For two years Paul Cummings was sick and tired. So tired that he was unable to run farther than three miles, and for that he required days to recover. All he wanted was to sleep. And eat. He gained 35 pounds, most of it around the middle. All of which was a little difficult to take for an Olympic distance runner, one who, between bouts with asthma, had ranked among the country's top middle-distance/distance runners off and on for some 15 years.
Alas, after a two-year absence, Cummings is back, trimmer, fitter and older . Next week he will run in the annual July 24 Deseret News-KSL Radio 10,000-meter road race, which he won in 1987 in what was the last strong race before his decline began. Cummings, whose career has been punctuated by health problems, is nothing if not cautious and realistic: "I feel like I have a shot at a sub-29 (minute) at Deseret News," he says. "I'm not going to win it, but I'll be in the money."Cummings' strength is improving. He placed third in last month's Strawberry Days 5K (in Pleasant Grove), first in the Lehi Roundup 5K and a close third in the Freedom Festival 10K (time: 31:27). "I'm in better shape now," Cummings said last weekend, minutes after winning the Redwood Center 5K in an unpressed 15:07.
It's a far cry from the Cummings of old - the Cummings who has excelled in everything from the mile (3:56.6) to the 10,000 (27:43) and the marathon (2:12), set numerous American and world records on the track and road, and won a handful of national championships and the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials 10,000-meter run. But then at least he is able to run again consistently, which is reason enough to hope for a return to form.
"I wasn't able to run on and off the past two years," says Cummings. "I'd go out and run three miles, and I'd have to take a week off. I'd be completely drained for days. Then I'd eat. It was not a very good combination. I was depressed a lot."
Dogged by chronic viral infections and overwhelming fatigue, Cummings eventually was diagnosed as having Epstein-Bar Syndrome, which causes symptoms similar to those of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The illness virtually forced him to retire from running.
"There was a period of two months in there where I felt good," he recalls. "I ran 29:20 (10K) in New York. I thought I was on my way back, but then it recurred."
Four months ago, the symptoms abated, leaving as mysteriously as they had arrived. Cummings began to run again, slowly rebuilding his strength. As recently as eight weeks ago he was still running cautiously - 20 or 30 miles per week - but in the past month he has managed 75 to 100 miles weekly. He also has cut his weight from a high of 170 pounds to 147 - about 12 over his peak racing weight.
"I feel pretty good," he says, "but I'm still nervous about it (the illness) coming back,"
You'd never know it. Cummings maintains a schedule that seems hectic enough to invite more trouble. He rises at 5:30 a.m. to run 11 miles, then drives from his home in Lehi to his job at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City. He runs again during his lunch break, this time six miles. After work he drives to Highland High School or to BYU to coach a group of runners through a track workout. Twice weekly Cummings runs with them, giving him three training sessions in one day.
The lean years forced Cummings to give up running as a fulltime occupation. He works with the employee fitness program at LDS Hospital. On the side, he owns and operates a coaching services program and conducts a summer running camp at Park City.
"I get home between 7:30 and 8," says Cummings, who has four children. "By nine I feel tired. My schedule really couldn't be worse."
Cummings' running career thus has come full circle, back to the days when he had to train around a job as a laborer in the Geneva Steel Mills.
Cummings can't recover the lost two years of running, but by now he is used to running's pitfalls and quietly accepts them. He has lost several running seasons to chronic asthma during his career; who knows what he lost working in the mills. But Cummings is looking ahead, not behind.
"I'm not done," he says. "After the last two years, I'm not planning anything too far ahead. But I hope to be doing this when I'm 50 and 60. For me there's not that much difference between being in top shape and just being in shape. I think I can run again the way I used to, but if I don't I can live with it. I just enjoy doing what I'm doing."