WHEELING - From the Ogden Half Marathon's beginnings, Tom Fleming has been here - first as a runner, and now as a race ambassador.
The New Jersey native returned to Wheeling this weekend to announce the race, greet old friends and make new ones, and also to continue showing his love for running in the Ohio Valley.
When he first came to Wheeling as a runner in the race's inaugural year, he was joined by running legends such as Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers as the nation's elite road racers.
He recalls those days with a smile, noting how he and his peers took the running world by storm.
"We were better, we were faster, Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter and I," Fleming said. "We would have beat this guy today (winner Philip Lagat) by five minutes. That first race was a very competitive race, and it got more competitive over the years.
"When I came here (the first year) I didn't even look over the course. The race director said, 'Do you guys want to look over the course?' We said, 'Uh, no, that's OK. We're professional racers.' I should have seen the course. It was horrible. I had no idea how long that long, nasty hill (29th Street) is. It was shocking. My legs were killing me. This is one of the toughest courses I have ever run as a professional. Absolutely."
For a guy who had a career that spanned 20 years and most of the world, that's saying something.
His career is really a Who's Who among distance racing's elite. He has won two New York City Marathons. He finished second in the Boston Marathon and finished in the Top 10 six times. He's won in Los Angeles. He was an alternate on the 1976 U.S. Olympic Team and likely would have been on the 1980 Olympic squad had the U.S. not boycotted the Moscow games.
His big break came in 1973, when, as a senior at Patterson State College, now the William Patterson College of New Jersey, he finished second in Boston with a time of 2:17.36.
"That changed my life," Fleming said. "To this day, it changed who I was, but it also made me believe I could be good. That fall I won the New York City Marathon, and everything started to roll."
Actually, Fleming didn't realize how big he had become until he won his second NYC Marathon in 1975.
"I knew it was a big deal when I won New York the second time, and the headline of the backside of the Daily News was 'Fleming Wins and Yankees Lose,'" Fleming said. "That's my favorite headline of all time. It was above the New York Yankees. That's when I knew it was a big deal."
There is a big difference between racing now and the days when Fleming, Shorter, Rodgers and Steve Prefonataine started the running boom of the 1970s.
"Running was a lot different then," Fleming said. "We didn't have the international flavor, Kenyans, Ethiopians," Fleming said. "Today, it's special when Americans win. That's why Meb (Mebrahtom Keflezighi) winning (Boston) was so special, the first American to win since 1983. We need to let younger Americans know they can win.
"I was talking to Bill Rodgers about it and I told him, 'I wish I could be 26 years old again so I could battle these guys. I'm not saying I would win, but I would not let them run away from me. I would not allow that to happen. I believe that Bill, myself, Frank Shorter, and a lot of the great runners, we could run with those guys. Today, very few young runners think they can. I believe they can."
Running has taken him around the globe, to several different continents.
"I spent a month-and-a-half in Asia," Fleming said. "Japan was my favorite place to race. They took care of us, and I never had a bad race in Japan. I raced in 14-15 countries in Europe. Australia, New Zealand, everywhere. It was a great life. Being a U.S. runner in the '70s, you felt like a rock-and-roll star."
Now a coach, Fleming, 63, will be inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame July 12.
"That's the big one," Fleming said. "I'm going to have Bill Rodgers come up with me. I know he nominated me. He's a great friend. Marty Liquori, one of the greatest milers back in the '70s, is coming up. It will be great to be with those guys and talk about how fast we used to be. Like all old guys."