In early September, on the eve of his 50th birthday—and the first-ever Hershberger Games—millionaire oilman Jim Hershberger of Wichita, Kans. had readied all his supplies—among them, nine pairs of athletic shoes, three types of rackets, nine types of balls, Milky Way bars, DMSO, Zwieback and bananas. "I've been working on this for more than a year," he said before the big day. "I haven't overlooked anything."
This is an article from the Oct. 19, 1981 issue
Preparations for his one-day, 18-sport endurance test and extravaganza included mailing out $6,000 worth of spectator invitations (rolled in plastic relay batons), enlisting some 50 athletes as opponents and teammates and even training under miler Jim Ryun's high school coach, J.D. Edmiston. But the 5'9", 142-pound Hershberger, an obsessive competitor whose sporting career has resulted in 51 broken bones, 191 stitches and 17 major operations, had completely ignored Edmiston's oft-repeated question: "Jim, what are you trying to do to yourself?"
"I figure I'll be running maybe 20, 25 miles, plus, of course, the bicycling, swimming, wrestling, water skiing and jet skiing," said Hershberger, who would be the Hershberger Games' only official entrant and who was only slightly concerned about how his bad shoulder, bad foot and bad neck would affect his performance. "You know, they wouldn't let me into the Superstars," he said. "I tried. I told them I'd pay $50,000 to anyone who could beat me. Maybe I'm not enough of a draw, but I could win that thing easier than climbing a set of stairs."
Hershberger has become almost a legend in Wichita because of his flamboyant ways. In response to dares, he has literally run through 180 holes of golf in 13 hours (tearing knee cartilage in the process) and dived into perilously shallow waters (chipping one tooth). He now lives with his family in a $2.7 million, nine-bathroom mansion to which he invited 1,400 guests for the housewarming party. He has masterminded all sorts of fund-raising schemes—and donated a sizable share of his own fortune—to keep alive Wichita's charities, track meets and indoor-soccer franchise. "We knew that by calling this event the Hershberger Games," said Jim's close friend, Bob Lida, the head of a local ad agency, "we would capture people's imaginations."
Hershberger's previous sporting achievements are difficult to nail down because the legend of Jim Hershberger has become confused with the facts. While he had an above-average track career at the University of Kansas as a quarter-miler and at various times has held three national track records for older runners, he also claims to have been nationally ranked in racquetball, an alternate on the 1948 U.S. Olympic wrestling team and to have run the world's second-fastest 220-yard dash in 1954, none of which is true. "I've won awards in 14 different sports," claims Hershberger, who remains a thoroughly likable character despite his self-appreciation and inflation. "In fact, the Masters Track Association named me the most versatile athlete of all rime." In fact, the association never really lauded him as such although its publication did run an article in which Hershberger himself made that claim.
Nevertheless, fewer than 20 people—most of them from local TV stations—showed up for the chilly predawn tennis match that marked the official opening of the games at 5 a.m. on Sept. 2. "This has to be better than not sleeping," said Hershberger, hitting practice shots in a NO GUTS NO GLORY T shirt. He said that he had gotten up in the middle of the night to eat some cheddar cheese and taco sauce. "I had to have something different," he said. "I had overloaded on carbohydrates and kept going to the bathroom." Now he inspected a small jug at courtside containing what Edmiston called "power punch."
"What's this?" Hershberger asked.
"Bourbon and Seven," said Edmiston, grinning.
Hershberger put down the jug, then dived, twisted and crashed his way through a 6-4 first-set loss to insurance agent Ric Knorr. Hershberger scraped the skin off both knees and one hip during the tennis match, and had begun to curse himself. He later found out that he had a hairline fracture of his left wrist, the result of a backward fall off the court's wire fence; Hershberger had tried to run up the fence to make a shot. "Hand me my stick," he said to an onlooker. He used the two-foot wooden rod as a lever to work the stiffness out of his shoulder, which he had hurt 1½ months earlier when attempting—on yet another dare—to duplicate Sugar Ray Leonard's front flip after his knockout of Ayub Kalule.
The stick seemed to work a certain magic: Hershberger won a time-curtailed second set 2-1, and then went on to defeat Knorr again, 15-5, 15-7, in badminton. After easily beating Paul Porvaznik, the publisher of the Wichitan magazine, in a 100-yard swimming race, Hershberger was pumped up. "Gosh! I'm not tired at all," he said. "I feel better than when I woke up."
In order to complete all 18 events in the prescribed 14½ hours, Hershberger had to maintain what was destined to be a frantic pace. He occasionally had to change clothes in the backseat of a station wagon while riding from one venue to another, and he was consuming his food rations in virtual midstride. Then his luck turned. His 15-year-old son, Chris, out-shot him in 100 rounds of target riflery. "Give me another round," Hershberger pleaded, only half kidding. "I may be your father, but I'm not a good sport." No success. Next Lida, a onetime Big Eight indoor 440 champ, outsprinted Hershberger over 200 meters (25.4 to 26.9) on Wichita State's—what else?—Jim Hershberger Track. After that he ministered to a new trouble spot, an aching left instep. He cut off its wrapping of athletic tape and began spraying it from a small silver canister. "What is that stuff?" he was asked.
Hershberger smiled. "You're supposed to have a prescription for it," he said. In fact, it was ethyl chloride, a surface anesthetic spray, which he soon would be using copiously on a broken right hand. Twenty minutes into a 10-mile bicycle race he was pedaling in Wichita's commuter traffic when he ran a stop sign, made the mistake of trying to wave an apology to an irate motorist and flipped off the bike. Not only did he fracture his hand (and two fingers), but he also lost the bike race. "I'm not tired, I'm hurt, dammit," he said. He winced as he bowled three games, losing again, this time to Clark Ensz.
Hershberger hurried off to a doctor's office for a shot of Xylocaine, another anesthetic. "It's swelling up," he said of his hand, "but I don't have time for X rays. I've gotta wrestle and play handball right away." He received the injection (and a look of incredulity), but it wasn't very effective; for much of the day he kept treating the hand with ice, ethyl chloride and hot-wax dips, and had it taped before some events. He came out of his wrestling match (against a 1977 state high school champ) with another defeat and a gashed and broken nose. "Just part of the game," he said. "He happened to get me before I got him."
In the span of a mere five hours Hershberger, who normally looks all of 35, seemed to have aged into something much closer to his actual years. With the blood on his nose drying into a ghastly-looking clot, he took on the postfight appearance of an old, battered boxer. He was able to win only two of the last nine events—racquetball against a TV anchorman and the 10-km road race.
Yet in defeat Hershberger showed his true grit. In every event he outhustled his younger, fresher opponents. He insisted on playing handball with his bad right hand because he thought he might win that way. He outplayed the Kansas City Kings' eighth-round draft choice, Guard Randy Smithson of Wichita State, in 40 minutes of five-on-five basketball and, yes, was actually disappointed in himself. "What did I score, 12 points?" Hershberger said disgustedly. "It had to have been that bad hand."
He kept it up right through the final event, the road race, which didn't start until 6:40 p.m., nearly 14 hours after the ordeal began. Dave Capling, one of the other runners, said, "We'd be running along when suddenly Jim would cut across the grass and leap through a hedge. Then we'd hear, 'Oooooh, my hamstring! My hamstring!' What did he expect from jumping through bushes?"
Hershberger was still clutching his hamstring when he reached the finish line in front of his house. His time of 38:53.89 was excellent, and he was greeted with applause by more than a thousand guests who had been invited to his backyard birthday dinner. One thousand helium balloons were set loose. A young woman delivered a singing telegram and coaxed Hershberger into dancing with her. The state attorney general showed up, as did the Wichita fire chief—in a flashing, wailing engine. "Now" said Hershberger, "I am tired."