Rick Riley, How Champions Build Legacies

The last installment with Rick Riley. Rick discusses the pressures on some of today's young athletes, shares his views on his exemplary career, and how he's creating his legacy, one day and one run at a time.

The first part of the series is Rick Riley, High School Running, Then and Now. The second is Rick Riley, On Running as a Profession.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Changing subjects here, but just very slightly.  We’re going back to Hayward Field. I was reading the accounts of the Junior World in the girls’ 1500 meters.  I think they ran fifteen hundred meters—it might be sixteen hundred meters. . .

RICK RILEY: They ran the 1500 meters.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Alexa Efraimson who went out there and decided she was not going to concede a darn thing to the Kenyan squad. Basically, she went out and tried to run with them for the entire race and took sixth.  People were saying , “If she should’ve backed off. . . ”  

I was sitting there thinking that here’s a kid that’s seventeen years old, and she just saying that she’s not conceding darned thing.  She gets some cheering from the Hayward crowd for that.  That was kind of a neat way to go ahead and run her race. 

RICK RILEY:             I feel bad for her.  I feel bad for her because she’s getting the comparisons between her and Mary Cain. There’s pressure put on her that is unrealistic at this point. 

She’s seventeen years old and she’s got a lot of running to do—I know maybe she had conquered all the world in high school but I’m not sure that going professional at this time is a good move for her.  I guess she can always get a college degree later in life or whatever.

I found out when I went down to WSU as an eighteen-year old freshman.  Except for Gerry, I would run faster than anybody on that squad.  I would run 4 minutes for a mile, 8.48 minutes for two miles, fourteen minutes flat for five thousand on the track. 

But on a day-to- day basis, these guys that weren’t as fast as I was were a lot physically stronger.  And sometimes in training, they handed me my lunch.  I wasn’t used to having to run this kind of intensity because I was the big guy in high school who dominated the training. 

When you run up against these people on a day-to-day basis, it’s a whole different deal.  Occasionally venturing into Oregon, or running a big cross-country race, or just going up to the University of Washington and running a three thousand, I did that same thing.  Then— when I had to compete against them—every single time I stepped on the track, that was a different deal.

 You can come up with these peak performances once every 3 or 4 months as a high school kid to run against open competition. But when you have to do it, every time you run, it’s a different type of thing and not the same thing. 

So I do feel bad for her in that respect.  I think she needs time. I know on paper, she’s there. Emotionally, is she there?  Is she ready to step up and be a big contender at eighteen or nineteen?  Is she ready for that?  I don’t know.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Well, we’re getting back to the too much distance, too much speed and too much stretching—and maybe too much pressure for the real elites like Efraimson and Cain and some of these other kids that are coming out.  I think Alan Webb went through a little bit of that.

RICK RILEY: I think Alan Webb experienced it entirely.  It’s not, although we aspire to it, it’s not an enviable position to be number one.  You’ve got a target on your back all the time. Alan Webb, clocked 3.53 minutes in high school setting an American record. 

Even Jim Ryun, by his senior year, was mentally going through something really hard.  Quitting races.  Marty Liquori beat him in 1969, and essentially when Liquori came even with him, he in some respects gave up—and I say that reluctantly because Jim Ryun was one of my heroes.  It’s just the pressure was just so great, every time he stepped out on the track. 

I’ll give you a minor example.  When I was in my sophomore year [at WSU] I was injured, I was fighting a bunch of things, physically.  And a guy in the Daily Evergreen which was, of course, the campus paper made reference to me as this hot shot sophomore guy from Spokane. All the attention was being put on me, and I was running like a piece of crap when some of my teammates weren’t getting any attention at all. 

I’ve never been criticized openly by anyone. My coach might have said, he didn’t run as well but not to the press.  And I remember sitting in front of my locker, all alone, sobbing, because it was so damn hard.  I was injured, and I was hurt.  And then this guy kicked me while I’m down. 

One of my teammates, Gary Benson from Okanagan who was an all-American cross-country, came over and he puts his around me. He says, “it’s going to be okay, just let it go.” 

And I remember coming up that week, we had a dual meet with Stanford, which was my first dual meet as a collegiate athlete. After one lap—the first lap was at about seventy—I took the lead and I just kept trying to drill the pace and I barely, barely managed to stay in front.  Beat Greg Brock, another all-American, I beat Pete and I won by about half a second. 

I never puked after a two-mile before, but I lost my gut after that one.  And I remember it was my pride that made me win that race.  I was in really rough shape.  I wasn’t anywhere near in peak condition.  But . . .I wasn’t going to lose.  I was not going to lose because my pride was at stake.  But it was one of the only times that I had felt really pressured. 

Even in trying to make National teams, I never felt that kind of pressure.  But being criticized, being in this little fishbowl of Pullman, and having someone pretty much saying “you suck buddy”, was pretty painful. 

PAUL DUFFAU:      Yes, it could do that.

RICK RILEY: It was pretty painful, you know.  It’s pretty much an ego breaker, but I felt like “you know what, I showed that guy.”  So criticize me again, go do it all you want, because I’m better than what you said I was.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Right.  But you can only go to that well so many times before it runs dry.

RICK RILEY: That was a tough one.  That was a hard race. 

PAUL DUFFAU:      I watched my middle daughter—and unfortunately my kids chose their parents poorly if they wanted to be Olympians—she would always have a furious kick. She was the kind of kid that when she was hitting the finish line, her eyes were rolling back at her head.  And it took her about three years after high school before she got to the point where she was saying “okay, I’m back and I want to run now.” 

She had gone back to that well so often that it just left her kind of  . . . emotionally empty for a little bit. 

RICK RILEY: For me, it was - nobody put more pressure on me than me.  Nobody wants it more than me.  That was the hurtful part.  I know it’s the bottom end right now and I don’t like it.  And I don’t want anybody pointing it out.

PAUL DUFFAU:      . . . you’re already well aware.

RICK RILEY: I’m well aware that I’m not running up to my potential.  But you know what, I’ve been hurt for the last 6 months and I’m fighting a hard battle right now.  But nobody, as I’m sure your daughter knows this, nobody puts more pressure on an athlete as themselves.  We all have these high expectations.  I had huge, huge expectations of myself and it took me years, literally years for me to appreciate how well I had run.  Because I always wanted to look back at what I didn’t do as opposed to what I did do.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Right.

RICK RILEY: And I look back on it now and I did some pretty big things and it took a look time.  There was even a period of time wherein I was relatively reclusive running-wise. I was running, but I didn’t want to be around it.  I didn’t want anybody to recognize me.  It was kind of the tail-end of my career. It was more like the glass was half empty than it was half full. 

And I did not realize how pretty special some of the things I had accomplished as a runner were.  As I am approaching old age, it was pretty amazing to me that, that 2-mile that I ran in 1966 is still the fastest outdoor 2-mile that any high school kid in the State of Washington has ever run. 

PAUL DUFFAU:      Yes.

RICK RILEY: I get a little torqued on how they come up with conversions and that sort of thing and according to the internet, the converted time is 8:44:09 for that race. That would be forty nine years ago, this spring.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Wow.

RICK RILEY: That’s a long time.  My mile record in the GSL [Greater Spokane League], when they converted 1600 times, those are forty nine years old—and they might survive fifty years.  I don’t know, but I never would’ve dreamed that a long time ago.  I never would’ve thought of that. 

A lot of things and a lot of time had passed and it’s nearly fifty years.  And a lot of athletes, a lot of really, really good ones have run those distances. And it took a long time for me to understand that those were pretty special times.

PAUL DUFFAU:      They were special times.  So the last question that I sent out to you by e-mail was your legacy.  I’m at the point now where—I’m not at your point yet where I’m looking at old age but I’m solidly at the edge of the tail end of middle age. 


PAUL DUFFAU:      And when you have grandchildren running around, you start thinking on a different timeline.  So when you start looking at your legacy, what are you looking at?

RICK RILEY: I think more than anything else is that, first, I still love doing it well beyond the years I ever would’ve dreamed that I would be running.  I still love running.  I look at my running as training although I’m not training for anything other than another day.   

I look at my coaching as kind of an extension of that where I when ask an athlete, or tell a kid, or  plan a work-out--I’m not having them do anything that I couldn’t or wouldn’t have done myself, or didn’t do myself. 

I look at the time that I competed as a really, really . . . [Rick pauses] . . . sorry . . . it was a special time. 

The best guys and Americans running at that time - Billy Mills, Gerry Lindgren, Steve Prefontane, Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter.  All of these guys—and I’m not putting myself in the same level as those guys—but I raced those guys, I beat some of those guys.

I trained with them, I roomed with them, I shared the same track with them. 

It’s a pretty fantastic feeling to have been a part of all of that.  And when I speak in my high school times, the fact that those times, those marks have stood the test of time, and the onslaught of a lot of really, really good runners.  And they’re still around, you know.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Yes.

RICK RILEY:             In 2010, the National Masters Cross Country Champions were here, and about two months before that a buddy of mine came to me and said, let’s put together a team.  And I said, “Are you kidding me?  I hated the 10K in cross-country when I was in college. Why would I do it now?” 

Then a week later he calls back and says it’s only 8K.   So I said, “That makes a big difference.”  [Laughs]

And I ran that race and won it; and actually my grandchildren witnessed it, and my kids were there.  My daughter had t-shirts made up that said: “My Grandpa is faster than your Grandpa”.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Cute!

RICK RILEY:             It was what I felt was kind of like the exclamation point on a great career.  That even all the way down the road through lots and lots of miles, tragedy and triumph, I could still do it.  [Laughing] And it really hurt, it hurt way, way worse than I ever remembered.

 And I’d like to think that, hopefully, other athletes would follow that lead.  Follow the dream because I dreamed really big.  My favorite story, my motivational story that I tell every kid is that when I was a senior high school, I shared a bunk bed with my brother who also went on to win title, was a mile champion.  So I got the bottom bunk and my brother got the top bunk, and on the bunk bed slat with a slash underneath I wrote “Goal: 8:48”.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Wow.

RICK RILEY: And in May 28 or whatever that was, I ran 8:48 minutes and I firmly, firmly believe in any kid who is willing to put the work into it, who is willing to set the goal and dream big and just go out there and run everyday. Listen to your coach and believe in your coach.  Do good things for other people.  Get out of yourself. 

More than anything else, everyday that is what I try to do, is to pass on this gift to other kids, so hopefully they will appreciate what they are doing as much as I appreciate doing it for them.  In other words, I’m trying to give back.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Okay.

RICK RILEY: Track and Field and running did many, many marvelous things for me.  It opened up many, many doors for me.  Being at the track meet [Spokane Summer Games] out there Saturday night, it was extremely gratifying just to walk out of that stadium and have people come up just to shake hands. 

PAUL DUFFAU:      Yes.

RICK RILEY: And hopefully, more than anything else my legacy will be that not only did I do great things in Track and Field.  I gave to kids to experience the same things that I did.  That’s my dream for kids.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Wow.

RICK RILEY: Not every kid gets to experience what I experienced, but every kid can set a goal, and accomplish that goal.  I got a thank you card from Hunter Olsen, my  athlete at the 3200, and the one thing that he point out was “I never would’ve been able to do that if you had not continue to believe in me and tell me everyday that I could do it.  That, I could be a state champion.  That I had what it took to be a state champion if I was willing to work and that I actually accomplished that.” 

I think for me, it has been every bit as special to see the kids–Katie Reidy in 2009, Maddie and Hunter just last year— to realize their dreams.

I don’t care if it’s 1B or 2B Level.  It’s a huge thing being a state champion and you will never forget it. 

One of the quotes from the article that I loved was Rick saying that his running is  "training although I’m not training for anything other than another day." George Sheehan talked about the evolution of a runner to a racer and, ultimately, back to a runner. There is a resonance in Rick's words . . .   

I am still astounded and honored that Rick was willing to do this for me. Many, many thanks.

And if you find yourself on a windy cross country race in the Spokane area, you'll see him out there with his kids, passing on some wisdom about dreaming big, working hard, and believing.

He'll be easy to recognize - he's the fastest looking grandpa on the course. He's got the shirt to prove it.