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Kenny Moore was a uniquely influential figure who embodied the consciousness of footracing
"Our correspondence presented a dilemma. How does one return letters from John Steinbeck?"
I was first introduced to the writing of Kenny Moore at age 14. Throughout my childhood, my parents had a subscription to Sports Illustrated, and when I started running in 1984 as a ninth-grader, I went from skimming articles about the sport to studying them. Most of these pieces at the time, perhaps all of them, were written by Moore, who died on May 4 at age 78.
Ken Goe observed in The Oregonian, “Moore once wrote that his job as a storyteller was ‘to make an athlete’s experience understandable to a wider readership.’” Moore never strayed from this ambition, as difficult as it can be to make running both interesting and alluring to the rabble.
Moore was a world-class competitor himself, reaching the Olympic Games twice and finishing just off the podium in the 1972 Olympic Marathon in Munich, a contest famously won by American Frank Shorter. While Shorter’s ‘72 gold medal is often almost singularly credited with launching the U.S. “running boom,” it was contemporaries like Moore and Don Kardong who helped bring the sport to life in words. Kardong’s work is laced with quips and self-deprecating wordplay, while Moore was more of a literary workhorse who strove to present stories from their core outward. Both men are essential figures in the old-school runners-who-write canon.
No one alive, at least in the U.S., was better poised to write about the sport as it flirted with becoming a mainstream domestic attraction than Kenny Moore. As a member of the mid-1960s University of Oregon teams coached by Bill Bowerman, and then as a multi-time Olympian, no one knew the game and its feral agonies better than Moore, and no one was better at glorifying these without descending into mawkishness or cliche than he was.
Moore co-wrote the screenplay for Without Limits, the second attempt by Hollywood to animate the legend of Steve Prefontaine. The first one, made by Disney and titled Prefontaine, wasn’t horrible. But it wasn’t what it needed to be for both running zealots and associates of those zealots unclear on why most runners were either obsessed with “Pre” or knew someone who was. Without Limits pulled off the trick—it will make you cry at the end, even if you are warned and understand what’s coming—and while many others besides Moore deserve credit for this, no one else could have written the script for the “perfect” Steve Prefontaine film.
When I started writing about running in the late 1990s, I wanted to do it in the same way Kenny Moore did. I often unconsciously imitated his narrative style—his sense of timing, his framing of the flow of a footrace or even a training run as an enticing, even epic strain against conventional limitations—without knowing I was doing it. I say “unconsciously” because Moore did such an amazing job of divorcing his authorship from his stories—even when he was central to their creation—that I often failed to associate his name with some of his most resonating work. Perhaps bizarrely, this seems like as much tribute as neglect.
Speaking of tributes, Jeff Benjamin of RunBlogRun has started a “Remembering Kenny Moore” series, with contributions Jack Bacheler (the real-life avatar of the Bruce Denton character in Once a Runner), Marty Liquori, 1983 Boston Marathon runner-up and near-Olympian Ron Tabb, two-time World Cross Country champion Craig Virgin, longtime coach Pat Tyson (Prefontaine’s college roommate) and Shorter. More may be coming.
When Moore’s running-centric work for SI tapered off, his heir apparent at the publication was Tim Layden, who enjoyed a 25-year career at SI before leaving for NBC Sports in 2019. Layden did a more-than-serviceable job (and also responded to emails as far back as 1998). If I still read SI, I would be depressed about the long-form standards set by Moore and Layden having given way to the verbal epileptic seizures and breathless cheerleading of Chris Chavez, who himself managed to be better than this fraud-promoter before exiting to become a paid apologist for Nike and its various ethical violations spanning, even characterizing, most of its corporate existence.
Despite Moore’s lifelong ties to Eugene, maybe it’s just as well he didn’t live to see the 2022 World Athletics Championships, which will be held on U.S. soil for the first time this year at Hayward Field. The sport Moore knew and its ideals died long before he did, and Hayward Field is built on slave labor and other forms of flagrant exploitation. If a just God existed, a few key bolts would fall out and the entire facility would collapse this summer, forcing the championships to be moved elsewhere, even if that meant Indianapolis or New Orleans or, almost as bad, Kyiv.
I often wish I had pursued soccer more ambitiously as a kid. I never would have been great, but in middle school I led my team in goals one year, and was held back chiefly by a simmering temper and a fixation on my mistakes. Imagine that! I believe I could have been as good at soccer as I was at running. This is obviously unprovable, but I like to mention it because I blame people like Kenny Moore for keeping me hooked, at a vulnerable age, on the undiluted stupidity of distance running instead.