"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Memories of my first great race

I was asked about the header photo I'm using at the moment and it reminded me that I probably never wrote about my first great race, the one that told me I was a runner.

I'd run track since 7th  grade, but hadn't run cross-country until 11th - it just seemed preposterous to run that far (and on hills!) - when I got convinced to give it a try and found that I liked it. The team that year only had a couple of seniors and wasn't very good. The following track season, we had a huge number of guys who suddenly were vying for places on the 4x800m relay and those of us with another year of high school all ended up running cross-country the next fall.

That fall we had a good team. The star was Tony, who would become all-state; the fact that he was better known as a pothead than a runner made it all the more surprising he could run that fast. Next was Jim, who was considered very shy by those who didn't know him well and who was one of North High's two Merit Scholars that year (I was the other); very smart and studious, he ended up singing opera - a talent not many knew he had. After those two, there was a big drop in talent and a bunch of us were close in ability. Probably the best was Warren, who went to the State Championship in the 800m; he was always hit-and-miss, usually going out way too hard and holding on as long as possible. Then there was Chuck, who was quiet, serious and intense and extremely consistent and hard-working. Then it was a toss-up between me and Keith; Keith was the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet, but got on the coach's bad side for not showing up to Saturday practices (he never told the coach he was a Seventh Day Adventist - that he raced on Saturdays was a concession). I was the weirdo of the group - because Jim and I had so many classes together, I think he got the others to cut me some slack. A team needs 7 runners and the last place went to Griffin (never called by his first name), a speedy sophomore who was immature even for his age.

The way things went at the time, the top 2 teams from the Conference Meet went on to Regionals and the top teams from there went to State. We were in such a tough conference that we were more worried about that than Regions. The main competition was from Stillwater, which still has great teams 30 years later. We really wanted to beat Stillwater at Conference.

My plan was to try not to go out too fast and push the second mile (of the 3 mile race), where I usually lost focus. A quarter mile in, I passed Griffin, who looked like he was suffering; I tried to encourage him, but it looked like his race was over almost as soon as it started. At the 1 mile, an official from our school told me that Stillwater was way ahead of us and they needed every spot I could get. My feet were sliding in my spikes - I'd put on too much lube - and I was blistering, but I took off after the long line of guys ahead of me, looking for those in Stillwater red (as opposed to North St. Paul red, or Elk River red or any of the other 6 schools with the same colors).

I was making progress when I passed Warren, who looked bad. He'd gone out too hard once again. Suddenly, I was in our team's top 5, which meant I would be scoring for the team and suddenly what I did became very important. Then I saw Keith up ahead.

Keith made a wrong turn! Following another kid, he went the wrong way; with everyone screaming at him to turn around (including me), he just kept going. Later, I'd find out he did it intentionally! He went to tell that other runner he'd made a wrong turn. He sacrificed our race to be nice! Now I had to make up for both him and Warren. And I was exhausted and wanted to quit. My feet were just bloody pulp in my shoes.

That's when I saw my parents. The race goes past the finish line, makes a U-turn and comes back and my parents were at the finish. My father had never showed any interest in anything I'd done. And he never, ever, took time off from work. I had no idea this race was so important! I couldn't give up now. I just couldn't. I wanted to quit, but I had to make as good a showing as I could.

Then I saw Chuck ahead of me. I'd never caught him in a race and he wasn't that far ahead. I felt a jolt of energy and went after him, passing a lot of runners on the way, catching him at the turn-around. He was not about to let me pass. He sped up. I sped up. He sped up. I sped up. We went whizzing past runner after runner, streaming past a long line of runners, pushing each other to breaking. A few yards from the finish, I finally got a step ahead of him and he finished maybe 0.1 seconds behind me.

They handed us our places. I was 14th, Chuck 15th. The top 14 were all-conference. I'd made it! Chuck was furious and swore, having missed by so little - within a minute, he apologized for his outburst and congratulated me. Now we had to wait to see where Warren, Keith and Griffin would finish.

We won the championship. Tony and Jim finished first and second, but we won because Chuck and I had had tremendous races. I went over to my parents to give them the good news.

As I approached, my father said, deadpan, "Your grandfather died."

Why couldn't he have waited to tell me?! He couldn't let me be happy for even a minute! It took years for me to see things from his point of view: his wife's father had passed away and he came home to comfort her; they decided to do something life-assuring, spend time with the kids... and I was the only one available. He was trying to tell me that he was happy for me, but couldn't show it, because something terrible had happened.

And that's when I started believing I was a real runner. And that every time something good happened, something horrible would take it away quickly. [I think I'm over that now.]

I think this photo of me was from that race.