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The First of the Fastest
Charles Gillespie
September 13, 1971
Al Tharnish didn't care whether he was running for Ringling Bros. or Yale as long as the price was right
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September 13, 1971

The First Of The Fastest

Al Tharnish didn't care whether he was running for Ringling Bros. or Yale as long as the price was right

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Tharnish's hand was never called when he was running for the colleges, but his appearance aroused the suspicion of the judges in the first Western AAU meet, held in Chicago. He was representing the Atlantic Athletic Club of Iowa, and hostile officials twice set him back behind the starting line—the custom in those days—for jumping the gun. Despite this harassment Tharnish won the 100, after which the exasperated judges still placed him in a tie for second and then set him so far back in the 220 he was never in the race.

Tharnish had some interesting theories about the sources of his talent, the most intriguing being his ability to hear. "I could hear the trigger mechanism of the starter's gun before the hammer fell. No one ever beat me on the start, and once I was away first it was like running a race by yourself," he said.

"Running is like life," Tharnish once said. "If you have the speed you don't have to tell the world. They'll find it out. You can make yourself think fast or slow. I preferred to think fast. I could run 100 yards backward in 10.2, faster than most men can run forward. That was just because I had trained my muscles to coordinate with my mind. Anyone can do the same. I had a stride of nine feet six inches with my right foot and nine feet four inches with my left. Try that some time and it may give you the secret of speed."

Tharnish, in 1934, thought a sprinter might one day run 100 yards in 9.1, but he indicated that was the ultimate. Nine seconds flat was not possible, he thought. So far at least he's right. "There seems to be a maximum speed, and no amount of exertion will cut down the resistance to an athlete's weight," he said.

Tharnish ran his last race in the summer of 1891 in St. Louis' old Sportsman's Park. He was sprinting for the finish line, leading as usual, when a spectator in the grandstand heaved a sandbag seat cushion at the track. The heavy bag struck Tharnish in the abdomen, just below his heart, knocking him unconscious. He never again felt any desire for running. Shortly afterward he married, which completed his retirement from the track, though he remained in training for five more years and stayed on a training diet for the rest of his life.

Tharnish did return to the public eye, briefly, to campaign for William Jennings Bryan in the Midwest, but there were few hurrahs left to sustain him. Even so, his son Joseph recalls that his father was an inordinately cheerful man who never despaired despite a series of misfortunes and his fading from public memory. Pursuing a new career, he studied watchmaking in Illinois and went into that business, but a jewelry store robbery in Iowa ruined him financially. He drifted south, to Jonesboro, Ark., and shortly afterward became a railroad watch inspector in Memphis, establishing himself as one of the finest engravers in the country. Secret Service agents often called upon him to identify suspected counterfeit currency.

In 1915 a streetcar accident paralyzed him for several months, and it was five years before he recovered. He died in Memphis on March 18, 1935 of a heart ailment. The obituaries said he was formerly the world's fastest human being and a member of Tennessee Watchmakers' Guild No. 4.

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