TOM FLEMING (1951 – 2017)

Tom Fleming winning 1981 Jordache Marathon (Mike Plant photo)

Tom Fleming was always a hard charger, a larger than life presence whether on the road in competition or at the post-race party where stories flew as fast as the miles had just hours before.  With his black Prince John beard and 6’1” frame drawn down by mega 150-mile training weeks, T. Fleming toed the staring line with his fitness visible beneath the barest of singlets, frame in relief, energy up, engagement pending.

There was something chivalric about TF, who left us yesterday at age 65, much, much too soon, his mighty heart beating its last as he collapsed while coaching his Montclair Kimberley Academy team at a track meet in Verona, N. J.  The running pack will not find another in its midst like him again anytime soon.

A Bloomfield, New Jersey native, Tom was twice New York City Marathon champion (1973 & `75) when the race had yet to leave its Central Park cocoon to bloom across all five boroughs. Twice more he was runner up in Boston (1973 & 1974) the one race he wanted more than any other, maybe even more than an Olympic medal. He was a fixture there, six top tens in all.

As a young post-collegiate runner TF was one of the great knight-errants of the sport at a time when it was still being done mostly for adventure, traveling where whimsy and invitation led, repping his country, winner at home at the Jersey Shore Marathon three times, but also in Cleveland in 1978 where I called my first big race outside Boston –  he told me about of the headwind coming off the lake in the second half.  He also took top honors in Washington D.C., Toronto, and most infamously in Los Angeles 1981 in the sport’s first openly professional race, the $100,000 Jordache Los Angeles Pro-Am Marathon.

There, as he did in seemingly every race, Tom placed himself at the point of attack and pressed, going where the action was, mostly causing it himself, knowing his was a game of strength rather than pure speed.  In Boston and at the five-borough New York City races his tactic ended up serving as de facto pacing for the bigger talents, but in L.A. 1981 he pulled free after the first mile to win by more than three minutes in 2:13:44. The win was worth $25,000, and he proudly carried the title of the sport’s first professional runner throughout his life, though he had claimed it before the category had ever officially existed.  As recently as October 2015 Tom still wanted more for those who had followed in his footsteps.

“I’m still discouraged that today our sport hasn’t moved with much speed in acquiring more prize money at road races. There should be a $250,000 purse to win the New York City Marathon today.  USATF still doesn’t let athletes have numerous sponsorships on their race singlets. The sport needs help coming from outside the business of running.”

Tom Fleming and Bill Rodgers lead off inaugural five-borough New York City Marathon 1976

A Jersey man through and through, Tom believed in engagement, and was fearless, whether in competition or in voicing his opinions about the politics of the sport. And so was he a running store owner, coach,  race promoter, mentor, and always a full-throated running raconteur.

For the last 18 years he taught and coached at Montclair Kimberly Academy where his charisma and talents helped shape young lives. How fortunate they were to have someone like Tom as a leader.  In 2013 he was inducted into the Road Runners Club of America Distance Running Hall of Fame and one year later was honored at the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, N.Y.

But since I was a member of the Boston running community, myself, I will always remember T. Fleming as Billy Rodgers’ wingman, the Sancho Panza to Billy’s more lyrical Don Quixote.  But rather than tilting against windmills, the two traveled the world tilting against the world’s giant runners of their day, the best of running buds, T. Fleming pushing out, dragging Billy to glory more often than not, including in such classics as the 1976 inaugural five-borough New York City Marathon where TF was defending champion from the last of the four loops of Central Park course, and again at Boston 1975 and 1979 when Tom finished third (2:12:05 PR) and fourth (2:12:56) to Billy’s American records 2:09:55 and 2:09:27.

T Fleming

“Oh, definitely I’ll be up front,” he told me before the 1982 Boston Marathon.  “I mean if someone goes out at 1:03 I’ll have to hope I see them at Billy’s store (Cleveland Circle).  But if things go wrong I want to put myself in  a Jimmy Valvano (1982 NC State NCAA basketball champs coach) way of thinking, ‘put yourself in a position to win’.  Obviously, if I’m feeling good and there’s someone ahead of me, or you know someone is ahead but having a hard time, that’s all the motivation I need to keep pushing.”

Runner’s Digest logo with T. Fleming center cut.

Very few people, even in a sport full of fun-loving over-achievers, ever filled their life with such Falstaffian gusto. Such was his presence that I chose as my Runner’s Digest radio show logo a silhouette of the lead pack from the 1976 Olympic Marathon Trials that featured T. Fleming unmistakably front and center, as always leading the charge in a race where he would eventually factor fifth.

Those of us who got to know and spend time with him will look back with sadness at our loss, for sure, but never without a purer appreciation and thanks for having been around to learn from a true master lessons in how to really live.

“Until death it is all life.”
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

END

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16 thoughts on “TOM FLEMING (1951 – 2017)

  1. Toni, thanks for the great perspective on my buddy Tom. I can still remember Tom and I taking Bill to an acupuncturist in Jersey and Bill running out of the office when he saw the needles! Stan

    • Jersey through and through, bigger than life, with the heart of a champ with good humor to spare. How could anyone be bored with TF around? We were lucky to have known him, and will cherish the memories. Thanks, and hope all is well with you. See you down the road.

      Toni

  2. I, too, was greatly saddened to read about Tom’s passing this morning. Remembering how much fun he was to speak with and listen to back in the heady glory days of the late 70s and early 80s.

  3. My God Tony,
    What a monumental testament to a man everyone of us burgoning distance athletes aspired to emulate. Thank you so much. God Bless Tom Fleming and God bless you Tony for your remembrance.

    • Thanks, Pete. I didn’t get a chance to see much of TF in recent years, as he stuck close to his teaching and coaching. But what a man-sized life he led. What a hole he leaves. He will continue to inspire us all. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Toni

  4. Great writing Toni. I was fortunate to meet & run with Bill but never got to know Tom. Other than reading about him in the 1970’s while in college and starting my own running adventures, didn’t know much about him. Stay in touch and wish you the best as Health is my number one priority,
    In Health,
    Ivan

    • Thanks, Ivan. All the best to you, as well. TF was a giant figure in the sport, personality plus. Thank goodness he put his talents to teaching and coaching. Such a well lived life, though far too short in years.

      Toni

  5. Bravo, Tony! Tom was the a true promoter for our sport! I saw him win that Pro marathon in LA in 1981. It was one way from Hollywood to the ocean, a lot of hills on Sunset Blvd. (including ‘dead man’s curve’). i was riding a bike, being the ‘water/equipment guy’ for my friend Tony Brien, who also ran.

    • Thanks for the reply, James. Just a horrible reason that brings us together. Tom was life in full. I am happy for all those kids he had a chance to inspire in the time he had. Great guy. Thanks for sharing your memory.

      Toni

  6. Tom was a great inspiration to all of his fellow runners in many ways,
    He inspired us to chase our dreams,
    He inspired us to train hard,
    He inspired us to race with heart,
    He inspired to learn from our victories and losses.
    But most of all he taught us through his own actions to be humble and share your experiences and knowledge to inspire others. Thank you Tom for what you have given to all of us. RIP. You are an example for others to follow.
    Scincerely, John Roscoe

  7. Toni, that was a wonderful piece on Tom. i have to say that i was one of tom’s first training partners back in the fall of 1969. he ran for paterson state and i for monmouth college. i lived in clifton and he in bloomfield. whenever home i called him up and we did his 10 mile loop and 14 mile loop together. to many people’s surprises he would run my pace and we would talk the whole way. i had the pleasure of sharing the 1972 olympic trials with him. what a trip i remember like yesterday. we traveled to many races together with our dad’s. Tom has many times said, ” joel’s the runner i trained the most miles with in my career”. we had such a special bond and he made me the runner i was, the person and coach i became. he had a tremendous influence on my life. i can’t believe i’ll never see him at brookdale park again. there sure will be a tremendous emptiness left in the world of running without him in it.

    • Joel,
      So sorry for your loss. Our training partners hold such a special place in our hearts. I can just imagine the miles melting away with Tom alongside ready for any topic. Thanks for sharing your memories.

      Toni

    • Sorry to hear sad news Tom Fleming was a great runner and by all accounts had a happy life I met you Joel way back in 1972 at ny road races I pause reflect of so many that Jane left this life they go somewhere great somewhere grand poet Walt Whitman would say of good human life

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