Today’s Illustration: A Tragedy & A Footrace That Leads To The World Record

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Who:  Glenn Cunningham

  • born 1909
  • Atlanta, Kansas
  • six brothers and sisters

When:  1917 — at age 8

Where:  A schoolhouse in Elkart, Kansas

What:  A tragic accident took off much of both legs’ skin, with deep burns, which threatened the possibility of amputating both legs.  The accident killed Floyd, his brother.  At the time, it was deemed that he would be unable to walk unassisted for the rest of his life.

“As a child, Cunningham would run with his older brother, Floyd, to their one-room schoolhouse in western Kansas. There, Floyd would fulfill his responsibility to get the fire in the kerosene stove started. When the future star was eight years old, a delivery truck inadvertently left gasoline rather than kerosene at the building. Unaware of this, Floyd poured the liquid into the stove to ignite it. When he did, the stove exploded into flames that killed the elder brother and left the younger Cunningham in critical condition for six weeks. So severely burned were the future Jayhawk’s legs that the doctors had considered amputating them and doubted that he would ever be able to walk normally.”

““A blinding flash seared my eyes and made my head swim,” Cunningham wrote in his book, “An awful force, as if from hell itself, hurled me painfully back against the wall. Dimly I heard Floyd scream, ‘I’m on fire’.”  “A blinding flash seared my eyes and made my head swim,” . . . . . “I tried to open my eyes to see what was happening. I couldn’t. Nothing but black-red, stabbing pain raced down the throbbing corridors of my mind. Suddenly I realised it, I’m burning too.”– from Never Quit”

“I had lost all the flesh on my knees and shins, as well as all the toes on my left foot. My transverse arch was mostly gone. . . . After he overheard a visitor telling his mother to prepare to think of her boy as an “invalid,” he found the resolve to get up. “I remember saying over and over, ‘I will walk! I will walk!’”

“With the support of his mother, Cunningham rehabilitated himself and discovered that he excelled at athletics, including baseball and track. His injured legs would never completely heal, but somehow he found the strength to run through the pain, including one high school race in Chicago when an infected foot sent his temperature soaring to 104.5 degrees F “

“My family was wonderful,” he said.
“I can’t even imagine how horrible it must have been with all the smells and the sight of my rotting flesh. I had lost all the flesh on my knees and shins, as well as all the toes on my left foot. My transverse arch was mostly gone. Yet my family kept changing the dressings and massaging my legs, though there was little muscle and sinew left to massage. Even after I was able to stand, holding onto either the bed or a chair, a neighbour kid said, “Aw, you ain’t never gonna walk again!” But by then I knew that nothing was going to stop me.” — from Never Quit

. . . . . . 

Other Facts & Details:

  • Senior year in high school –ran the outdoor mile in 4:28.3
  • Looking forward to his freshman year in college (July 1930), he posted a 4:24.7 sec mile
  • Attended the University of Kansas, winning the conference and national championships
  • Nicknamed: Kansas Flyer” and “Iron Horse of Kansas,” “The Elkhart Express”
  • “. . . in March 1933, former Jayhawk track coach Brutus Hamilton praised the KU runner as “the strongest miler ever to step on a track.” 
  • Made the U.S. Olympic team as a sophomore in college
  • Competed in the 1,500 meters in the 1932 — at the summer games in Los Angeles
  • In 1934, he ran the 1,500-meter in 3:53.3, toppling the indoor world record
  • In 1934 he ran the outdoor mile 4:08.4,
  • On June 16, 1934, he ran the outdoor mile in 4:06.8 in Princeton, New Jersey, a new world record – held for 3 years
  • March 1938, he ran the 1,500-meter in 3:48.4  — a “world record for 17 years.”
  • March 1938, he ran a 4:04.4 outdoor mile
  • 1940 — 3:48.2 Indoor 1,500 / 4:04.4 outdoor mile
  • Cunningham retired in 1940
  • “Glenn Verniss Cunningham was an American distance runner and athlete considered by many the greatest American miler of all time.”
  • Glenn Cunningham died in 1988

* It would be Roger Bannister, in 1954, who would be the athlete who would ultimately run the mile under 4 minutes.

Other Article Quotations:

“Historian Mark D. Hersey from the University of Kansas explained that “his good sportsmanship (coupled with his otherwise wholesome image—he claimed never to have smoked or consumed either coffee or alcohol) made him very popular with fans as well as journalists.”

“In 1936, sports journalists began speculation that he was past his prime, which gave him the motivation to run even faster. “I just wanted to let my running speak for itself,” he said in 1981.””

“In January 1940, Glenn Cunningham announced over the radio that the 1940 track season would be his last. He had “continued in competition [for the] past two years,” he asserted, “with the hope of trying for [his] third successive Olympic team” However, the onset of World War II had “made the holding of the games impossible,” and the man long known as the “Kansas Flyer” had decided to hang up his cleats.”

“One sportswriter of the time observed that what he and his peers had “first liked about Cunningham was that he was a great runner who didn’t go around telling everyone that he was.” The fact that the former Jayhawk “never made a practice,” the columnist continued, “of criticizing his opponents” stood him in even higher stead. His good sportsmanship (coupled with his otherwise wholesome image – he claimed never to have smoked or consumed either coffee or alcohol) made him very popular with fans as well as journalists. (In an era in which smoking was tolerated even in athletic arenas, fans would dutifully extinguish their cigarettes and forebear to light new ones out of respect for Cunningham while he raced.”

“When he was 12, a victory in a foot race against some schoolmates encouraged him to pursue competitive running.  As an adult, the Jayhawk great would claim that he had run “in some big races – including the Olympics – but [that] no race [had proven] more important than that race [he] ran at 12.” “

“If you stay in the running-if you have endurance-you are bound to win over those who haven’t.”

Key Biblical Words:

  • trials / difficulties
  • endurance
  • patience
  • tragedy
  • overcoming
  • running through the pain
  • running the race
  • hindrances / obstacles
  • determination
  • the long run
  • providence
  • small events in life

. . . . . . 

Sermonic ExampleLet’s give it a try. . . . .

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The headline reads . . . .

He nearly lost his legs as a boy.
Who would expect him to run the 1,500m in the 1936 Olympics,
setting a new world record?

Imagine being told as a child, that you will never walk again without assistance.  Those are the words an 8 year old, named Glenn, heard in 1919, having seen his brother die midst the tragedy whic occurred.

Glenn Cunningham was and still is one of the most well-known Olympic distance runners of the contemporary American track world.  Having passed on only 35 years ago, at the age of 78, his name is still on. the lips of many who watched his amazing career which was marked by a terrible childhood accident. . . . . .[include whatever details you find useful] . . . . .

 Cunningham stated that at the age of 12 he ran a footrace with a classmate — NOW LISTEN to what he says about that providential school ground footrace — “no race was more important than that race [he] ran at 12″  — Why?  Because it was the race that piqued his interest in running and encouraged him to run competitively!  Something happened in that moment that set his course for the following decades — that lead to the Olympics. 

There is no lack of examples of those who have overcome great difficulties, terrible odds, hindering backgrounds, and/or seemingly insurmountable situations of life.  Biblical examples include Joseph, David & Goliath, Ruth, Saul-Paul persecutions & obstacles, et al.  In each one of those individuals, there were events which also affected them in a way that would reach into their futures . . . . . 

    • With David — it was shepherding and killing the bear and the lion
    • With Joseph — it was his obedience to his father, and his contrasting integrity to his brothers
    • Ruth — the event was her faith in Jehovah long before leaving home with Naomi
    • Paul — he watched Stephen die as he held the garments of the killers


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“Kiell’s American Miler is a good read and an invaluable history of the life of Glenn Cunningham. Anyone who reads this biography will have a very good understanding of the make-up of one of the greatest US miler. It also provides a really good insight into the flourishing American indoor track scene in the 1930s”


Video Olympics Links:


PDF Link on the tragic accident — From the book — American Miler:

Fuller PDF Pages on the tragic accident — From the book — American Miler:

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