Catching Up with Jim Spivey
“Even today, I can remember that feeling of kneeling on the warm-up track at Bislett, and my eyes get moist.”
By Dave Milner, Tennessee Running
I am riding shotgun in Jim Spivey’s car, a white Volkswagen Passat in whose back window one of this three son’s has fingered the message ‘Clean Me.’ The rear seat is chock-full of ASICS uniforms bound for local high school cross-country runners. Attached to the rear view mirror is a stopwatch. Spivey uses it to take splits. Not his running splits, or anyone else’s for that matter. He uses it to note his driving splits.
This is a man who is, by all accounts, obsessed with times, positions, and statistics; a man so meticuluous in nature that he is rumored to time himself mowing the lawn. Ask him how long it takes to drive from, say, Nashville to Chattanooga, and, rather than give you a guesstimate, Jim will give you his PR to the minute, and if you exhibit enough interest, you might get his intermediate splits at the Murfreesboro and Monteagle exits too! For almost a quarter-century, Spivey kept detailed training logs with splits to the tenth of a second. Pick a day - any day - between 1977 and 2000 and Jim can tell you where, how far and how fast he ran, who accompanied him, and what the weather was like that day. But it is this attention to detail, this meticulousness, this obsession with time that contributed to such a lengthy and successful world class running career.
Pop quiz time. Who was the last American male distance runner - at 1500 meters and up - to medal on the track at a major outdoor championship? Yep. That’s right, the gray-haired fella in the ballcap here; the one holding the stopwatch; the one that, until a few months ago, lived right here in Tennessee for the last four and a half years. And many of you didn’t even realize that you had a miling legend on your doorstep.
Jim Spivey is, by any objective measure, one of the best middle distance runners that the United States has ever produced. After running for Indiana University, where he was twice an NCAA champion, notched a staggering thirteen Big Ten conference titles, and was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame, Jim went on to qualify for three Olympic Games. Twice at 1500 meters, a distance at which he placed 5th in 1984 and 8th in 1992, and then at 5000 meters in 1996, when he advanced to the semi-finals.
In World Championship competition, he won the bronze medal in 1987 and was fifth in 1993. He has run 3:31.01 for 1500 meters - the third fastest all-time by an American, 3:49.80 for the Mile - good for 6th on the all-time list, and he still holds the U.S. record at 2000 meters.
Until recently moving back to his hometown of Chicago, Jim lived in Brentwood, just south of Nashville, from 2001 until this fall, and until December 2005, was the head cross-country and assistant track coach at Vanderbilt University. He is now working for ASICS, the shoe company with whom he has had a long-standing relationship as an athlete, a coach, and now as a corporate employee.
When I began working on this story, Jim and his wife, Cindy had just sold their house to one of the athletes he coaches in the Jim Spivey Running Club (JSRC), a program he started in 1990. In September, Jim returned to the western suburbs of Chicago, where it all began. But he has left his mark on Tennessee, as the Nashville branch of JSRC runs on and high school sensation, Kathy Kroeger, whom Jim has coached since March continues to rewrite the record books.
James Calvin Spivey was born on March 7, 1960 in Schiller Park, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. When he was fourteen, he enrolled at Fenton High School in Bensenville, right next to O’Hare airport. But the teenager didn’t run until his sophomore year, and even then, it was with some degree of coercion. “As a freshman I played basketball,” he says, “and in the first day of gym class, the coach, John Kurtz, had us run a Mile. I ran 6 minutes and 48 seconds. The coach asked me if I’d sign up for the cross country team and I said ‘No, I play basketball,’ and he proceeded to give me a ‘B’ in gym class for running.” Jim knew he’d done well and hadn’t given the teacher any trouble. He confronted Kurtz, who still coaches at Fenton to this day, about it many years later and he flatly told him, “Jim, you probably deserved a B.” Jim, still appearing a little ruffled that his stats were messed with cracks a half-smile now, saying “He refused to admit that he’d docked my grade because I didn’t try out for the team.” As a sophomore, the following year, Jim’s class was asked to run the Mile again the first day of gym class. This time, Jim ran over a minute quicker, clocking 5:45. Once again, Coach Kurtz asked Jim about joining the team. Remembering the docked grade, Jim said ‘Sure, I’ll give it a try’.
Jim takes up the story: “That was on a Tuesday. I got my physical that night, ran 2 miles Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and then on Saturday ran a 19:05 for 3 miles in my first cross country meet, in Keds! The following Saturday, I ran 17:27, and the following Tuesday, I ran 16:48. By the end of the season, I ran 15:41, which was the fastest a sophomore had ever run in Illinois.” Spivey carried that momentum, and obvious talent, into the following season and in the spring clocked 9:21 for 2 miles making it to the state meet.
Too short and too skinny for basketball, the pencil-thin Spivey had found his calling, it seemed, as a distance runner. He quickly realized that there was a direct correlation between the quality of training done and subsequent performance in competition.
So in the summer of 1976, preparing for his junior year of cross country, young Spivey upped the ante. “Between June 1 and August 31, I ran 1000 miles that summer.” Why 1000 miles? York High School was 3 miles up the road and the York runners, guided by legendary coach Joe Newton, ran 1000-mile summers. “Coach Kurtz said he would buy a long-sleeve ‘1000 mile club’ t-shirt to anyone who achieved this goal. I wore this shirt in almost every race under my uniform, even during the indoor season. I was proud of the work I’d put in that summer. The fact that it went a long way to hiding my 5’10”, 100-pound frame, might have been a factor too.” Jim, years later, went back and re-measured those courses in his car and discovered they were all about 20-25% off, so he really only ran between 750-800 miles. But, hey, he got a solid summer base in and he got the shirt.
Jim tried out for basketball again as a junior, but it just wasn’t the same. In basketball, he had to rely on someone else giving him the ball before he could perform. But with running, he saw the rewards for his own hard work, and he was reliant on no one but himself.
Initially, his parents were less than enthusiastic about their son’s running. “I remember going to buy my first pair of running shoes,” Spivey recalls. “They were adidas Countrys. My mom really didn’t want to spend $35. She thought it was a lot of money and couldn’t see why we couldn’t just go to K-Mart and buy three pairs of Keds for ten dollars a piece.” They started to take him more seriously when he finished second at the state meet, behind Tom Graves of Carl Sandberg High. The following spring, Jim clocked an eye-opening 9:00.5 for 2 miles in finishing second at the state meet, behind Graves again.
In his senior year, after finishing second again in the state cross country meet, Jim and Coach Kurtz switched focus, from the 2-mile, to the 880 and Mile. Jim’s splits at the previous fall’s state cross country meet were 4:38, 4:38, and 4:44, while his nemesis, Graves, went 4:38, 4:28 (9:06 for 2 miles), and 4:50. Graves had essentially dropped Spivey with a mid-race surge and coasted in to win. Still, Spivey had clocked 14:00 over the famed Detweiller Park course in Peoria, tying future National Cross Country champion Jorge Torres for 4th on the all-time list. Only Graves, Lincoln Park’s Dave Walters and Lebanon’s Craig Virgin (with the course record at 13:50.6), who went on to win the World Cross-Country Championships, have ever ran faster there. “I was strong, but I had been dropped by Tom halfway through that race, and figured I needed to work on my speed,” Jim recalls. And so began Jim’s love affair with the Mile.
The emphasis on the shorter stuff sat well with Jim, whose rail-thin frame belied a wealth of fast twitch muscle fibers. He ran 1:57 indoors on what is essentially a square track, and knew he could run a lot faster outdoors. He developed great leg speed to match his strength. At his conference meet that spring, he won the 400 in 49.8 and, just eight minutes later, clocked 4:13.5 to win the Mile. At the state meet, Graves won the Mile and 2 mile races, but Jim won the 880 yards, in an impressive 1:50.20 - a school record that still stands. The following week at the Keebler Invitational he ran the Mile and won in 4:06.2, another still-standing Fenton record, and the second fastest Mile by a prep runner in 1978.
Not surprisingly, a runner with Jim’s ability and range was heavily recruited, but Spivey quickly drew up a very short list of schools at which he thought his running could be taken to the next level, and “had it down to five schools,” he remembers.
Part 2 HERE.