Jeff Pearlman

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Mike Stahr

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If you were a track kid growing up in Putnam County, N.Y. in the 1980s, this all-time legendary American runner was your hero. Or, put differently, a sub-4 minute mile doesn't lie. POSTED January 9, 2019

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Back when I was a teenager in Mahopac, N.Y., distance running was my thing, and I was pretty good. Not amazing, mind you—but legitimate enough to have the fastest 800 time in the county as a senior, and go on to spend a year running track and cross country in college.

There were many of us throughout Putnam. Jeff Cascone. Mike Barrett. Daiji Takamori. Tim Giambalvo. Good-to-excellent harriers who ran hard and knew how to navigate a winding three-mile trail.

Yet, ultimately, we all existed in the shadows of Mike Stahr.

Back in the early 1980s, Mike was arguably America’s best high school distance runner. The Carmel High standout captured four New York State Mile Championship titles, and won back-to-back Millrose mile crowns. Upon graduating, Mike went on to run at Arizona State, then Georgetown. He was, at both schools, among the elite of the elite—winning the NCAA indoor mile title, helping Georgetown’s distance medley relay set a world record, scoring multiple All-American nods.

In short, he was the best runner (and arguably the best athlete) Putnam ever produced.

Now retired, Mike teaches computer science at Miami (Ohio) University, and also coaches running and operates Running2Win, an online running organizer. One can follow him on Twitter here.

Mike Stahr—to hell with the Olympics. You’ve been Quazed …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Mike, I just spent a half hour at the gym watching YouTube clips of your high school and college races. They were dazzling, breathtaking, inspired, etc. And I wonder, now as a 54-year-old man with four kids, what it’s like for you seeing yourself at that point in life. Does it feel like watching another person? Another existence? Does it feel like yesterday? Do you enjoy the visuals? Sorta hate it?

MIKE STAHR: Thanks, Jeff.  Yes, sometimes it does feel like someone else out there running. The last time I was competitively running was in the mid 90’s so it’s been a while.  When I look back at videos I remember the races very well but it does seem like it’s been a lifetime ago.  Watching them is good and bad. Good in the fact that the adrenaline rushes but bad because I typically find myself way overworking my muscles on my next run or weightlifting session.

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J.P.: Long ago you coached track and field at John F. Kennedy High near where we grew up. And during my time covering sports, it’s always been said that the best players make the worst managers, because, well, how can Ted Williams relate with a guy hitting .210, or how can Jason Kidd understand a point guard who can’t go left. So what was coaching like for you? Could you empathize and help the 5:40 miler?

M.S.: Great question. I think there could be an argument there; however, I think it has more to do with the person’s love of coaching that means more.  I have had great results over the years I’ve been coaching. I attribute this, mostly, to the fact that coaching is a passion for me.  I truly enjoy helping young (or old) athletes achieve levels they never thought possible.  I don’t recall exactly how well the JFK teams I coached did but I do know we were successful.  I can, however, speak about later years I’ve coached. After moving to Cincinnati I coached at Purcell Marion HS for one year prior to going to Graduate School. The Cross Country team was made up of 1 runner, 4 basketball players, and 3 wrestlers (the basketball players and wrestlers were running XC by order of their coaches to get in shape for their sport).  I am most proud to say that the team came together so well – like a family – that they ended up qualifying for the regionals – something the school had not done in over 17 years. The kids did so well all but 1 wrestler quit their sport in order to continue running. To me, it’s all about what you love to do. A successful athlete has the same chance at developing young athletes just as much as a non-successful athlete and in many ways has a greater potential.  It’s all about dedication and passion.

J.P.: How did running happen for you? I mean, I know you’re from Carmel, know you went to Carmel High? But when did you first realize you had a gift? And when did you first realize you wanted to nurture it?

M.S.: You have now touched on one of the most important area in my life. I don’t mean that to be dramatic but this is a story of the love and dedication of a father and of a son. I will condense the story but the unabridged version is quite a bit more interesting:

I was born into a “disturbing” family. As the youngest of 5, I was seldom cared for during my first year of life – twice ending up with pneumonia.  It was my aunt (Lucille) who moved herself and her 3 children to the south side of Chicago in order to protect me.  Not something minor as a single mother of 3 and putting herself through college while working full time.  She had met a man (Don) where she worked and they completely fell for one another. He was 11 years younger and looked like a larger version of Grizzly Adams. He didn’t want anything to do with me – as he later said he thought he would break me – but due to chance, I was trusted into his arms one night while Lu and her daughter were making dinner.  It was, from everyone’s account, love at first sight. Don, who I call my father, became my hero. Lu, Don, and I moved to NY (Queens) until I was in 7th grade.  We then moved to Carmel, NY the summer before school started. My dad was a big smoker – I didn’t know it was bad for him, and in fact, I would help roll his cigarettes. We were as close as any two people could be and I didn’t realize until taking a biology class that his habit was a deadly one.  I began to panic that my dad (again, Don) would pass away because he was a smoker so I began to come up with challenges to bet him in exchange for him quitting.  I would bet him I could do 100 push-ups. If I won he would have to quit smoking…  He never agreed to any of them…

It was during gym class one afternoon that our gym teacher wanted the group to race about 1/2 mile around the soccer fields. There is more to the story but in the end I won, beating all the runners that were on the XC team and, by chance the gym teacher WAS the XC coach.  He told me I needed to join the team.  I did but never really did anything great – probably due to never running before. That being said, the times I would do well would be if there was a medal or my parents were able to make the meet.

I continued to improve over the next year – so much so that I broke the school record in the 800 during 8th grade.  This was a great springboard into my freshman year. My parents were able to change their schedule around so they could be at almost every meet and I reacted well to the more mature competition.  I ended up making the State meet in XC and running a 4:25 mile my freshman year.  The story behind these accomplishments is, however, the key.  The summer between 8th grade and freshman year set me on a path that I consider most influential to my career.  It was in the middle of the summer when my dad and I were watching Seb Coe, Steve Scott, and the other great runners of the time when I attempted to bet him I could run 300 miles before the start of school (note: I never even made the 50-mile club during middle school where you only had to accumulate 50 miles during the entire season).  My dad, as expected, said “no”…  but then he added “But, I’ll tell you what I will bet you…  If you can break 4 minutes in the mile I’ll quit smoking”.  It was set and I never turned back. I set my goals and continued to work past disappointments, injuries, and the odds against me.  So, in answer to your question – I realized I had a gift when I would not allow my coach to tell me that running a 4:25 mile my freshman year was impossible and then I went out and did it.

Feb. 12, 1983 New York Times

Feb. 12, 1983 New York Times

J.P.: You began your collegiate career at Arizona State—which sounds lovely. Then you transferred to Georgetown. Why? What happened? And did you ever regret it?

M.S.: I really enjoyed my time at ASU. I was being coached by Len Miller, Steve Scott and Tom Byres’s coach as well. Training was amazing and we had just set the American Collegiate 4x800m record (still standing today). Unfortunately, coach Miller and the A.D. at the time did not agree on issues and he ended up leaving ASU.  I stayed on for another year but was went through 5 completely different coaches. Running was going downhill and I wanted to just give up at times but I had not broken 4 for the mile and that was still one of my most important goals.  I was recruited to go to a number of schools, Georgetown being one of them, and after meeting the coach at GU (Frank Gagliano, aka, “Gags”) I knew that was home.

J.P.: So, this, from your bio (After retiring from track and field, Mike was offered the first developer position at a small computer software company in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho building a 3D CAD system which today is one of the leading architecture programs on the market) sounds absolutely fascinating—and I have no remote idea what it means. So, eh, Mike, what does it mean?

M.S.: After graduating from GU I moved back to Carmel to train under my father.  It was something I knew would be difficult but being with him on that level was important to me.  While there, I was teaching at JFK and, on the side, was helping a friend with his computers and software he was using.  The software was (is) called Chief Architect and it allows the common person to draw house plans – complete with automatic everything.  I caught on to the software and was able to teach other builders how to use it.  The company (of 2 people) asked me to attend a builders expo and help sell the product.  I did so well during the weekend I was offered a job as their QA and “tech” guy.  This lead to small coding projects and eventually they moved my family and me out to Coeur d’Alene to help run the company.  This lasted less then a year once I realized the president of the company was extremely unethical and left there to move to Cincinnati.

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J.P.: So this might sound offputting—but we’re both from Putnam. And over the past decade or so I’ve really struggled with Mahopac and the vast number of “Obama is a Kenyan Muslim” posts and #MAGA Facebook hashtags. I loved growing up there, but … well, I don’t know. I’ve been turned off. Hell, for all I know you believe Obama is a Kenyan Muslim and you love Trump. Which is all your right. But I wonder, looking back, how you feel about Putnam? About where we grew up?

M.S.: Wow, this is sad to hear. I’ll always think of Carmel as home even if there are those that believe such nonsense. When I get upset and can’t understand why so many people are wearing blinders I think of this story: In 1976, the last season of Gilligan’s Island was aired. The Navy was inundated with letters from actual Americans that were serious in there request that the Navy needed to rescue the stranded castaways … so, I think to myself, if people didn’t have the common sense to realize that Gilligan’s Island wasn’t real then I guess I can understand how people can be so misguided these days.

J.P.: You’ve taught theology at multiple places. I struggle mightily with God, and faith in general. I mean, I look around—poverty, viciousness, drought, famine, murder, etc. Climate change is destroying the earth. On and on. So, being serious, how do you maintain faith?

M.S.: It’s difficult for me, too. I can’t say I’ve come to grips with it all but that’s not a bad thing. Challenging your faith is normal and everyone goes through it.  Although I taught theology when I was a high school teacher, I have been teaching computer science now at Miami University for the past 22 years.

J.P.: In 1988 you qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 800 and 1500, but didn’t make the Olympics. How big of a disappointment was that for you, never being an Olympian? Could you still watch the Olympics in, say, 1988 and enjoy them? Did you have to look the other way?

M.S.: Another great question. Well, it was absolutely a big disappointment for me.  There was every indication I would make the team in the 1500 m; however, a poor decision was definitely a major factor not making it.  There is no question I should have been there in ’88 but what every athlete needs to realize is that making the Olympic team comes down to many things falling in place. Those that make it to the finals of the trials still need many things to go right.  It’s not always the favorites that make the team.  I think I was a bit in shock at the time the Games were aired so I was sad to watch but still excited for our team. In the back of my head I always assumed I would make the ’92 team so I was able to cope pretty well. In later years, the sting of not making the team still gets me but there is one thing that takes it all away – I think to myself, if I had made the team I would not have what I have today – an amazing family – and when I think of missing out on them everything gets put back in perspective.

Working with students at Brahms' Running Camp‏.

Working with students at Brahms’ Running Camp‏.

J.P.: What does it feel like to be leading a race with one lap to go, knowing you’re in charge? Like, what is that? The emotions? The thinking?

M.S.: In high school I often led the races. There were times in my younger years that I probably should not have but did it anyway.  By the time I was a Junior I would not allow anyone to lead a race for long or at all. All I can say is there is a feeling of control. A feeling that the race belongs to you and that you make the rules for it.

J.P.: You had this superpower—you were one of the fastest humans in the world. When did you start either A. Losing the superpower? Or B. Losing interest in the superpower? Is it a gradual aging thing? A gradual indifferent thing? And do you still run competitively at all? Can you still enjoy it?

M.S.: This is, surprisingly, a simple one for me to answer.  Growing up I was seldom injured. Other than the week of the 1983 Olympic Invite 1000m indoor race where few people know that I had bronchitis, a sprained ankle, and was recovering from having a fork thrown in my eye, I was pretty lucky in the health area.  Once injuries begin to set an athlete back it takes a lot to overcome them and “start over” getting ready for the next season.  In the beginning it is much easier to get back on the horse but the more one has to endure this type of struggle the harder it becomes.  In the end, for me, it came down to the fact that I was married and raising a child and trying to focus on training and recovering from one setback after another.  I took a long look at what was most important to me and the choice to retire became much easier.

It’s funny, I have met many athletes that competed on the national or World level and many of us say the same thing: that knowing how fast you once were it is difficult to get excited about running times we could have run in high school. So, when I run a race it is just for fun these days – not to see how fast I can run them. That being said, I rather coach than compete myself.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MIKE STAHR:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): The Mahopac Diner, Edwin Koech, James Van Der Beek, “Dances with Wolves,” DJ Jazzy Jeff, University of Arizona, rainy days, Newport Beach, napkins, LA Gear: The Mahopac Diner, Edwin Koech, rainy days, University of Arizona (did you mean Arizona State? If so then this comes before rainy days), “Dances with Wolves,” Newport Beach, DJ Jazzy Jeff, James Van Der Beek, napkins, LA Gear

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yep … while in Europe traveling with the US Track & Field team our plane all of a sudden started nose diving. All I focused on was my family. As it turned out, our head coach was sitting in the “deadhead” seat in the cockpit and told us that another plane came into sight heading straight for us – our pilot shot down and their pilot pulled up.

• Greatest single moment of your running career?: Hmm … I have so many amazing moments but one stands out among the rest: The day I broke 4:00 for the mile came with the joy of attaining my goal coupled with the realization that my father would be giving up smoking.

• Who wins, right now, in a one-mile race between you and Lamar Jackson?: Sorry Lamar, I’ll have to take that one.

• How did you meet your wife?: This is a long but amazing story filled with a series of events falling in place that sound like I made them up.  So, the short version is that we met while I attended graduate school at Miami University.

• What do your sneakers smell like after a long run?: Actually not too bad—my long runs are over pretty quick these days

• Favorite Bible passage?: 1 Corinthians 9:24 (Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize)

• Five colleges that recruited you to run that you never even remotely considered attending: Einstein University, University of Arizona, Baylor University, University of Texas, University of Florida

• One question you would ask Lou Piniella were he here right now: Who was your all-time favorite player you coached? And why?

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life