No one paid attention to the lone runner coming through the trees at Mill Creek Park near the Country Club Plaza.
He was just another guy on a morning run.
Except he wasn’t.
On a September day in 1985, Mark Curp ran a half-marathon faster than anybody on the planet ever had. He’d grown up on a Missouri farm, running alone on country roads. His world record came on the crowded streets of Philadelphia.
That world mark stood for about five years, his American record for 17 beyond that. Three times, he nearly made it to the Olympics.
Curp is 57 now, his elite running days well behind him. But he’s still got a big race coming up on May 7. Because guys who were born to run, as Curp says he was, never seem to stop.
Not even when cancer gets in the way.
Curp’s last race was a year ago in the same corporate challenge for which he’s now training. Worst time he’d ever run a 5K — he covered the 3.1 miles in 20 minutes and 14 seconds. Not long after that race, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
He knew all about cancer. His grandfather died of it. Father. Brother. Curp did what he always did — he took on his fight as a challenge.
Through treatment and chemo, he ran and biked when his body let him. And Jan. 8, doctors said he was in remission.
That’s like telling a guy like Curp that he’s got a step on a main rival.
Now, he’s trying to break away.
That’s what brought him to Mill Creek Park one morning last week. People walked the trail. Students with headphones read on benches. Old men walked dogs.
No one knew about that day in Philadelphia or a world record or that crowds used to line streets cheering for the guy now coming through the trees alone.
That’s fine with Curp. It’s not about winning races now. It’s about going as fast as he can, just as he did as a star with the world watching or as a boy alone on gravel roads.
“It’s what I’ve always done,” he said. “The Lord blessed me with being good at it.”
His sister, Darla Moberly, who won a collegiate national title in 1986 in the outdoor 3,000 meters, wasn’t surprised to hear about the upcoming race.
“Running is who he is, he’s done it all his life and it’s part of his DNA,” said Moberly, now a coach at Kearney High School. “Being sick is not the way you want to go about it. But when he gets out there now, I think he has a peace about it.”
‘Seems like yesterday’
Like most boys in Polo, Mo., Curp, the second-oldest of six kids, played high school football.
But he knew his sport was running. He wasn’t tall, but he had long legs and long arms to thrust himself forward.
After graduating in 1977, he enrolled in what was then Central Missouri State University — now the University of Central Missouri — where he excelled in cross-country and long distance, twice earning All-America honors on the NCAA Division I level.
He studied agribusiness, figuring all along that he would head back to the family farm after college in Warrensburg.
But it turned out this running thing had legs.
New Balance, the running shoe giant, put Curp on the payroll, making him a professional runner for the next 20 years.
That day in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 1985.
“On one hand, it seems like a long time ago,” Curp said. “On the other, it seems like yesterday.”
It was a Sunday, cool and sunny, that Curp ran the race of his life in the Philadelphia Distance Run half-marathon. That’s 13.1 miles. By the last three miles, three runners — Curp, Michael Musyoki of Kenya and Nick Rose of Great Britain — had broken away from the field.
Curp made several hard surges in the last mile and got to the finish line three seconds ahead of Musyoki. Rose finished third.
World record: 1:00:55.
“My fastest mile was the last one — 4:32,” Curp said.
“I kept running after that. … I just ran back to the hotel and called home.”
That was more than 30 years ago. Today, Curp is a father of five, fresh off cancer treatment and a little, though not much, thicker than in his running prime.
But there’s still something special about his running, the way his steps pop off the asphalt — like it would take more effort to stop than to keep going.
“I’ve been running since the seventh grade,” he said in the cafeteria at American Century, where he works as a business support consultant. “I never thought that I would never run again.”
Just down from the rear of American Century towers is Mill Creek Park. Curp often goes there to train during the day.
His employer is fine with that.
American Century is partly owned by the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. The investment company pours 40 percent of its profits into the institute for research into gene-based diseases such as cancer.
Since 2000, American Century, whose founder, James Stowers Jr., died of natural causes in 2014, has distributed about $1.2 billion in dividends to the research.
American Century is also a big booster of Shave 2 Save, a fundraiser for Hope Lodge, which provides temporary housing in Kansas City for cancer patients and their caregivers.
The event involves people volunteering to get their heads shaved for pledge dollars.
This year, one of those is Mark Curp. As of Friday, the day of the event, Curp had raised about $9,000.
Curp’s old friend and running buddy, Charlie Gray, wasn’t at all surprised to hear that Curp was training again.
Nor that Curp had done seven miles before coming to work.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily that Mark wants to win a race, but I think he just wants to get out and run,” said Gray, whose name is also well-known in Kansas City running circles.
Gray lives now in Colorado. But when he was in Lee’s Summit, he often ran with Curp.
“Well, Mark was a world-class runner,” Gray said. “I gave him somebody to run with and he gave me somebody to chase.”
For this year’s 5K corporate challenge, Curp said his hope is to go faster than last year. He wants to average 6:30 per mile.
“I know I can do it for a couple,” he said.
Gray knows that attitude. He’s heard it before and run against it too many times.
“This is a different kind of race,” Gray said. “But Mark will never surrender.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182