Around 1917, the citizens of Elkhart, a small impoverished town in Kansas, often remarked about eight-year-old Glenn Cunningham, “See how he runs?” In the early morning hours, they frequently watched as the energetic youth dashed through vacant lots and empty fields, on his way to the tiny schoolhouse where he was enrolled. Glenn and his older brother Floyd had a special job to perform each morning before class: lighting the stove in the schoolhouse to ensure the rooms were sufficiently warm by the time the other students arrived. It was a simple chore, but one that required the boys to arise early and make great haste along chilly, dimly-lit streets.
Glenn never complained, because the task was just another excuse to run! And he loved to run! Perhaps he even lived to run. Running gave the boy both a sense of freedom and purpose. When Glenn ran he experienced the joy and excitement of knowing that he was going places — fast — with the world rushing by in a quiet, sleepy blur. When he wasn’t running, he dreamed about it!
On a morning that felt like those of countless days before, Glenn and Floyd arrived at the silent schoolhouse to light the stove. Still breathing hard from their race through town, the boys fetched the kerosene can they’d used the previous morning — unaware that someone had mistakenly refilled the can with gasoline! When Floyd lit the fluid the stove exploded in a fireball that engulfed the brothers. Floyd died in the fire. He was thirteen.
Glenn miraculously survived the explosion, but his legs were burned seemingly beyond repair. All the flesh from his knees to his feet was burnt away, and his left foot was practically destroyed: he’d lost the toes, as well as the ligaments and tendons located in the arch of the foot, which are necessary to support body weight and maintain balance when walking. Glenn’s doctor felt the boy would never stand again, let alone walk. So he strongly recommended that Glenn’s legs be amputated well above the knees.
The sheer terror of losing his legs, of never running again, sent Glenn into uncontrollable hysterics. He screamed and pleaded with his parents until they finally relented and refused to allow the doctor to go through with the amputations.
After a long hospital stay, Glenn finally went home, where he continued the arduous journey to recovery. He was determined, however, not only to walk again, but also to run. Even as a child he had great faith in his God, and held tightly to what quickly became his favorite Bible verse, “But those who wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31 KJV)
Two years after the accident, Glenn took his first painful steps. That was in 1919. By 1929 he was training for the 1932 Olympic Games. As he dashed through vacant lots and empty fields, the citizens of Elkhart would remark, “See how he runs?” With intense pride, Glenn’s neighbors named him the “Elkhart Express”! But in the 1932 Games, where he took fourth place in the 1500-meter run, he was known as the “Kansas Flyer.”
Glenn continued to run, always with the goal of getting faster. He again competed in the Olympics — this time in the 1936 Games in Berlin — taking home the silver in the 1500-meter run. He also set the world record in the 800-meter run that year. But Glenn’s greatest achievement came in 1934, when he ran the mile in 4 minutes and 6.8 seconds, setting a world record that remained unbroken for three years.
Fast as he was, though, one of Glenn’s big dreams remained unfulfilled. He wanted to break the 4-minute mile, but he was never able to shave more than 2 to 3 seconds off his own best time. Of course, as with most of the world’s greatest accomplishments, there were plenty of people around at the time who swore it simply couldn’t be done. (Another dream-chaser, Roger Bannister, proved them wrong in 1954.) Still, not bad at all for the Elkhart Express!
One last detail remains. When Glenn Cunningham ran, he had this peculiar way of tilting back his head — as though he were looking down his nose at the world around him. Some people took exception to this, and commented, “See how he runs? He thinks he’s better than us!” But the man who was voted “Most Popular Athlete” by his fellow 1936 Olympians always remembered that it was God who enabled him to run! He remained humble throughout his career; but he did continue to look down his nose whenever he ran! You see, the accident that nearly claimed his legs had also severely scorched his lungs; but by tilting back his head, Glenn was better able to breathe!
Folks, never give up. Keep the faith and follow your dreams. Run if you can, crawl if you must — but never allow the shortsighted opinions of those who merely stand by and watch, to keep you from your prize! Let the whole world see how you run. Afterward, you’ll be able to echo the words of the Apostle Paul, who also overcame great odds: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7 NIV)