A Tribute to Tom Fleming

Photo by Mike Plant

Somewhere, someone in the world is training when you are not. When you race him, he will win.

~Tom Fleming

Running legend and universally beloved man Tom Fleming died yesterday while coaching Montclair Kimberley Academy high school team. He was 65.

You can look up his many athletic accomplishments….NYC Marathon wins, multiple American records, Hall Of Fame inductions, etc.

Great runner and an even better person. This post is a brief tribute to the man.

My Memories of Tom

I grew up in Nutley, NJ and as I took up running while in high school in the early 70’s and didn’t need to look far to find inspiration from a local legend and world class marathoner who trained in my favorite park (Brookdale Park). I have tons of Tom Fleming memories but I’ll pick just two – both of which exemplify how unselfishly giving he was.

This first time I met Tom was when I entered a small super low key one mile race during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school. I have no idea why Tom showed up but I didn’t yet know who he was. I guess I was a bit cocky and figured I’d run away from everyone with maybe a 5:20 mile. Tom approached me and asked how fast I could run. I guess I wanted to show off to this stranger and I said 4:50 (my PR at the time). He says “I’ll pace you to a 4:45”. I assumed he was joking but sure enough he ran exactly 4:45. (I tied up in the last half lap and ran 4:51.). After the race he looked at me with a stern face and asked why I didn’t stick with him to the end. Before I could nervously reply he broke into that wonderful Tom Fleming grin and shook my hand. That day he became my idol and a friend for life.

Fast forward to the summer after I graduated from college. One day, out of the blue, Tom calls me at home to tell me that Bill Rodgers is in town and asked if I would I like to join them for a run. Duh! I count that 10 miler as the most memorable training run of my life.

Thank you Tom for the mentoring, friendship and inspiration!

1979 Team Roster for Tom Fleming's Running Room Track Club - I was honored to be part of this group

1979 Team Roster for Tom Fleming’s Running Room Track Club – I was honored to be part of this group

Additional tributes and stories worth sharing

From the LetsRun Message Boards

from Patti Dillon

Tom’s passing is so sad for me and my family and the running community. He possessed a hilariously funny sense of humor sprinkled with truth. One of the hardest working runners ever. Always gave his all in everything he did…and politely asked for you to join him…”c’mon, whaddya got to lose, it’ll be fun”.

I remember he joined in fellow dyestaters and letsrun runners and former race officials for a local race at The Johnny Kelly race in CT. to help with water stations, We ended up doing, I think three, thanks to Tom. We surprised him with a b-day party. cake and all. It was the first time I ever saw him turn red.

He was an authentic enthusiastic person, runner, coach…but above all the biggest absolutely the biggest and most generous heart. He was a wonderfully delightful person to be around. Always encouraging and of course made you laugh.

He was one of the first runners to make change by running and winning the Jordache Jeans marathon and won 25K along with Cindy Dalrymple as the first woman winner. He surrendered his amateur status.

We traveled and ran is some of the same races…wonderful stuff..always egging on Billy ( Bill Rodgers). Playfully busting his chops.

There was one time we were all in Arizona training during the Winter months getting ready for Boston. We were at Billy’s house. Of course, Billy is still sleeping and we were already to get going before it got too hot to go out for the morning run, We’re all moaning and groaning waiting for him to wake up. Tommy taps on the bedroom door…”Knock, knock, knock…time to get up and take your medicine”…Billy is out in a flash and off we go….

RIP Tom. Love to you

Tributes Posted on Tom’s Facebook Timeline

from Gary Cohen

Terrible news that Tom Fleming, two-time NYC marathon champ and two-time Boston marathon runnerup in the 1970s has died of a heart attack at age 65 while doing what he loved – coaching his high school track and field team. We never met, but Tom did a wonderful interview for my website and we commented on each other’s Facebook posts frequently. he was beloved in the running community. I’m pretty numb….Godspeed Tom… rest in peace…

When I interviewed Tom he talked about one Christmas when he ran 14 miles in the early morning. After his family’s Christmas festivities he ran another 14 miles. He knew that nobody in the world had trained more that day than his 28 miles and he got a slight edge. I think that epitomized Tom.

An interview between Gary and Tom from 2011: http://www.garycohenrunning.com/Interviews/Fleming.aspx

from Andy Martin

As a kid, in the late 70s, just getting my start in running there was no bigger name than Tom Fleming in New Jersey. He was a workhorse that many of us young Jersey guys looked up to. Thanks for being out front and showing us how to do it the right way. RIP Tom

from Benji Durden

I’m sure the stories about Tom will be plentiful over the next few days as we remember him. One of mine was how he tried to cover all the possibilities in a marathon. He told me on a run we were on after a race that he timed himself when he had to make a pit stop on a training run. He felt sure he had this down to a minimum that would save valuable seconds if he had to stop in a marathon.

from Rod Dixon

Absolutely numb – great friend great competitor great coach and a huge contribution to the sport. RIP Tom Fleming

from Henry Rono

Sorry to hear our friend Tom passing away. He was very active man in his job as a coach helping young athletes to improve their lives in running.

from Dave Allen

Devastated and truly heartbroken to learn this morning of the passing of my friend, co-author and racing legend Tom Fleming, who died yesterday doing what he loved and did better than anyone else, coaching runners. Without Tom, there is no way I could’ve ever co-authored “The New Rules of Running” book that Vijay Vad and I collaborated on a few years ago. I’m a golfer, not a competitive runner, after all. But he made running so easy to understand with phrases like “speed is strength in disguise”, “on-your-feet time”, “long, easy runs”, “mid-run pickups”, “steady” pace. His 10-day/week training program (which he would always tell me was a “phase”, not a week), is a thing of a genius and, with all due respect to Hal Higdon, is the very best marathon training program out there–especially for beginner and intermediate marathoners. I’m truly proud that his name graces the cover of “The New Rules” along with Vijay’s and mine, and I will dearly miss our talks about running, golf (which he loved) and the NY Knicks and Boston Celtics. Tom, you were always right about the Knicks. They stink, haha. RIP Tom. If God needs a running coach, he’s getting the very best. Take it slow and easy up there in Heaven.

from Anne Marie Letko

Is it true that my coach, Tom Fleming, passed away? I am in shock. He was the only one who believed in me back in the late 80’s when I was still in college- injured, unhappy, and with a mom dealing with cancer. My heart just dropped down to my knees. Two great legends and mentors to me have departed on April 19th….Grete Waitz in 2012 and now Tom Fleming yesterday. I am very sad today. RIP dear ones who made such a difference in our sport.

from David Monti

You will always be an important part of the TCS NYC Marathon family. We will miss you so much. You made great contributions as both an athlete and a coach. You also made me laugh. Thanks, Tom, for giving so much to the running world, especially to young people through coaching.

from Jacqueline Hanson

I’m beyond sad at the news of my friend and colleague. We’ve known each other since I won Boston in ’73, and were both invited to run next in Charleston, WVA. The photos are from that race. Tom and I each have photos at that event with Pre which our friends have always been fond of. A couple years after, like troubadours, Tom, Bill Rodgers and I traveled to Puerto Rico together to run a 30K race – what an adventure that turned out to be — and back to Tom’s home in New Jersey, where I stayed for the women’s national track championships (running the 3000m). I’d won the 30K, but faded out in the 3000m.

I remember that he had an impressive collection in a beautiful trophy case . . . . with a number of Boston trophies (including two second places), but he said I had the only one he wanted, with a sigh.

Remember when he came out to see us,​ Mark Covert , in So Cal, and we all went to Disneyland? I forget the year. I also don’t recall the year, but Tom Sturak saw to it Tom Fleming came out to run the only marathon that ran the entire length of Sunset Blvd. which he won. Crazy running!

My saddest moment spent with Tom, however, was in Eugene in 1976, at the men’s marathon Olympic Trials. I was running ​Janet Heinonen’s exhibition women’s 10,000m while the men’s marathon was going on. Here came Tom, finishing on the track, out of the running, and he collapsed on my shoulder visibly sobbing. It tugged at my heartstrings so I cried too.

I’m crying again. It’s all too sad.

Call it grief stricken, but I almost forgot to include the most memorable moment of our friendship of all!

We actually won the 1978 Cleveland Marathon together! However the then mayor, Dennis Kucinich (sp?), came to award the winner the key to the city, obviously overlooking the fact there are two winners — now that we had equality — and he showed up with one key.

Well, the solution seemed easy enough to me, since Tom’s flight left earlier than mine, I was staying overnight, so I suggested Tom receive it and the mayor could set things right on Monday morning. I would still be waiting except for that gentleman Tom has shared his key with me, and that key is now my precious charm of that kind soul Tom Fleming.

JacquelineHanson1 Jacquelinehanson2
Photos from Jacqueline Hanson

from Mike Fanneli

UTTERLY DEVASTATED and at a loss for words at the passing of my/our dear pal Tom Fleming. I received a late afternoon call from the 201 area code yesterday and could only respond in loudly evoked expletives. Didn’t know what else to say as such a harsh reality was being explained.

I knew Tom on many levels but in the end we were just close pals and kindred spirits who enjoyed one another’s company immensely. We enjoyed busting each other’s balls and trying to outdo one another on track/running trivia (a topic that we always threatened to team up on ‘against any other duo in America that doesn’t include Walt Murphy’ (Tom’s words).

I never caled TF ‘Tom’, always Tomas…he usually called me stuff like MF or ‘you damn track nerd’…couple of East Coast guys that liked to have a beer and talk coaching, golf, track, history and break down races. An irreplaceable human being and friend.

I could go on to tell about his many race wins (and near wins) but you can find that stuff anywhere. If you wonder how he felt about his couple of big second place runs, here’s a recent FB dialogue he and I had re: Jon Anderson’s 1973 win:

  • Tom: I was Irish Dancing right behind him this day!
  • Me: did you not almost catch Jon, Tomas?
  • Tom: “almost” coulda, shoulda … didn’t!

Just a typical down to earth cucumber cool righteous TF kinda’ response.

TF was scheduled to come stay in my guest house…drink wine, review the t&f archives, tell more lies, play some golf and then go watch some track and field…imminently. It ain’t gonna happen…sadly.

Instead, Tomas is hanging out with the cherubims and serraphims who will soon be laughing like crazy, running big PRs, and ‘telling it like it is’ while we mere mortals pine over the very large loss of a once in a lifetime pal.

I love you brother beyond the scope of mere words…rest in peace Tomas ;{

May you rest in peace, Tom

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One comment

  1. 1

    So sad to hear of Tom’s passing. A great guy and tremendous competitor. We were teammates at the 1971 Olympic Development Camp in Missoula Montana and I remember his tenacity. His impact on the many young people he mentored will live on.

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