Kenny Moore, who placed fourth in the 1972 Olympic marathon for the United States and went on to be an outstanding writer about running, died at his home in Kailua, Hawaii, on May 4. He was 78.
Moore’s lifetime achievement was a rare combination of the sporting and the literary. His years with track powerhouse University of Oregon, his two Olympic marathons, his 1972 Olympic fourth place, and his unmatched victory streak in the Bay to Breakers were followed by decades of high-quality writing for Sports Illustrated, some successful screenwriting, and his masterwork book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon.
His lucid and crafted writing was always centered on running, and he was a skillful story-teller and profile writer and a perceptive analyst of the sport and its elite exponents.
Born Kenneth Clark Moore in Portland, Oregon, he began running at North Eugene High School and often quoted the wisdom of his coach Bob Newland, although he described himself as “late in maturing” and never won a race in high school. To pay for college, he worked part-time in paper mills. He arrived at the University of Oregon in 1962 as an undistinguished miler who (in his own words) “desperately wanted to be an Oregon runner,” and was logging high training mileage with that purpose.
Coach Bill Bowerman gave him a more balanced program, and by 1966, when he graduated with a degree in philosophy, he was a three-time All American, with national-class PRs for one mile (4:04.2) and the 3,000-meter steeplechase (8:49.4). He was also the first wear-tester for Bowerman’s earliest experimental running shoes. A half century later, Nike honored him with the “Kenny Moore Collection.”
He went on to Stanford law school with a scholarship, “the first time in my life I was more than fifty bucks ahead.” In 1967, he won the AAU national cross-country championship, and in 1968 moved to Lake Tahoe to prepare for the Olympic trials. He has written movingly about combining dedicated training with response to the political and racial tensions that split America that year.
At altitude, he placed second in the Olympic marathon trials in 2:31:47, and in the higher altitude of Mexico City, he was well placed early on, running with defending champion Abebe Bikila, feeling “amazed and idolatrous” to be alongside his hero. Severe blisters ended the dream, and he struggled painfully to finish 14th in 2:29:49. Tape on the balls of both feet came unstuck, and, he wrote, “rolled up into ridges of fire.”
Also in 1968, he married Roberta (Bobbie) Conlan, decided against law as a career, and joined the U.S. Army. He benefited from its track program, with the opportunity to compete internationally, backed by stern regulations about being returned to the unit for inadequate performance. Among other major races, Moore was able to travel twice to the Fukuoka Marathon, informally the annual world championships in that era. He broke the American marathon best there in 1969, running 2:13:28, and in 1970 he ran 2:11:36, placing second.
After two years in the Army, Moore went back to Oregon and completed an MFA in creative writing in 1972.
Both running and writing then flourished. On the track, Moore was good enough to place second and fourth in the national six miles or 10,000 meters, and he won the 1971 U.S. marathon title in a championship record 2:16:48, earning selection for the Pan Pacific Games. In that same year, he became a contract writer for Sports Illustrated, beginning a 25-year career at the pinnacle of the sports journalism profession.
In 1972, Moore and his close friend Frank Shorter confidently dead-heated in a U.S. Olympic marathon trials record of 2:15:58. In Munich, the Olympic marathon was run under the shadow of the terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes.
After days of conflict about the appropriateness of competing, Moore ran, but only a mile into the race, he tripped and fell at a crowded corner. “I curled into a ball until an opening appeared in the slapping feet and was up quickly, with a stinging elbow and knee and a thirty-yard deficit,” he wrote later. He rejoined the leaders in time to witness Shorter’s victorious surge at 9 miles. After running equal with the defending champion, Mamo Wolde, in second place, Moore finished fourth in 2:15:39, proudly part (with Shorter and Jack Bacheler, ninth) of the best three-man team result by any nation to that date.
Moore’s prime years as a runner could be charted by his unmatched streak of six wins in San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers from 1968 to 1973. He broke the record twice, bringing it down by 2 minutes. He kept writing supremely well, with insightful profiles of great runners like Roger Bannister and Lasse Viren, which were later collected in the book Best Efforts (1982).
There were losses, too. Steve Prefontaine was a close Oregon friend, and his tragic death affected Moore deeply. Bowerman, Shorter, and Moore delivered the eulogies at Pre’s unforgettable funeral, and Moore’s tribute showed his rare capacity for giving eloquent credit to other people’s strengths. The same generous empathy enriches his writings.
Another loss was the ending in 1979 of his marriage, which had given the world some famous photos, of Bobbie supporting him on the infield as he grappled with the ambivalent anguish of having placed fourth in the Olympics.
As his running faded, Moore committed himself to the campaign to break the power of the old Amateur Athletic Union and its controlling treatment of athletes. The Amateur Sports Act, which allows self-government to each sport, and “recognizes certain rights for U.S. amateur athletes,” was passed in 1978. Moore served on the International Competition Committee of the replacement federation, The Athletics Congress, and on the Athletes Advisory Council to the U.S. Olympic Committee (“a rousing group of achievers,” he called these athletes who bestirred the old order). He chaired the Steve Prefontaine Foundation, which funded talented young athletes from underprivileged backgrounds, and also served as a director of the Oregon Track Club.
Two major achievements still lay ahead. From 1980–82, Moore worked with writer-director Robert Towne as consultant and actor for Personal Best, a movie about women’s track and field. They picked up on earlier discussions of Moore’s idea of a feature film on the life of Prefontaine, which finally came to fruition as Without Limits (1998), with Moore as co-writer.
Towne’s insistence that Moore take an acting role in Personal Best came as a shock. “Once in a lifetime, everyone should have a phone call like that as a test of cardiac fitness,” he wrote. “I’m shy,” he told Towne. “I became a writer so I wouldn’t have to talk.”
He could write without shyness of his script for Without Limits.
“[It] has been immensely rewarding…because of kids’ reactions to it. It has become a relay baton with a message tucked inside, handed from one generation of runners to the next, keeping vivid both the story of Pre and the truths Bowerman held to be vital.”
He left Sports Illustrated in 1995 to focus on his greatest written work, the biography and cultural history, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon (2006). Moore’s combination of personal insight, historical understanding, research, eloquent writing, and sheer intelligence of ideas make it one of the best of all sports biographies, with wider importance in its treatment of Bowerman’s military service and the history of Nike. It is also in part the reticent Moore’s concealed autobiography, with its wrenching treatment of the Munich terrorism.
Moore returned to that significant time in his own life when he led a successful human rights campaign to redress the unjust imprisonment in Ethiopia of Mamo Wolde, who in 1972 had narrowly beaten Moore for the bronze medal.
With his second wife, Connie, Moore lived his later years in Hawaii, where he continued to write, including several profiles for Runner’s World. He was inducted into the Oregon and University of Oregon sports halls of fame, and won the George Sheehan, George Hirsch, and RRCA awards for running journalism. His literary mission, he said, was “to make an athlete’s experience understandable to a wider readership.” He achieved that and much more.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that Moore’s 2:11:36 at the Fukuoka Marathon was an American record. It was the second-fastest marathon time of 1970, behind Eamon O’Reilly’s 2:11:12 at Boston. The story also referenced Moore’s fastest time for 10,000 meters, which was for 6 miles. The time has been removed.