Thirty-nine is an age much favored by ladies of 50, people who believe that life begins at 40, and Jack Benny, but by and large an athlete does not expect it to mark the high point of his career. However, Distance Runner Fred Norris has pursued his career without much attention to probabilities. Last November, at 39, he finished second in the National AAU cross-country championship, and three weeks ago he won the Sugar Bowl 5,000-meter run. Norris did not even take up running until he was almost 27, but uncompromising training and an almost monomaniacal dedication have produced an athlete who is approaching 40 and may still be on his way up. In 1954 Norris did experience a qualm. "I gave over this hope of running—I thought I was too old. But I've come back to it." At that time he was a sprout of 33, mining coal in Tyldesley, England. It was not until he was a riper 38 that he took both the British national and the international cross-country championships, and not until he was 39 that he was offered an athletic scholarship and became a freshman in college.
Norris is one of the best long-distance runners in the world. He ran for Britain in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, and missed Rome in 1960 only because he had injured his back lifting machinery in the mine. In 1959 an English paper said of him, "Since 1952 Norris has improved more than 30 English, British and World records...at least 20 of them...this year." Two weeks after the national cross-country championship he won the international. Two weeks after that he won the British 10-mile track championship, setting the British, British Empire and British All-Comers records, and picking up the seven-, eight-, nine- and 10-mile English records along the way. He holds the two-hour track record—22 miles 1,610 yards 1 foot and 8 inches.
England is a country which takes its long-distance running seriously—a country where a field of more than 1,000 will start a cross-country race, throngs will turn out to watch it and champions are invited by the Queen to garden parties. It is in many respects a runner's country, but it cost Norris too much money to run there. The mine stopped his pay every day he was absent. With a salary of some $27 a week, the cost to him of running in the Empire Games or in the Olympics was crushing. With a wife and a 14-year-old son, it seemed impossible for him to continue. "I saw I had to change jobs, I had to change everything, if I wanted to get anywhere," Norris says. So he did.
He made the difficult decision to emigrate. In the late summer of 1960 he arrived in Lake Charles, La.; and in the early fall McNeese State College, which happens to be located in Lake Charles, offered him an athletic scholarship. Fred Norris accepted and was enrolled as a freshman. In four years, with a degree in elementary education, he hopes to go into coaching.
"I think it's going to work out real well," McNeese Track Coach Charlie Kuehn says enthusiastically. "I didn't realize how good he was [Norris has so far won eight out of 10 races for McNeese], and the rest of the team has really come along nicely since he's been here. They never realized the work it takes to be a good distance runner. I feel the longer they stay with him the better they're going to be. He's like an old puppy dog with a batch of little puppies, the way they follow him around."
It all sounds good. Actually, however, it is going to take both guts and ingenuity as well as dedication to see the four years out. A $79-a-month scholarship covers the rent but does not even make a gesture toward food and clothing for a family of three. Everything depends on his wife Doris' working, but as Norris says, "there is nothing that would suit her here." She is a weaver, and there is no textile mill within 200 miles of Lake Charles. McNeese is looking for work for her, but so far has been unsuccessful. As it is, the four or five dollars she occasionally earns baby sitting is of no essential help, and they have had to broach their small savings. "She blames me," Norris said one evening in their Lake Charles apartment, when Doris was out of the room. "She says I knew it before she and the boy came over, that there's no work for her. I did know it." Norris himself is not in a position to take on work. At this point he cannot afford a letup in his training, and he is carrying a heavy academic schedule after 25 years out of the classroom.
"I think everybody's impressed with how he's doing with his schoolwork," Kuehn says. "When it's been 25 years since you did any studying, it isn't easy to take it up again. He's doing terrifically in history and geography, and in the English [the only subject Norris is failing] I'm sure he'll do real good."
Norris himself isn't sure he'll do real good. "It's not too bad now," he says, "but I hope I can do better. I shall have to spend more time on the studying part. It's the not being used to it. The English—you think you've been talking it good, but then you find you don't know the inside of it—verbs, adverbs, commas, complex sentences. I get so tired. While I was waiting for Doris and the boy to come over, I was living in the dorms. I was just starting my studies, and I didn't know what I was doing. I'd put on my running things and go out, and everything would be all right. Until the next day."
Running is everything to Norris, though it took him a long time to find it out. He served his apprenticeship and worked for some years in a machine shop, playing soccer with the shop team in his spare time. When he was 26 he realized how much he preferred the conditioning run to the soccer itself, and from that point he was lost (or found, depending on whether you are Doris or Fred). He had to give up the machine shop. "It was night work there, and night work doesn't fit in with training." He went into the mine, the Cleworth Hall Colliery, where his father had worked from the age of 12 and where his brother works today. "Ours is only a small mine. It's about 900 feet down." The walk from the shaft to the coal face was a matter of a mile and a half, about a 30-minute walk, the last half of it through a tunnel 3½ feet high. This was negotiated twice daily in that duck-walk regarded as a punitive measure by the Army, and payment for the day's work was calculated from arrival at to departure from the coal face—working conditions that have improved hardly at all since George Orwell denounced them in 1937. Probably the Norris leg muscles were strengthened by this aspect of work in the mines and, miraculously, his lungs did not suffer from the coal dust. "It should have affected my running, but it never did, maybe because I never worried about it. When I did come out of the mine I was running straightaway. Many's the time I've come up dead tired and gone out and run 12 miles, and run it off."
The mine paid less than the machine shop, and a new shift he requested there, to fit his training schedule, paid less than the old. Since he has been running, Norris has moved steadily down the pay scale, shifting always to jobs that would allow him to train.
"Training, training, it's athletics first, even on holidays," Doris mourns. "Mother always left holding the babe. I've been left alone scores of times, working and taking care of the baby."
"It's true," Fred nodded. "I've always been keen on sport."
"Keen?" Doris said. "Mad absolutely. When he played football he always came home crippled. I remember one Saturday they brought him home, he had four stitches in his knee." (Norris laughed.) "When I'd go to the mill, different ones from the Worsley area would say, 'We've seen Fred this morning, on the road.' Half past 6 in the morning! In Moseley Common, where the bus turns around, the people would see him, and then when they got off the bus at Tyldesley he would pass them again."
"They probably miss me," Norris said. "There were no other runners, not in my area, and they would see me twice a day. I used to run all through the town." He added wistfully, "Back home you got a hill now and then."
Norris at that time was running 10 miles in the morning and 10 miles after work, and training with his team, the Bolton United Harriers. Tyldesley had no team of its own, so he ran for nearby Bolton and did them proud. He will admit that he misses the great crowds that followed distance running at home, and "the club spirit—all the boys on a weekend, that kind of a race—I can honestly say I miss that. It's difficult in America because the country's big. At home it's so small it's easy to get everyone together." Certainly there isn't the enthusiasm in the U.S. that there was in England, where he ran to shouts of "Good old Fred, go it!"
"And before a big race he's impossible to live with. He's mangy," Doris said, pursuing the subject of Fred's training and pronouncing mangy "monjee"—a splendid word, with all the sense of mangy and the flavor of monstrous.
"Don't call it mangy. Couldn't you call it temperamental?" Fred suggested hopefully.
"Mangy," Doris said. "What did our Edmund say after you won the national? 'He'll be fit to live with now, won't he, Mum!' "
"It's just that before the big races I get a bit keyed up," Norris defended himself. "After, it's straight home and straight to bed. Though I just lie there. I'm not able to sleep."
As to his diet, Norris is not finicky. As he points out, he can't afford to be, but his stomach is sensitive. Before a race he will eat just two boiled eggs and, if the race is an important one, nothing for five hours after it. The water can affect him. "When I went up to Kentucky," he recalls, "you never tasted water like it. I don't know if you've ever tasted the milk of a coconut? It tasted like that. It wasn't nasty, but it could upset your stomach."
Doris' lament has a ritualistic air, that of a complaint duly registered for form's sake by a Doris who has long since affectionately come to terms with her husband's "madness." Indeed, all she really asks is the opportunity to get back to work. "I've known her for 22 years," Norris said, "and she has worked for me nearly all of that time. When were we married? Ah." Was Doris listening? She was. But Norris made a game try. "We know it was during Bolton holiday week, but it falls on a different day every year...it was the 29th of June or the first of July. It was 16 years ago. Wasn't it?" He gave up helplessly.
"We met on the monkey run," Doris said. "When we were younger, all the young ones used to walk on a certain street, up one side and down the other—just Sunday nights, after church."
It is lonely now for Doris in Lake Charles. "She's been used to company, in the mill," Norris says. "And where we lived there was blocks of houses, and the doors are right by one another."
"You just walk down the road and you're at the pictures," Doris said. "Back home, if you should be a bit browned off, you could go out in the street and talk to anyone. But you go out in the road just to walk here and people look at you as if you were crazy. At home, Sunday afternoons everybody was out walking."
These adjustments and the finances and the studies weigh on Norris' mind. "I don't know whether this is the easiest course or not," he says. "Being out of school for so long—the risk is losing all. But I wouldn't go back. The boy has the chance of a better education here, in the long run. If he was back home he would finish school at 15. He could get more of an education by going-to night school, but the 15-year-olds don't want to. They're tired from working all day. And Edmund is running well here. He's got all his own things, and he's been better since he's been here. At home I had difficulty getting him out, but now it's just the opposite. His distance is about two miles—he has raced the three miles, but mostly twos. There's nobody can touch him. He could be a great prospect if he improves normally."
"He cries when I mention going back," Doris said. "He won't wear any of his clothes from home. When he first came he said about the school, 'I'm not going where there's girls!' You can't keep him away from them now."
"He's certainly looking out for himself," Norris agreed. "Well, it's time."
Father, student, head of a household—Norris is all of these things in a bemused and gentle way. He grapples as best he can with such procedural matters as money and his English course, but his heart is not entirely in them. He speaks of his years in the mine with little emotion: "Well, I guess I didn't hate it. If I'd hated it I suppose I wouldn't have stayed for 12 years." But when the subject changes to so much as an old track shoe, Norris kindles there before your eyes.
At the moment, while the breadwinner is thinking about money and the student is thinking about the English course, the runner is thinking about the Boston Marathon. The long distances are really Norris' home ground, and he talks about the marathon like a little boy talking about a cooky. "That's what I want," he says yearningly. "I haven't been beaten in this kind of race for two years, and I can't see me being beaten now. I could really show them what road running should be, like I did in England." He could indeed, but unless a sponsor presents himself Norris is not going to have the chance. Unlike the indoor meets, the marathon seldom pays expenses.
Norris will do well in this country ultimately. As Kuehn says, "Anybody that's got the determination to pack up everything and move to another country—why, they can do anything! I don't see how he can fail."
But whatever his practical success in the future, it-will haunt Norris if he has not run his great Boston Marathon. Eating and being clothed are very good things in their way, but for Fred Norris they aren't in the running with running.