contract, but it was 83% less than the previous year’s deal. “If that’s all I’m worth to you,” he told Nike, “I’ll go to ASICS [who had earlier courted him] for no money.” ASICS had already offered Jim a contract after the U.S Champs the previous year, but Jim told them he was still under contract with Nike until the end of ’88.
Eventually, he did get a response, but ASICS were now reluctant to speak with him – after all he hadn’t even made the Olympic team! They offered him a deal with no money, and limited equipment. The silver lining was that, whereas with Nike there had been a different boss controlling the budgets and writing the shoe contracts each year, with Asics, Jim had the same go-to person, Jan Lester, year after year. There was stability, and Jim needed some of that, because the next few years were going to be a rough ride, economically, for an aging miler who had failed to get to the last Olympiad.
In 1988, despite not making the games, Jim made well over $100,000 between his Nike deal and racing, and commanded $5,000 in appearance money at some of Europe’s bigger meets.
1991 was a rough year too. Jim only finished 4th at the U.S Championships 1500, won by Terrence Herrington, but made the team for the World Championships in Tokyo. But he didn’t get to go. It was unfortunate, because a 3:52 mile in 100-degree heat at the New York City Grand Prix (right) meet early in the summer had Jim thinking about a U.S. record, and maybe the world record, at the Weltklasse meet in Zurich that August.
Spivey proved that he was on the right track during a five-race tear through Europe, which included a couple of sub-3:37 1500 clockings to warm up, and then a 3:49.83 (just 0.03 seconds off his PR) in the Dream Mile at Oslo. He finished 3rd, splitting 3:33.7 for 1500 en route, and was closing fast at the finish on the the winner, Britain’s Peter Elliott, and Wilfred Kirochi of Kenya, but ran out of track.
“No world record is easy to get,” he told Bondy. “But I’ve run three races at a 3:50 pace within a week. I’m at one plateau now, and I think I can go to the next level and drop three or four seconds by September.”
“It was very disappointing,” he says. “The only good thing that came out it was that I started base training for the following year earlier, and so went into the ‘92 season really strong.” When the season was over, Nike asked him to return in ’92, and offered him a 3-year lucrative, incentive-laden contract. Asics had only offered him a far lower 1-year contact. He went back to Jan Lester and asked if they could match it. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, match it, but they did offer Jim a much improved package with a 3-year deal.
Back on a financial even keel, Jim set his sights on the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but, despite being healthy and in good form, as the Olympic Trials in New Orleans approached, all the negatives of ’88 started to resurface. “Not making the Olympic team, going from making six figures to making $16,000, and then an injury-plagued 1989. My head was swimming with negative thoughts.”
Jim decided to focus on what he could control, and used visualization of recent workouts, which had gone very well, anytime he became nervous. He and Durkin decided to make it a race where you had to be strong, leaving the sit ‘n’ kick runners out of the equations. They would not make the same mistake they had made four years earlier. “The night before the final,” Jim recalls, “Mike told me: follow to half a mile to go. Run the next quarter in 56. And then with 200m to go, I want you to visualize people breaking into you home, and their names are Steve Scott, Joe Falcon, and Terrence Herrington. What are you gonna do? Are you going to let these people come in and steal everything out of your house, or are you going to defend what’s your’s?”
So Jim visualized. The pace wasn’t ball-breaking, but at least it was respectable. A 1:58 opening half still saw the pack in tact, but a 57-second third circuit (2:55.1 at 1200m) saw the contenders – Spivey, Falcon, Scott, Herrington - file out like pearls on a string. And then with 200m to go, Jim thought about people breaking into his home. He got angry, fired up. He pulled away. It was working. “I tried it in other races, and it never worked,” Jim says, “but that day I literally saw people breaking into my home. I was ready for a fist-fight. And I finished with one gear left unused.”
After crossing the line, he sank to his knees and cried on the track while on all fours, the hardest he can ever remember crying. The pain of not qualifying four years ago had been dealt with, so he thought, but in reality it was just swept away into a corner, out of immediate recall. But in New Orleans, he says, “I put a dagger in that pain, and it was no more. Mike had prepared me mentally for that race and I applied it. In other races, he had prepared me but I never managed to apply it.”
In Barcelona, Jim mad the final again, and finished a very respectable 8th in a stacked field. It was another sit ‘n’ kick race that saw strong pre-race favorite Nourredine Morceli of Algeria let the pace lag and let notorious kicker Fermin Cacho of Spain steal it in front of thousands of Spanish fans going bananas. No American runner has finished in the top 8 in the Olympic 1500-meter final since Barcelona.
In 1994, when the U.S. Championships were staged in Knoxville, Jim could only manage 6th in a slow, tactical 5000 won by Matt Giusto. But, later in the summer he clocked a 7:39.65 3000 on Monte Carlo and lowered his PR to 13:15.86 in Berlin.
In 96, despite only finishing 4th again at the U.S. Championships, Jim made the Olympic team at 5000m, after clocking 13:24 in Stockholm, but he was eliminated after running poorly in his preliminary heat. It was disappointing and Jim thought about hanging up the spikes, but didn’t; he just found some new training partners.
“I remember Coe saying when you’ve been a WR holder, ‘why would you train to run slower than that?’ I never thought that, but realized that if I went over to Europe, I was going to get, like 20th place, and asked myself ‘What’s the point?” That being said, Spivey still kept on training, but without aspirations of racing the world’s best. After all, there were other goals to chase, and his old nemesis Steve Scott, four years Jim’s senior, was closing in on being the first master to run a sub-4 mile outdoors.
The next year, having hung up his spikes for real now, Jim began carving out national championships for University of Chicago’s #1 female runner, Rhaina Echols. Echols won five NCAAA Division III national championships - two in cross-country and three on the track. Spivey’s way of training was totally new to Echols, but she took to it right away. “He introduced the concept of fresh - running how you feel like running,” Echols said. “I never would have imagined that serious college training would incorporate so much freedom and place priority on cooperating with the body.”
The secret behind fresh, Echols explains, is that it’s not necessarily slow; you don’t want to psychologically overpower your body about its speed; you give your mind a break and let the body do what feels natural. This means you could actually run faster than you would if you were trying to force your speed when your body wasn’t ready for it. And it means that your body has the chance to utilize the strength that it has built and is naturally ready to use, while never over-stressing.
“Spivey created very calculated plans for the build-up of each athlete’s strength and endurance, so that we would peak for the day of the most important race. This he did every year without fail,” Echols says. Indeed, under Spivey UC’s women qualified for the NCAAA Division III cross-country championships for the first time in the school’s history. “He went so above-and-beyond as a person and coach,” Echols says. “He would sit and chat while I jogged in place for an hour in the pool when injured; he coached me through mental blocks and frustrations; he decided to look toward a future and a long life of health rather than pushing us into unhealthy overtraining; he invited the whole team to his home for the first long run at the end of the summer; he remembered every split time of every workout for each year of training. His ability in this regard was uncanny.”
“He devoted his life, his energy, his thought and all his available time to the team, and he dealt well with some of the hard issues of coaching women, and took it all to heart.” After taking the job at UC, he quipped to Runner’s World, “I maight not coach any futire Olympians here, but I may well coach a future Nobel prize winner.” During his tenure at UC, twelve athletes were named All-Americans. That’s no laughing matter.
In the summer of 2001, though, he moved to Brentwood, just south of Nashville, after being offered the women’s head cross-country coach and assistant track coach position at Vanderbilt. Going from a Division III program to a Division I program in a powerhouse conference like the SEC was a jump into the deep end, but Spivey has never shied away from a stiff challenge.
Jim thoroughly enjoyed his coaching stint at Vandy, but in December 2005, he left to take a full-time position with ASICS. And in August of 2006, he, Cindy, Seb, Sammy and Simon returned to the Chicago area, moving to Wheaton, only a few miles from his old house in Glen Ellyn, and just a 45-minute run from the track at Fenton High.
“To run 3:50,” he says, “you have to train at that pace. Not 3:40-pace! 3:50 is 57.5 per quarter, so you need to be able to float at that pace. Training at 53 or 55 pace does not help on the 3rd lap when you get tired.” Aah, floating at 57-per-lap pace. It’s a nice image, isn’t it? Gliding along, smooth as silk, at almost 16 miles per hour. Jim is so matter-of-fact about it, that he almost makes it sound possible for mere mortals like you and me. It isn’t. But the principle is sound. “You have to put in numerous workouts at the desired and attainable race pace,” he says. “And keep a training log.”
Jim may no longer be living in Tennessee, but this legendary miler has certainly left his mark - a very positive one - on the Volunteer state. Many former world class runners, when they can no longer perform on the big oval stages, remove themselves almost completely from the sport, but Spivey gives back to the sport with a seemingly limitless passion, helping runners of all levels. And, like many, I feel fortunate to have known him. As far as milers are concerned, Seb Coe remains my hero. But Jim? He’s a very close second.
TR EDITOR/PUBLISHER DAVE MILNER has known Jim Spivey for over 20 years. He has kept training journals in Spivey-esque detail for the last 20 years but, running-wise, that is where the similarities end. His goal for 2006 is to lower his mile PR to within 30 seconds of Jim’s! To learn more about Jim Spivey visit www.jimspivey.com