The Un­likely Su­per­star

New­found­land’s PAUL McCLOY was a tall, awk­ward run­ner who trained through bliz­zards in hockey rinks and park­ing garages to be­come one of Canada’s all-time greats

Canadian Running - - SHOE-IN - By Steve Boyd

In a grainy YouTube video taken from lo­cal a Van­cou­ver TV broad­cast back in 1990, three run­ners, bro­ken away from a strug­gling file of pre­tenders, cir­cle a rain-soaked track in the fi­nal stages of a then ma­jor Cana­dian 10,000m race. In pro­file on the back­straight of the penul­ti­mate lap, two ex­hibit the clas­si­cal Gre­cian form ex­pected of world-class dis­tance run­ners – per­fectly per­pen­dic­u­lar, light on their feet, with a crisp, sym­met­ri­cal swing of the arms across the mid-point of the torso. To the ex­pert and ca­sual fan alike, they look poised to run away from the third run­ner when fi­nal bids are made. Be­cause, by con­trast, the third run­ner looks laboured, his torso bent for­ward and ro­tated, his head wag­ging, and his splayed feet slap­ping the track. In short or­der, one of the lead­ing three is dis­patched as the long fin­ish drive be­gins. But it’s not the awk­ward one.

As the frame tight­ens on the two who will de­cide the race, it’s the awk­ward one who is step­ping to. He strug­gles past the seem­ingly ef­fort­less one who, with a few quick and pre­cise pumps of the arms, promptly re­verses po­si­tions again to give him­self the pre­ferred line go­ing into the fi­nal cor­ner. All at­ten­tion is now on the prob­a­ble win­ner. We feel as though we have seen all the rac­ing we’re go­ing to.

But then, just as the sense of de­noue­ment is co­a­lesc­ing, we dis­cern, in our pe­riph­eral vi­sion, a sub­tle change in the pos­ture of the ap­par­ently van­quished one. He might be the only one still un­con­vinced that this race is set­tled. He is still f lail­ing, but he seems to have grown slightly taller and, as­ton­ish­ingly, he is now ac­cel­er­at­ing.

As the two re­lease onto the home straight, the leader is squared per­fectly to the fin­ish line, hips high and arms driv­ing like a proper sprinter. His body lan­guage, how­ever, be­trays un­cer­tainty. As it hap­pens, he has been here be­fore. Over his right shoul­der he can be­gin to glimpse the fu­ri­ous thresh­ing of his pur­suer, who is now run­ning with the akimbo elas­tic­ity of a 3rd Grader at re­cess, as he inches closer to level. Pan­icked now, the smooth one’s form goes ragged for a step or two just me­tres from vic­tory. As it does, the chaser pulls even, then nar­rowly ahead, his nod­ding head now well out in front of his torso and his arms f lail­ing.

Af­ter the fin­ish, the two di­verge quickly as spec­ta­tors and me­dia spill onto the track. The loser walks away, baff led yet re­signed, while the win­ner stands, breath­less and smil­ing, his shoul­ders and his gaze at slightly ir­reg­u­lar an­gles to the cam­era that is now right in front of him. He is asked what goes through his mind dur­ing a fi­nal sprint. His eye­brows raise and his smile broad­ens. “Noth­ing!” he says, laugh­ing and mov­ing to exit the frame. “Paul McCloy from New­found­land!” shouts the de­lighted in­ter­viewer as the video ends.

Paul McCloy was a run­ner who made all who watched him and heard his story dur­ing his peak in the 1980s and ’90s ques­tion ev­ery­thing they thought they knew about the sport and what it took to be good at it. The na­tive of St. John’s, N.L ., was more than good at run­ning – he was great, by any stan­dard. In fact, he is still, ar­guably, Canada’s best ever at the dis­ci­pline of cross-coun­try. And he was un­de­ni­ably one of the best in the world at his peak, fin­ish­ing eighth and 17th in the 1986 and ’87 edi­tions of the global cham­pi­onship, then con­sid­ered to be the world’s most com­pet­i­tive yearly footrace.

McCloy was to the sci­ence and con­ven­tional wis­dom of mod­ern high per­for­mance sport as the bum­ble bee is the laws of physics – im­pos­si­ble. But, like the f light of the bum­ble bee, McCloy’s abil­ity to run, and to win, was all too real to any­one who had the du­bi­ous priv­i­lege of rac­ing him or the pe­cu­liar thrill of watch­ing him do his won­drous thing on the road, track or mud. As a com­peti­tor and fan dur­ing McCloy’s ca­reer, I was able to ex­pe­ri­ence both many times; yet, as the years go by, I can scarcely be­lieve it my­self at times. What fol­lows is an at­tempt to con­vey a lit­tle of the story of this un­likely, bril­liant, hum­ble and enig­matic ath­lete, per­haps be­fore it be­gins to seem too im­prob­a­ble to be be­lieved.

The un­like­li­ness of the McCloy story be­gins with the fact that he was born and raised in, and spent the best years of his ca­reer liv­ing and train­ing in Canada’s ge­o­graph­i­cal and me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal out­lier, New­found­land.

In spite of St. John’s sta­tis­ti­cally ver­i­fi­able in­clemency where wind, cold and snow are con­cerned, the Paul McCloy I knew es­chewed any win­ter run­ning con­trivance more fancy or com­pli­cated than a toque and turtle­neck long-sleeve. He did not think much of the then newly in­vented Lyrca run­ning tights or base layer gar­ments de­signed to wick mois­ture away from the body. He didn’t cover his legs at all till the tem­per­a­ture reached -5 C. He would leave St. John’s to race in the win­ter, in part sim­ply to es­cape its rav­ages, but he would not rou­tinely leave the prov­ince in search of bet­ter train­ing weather

dur­ing the worst months of the year un­til very late in his ca­reer. The sto­ries of his ac­com­mo­da­tions to the New­found­land win­ter sound like third- and fourth­hand mythol­o­giz­ing, but they can be in­de­pen­dently cor­rob­o­rated by mul­ti­ple ob­servers. Ac­cord­ing to fre­quent train­ing part­ner Peter Browne, the drill on many win­ter days would en­tail McCloy ob­ses­sively mon­i­tor­ing the Weather Net­work for breaks in the snow­fall or lulls in the wind. When the time was right, the call (i.e. to a tele­phone an­swer­ing ma­chine – it was the 1980s) would go out that the run was on, with the start­ing point fre­quently de­ter­mined by the strength and di­rec­tion of the wind. At times two cars would be em­ployed, so that the group would do the 10 miles or so in a favourable di­rec­tion. And, says Browne, MCoy paid lit­tle heed to the pac­ing plans of his train­ing part­ners. They were along for the ride that he was of­fer­ing, and he often pushed the pace down to low three-minute kilo­me­tres, as the spirit moved him or the fore­cast dic­tated.

Dur­ing the worst weather, McCloy would seek refuge in hockey rinks and un­der­ground park­ing garages, where he would run him­self dizzy from the fumes and the cor­ner­ing for up to 25k. He would often run twice a day, with a “morn­ing” run at 1 p.m. and an “evening” run start­ing af­ter mid­night some days, to wait for the ploughs to make their rounds and the com­muters to go home. Dur­ing stretches of favourable weather, he would some­times string two or three hard ses­sions to­gether, to make up for the ones he would in­evitably lose when the next bl­iz­zard blew in off of the half-frozen ocean. Yet it was in the midst of these win­ters that he pre­pared for what would be his finest races, in­clud­ing his afore­men­tioned World Cross-Coun­try fin­ishes, his Cana­dian In­ter­col­le­giate in­door track records (at one time he held the 1,500 and 5,000m cham­pi­onship records in spite of hav­ing no in­door track on which to train), his num­ber six all­time Cana­dian 10,000m per­for­mance (27:56.09), and his road race wins against some of the best in North Amer­ica (McCloy still holds the Cana­dian record for 10k at 27:49).

But McCloy’s ori­gins and pre­co­cious­ness as an ath­lete are as fas­ci­nat­ing as his con­quest of the St. John’s cli­mate. Like thou­sands of Cana­dian kids, McCloy played the usual team sports, in­clud­ing hockey and bas­ket­ball, and some not-so­typ­i­cal in­di­vid­ual ones, in­clud­ing fig­ure skating and wa­ter polo. His par­ents, he says, “Had us in ev­ery­thing.” But the ac­tiv­ity he came to ex­cel at wasn’t a sport at all – at least not for him, when he be­gan do­ing it. For no rea­son he can spec­ify, and com­pletely un­like any of his class­mates, McCloy be­gan run­ning the mile to and from his pri­mary school each day, in­clud­ing a trip home for lunch. This led to run­ning just about ev­ery chance he could, and seem­ingly just be­cause he could. He once broke from a group dur­ing a long hike at sum­mer camp to run the re­turn dis­tance (get­ting, he says, in “ma­jor shit” for leav­ing the group). Another time

OP­PO­SITE Paul McCloy runs to sec­ond place in the na­tional cross-coun­try cham­pi­onships in Eto­bi­coke, Ont. in 1992

ABOVE The pack with Richard Charette, the win­ner, Steve Boyd, Steve Agar (be­hind), Bren­dan Matthias and Fraser Ber­trand

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