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.”
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.
“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.”
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.