A 26-mile stretch in Boston may seem like a world away from east Texas, but Madisonville roots helped shaped one of the most thrilling finishes in the famous Marathon’s history 40 years ago.
Jeff Wells, now the founding pastor of WoodsEdge Community Church in The Woodlands, finished just two seconds behind heavy favorite and eventual four-time victor Bill Rodgers in the 1978 Boston Marathon. This was the best time the Madisonville native logged in a highly decorated career that took him to every corner of the country as well as oversees.
“I had a bad experience at the Boston Marathon in ’77,” said Wells. “I was in second place coming down the stretch, but it was a hot year and I definitely started too fast. I was exhausted around heartbreak hill and had to stop and walk off and on throughout the final stretch of the course. I was excited to try again in ’78 with a different approach.”
Jeff, son of Harold and Pat Wells, is a member of the 1972 graduating class of Madisonville High, where basketball became his first true love.
“This was before running became popular in the United States,” said Wells. “At the time, Madisonville had a track team but no actual track. I wanted to run to stay in shape for basketball and I quickly began to realize that the longer the race, the better I became. I can remember running alone in the country or down Highway 75 toward Houston to train.”
Wells walked onto the track and cross-country teams at Rice University, where he was a five time All-American and eventually inducted into the athletic hall of fame. After college, he moved to Eugene, Ore. to join a team of runners sponsored by a little-known company at the time called Nike.
Over the next decade, he would log first place finishes at marathons in Houston, Dallas, Eugene, Honolulu, Sweden and New Zealand. The kid from Madisonville was suddenly running at the highest level of the sport.
Much like running at a professional level was never part of the original plan, Wells had no intention of leading a life as a religious figure when he first entered Rice as a freshman.
“I wanted to be a lawyer at first,” said Wells. “But I read the bible in high school and progressively felt like I wanted a closer relationship with God. I became a Christian on July 4, 1972 and felt a pull to eventually become a pastor.”
His relationship with God obviously had an effect on his career, but he also kept a secret battle locked within himself throughout. Wells suffered from a severe case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder in which one has unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, images or sensations and can only mentally dismiss them with strict behaviors or acts.
“At the time of the Marathon in ’78 I’d have moments where I convinced myself I was displeasing God with my attitude and intentions and these thoughts would plague me,” said Wells. “A normal brain would’ve quickly dismissed thoughts like that and moved on, but I just couldn’t shake that part of me.”
Wells has opened up about this part of his life to the public in his book "Breaking Free of OCD: My Battle with Mental Pain and How God Rescued Me." He has also spoken about it at great length in sermons to his congregation at WoodsEdge. He admits that his condition made him a better runner overall and even somewhat relieved to finish in second place in 1978.
“I’m very competitive and was trying to win,” said Wells. “I felt that my mental struggles would get even worse if I won, but let me be clear: I tried to win.”
Some would even say that Wells could’ve had a better chance if it weren't for certain obstacles in his way down the final stretch. In Tom Derderian’s 2017 book "Boston Marathon: Year-by-Year Stories of the World’s Premier Running Event," there’s a picture of Bill Rodgers crossing the finish line accompanied by a caption that states Wells “had to dodge a motorcycle and a protester with a sign reading ‘satanic bandit’ in his pursuit of Bill Rodgers.”
“There wasn’t as wide of a runway as you’d see today because they didn’t keep the course as clear, but we were unimpeded,” said Wells. “I remember someone carrying a sign sort of passed in front of the path but it didn't bother me at the time. With about 50 yards left I thought I might be able to catch (Rodgers), but he ended up crossing the finish line.”
Activity from outside spectators was a common occurrence in all of sports for quite some time. Three years prior in the same city, Carlton Fisk of the Boston Red Sox had to dip and dodge loose fans all the way around the bases after his iconic walk-off home run in game six of the World Series.
Despite the toll it might’ve taken physically and mentally, Wells is thankful for his running career and the experiences he’s had as a result. While his condition made him more precise in his trade, he admits it could’ve ultimately prevented him from realizing his true potential as a runner.
Still, Wells was an extremely successful competitor and would’ve likely taken his talents to Moscow for the 1980 Olympics had the events not been boycotted by President Jimmy Carter and the United States.
“He’s the most humble and accomplished individual I know,” said Wells’ sister and Madisonville resident Dawn Knight. “I don’t know if he truly credits himself for his running success like he should. It could be part of the healing.”
Wells has happiness with his position at WoodsEdge and his wife Gayle, children Sarah, Callie and John Paul along with their spouses Mike, Paul and Michele and his grandchildren Ryanne, Rhett, Evie and Wren.
His official time in the 1978 Boston Marathon was 2:10:15. Today, it stands as the third closest finish in the event’s 122-year history.