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Tom Fleming, Runner (July 23, 1951 – April 19, 2017) 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Tom Fleming, winning the Jordache Marathon LA in 1981 (Mike Plant photo)

It was sad to hear that running great Tom Fleming died last month of a heart attack at the still-young age of 65. Fittingly, he died while coaching a track meet. If he’d had a choice, I’m sure that venue for a finale would have been among his top three picks
Most distance runners are contemplative and understated in their demeanor; Fleming was, in contrast, effervescent and passionate, full of enthusiasm, with a love of running that surrounded him like an aura. Watching Eliud Kipchoge’s recent attempt to break two hours in the marathon, I couldn’t help but think of Fleming, and how he would have been transfixed by the spectacle, and admiring of Kipchoge’s talent and courage. 

I met Tom Fleming for the first time at Rob Wallack’s Runner’s Den 10K in Scottsdale, Arizona in February, 1981. At dinner the night before that race, the chairs on both sides of a long table were filled with at least two-dozen of the best road runners in the sport: Thom Hunt, Kirk Pfeffer, Bill Rodgers, Steve Ortiz, on and on. Fleming, who already had two New York Marathon titles to his name, was the life of the party; I became an instant fan. Three months later I was lucky enough to cover his victory at the Jordache Pro/Am Marathon in Los Angeles, the first of several early futile attempts to bring a major marathon to a West Coast city that deserved (and finally got) one. 

The lead pack at the Runner's Den 10K in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1981. At the time it was known as the fastest 10K in the world. Tom Fleming is on the inside, wearing bib #3. Thom Hunt is #1. The inset is Fleming after the race. (Mike Plant photos) 

It was not the biggest win of Fleming’s career. Not by far. But it was perhaps the best 26 miles he’d ever run.  I will never forget that day -- standing in the back of the press truck and watching a man having the perfect running day at the perfect time -- that rare occasion of which we all dream, when every piece falls into place; when the running is effortless, the pace simply a matter of happenstance. Never before or since have I seen someone run the way Fleming did that day, with the pack far out of sight behind him, gliding effortlessly up and down the hills of what was supposed to be a challenging course, a look of joy, even wonder, on his face. “I’m not even tired!” he said, after the race, clearly amazed at his own performance.
Fleming was, to my knowledge, never a multisport athlete. In terms of his career, the timing was all wrong. But I couldn’t let his passing go unobserved by this website; he was inarguably one of the best endurance athletes of his time. Click on the PDF link below to read the article about the Jordache race, exactly as it appeared in the February, 1981 issue of the San Diego Track Club News. God speed, Tom Fleming.