Redeeming A College Defeat, 25 Years Later

Jeffrey Mann finished dead last in a college hurdle race. Now, 25 years later, he tells NPR's Scott Simon that he was determined to exorcise that demon by racing again.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jeffrey Mann was once a hard driving college athlete. But his dreams were dashed when he suffered a series of injuries. He managed to make it to the conference finals in the 400-meter hurdle race, but came in dead last. Twenty-five years later, he decided that failure was not an option. Jeffrey Mann is a religion professor at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. And when we spoke with him, post-race, he told us his return to the track wasn't exactly by design.

JEFFREY MANN: It wasn't really planned. I had been exercising and working out and doing a little bit of running on my own. And I ended up in a conversation with the head coach, here, of the track team. And as we were talking, he found out a little bit about my history and where I was at and told me that there was a possibility for me to compete in a Division III intercollegiate competition.

SIMON: But that sounds theoretical. You took it seriously.

MANN: I think I was a little bit overly optimistic when I first accepted the challenge. But I thought how much could I possibly have slowed down in 25 years? And so I decided to take on the challenge and compete as a - what they call an unattached runner at a college meet.

SIMON: A lot of training, yes?

MANN: Yes. Actually what happened was, originally I was going to try to do it in 2013. But I had to work a little too quickly, and I ended up pulling a hamstring and so decided to delay it one year. And so I spent the better part of this last year in training, preparing for the race this spring, 2014.

SIMON: Professor Mann, when people are in their 40's, they can pull a hamstring reaching for the toothbrush.

MANN: Yes, and so I had to be very careful. That was my one big fear. And so I had to be very careful in my training and warming up and preparation to make sure I could minimize the chances of that happening.

SIMON: Professor Mann, with respect, but was deciding to run in a, you know, what after all is a college conference event, your equivalent of getting a little red convertible?

MANN: (Laughing) I suppose it probably is, just a lot cheaper and better for my health.

SIMON: That's a great answer. So day of the race, you show up. What happened?

MANN: I got in the blocks, and when we were told to move into the set position, that seemed to last longer than I had remembered from 25 years ago.

(LAUGHTER)

MANN: I was actually wavering in the blocks. And I saw on the video that some sort of bad form. But they fired the gun and I took off and things were going OK. They weren't going great, my strides were a little bit off. But I never hit an off-leg on a hurdle. As I went around the second turn and came into the final 100 meters, I looked to my left and realized that I was right in the middle of the pack. And that really surprised me. And at that point, I figured as long as I finish, this is a success. And as I got to the very end, right before the finish line, I glanced up at the scoreboard which showed the clock running. And realized that I ended up with a pretty good time. And so I crossed the finish line. I beat my personal goal by two seconds and managed to beat one other runner in the race.

SIMON: Well, that raises this question professor. You're - I mean, you're a teacher right?

MANN: Correct.

SIMON: You have devoted your professional life to helping, encouraging, enriching the lives of youngsters, right?

MANN: I would like to think so.

SIMON: Well, what about that poor kid that, you know, couldn't run as fast (laughing) as his religion professor?

MANN: I feel for him. But now he's got a chance to live down his demons in the years ahead. I mean, that's the nature of competition. There's going to be a winner and there's going to be a loser. And that's always something that we have to figure out how to deal with in our own journeys, in our own efforts to cultivate who we are.

SIMON: Jeffrey Mann, professor of religion and a runner at Susquehanna University. Thanks very much for joining us.

MANN: Thank you very much.

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