Driven by disappointment at the '84 Games, little-known Olympian John Tuttle continues winning as a master.
runnersworld.com September 11, 2012
Thirty years ago John Tuttle was living the simple life. After graduating from Auburn University, he shared a trailer in the small Alabama college town with a couple of friends, supporting himself on odd jobs and meager road race winnings. His only responsibility? Paying his $50 per month rent.
Tuttle never guessed that less than two years later he would be running the Olympic marathon in Los Angeles.
That quick rise to national prominence -- and Olympic disappointment -- has kept Tuttle competing at a high level for three more decades. Today a retired teacher living in the mountains of western North Carolina, Tuttle, 53, trains almost as intensely as he did during his college years. "I want to be as good as I can be, for as long as possible," he says. "I'm always going to run. And if I'm going to run, I might as well race and try to be up near the top."
Tuttle never ran farther than 3,000m on the track during college, but the 8:35.74 steeple he ran in 1979 (still No. 2 all-time at Auburn) suggested longer distances might be his forte. After he graduated in 1981, he turned to road racing. The more he raced, the more he heard about the marathon. The distance seemed impossible to him, until the day he beat 2:15 marathoner Herb Wills at the 1982 Citrus Bowl Half Marathon. "It was an extremely hot day," Tuttle recalls, "and I ran 1:04-something and beat Wills by a minute. I thought to myself, 'Geez, maybe I can run a halfway decent marathon.'"
Tuttle made his 26.2-mile debut at the 1983 Florida Festival Marathon, clocking 2:14.18. In his second 26.2, Grandma's Marathon in June, Tuttle ran 2:12.31 and finished second. Kangaroos offered to sponsor him and brought him to the New York City Marathon that November to work at the expo. "I got there and mentioned that my training was going great," Tuttle recalls, "and they said, 'Oh, you want to run the marathon? We'll get you in it.'" His 2:10.51, a third-straight PR, was good for fourth place.
The 1984 Olympic trials used the Skylon International Marathon course, starting in upstate New York, close to where Tuttle grew up in Alfred, N.Y. He had dozens of friends scattered along the route. Tuttle ran confidently throughout, trading the lead with Pete Pfitzinger and Alberto Salazar over the final few miles before finishing just behind them in third. He was on the Olympic team.
Nagging injuries kept Tuttle from training at his best leading up to the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. He ran the first half of the Olympic marathon alongside Pfitzinger before dehydration set in. He stepped off the course after 21 miles, the low point of his career. "I'm still kicking myself in the butt for that," he laments. "I could probably have finished it in about 2:30, which, looking back, seems better than a DNF next to my name."
Tuttle continued to race well for another decade, including a 27:52 road 10K in 1985 and several more marathons, but nothing quite matched making the '84 Olympic team. Turning 40 in November of 1998 gave Tuttle renewed motivation, and he immediately became a force on the masters scene. His 23:25 for 8K and 14:19 for 5K, set in 1999, are still U.S. masters records. "I went to just about all the major races and won a lot of them," Tuttle says. "To tell you the truth, I was surprised."
n 2002 he began suffering light-headedness and shortness of
breath. He was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm.
The following year he had surgery, which created small areas of scar tissue in
his heart to normalize the electrical signals. Doctors performed a second,
similar procedure in 2007. "It screwed me up a little bit," Tuttle
says. "Before the first surgery I was running so well, and afterwards I
couldn't do anything close to that. So I'm a different runner than before, but
I'm happy I can still run."
In 2010 Tuttle won national 50-54 titles at 5K and 15K on the roads and won his age group at the 10K USATF National Club Cross Country Championships. Injuries hindered his 2011 campaign, but Tuttle is looking for a big second half of 2012. He continues to emphasize speed work in his training, often getting in three or four workouts a week. "I do a lot of back-to-back speed workouts, and that's probably a lot of why I've had so many injuries," he says. "I might do 25 x 200 one day and a hard fartlek the next. I like to get on the track because it's accurate. The 200s aren't super fast, but just getting into a good rhythm. That's a lot of it -- the rhythm of running fast." His mileage today tops out around 70, with a long run. "I seem to race my best when I'm getting in my long runs and doing them fast," he says.
During the height of his career, Tuttle stayed cool under pressure and was known for celebrating his results, win or lose. None of his friends thought he'd still be running today. "Very few of the guys out there racing in their 50s were high-level college runners or Olympians like John was," says Chris Fox, Tuttle's former Auburn teammate. "He's been great since he was in ninth grade. Usually guys like that, myself included, kind of get tired of it at a point."
But Tuttle has never wearied of competition. "Regardless of what shape you're in there's always somebody else to race," he says. "You can always get into it with somebody and make it kind of interesting and fun. That's the way I look at it."