Paul Cummings: Mormon Athlete
Paul Richard Cummings was a world-class middle and long distance runner, who ran competitively in distances from 1,500 meters to marathon.
Cummings was born on September 5, 1953, in Tempe, Arizona. His family moved to Santa Maria, California, when he was eleven years old. He played basketball in junior high and planned to continue the sport in high school. He did not make the team, however, and joined the track team after he came in first while running the mile during his physical education class. By his senior year, he was running the mile in 4:10, which was the seventh best time in the country. Several universities recruited him, but he selected Brigham Young University.
Cummings came from a family of thirteen children, so an athletic scholarship to BYU was welcome. He planned to interrupt his education to serve as a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but he was not able to raise the money required to serve. LDS Church president Spencer W. Kimball encouraged him to stay in school, earn his degree, and share the gospel with people he met through his running, which he did. He was named All-American the five years he ran on the BYU track and cross country teams. He became the NCAA champion in the mile during his junior year. He became the first runner from the Intermountain West to break the four-minute mile. His best time was 3:56.4, which he ran on March 16, 1974, in Tempe, Arizona.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1976. That year, he won the Millrose Games Wanamaker Mile with a record time of 3:57.6. He also won the Penn Relays 1,500-meter event at Franklin Field in Philadelphia with a time of 3:38.9. He won the 3,000-meter event in 8:29.6 at Sunkist Invitational Track Meet in Los Angeles.
In 1977 Cummings won the Sunkist Invitational indoor mile in 3:57.2. Representing the U.S. at Canada’s Tri-Country indoor track and field meet, where he competed against Canada and the Soviet Union, he took first in the mile.
At the January 1978 Muhammad Ali Track and Field Invitational at the Long Beach Arena, Cummings broke the indoor American record by .4 seconds for the 1,500 meters with a time of 3:39.8. A year later at the same invitational, Cummings finished under the indoor world record by .2 seconds. He set an American record with a time of 2:37.6.
Cummings balanced work at a steel mill to support his family with training for five hours a day in order to be part of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. But he came close to retiring when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Games. However, he was laid off from the mill at the end of 1980 and began running full time. At the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1984, Cummings won the 10,000-meter run and became a member of the U.S. Olympic team. He competed in the Olympics, but did not advance from the semifinals.
In 1981, Cummings began road racing. The St. George Marathon was one of his first, which he won with 2:15.16. New rules allowed runners to compete professionally, so in 1982 he ran for New Balance shoes. In 1984, he began running for Converse shoes. In 1983, he ran in the Boston Marathon, staying with the lead pack for most of the race. He also ran the New York City Marathon, Spokane Washington’s Bloomsday 12K Run, and the Cascade Run Off in Portland, Oregon. In September of that year, he set the world record in the half marathon at the Dayton River Corridor Classic (1:01.32). Cummings was ranked 15th worldwide in Runner’s World Magazine’s list of the top 20 highest-paid runners in 1984.
Cummings is the only runner to finish second in San Francisco's Bay to Breakers 12K road race (largest road race, Guinness World Record) three years in a row (1984, 1985, and 1986). His best marathon time came while winning the 1986 Houston Marathon with 2:11:31. His best finish at the Boston Marathon was 8th place overall in 1986. On March 15, 1987, he broke the American record in the 20K, at New Bedford, Massachusetts, with a time of 59.13. He continued to run competitively into his 40s. In 1993, he won the U.S. Master’s National Championship for the Marathon at the Twin Cities Marathon. That same year, he was also awarded the USA Track and Field (USATF) Master’s Age Division (age 40+) Runner of the Year.
Throughout his career, Cummings suffered from allergies that often hampered his performance. During college, it was discovered that he had an extra bone in his foot and underwent surgery to have that bone removed.
In the late 1980s, Cummings joined forces with world-class runners Ed Eyestone and Paul Pilkington to create a summer high school high altitude running camp in Park City, Utah, which successfully helped hundreds of high school runners for more than 15 years. Cummings also created Personal Coaching Services where he trained and coached numerous runners.
Cummings was inducted into the BYU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1986. He was posthumously inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, having died on September 17, 2001, in an accident on Strawberry Reservoir in Utah. He and his wife, Heidi, had four children.