By Mike Tymn
A boy named Fay has only one route through life: to repeatedly prove his mettle.
© 2000 42K(+) Press, Inc.
Someone forgot to tell Fay Steele that sprinters and distance runners, especially ultrarunners, are totally different breeds. As they say in the Army, Steele didn't get the word.
To Steele, running was running, whether you covered 100 yards or 100 miles. If you could do one reasonably well, it figured you could do well in the other. What does a country boy from Tennessee know?
So when, back in June 1940, the dare was issued for someone to run the 52 miles across the Isthmus of Panama and set a record for coast-to-coast foot travel, Steele, a 24-year-old Army Air Corps corporal and standout sprinter on the Canal Zone base track team, didn't hesitate to volunteer. (They don't tout the Tennessee Volunteers for nothing.)
"I'd been running since an early age," Steele, an 83-year-old native of Somerville, Tennessee, recently recalled with a wide grin from his room at the U.S. Soldiers and Airmens Home in Washington, D.C. "I ran to and from school, and I delivered my paper route by running it. I knew when I was about eight I had good speed, but I wasn't satisfied with being able to run faster than my friends. I was obsessed with being able to run farther than they could. Recess often became a test to see how many times I could run around the 220-yard track in the 15-minute recreation period."
Steele's eyes brightened when he thought back to a time at age 16 that his softball team had won both games of a doubleheader. He was so eager to tell friends Lawrence and James Rike about the victories that he ran seven miles to the neighboring town where they lived and then ran the seven miles back home. Apparently both Lawrence and James were more impressed with Fay's round-trip jog than with the softball victories, because they told a lot of mutual friends, and Fay gained a reputation as something of an "animal." James went on to the University of Tennessee to become an All-American football player in 1939, leading his team to the Rose Bowl.
As captain of his Army Air Corps track team in Panama during the 1940 season, Steele had posted record times of 9.9 for 100 yards, 22.0 for 220, and 49.6 for 440 at France Field, all on a grass track. He also long-jumped 21 feet 2-1/2 inches. In those days, anyone who could break 10 seconds in the 100 or 50 seconds in the quarter was considered pretty darn fast. This was before synthetic tracks, starting blocks (they just dug holes in the track), light, flexible track shoes, modern training techniques, running magazines, or scientific reports explaining that sprinters and distance runners have conflicting muscle fibers.
Steele also recalled winning an 880 race in 2:07.4 during the 1939 season. A sports writer from the Panama-American called him "Speed-to-Spare Steele," a nickname that remained with him during the rest of his tour in Panama.
Accepting the Challenge
The trans-Isthmus run was planned for Labor Day, September 2, 1940. Steele began his training on July 4, just after the end of the track season. "I didn't think it would be too difficult to up my training for that distance," Steele said, shaking his head. "Daily runs of 15 miles or more became my routine."
Several other members of the track team had also accepted the challenge, but it didn't take long for them to change their minds, leaving Steele alone to save face for his coach. It was the coach, Captain John Morley, who issued the dare after four soldiers had claimed a record for coast-to-coast travel by hiking the jungle route across the Isthmus in something under 48 hours. As Morley was primarily a physician, he tended to the medical needs of the four men and suggested that members of his track team could make the crossing in a day or less. The four weary soldiers didn't believe it and asked for proof.
"Frankly, ever since I had arrived in Panama three years earlier, I had given some thought to such a feat," Steele continued with the story. "I was very excited about it and extremely eager to prove to myself and to those who believed in me that I was capable of accomplishing what I had set out to do."
When you look at Steele's scrapbook and get the highlights of his full 83 years, you realize that he is the kind of guy who when he comes to a crossroads always chooses the most difficult route. A deeply religious man, he understands that it is only through toil, hardship, discipline, and restraint that the soul fully comes into its own. It is only when challenged that the dormant, latent strength and power can rise to the surface and be expressed. The man who takes the easy path does not evolve, does not grow in spirit, lives only on the surface of life, does not give his soul a chance to find itself. Steele wanted none of that.
He was always one of the smallest kids in town (less than five feet when he entered high school and maxing out at 5'5"), which perhaps was a blessing that made Steele want to do things bigger kids couldn't do. He had no problem outrunning them, whatever the distance, but Fayette County High School had only an intramural track program, and that didn't present any real opportunity for athletic achievement.
As a freshman he was turned down by the football coach as too small, and when he finally made the scrub team in his junior year, he didn't have a chance to do much more than warm the bench.
Steele feels that his mother's "big heart, strong will, and faith in God" influenced him more than anything else— influenced him to be eager to get into combat in World War II, to fly 78 combat missions, to land behind enemy lines, and carry out rescue work that earned him a Bronze Star; influenced him to track down a man-eating Bengal tiger in Central Sumatra in 1953 and then go after a killer elephant that had been terrorizing an Indonesian village; influenced him to step forward when the Smithsonian Institute asked for someone to hunt the rugged Black River Mountains of Mauritius, an island off the East Coast of Africa, for some rare birds.
And when masters track got its start in the early 1970s, Steele was one of the first to sign up. It's easy to visualize young Fay Steele in a classroom, the teacher asking for a volunteer to do something most students would not find appealing, and Fay immediately raising his hand with his characteristic eager grin.
What "Soft" Name?
Steele shrugs at the suggestion that the softness of his first name, derived from Fayette County, which surrounds Somerville, has had anything to do with his desire to test his mettle. After all, his surname seems to more than counter the first name and eliminate any need to prove his masculinity.
Better to be tested and lose than to not be tested at all is Steele's philosophy. "I just enjoy challenges; it's my nature," he further reflected on his motivation. "I was brought up with a strong work ethic, and it's always been my belief that you should make the most of whatever God-given talents you have."
Shortly before 1:00 a.m. on Labor Day 1940, Steele climbed out of his bunk ready to make good on the dare to run from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in less than a day, maybe even a half day. "I didn't get much sleep that night, but I felt remarkably fresh and was eager to start the adventure," he recalled nearly 60 years later. "I got up to about 90 miles a week, with my longest run being around 20 miles. At 5'5" and a little over 140 pounds, I was in the finest possible condition. The air was cool and refreshing, and a light breeze was blowing. It was a splendid night for running."
The plan was to take a one-minute "rest walk" after every mile of running, but Steele felt so good in the early going that he abandoned that plan. "That was my first mistake, but it certainly wasn't my last," Steele commented with a chuckle.
With enough light emitting from the twin cities of Cristobal-Colon and few cars on the road, Steele had no problem making his way over the first three miles. But when he turned onto Snake Road and ran into pitch darkness, he realized his second mistake. Without a flashlight, he found himself repeatedly crashing into the jungle, home to the giant anaconda snake, cougars, and African killer bees. "I thought after a few minutes my eyes would become accustomed to the darkness and I'd be able to see my way, but it didn't happen," he remembered. "Everything around me remained completely black. My pace slowed to a faltering walk as I mentally reviewed the situation."
After three miles of Snake Road, Steele reached a partially lit road, picked up the pace, and reached Gatun railroad station, just about 10 miles from the starting point, at 2:57 a.m., some 33 minutes ahead of schedule. A friend was waiting for him with a fresh sweat suit, a change of socks, a bottle of water, and a chocolate bar. The toughest part was just ahead.
Training for the Rails
"The 24 miles from Gatun to Gamboa had constantly loomed as the greatest challenge, the most formidable test of will and endurance," Steele continued his story. "There was no road or trail between those two towns. The only route was along the right-of-way of the Panama Railroad. The shoulder was narrow and covered with loose rocks, making it unsuitable for running. So I was forced to stay between the rails. The roadbed was gravel, but it was about two inches below the tops of the cross-ties."
Steele had determined in advance that there were 3,000 cross-ties to every mile of track and that at a steady pace he could step on every other one. But that was in daylight under ideal circumstances. He again faced almost complete darkness.
"Right away I stubbed my toe on some object and almost fell. A few minutes later it happened again, and I did fall. It hurt. It happened a third time, and I fell again, hard. I crawled back on my hands and knees searching for the hazard." He discovered the obstacles were small surveyor's stakes driven into the space between the rails and sticking about three inches above the ties. The hazard identified, Steele covered the next 15 miles without incident.
He reached Frijoles train station, roughly the halfway point, in three hours and three minutes. "In my eagerness and due to my inexperience, I had run much faster than I had intended," Steele offered. "I knew then I was in trouble."
It didn't take much longer for the trouble to manifest itself. He felt pain in his quadriceps and general fatigue throughout his body. He stretched out along the ties to rest, then fell asleep. When he awoke, he realized he had slept almost an hour. It was 6:45, and the sun was rising over the horizon. Somewhat refreshed by the rest but fighting off the soreness in his legs, Steele resumed the run.
In spite of his unplanned snooze, he arrived in Gamboa, 34 miles from the starting point, at 8:15, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. The Pacific Ocean lay just 18 miles ahead. He decided to take a two-hour rest before continuing. This proved to be another mistake. Still another error was consuming a fairly heavy meal while he rested. "We had never heard of carbohydrate-loading, and no one really knew anything about running that kind of distance," Steele remarked. "After lunch, instead of resting, I was kept busy posing for photographs and answering questions for the news media."
Coach Morley joined Steele for the final 18 miles, offering encouragement. "The first hour out of Gamboa wasn't too bad, but then I really began to feel it," Steele went on. "The fatigue and the pain in the thighs persisted. One calf began to tighten, and there was a dull ache from the toes I had injured hitting the surveyor's stakes on the tracks. I also felt repercussions from the unwise meal I had eaten. But no one told me it would be easy, and I didn't expect it to be."
An Early Tragedy
Indeed, Steele knew all about overcoming adversity. He knew heartaches, hardships, and pains far more insurmountable than a mere 52-mile run. The physical discomforts of this trek were nothing compared with the challenges presented by a single night during February 1924, when he was just seven. In the middle of the night, Fay was awakened by his older brother Olaf's telling him that their two-story farmhouse was on fire. Olaf held the second-story window open for young Fay and then directed him to the edge of the roof, instructing him to jump.
"I jumped and as I did I glanced back into the room behind my brother," Steele recalled with emotion in his voice. "It was now engulfed in flames. In the room I saw, or maybe I thought I saw, a man standing just behind my brother watching our progress. My first thought was that it was my father, but this man seemed to have a beard. I wondered if it could be Jesus. Later I decided it could have been an angel and still later decided it must have been a guardian angel sent by the Lord to protect me. Of this I am certain: There was either a man or a vision in that flame-filled room behind my brother, apparently oblivious to the inferno behind him."
Olaf escaped but was burned badly and did not survive the night. Fay's father and a visiting relative, both sleeping downstairs, also perished. His mother and two other older brothers survived, but life would never be the same for them. With the Depression years about to begin, they faced years of hardship and struggle. "That night still haunts me," Steele said. "I firmly believe that this night of terror permanently molded my psychic makeup."
Olaf had given his life for young Fay, yet another reason for Fay to make the most of life's opportunities. No doubt Olaf and his father were there in spirit, and Fay was not going to disappoint them.
It was now almost midday, and the sun was burning ever brighter and hotter. The humidity in that part of the world can really sap one's strength. "The pain in my legs was testing me to the fullest," Steele continued. "The fatigue was becoming overpowering. At each uphill I was forced to walk most of the way. Downhill, I kind of staggered at a slow jog, and even on level ground I found myself walking as much as running. My coach would massage my legs, and that would help for a mile, but then the tightness returned. Four miles from the finish I lay down for a rubdown, but when I tried to get up I sank back to the bed of grass, the failure being as much mental as physical."
But the body is the mere servant of the spirit and the soul. The body is the subject, the spirit the king, and Steele's body was no match for his spirit. It took an hour for him to get back on his feet, but there was never any doubt he would do it. He continued to run and walk on unsteady legs until he caught sight of a small crowd, including the media, gathered at the end of the historic run. "Almost without realizing it, I was running again, and at a fairly good pace. All the pain was gone from my body, the exhaustion a thing of the past. I finished the last few hundred yards smoothly and effortlessly and, as the finish photographs showed, with a big grin on my face."
Steele had covered the 52 miles in 12 hours and 25 minutes. "I guess you could say I hit the wall around halfway," Steele said, his grin no different today than in those photographs of 60 years ago. On to War After leaving Panama, Steele participated in the Big War. The computers of the day tried to assign him only to U.S. posts, but he persisted in his requests to get into the action. As an aerial photographer stationed in England, he was aboard the B-26 "Classie Lassie" on a bombing mission over German-controlled installations in France when his plane and others around it began taking flak. Steele managed to remain focused with his camera and took shots of adjoining planes and shell bursts. The photos were published in newspapers around the world.
On March 25, 1945, Steele's speed and fortitude were really tested. The citation that accompanies his Bronze Star medal for valor reads: "Serving as combat cameraman in the great airborne operation near Wessel, Germany, Sergeant Steele landed by glider with the airborne troops. Met by heavy enemy fire, both airborne troops and glider pilots were pinned down, several casualties having been sustained among them. Sergeant Steele, volunteering to obtain whole blood from a medical glider a hundred and fifty yards away, ran through a hail of enemy fire and delivered the life giving substance. . . ."
After the war, Steele continued in what became the Air Force with embassy duty in the Soviet Union, France, Egypt, and Indonesia. It was during the latter tour of duty that Steele was called upon to track down a tiger that had, over a period of several weeks, killed nine people in the village of Manggilang in Kota Baru. In this case, Steele wasn't chosen for his speed or endurance but for his marksmanship, as he had qualified as an expert with seven different military weapons and had recently demonstrated his sharp eye on a wild boar hunt. It took Steele less than two hours from the time he left the village to bag the beast, but he downplays it, explaining that the animal was "going the other way," not charging him, and was a good 40 feet from him.
On another occasion during his assignment to the American Embassy in Djakarta, Steele went after a rogue elephant that had been terrorizing a village. This mission took a little longer than the tiger hunt, but Steele's shot was right on target and toppled the rampaging giant. To hear Steele tell it, it wasn't much different from shooting rabbits with his .22 back in Somerville.
With 20 years of service, Steele retired from the Air Force in 1957 and began a second career, this one as a zoologist, specializing in ornithology. More specific, he became an aviculturist—a person who raises birds in captivity.
Back to the Track
While working at the Honolulu Zoo during the early 1970s, Steele, a lifetime bachelor, became interested in masters track and set 18 world age-group records at distances from 100 yards to 3 miles. He also won 14 of the 15 decathlon competitions he entered while in the 55-59 age division.
On Labor Day, 1980, Steele thought back to that challenge 40 years earlier and decided he had to return to Panama and do it again. "Back in 1940, no one knew how slow 12 hours, 25 minutes for 52 miles was," Steele explained. "Just finishing that distance was an achievement. But in 1980, people were a lot more knowledgeable and I was embarrassed any time the subject came up and I was asked how long it took me. More than that, though, I wanted to prove to myself that I could run it much faster, even at the age of 65."
He who is satisfied stagnates; he who is dissatisfied struggles toward greater freedom. Steele spent the next year planning for another Isthmus crossing. At 65, he ran from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, the reverse direction of his 1940 crossing, in nine hours and 21 minutes—more than three hours faster than he had done at age 25. "I didn't run faster, but I ran a lot smarter," he said, again that wide grin. There was no need to run the railroad tracks this time, as a two-lane paved road had been constructed.
Inspired by Steele's effort, the Vida y Salud Runners Club of Panama City organized and sponsored the first Ultramara-thon de Panama in 1983, which would become an annual event. Steele ran in the 1985 race, finishing in 9:41:33, including time lost time when his support vehicle broke down.
He returned the following year and, in spite of being stung by an African killer bee during a training run and hospitalized, lowered his personal best to 8:47:28, breaking the national M70-74 record for 50 miles (the course had been measured at 50.4 miles and certified as 50 miles).
In 1990, at age 75, on the 50th anniversary of his historic first crossing, Steele again participated, finishing seventh among 27 entries, clocking 10:09. He was the only contestant over the age of 42. He completed the event a sixth time in 1991, but he had to abort a seventh attempt the following year when he stepped in a pothole and injured himself. From 1980 to 1998, Steele ran 14 marathons, all but one under four hours, his fastest a 3:46 in 1988. In spite of all the physical activity, Steele had a blockage of two coronary arteries and underwent open heart surgery in 1994. During surgery, he suffered a stress-induced stroke, which left him with an awkward left leg when he got back to running six weeks later.
But enthusiasm forgives awkwardness and the clumsiness of old age, and Steele continues to put in 25 to 30 miles a week and to race occasionally, even if at a much slower pace. When he competes in his first race in 2000, it will mark his ninth decade of running.
Ambition, goals, desires, the pursuit of physical excellence—these are not the domain of the young. The reality of each person is the invisible, the intangible, the spirit, and its greater part, the soul. Science may explain how sprinters differ from distance runners, but science is a long way from understanding the soul, or from explaining the spirit of a country boy from Tennessee.