The doorway of a small, gray, one-story house in Oxford, Miss., is guarded by muddy Nike running shoes. Stacks of old Running Times and Track & Field News sit in a corner in the front room. Deposited in another corner, near the television, are videotapes of every televised track & field event since 1984. Inside the small kitchen, a square Formica table holds a variety of vitamins and nutritional supplements. Soiled T-shirts, socks and shorts fill a dingy laundry room. The whole house smells like a men's locker room.
Brian Pope, 42, the best Masters runner in the United States, lives here alone. He runs and looks the way Steve Prefontaine might have had he lived to middle age. For most of the last 25 years, the untamed running trails of Lafayette County, the inspiration for Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, have been Pope's training ground. There have been more accomplished and better-known runners, but perhaps no one has loved running more than this Jackson native and former member of the Ole Miss track team.
Pope, who has held jobs as a bus driver and a salesman at a sporting goods store, lives off of the meager earnings from his races. Last year he made just $10,000. Without a shoe contract or support from a major sponsor, he needs financial support from family and friends to fund his trips. During one race last year in Boston, he stayed in a YMCA and ate meals in its basement with the homeless. But he hasn't let his modest circumstances keep him from becoming arguably one of the best American runners in the world.
At the USA Masters 5K Cross-Country Championships in October, he won over a strong field with a time of 15:11. In August at the U.S. Masters Championships in Honolulu, Pope won the 5,000-meter run, the 10,000, the 8-kilometer road race and also ran the anchor leg on the winning 4x800-meter relay team. He won another 5,000-meter championship and placed fourth in the 10,000 at the World Masters Track & Field Championships in San Sebastian, Spain. In January, at Boston University, Pope set a Masters record in the 3,000 with a time of 8:20.9. He has won 17 races this year.
For almost three years in the late '90s, I had the privilege of chasing Pope around Oxford. Back then he hadn't started his Masters running career, but he still ran 100 miles a week. He ran, he said, because it was his way of life. Even now, as he races almost monthly at meets around the world, he doesn't like to tell friends when he's racing. When asked if he will run in a particular race, he will almost always say, "I don't know." Then, we soon come to learn that Pope has won another Masters race. Honoring him as my Sportsman of the Year seems the least that I can do for a man who taught me that the running lifestyle is more rewarding than fortune or fame.
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