What Jesse Owens Can Teach Us
Plus in-person races you can run in California, Nevada, New York + South Carolina
“The battles that count aren't the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself — the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us — that's where it's at.”
— Jesse Owens
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of history. I love taking a look back to see how people in the past, dealing with challenges like the ones we’re dealing with now, found the strength to carry on.
The other day, as I was combing through the many books I’ve bought through my Amazon Kindle (most of which I have still yet to read!), I came across one I’d forgotten: Jeremy Schapp’s Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics.
In the book, Schapp tells the story of the athlete we’ve all learned in history class and think we know well: the winner of four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the grandson of slaves whose success was credited with piercing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.
(Though, as Owens himself later said, he was never invited to the White House to shake hands with the American president either.)
What fascinated me most wasn’t Owens’s athletic accomplishments, however jaw-dropping they may have been. (And they were; his record of four gold medals in a single Olympics wouldn’t be equaled for nearly 50 years, until Carl Lewis matched it at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.)
Instead, it was the story of the relationship Owens struck up with one of his German opponents at the Games — a 22-year-old broad jumper named Carl Ludwig “Luz” Long, “whose blue eyes, blond hair, chiseled features and athletic physique embodied the Aryan ideal,” Schapp writes.
When Owens first meets Long, it is on the field as Owens is going through his long jumps. He’s frustrated at his performance, held back by self-doubt: “His rhythm was off. His strides were choppy. His form was flawed. In his mind, he could suddenly do no right.”
Another attempt is followed by another fail, as he hits the ground two inches short of where he needs to be — which stuns him, as he’d been the long jump world record-holder.
But then, Schapp writes, something unexpected happens:
Then Owens felt a tap on his shoulder.
“What has taken your goat, Jazzee Owens?” the stranger said slowly in a German imitation of British English, his accent thick but understandable. He was wearing a white shirt emblazoned with an eagle and a swastika. “I am Luz Long. I think I know what is wrong with you.”
“Hello, Luz,” Owens said. At moments like this, even under enormous pressure, he could project infinite calm. This time, Long’s casual introduction really did drain all the tension from him.
Matter-of-factly, Long said, “You know, you should be able to qualify with your eyes closed. Why do you not draw a line a few inches back of the board and aim at making yourself take off from there? You’ll be sure not to foul, and you certainly ought to jump far enough to qualify.”
“The truth of what he said hit me,” Owens later said. “I drew a line a full foot in back of the board.”
In some versions of this oft-told story, Long placed Owens’s sweatshirt behind the board as a visual aid, but no one who was covering the event mentioned such a gesture in their stories. It seems much more likely that Long simply offered Owens some friendly advice — an act of sportsmanship that embodied the Olympic spirit.
The story continues:
Now Owens was alone — the noise of the crowd blocked, his peripheral vision narrowed to the length of the path at his feet. From his spot high above the field, Grantland Rice tried to locate on Owens’s face “some telltale sign of emotion,” but found none. Then Owens took off, building speed, measuring his steps, looking for that spot behind the board. Timing his strides perfectly, he leapt from well short of the board and sliced through the muggy air, his legs folded beneath him. An instant later he was crashing into the pit. He knew immediately what had happened. He had succeeded...
As Snyder breathed deeply and shook his fist, Luz Long went over to pat Jesse Owens on the back. “See,” he said. “It was easy.”
Owens just smiled and clasped Long’s hand in both of his. “Danke,” he said. It was the one German word he had picked up. Nearly forty years later, when he wrote his memoirs, he pointed to Long’s gesture as the defining moment of his Olympic experience — and his life.
The friendship Owens and Long struck up would endure for the next several years, as the pair, separated by the Atlantic Ocean, nevertheless kept in touch by writing each other letters.
Their final letter is a sad one, as it came after Long, having completed his law degree after the Olympics, was compelled to join the German armed forces in World War II.
Here’s what he wrote to Owens:
“My heart is telling me that this is perhaps the last letter of my life. If that is so, I beg one thing from you: When the war is over, please go to Germany, find my son and tell him about his father. Tell him about the times when the war did not separate us — and tell him that things can be different between men in this world.
Owens would honor his dear friend’s request. Years after the war — Long was fatally wounded during the Allied invasion of Sicily, and would later die in a British field hospital — Owens traveled to Germany to find his son and tell him about his father.
“I’ve seen Luz again,” he later said, “in the face of his son.”
I’m not sure why, I can’t exactly put my finger on it. But right now, this story really resonates with me — a Black man and a white man, an American and a German, on opposing sides of a conflict that nearly destroyed the free world.
And yet they formed a friendship that would outlast their own lives, and echoes down to us today. It’s a powerful lesson for us all, isn’t it?
I hope you guys all have had a great run out there today — it’s unseasonably warm here in Atlanta; we’re nearly at 75 degrees! As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running is going.
Races you might love running
Johns Island, S.C. | Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020
Nestled among the lush pine forests and swamps and marshes filled with wildlife inside Johns Island County Park, which lies just to the southwest of Charleston along the South Carolina coast, the trails here play host to this annual post-Thanksgiving run, which features an (extremely!) generous 7-hour time limit. “This event will happen rain or shine,” the organizers say. “With the exception of tropical storm, hurricane conditions, wildfires, earthquakes and zombies walking the course.”
$75 and up | Sign up here
Las Vegas, Nev. | Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020
Part of a series of small race events in California and Nevada that typically draw a few dozen runners out for each race, this run unfolds along the trails that wind through Sunset Park near the city’s McCarren International Airport. Runners in the half marathon will follow the 4.36-mile loop route three times around the park, while the shorter distances — 15K, 10K and 5K — will also follow the same route. Organizers ask that runners bring their own face coverings and have them handy at all times.
$24.99 and up | Sign up here
Overton, Nev. | Friday, Jan. 15 - Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021
A gorgeous run through Valley of Fire State Park in southeastern Nevada, along the northeast side of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, whose 40,000 acres are filled with “bright red Aztec sandstone outcrops nestled in gray and tan limestone, [as well as] ancient, petrified trees and petroglyphs dating back more than 2,000 years.” You can run the half marathon any day (or all three days) between Friday and Sunday, or mix up your distances to run the 5K, 8.25-mile and half marathon on successive days.
$95 and up | Sign up here
Brooklyn, N.Y. | Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021
Set to run on Super Bowl Sunday, this smaller race follows three loops around Brooklyn’s iconic Prospect Park, which opened to the public in 1867 and was designed by the legendary landscape architects Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, after they completed Central Park about a decade earlier. You’ll run a single loop around the northern half of the park (including a stretch past the Prospect Park Zoo) before heading out to circle the outskirts of the park three times.
$50 and up | Sign up here
San Diego, Calif. | Sunday, March 21, 2021
Run along the city streets and oceanfront roads of “America’s finest city,” this race is almost all fast and flat thanks to its near-sea-level location, largely along San Diego Bay. You’ll start the race at Petco Park, the home of baseball’s San Diego Padres, and from there run a loop around Harbor Island and into the Liberty Station district, where you’ll make a turnaround and then head back into downtown, followed by running through the finish line under the Gaslamp Arch. The race is open to 7,000 entrants, organizers note, and also offers virtual race options if you’re not up for participating in person.
$99 and up | Sign up here
👉 Get 10% off your registration with discount code HMNET10
Virtual races from events we love
These races have cancelled their in-person events for this fall and early 2021, but could really use your support to keep going. If you’re interested in running a virtual half or marathon in the next few months, any of these might make a great option.
🎅 The San Diego Holiday Half Marathon, anytime between Dec. 11-20, 2020
🏖️ The Virtual Miami Marathon & Half Marathon, anytime between Jan. 10 - 31, 2021
🏝️ The Charleston Marathon & Half Marathon, anytime between Jan. 11 - 21, 2021
🏃♀️ The Key West Half Marathon & 5K, anytime between Jan. 15 - 18, 2021