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
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