Looking Back with Tom Carter

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By Carlo Cuccaro

I recently was talking to a friend of mine and I mentioned that I was interviewing a runner from his hometown (Vestal, NY) for an upcoming column.  I told my friend that the featured runner was Broome County Community College Cross-Country Coach, Tom Carter.  Upon hearing Tom’s name, my friend immediately responded, “He is a legend.” 

I doubt Tom Carter would agree that he is a legend but one thing that I think he would agree with is the assertion that he is a “racer.”  You may be wondering, “What makes a person a racer?”  Well, I hadn’t given that much thought until I talked to Tom.  Up until recently, I have thought of people who lace up their sneakers and head out their front doors on a regular basis as falling into two groups – runners and joggers.  I proudly consider myself a card carrying member of the first group and bristle privately when someone says to me “Hey, I saw you jogging.” These people are usually being friendly and even complimentary but for me the notion that I am a “jogger” never sits well with me.  I think to myself, “I do NOT jog.  I run.” 

Tom Carter helped me to realize that there is a third group of runners that is different from runners and “joggers.”  I am referring to ladies and gentlemen who are RACERS. 

Tom Carter is a long time runner who for reasons that will become clear is a racer. So, what is the difference between runners and racers? 

  • Racers run really fast.  They run 4:26 miles in high school and 10:06 2-milers.
  • Racers go to college on scholarship
  • Racers are those folks who have run over 1000 races and won more than 500!
  • Racers win races like the Boilermaker (1979) and the Stock-ade-athon (1983)
  • Racers can drop a 4:55 mile and 17:36 5K at 55 years of age (That is not a type-o)
  • Racers run races (from 1K to ½ marathons) every weekend for 20+ years
  • Racers run because it is what they were born to do

What also became obvious about Tom Carter is that he embodies the sneaker advertisement with the tagline, “Runners. Yeah, We’re different.”  To say that Tom Carter marches to the beat of his own drummer would be an understatement.  First, he has traveled all over the world but not for his running. His hobby of “Long Stick Basketball” which involves spinning a basketball on top of a 30-foot stick has led him to meet Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and travel the USA. 

Also, Tom has lived in all sorts of places including his car, the woods, porches on houses, and even a gas station where he worked.  Tom’s spartan approach to life is also reflected in his running gear.  You are not likely to see Tom is a singlet with ¾ split running shorts.  Nah.  He prefers gym shorts and during the winter, grey sweatpants from Champion outlet. 

Then there are the legendary stories of Tom running 20 miles and then hitchhiking back home.  Or the time he was asked by another runner if they could run together.  Tom always preferred to run alone but he reluctantly agreed.  On the first day they were to run together Tom wanted to make it clear that he wasn't there for fun, but for serious training, so they met at a track and Tom casually said, "I just need to warm up a mile on the track then we can start."  Tom ran a 4:20 mile by himself in front of other runner and then casually walked back off the track and said "OK let's get started."

Below you will find my interview with Tom:

Where  did you grow up?  Vestal New York, in the Binghamton, New York metropolitan area.

Where did you go to school?   I attended Seton Catholic High School, in Endicott, New York, which is no longer there, as it combined with Catholic Central high school in 1976 to become Seton Catholic Central that it is today.  Seton didn't have a track team, but I ran cross country in grades 10-12, and track unofficially with Union Endicott high school for my senior year only.  My best times were a 4:26 mile and 10:06 2-mile.  Although I ran #1 in Section 4 my senior year in cross country, I never got to go to the State meet, as the Catholic high schools weren't allowed in at that time.

When did you first realize you had a talent for running?  At the end of 9th grade.  I had pretty much given up on being an athlete.  I grew up hoping to make it in baseball, basketball, or football, but failed at all three.  But at the end of 9th grade, we ran the 600 yard run in gym class, in the gym around cones, and I set the school record.  I didn't think much of it, but a kid talked me into trying cross country in 10th grade.

The first day I was running around #5 runner.  Then by the end of the first week I was up to #2 runner.  We went to our first meet (a rinky-dink meet with 3 schools), and I won the race.  It changed my life.  I went from being a kid everyone picked on, stuffed into lockers, pounded occasionally, and just basically made fun of, to a school hero. 

It all happened so fast, it was hard to comprehend.   I thought it shouldn't have been such a big deal.  I was still basically the same guy, no better than anyone else; I knew it was ticket out of the pits.  So from there on in, I ran to SURVIVE.  It was life and death.  Probably not healthy, but certainly put me in position to develop this talent. 

Getting back to question #2, I wound up going to Niagara University on a scholarship, and I really took off.  I was about 5 feet 5 inches tall my senior year, but in the summer before college I grew to 6 feet, and it was all in my legs.  When I got to Niagara, I started off running the same pace for 5 miles than I did for 2 miles in high school.  In cross country, I ran faster, under 5:00 per mile.  I outgrew the program in a couple years and decided to walk on at Tennessee, which was among the best in the U.S.  My first race there I won a dual with Auburn in a course record 24:04 for the 5-mile race, and finished my last race in 43rd place at the NCAA meet. 

In track I ran times of 4:09 for the mile, 13:37 for 3-miles, and 28:15 for 6 miles.  The 6-mile put me on the top 10 list in track and field news.  (In the early 70s, everything was in yards then)

Who were your early Inspirations
?  Just one.  DEFINITLELY PRE.  He was it.  I first learned of him my freshman year at the NCAA cross country meet at William and Mary.  I was running as an individual from Niagara, and I was right next to the Oregon team box.  And who did I line up next to?  PRE!  It was surreal.  He went on to win, and I finished about 250th.  By my senior year, however, I was only about 150 yards behind him in a 3-mile track race. It was devastating when he died.  No one ever took his place.

Is it true you can spin a basketball on a 50-foot pole?  Well, I'm flattered.  Someone added about 20 feet.  It's closer to 30.  But yes, I do.  I have done over 200 performances, including over 80 in the NBA, and the rest in the NCAA, WNBA, minor pro leagues and high schools.  It's been a phenomenal experience, meeting all the stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Walton, and many many more.  I got to travel and see virtually the whole US, and got paid to do it.  My home court is the O-Dome, the home of the Florida Gators.  I've been there 17 years in a row. 

What are your hobbies outside of running?  Just long Stick basketball.  I like to weight train heavy too.  I do like to go to zoos with our daughter Nicole. 

How has running changed for you as you’ve gotten older?  Well, I've always said there are runners and racers.  Runners love to run as well as race.  Well, I'm definitely both a runner and a racer.  And as you get older, you become more of a runner, and I definitely enjoy just running and training more than racing now, and I won't take too many risks and injure myself, because I just want to make sure I can run!  Also, your perspective changes.  It's not life and death anymore.  I still like to challenge myself, but not as often.  And I have dropped down in distance, and basically just run 5ks or shorter.  It was going real well right up through 55.  At 55 I ran a 4:55 mile and 17:36 5k, but things started dropping; At 56 it was 5:03 and 18:11; At 57 5:06 and 18:13; At 58 up to 5:20 and 18:28.  I'm 59 now, and it's a real battle, but I'm happy and appreciative that I can still run and try.

What do you make of the running explosion?  I have mixed feelings.  I think the participation is good.  But I don't like EVERY FREAKIN RACE charging a high entry fee and donating to charity.  I am taking on the historic Octoberfast 5 and 10k road races here as race director this fall, and the entry fee will be $5.00.  That's right.  $5.00 to run on 2 certified courses, even on race day, $5.00.  It's a runner's race.

Now, I'll give you a summary that describes me as a runner, well for most of my life.  It became an absolute passion, something that I just had to do, and I was in the perfect time to do it. 

Right when I graduated from college (1976), the running boom was beginning, and road races were popping up everywhere.  I basically ran a race (from 1-mile to 20k or 1/2 marathon) every weekend for the next 20 years or so.  I'd go from town to town all throughout New York and Pennsylvania, and run.  I don't know how I was able to “amp” up all that time, that often.  I probably won over 500 races, and certainly ran well over 1000.  It was adrenalizing.  I was always in the hunt to win, and if I didn't, I was usually close.  I think the races were the ultimate training for me, and I would go up and down in distance so it never got boring.  It was basically all I did.  I worked just enough to survive, but didn't take on a career or "real job", stayed single, and lived in all sorts of places including my car, the woods, porches on houses, and even a gas station where I worked. 

Material things meant nothing to me. Certainly I (and we) drank too much a lot of those years, when there were beer trucks at every race.

At 40, I started to get my fill, started working fulltime, and felt ready to meet someone and maybe get married (I am a passionate Catholic, who goes to church everyday, so couldn't do it like most can).  I met my wife Liz and we got married at 41, and we honeymooned with my show, going all over the US doing NBA games, and running races as well. 

Now Nicole is here, and we all run together, and she will start running cross country for Seton Catholic Central modified this fall.  I have had a great life, and am very appreciative of it.  I was fortunate not to have to stop, but I did a lot of things that helped my own cause, like lifting weights religiously, and stretching a lot.  I was always trying to keep my body strong and loose so it could absorb the pounding and save me from getting injured. And it certainly worked, as it's been 45 straight years that I have run now, and I'll be 60 next year. 


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