04/02/2013 11:43 am ET Updated May 19, 2013

When the Going Gets Tough

Sometimes life deals us a tough hand to deal with. Sometimes hardship and tragedy come to us through no fault of our own; other times we bring it upon ourselves. But however it has happened, if you are facing very trying circumstances and are looking for some hope or motivation to bring meaning and happiness back into your life, read the following true story through to the end.

The Cunninghams lived on a farm in Kansas, and Glenn and his brother attended a country schoolhouse that was heated by an old-fashioned pot-belled stove. Glenn was eight years old, his brother thirteen. They regularly went to school early to light the fire, using kerosene left in a can by a nearby farmer. But one day the can had mistakenly been filled with gasoline, and there was a terrible fire. The skin and muscle on both of Glenn's knees and shins were burned to the bone, and the toes on his left foot had been burned off and the arch destroyed. Doctors wanted to amputate his legs, but his parents said "no." Glenn's brother was killed in the fire.

Following an extended stay in the hospital, Glenn's wounds began to heal. After being bedridden for months, he finally was able to get around using crutches, but no one expected he would ever walk again -- that is, no one except Glenn. After being on crutches for two years, he learned to stand, gradually retraining his leg muscles to work again and then learning to walk by working his way from one end of the picket fence in his front yard to the other end, using the fence as a support as he walked. As time went on, just walking was not enough. He tried playing baseball, his favorite sport, but couldn't keep his balance when batting. So he turned to running. And run he did!

Defying all odds, his left leg being nearly an inch shorter than his right and limping as he ran, he set all kinds of middle distance records in high school. He continued running at Kansas University, where he is remembered as being one of the university's all-time track greats. And after KU, where he set numerous records, he went on to run at amateur track meets in the USA and Europe, winning a good part of the time and continuing to set records.

The race Cunningham liked telling about the most was a mile run on an outdoor track in Chicago that featured Cunningham and another runner who was considered as being one of the world's fastest milers on outdoor tracks. People expected the race to be a close one, even expecting a new record to be set for the outdoor mile. Even though Glenn had set a new record for the indoor mile four months earlier at Madison Square Garden, the other runner was widely expected to win on an outdoor track.

The other runner, whose name Cunningham didn't tell me and I didn't bother to ask, was famous for his strong kick on the last lap, and getting well ahead of him before the the fourth and final lap seemed Glenn's only hope of winning. Glenn and his coach carefully calculated the times he should run for each of the first three laps, which were faster than he had run before, and he worried about his ability to maintain such a fast pace on the final lap. It was a risky strategy, but necessary to win.

Glenn started out the race taking the lead, but he could hear the other runner matching him step for step. He was surprised at the time yelled out at the end of the first lap by the official timer -- it was faster than Glenn and his coach had planned. Yet, he could hear the other runner matching his every step. The same happened for the second and third laps -- running faster than planned, but still the other runner matching his every stride. As Cunningham started the last lap, he thought there was no way he could out-kick the other runner.

Glenn ran the last lap as fast as he could, but coming off the last curve with only fifty yards to go, he could still hear the other runner right behind him, and he feared he didn't have enough left to fend off the other runner's strong finish. But Glenn was able to stay ahead of him and win the race. Right after crossing the finish line, Glenn turned to shake hands with the other runner, but the other man was just coming off the last curve, with another fifty yards to go. How could that possibly be? Glenn had heard him matching his every stride.

It turned out that the paper number safety-pinned to the back of his shirt had come loose on one side and was flapping in the wind, sounding as if his opponent was running right behind him. And with a glint in his eyes, Cunningham concluded the story: "Had I looked backward instead of foreword, I would not have set a world record that day." Yes, that day Cunningham set a new record for the outdoor mile run, making him at that time the holder of both the indoor and the outdoor records.

So many times we get bogged down in life, looking backward. The past is not what is significant! We need always to be looking forward, to the things that are yet possible in our lives, regardless of the problems, failures, mistakes or handicaps of the past. Overcoming the past may not always be easy, but it usually is possible -- if you try hard enough. The entire life of Glenn Cunningham is a testimony to that.

The first part of this story is public record, but Glenn Cunningham personally told me about setting the world record, and I have never read or heard that part of the story from any other source.