One of the most inspirational stories in the sport of running is that of Glenn Cunningham. Glenn was born in Kansas in 1909 and grew up in the small community of Elkhart. When he was just seven years old, a schoolhouse fire claimed the life of his 13-year-old brother Floyd and caused serious burns to Glenn’s legs. Amputation was recommended by the doctors in attendance. Glenn persuaded his parents against the procedure, however, and began a course of therapy and treatment to restore function to his badly damaged legs.
Devastating Injuries and Painful Therapy
Both Glenn’s legs were seriously burned in the fire. The toes on his left foot had been seared away along with most of the muscle of the transverse arch. His right leg fared little better; much of the flesh and muscle that made up its length was gone, leaving it about two inches shorter than previously. Without the skin grafts and transplant procedures used today to help burn victims recover more quickly, Glenn and his parents were forced to use more primitive therapies that included massage and stretching of his largely useless lower limbs. These treatments were painful in the extreme. Glenn and his parents persisted nonetheless in the hope that he might one day regain the use of his legs.
Determination and Grit
Although Glenn was confined to a wheelchair for several years during his childhood, he often escaped it to crawl to the nearby fence and use it to support himself as he put weight on his legs. This persistence and determination resulted in some feeling returning to Glenn’s legs and his eventual ability to walk once more. The scar tissue left from his accident, however, made walking painful and difficult. As Glenn persisted in his efforts, he made a surprising discovery: Running was much less painful than walking. Glenn’s journey to the top of the distance running sport had begun.
Glenn was soon competing in the one-mile races at Elkhart High School. During his senior year at the school, he broke the U.S. record with a one-mile time of four minutes, 24.7 seconds. This marked the first time that Glenn Cunningham had gained national attention for his athletic abilities. It would not be the last. During his tenure at the University of Kansas, Glenn trained under highly esteemed coach Brutus Hamilton and continued his winning ways in intercollegiate competition, repeatedly breaking records in both the half-mile and mile races. Glenn competed for the U.S. in the 1932 and 1936 Summer Olympics. While he did not win during either competition, he continued to set world records for speed in the mile, 800-meter and the indoor mile.
Today, Glenn’s story serves as a beacon of hope not only for long-distance runners but also for those facing difficult roads to recovery. By remembering Glenn Cunningham and his remarkable journey back from tragedy, athletes can motivate their own rise to the top of their chosen sports.