Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Glory Days: Part One

Half Ryun

My life as a runner has been rather unspectacular with some minor exceptions. I believe I developed late as a runner, a couple of years behind my peers in a sport that tends to reward the early birds with first place worms.

Like most wannabie distance runners of my generation – late 60s and early 70s - we all wanted to be the next Jim Ryun. I remember being aghast at the times and workouts he did, just beyond comprehension based on my meager talent. And marathoners? They may as well been from another planet…how could you possibly run all-out for 26.2 miles? Of course they didn’t, but looking at their times and mine, I believed that is what they did.

After finding the mile was going to gain me a long period of ridicule from my loving classmates who managed to attend an occasional track meet at Summerville High, I switched to the half mile. My thinking was it would be a better event for me, not to mention shortening the time I was left alone or nearly alone in a race. Without a deep love of running I’m sure I would have quit, but that thought was foreign to me and since the coach never asked me to leave, I stayed on as one of the slowest runners on the team.

Speaking of the team, we had some good runners but one spectacular sprinter, Harry Blake. Harry, as Pre would say, was an artist. He held several state records and it was not usual for him to win the 100, 200, 400, long jump, and be a member of the winning mile relay. When he ran it was something to behold, sheer magnificence of what a human being is capable of.

Back to the back of the pack: I struggled through my junior year with my friend Paul Smith, who kept to the mile and was faster than me. I think my best time in the half was 2:24, very slow but I ran as hard as I could, often having a faint taste of blood in my throat afterward. I believe this was from asthma that I had from my childhood, better now but not controlled with any medication.

The lower state meet was held at the then Baptist College, now called Charleston Southern University, which happens to be across the street from my prosthetist’s office today. I figured I would be left off the traveling team given my times, but somehow Coach Olin McCurry snuck me into the 880. I don’t think I impressed Coach much except when we ran the two-mile relay in practice, a relay where a team of four each ran 8 440s in relay fashion. My first quarter or two put me back in my usual lonely position, but after that I would soon catch the sprinters and blast past them to give my team a lead. Coach McCurry would say: "Always give me distance men in the 2 mile relay!" It had a feeling I didn’t enjoy except for this one workout. My best distance simply was not run in high school as we had no cross-country team.

At lower state, the slower runners ran in a separate heat – I can’t recall if it was first or second – and we were doubled up in lanes. I was in lane one with another school’s runner, wearing a white tee shirt because I wasn’t good enough to have a rare school jersey. The gun goes off and we are running like madmen, with me at the back of the pack.

I clearly recall how much I was hurting after the first lap and thinking…how much more can it hurt? I was either last or next to the last when it happened. I began passing people; I was reaching inside and passing more runners. I was running like I had never run before, pure guts...along the back stretch I passed most of the runners and was told later even Coach was excited: look at Blalock go!

Turning down the homestretch I was in second when the bear jumped on my back with the baby grand piano he was playing. Seconds seem to turn to minutes, and the finish line as far away as it was from the start. I glance to my side and see another runner bearing down on me. I manage to hold him off and nearly collapse, but hold myself up as Coach hates to see us do that.


Still not an exceptional time for an 880, but a huge improvement for me. Later I find Coach McCurry lobbied hard to get me in the final; I truly don’t believe so much for getting a point as knowing what had happened and wanting to strike while I had confidence. I was denied, however, and we lost the meet and rode home in silence. But no one would take my victory from me or the glow inside.

As a senior the following year, after a few workouts, Coach had us run time trials. My first 880 was 2:14 and I was intensely disappointed it was slower than last year. As I was getting down on myself Coach asked me what time I started last season at: it was probably close to 2:30…and what did I finished with? So I am starting with 2:14 this year…it was a good moment to put things in perspective.

A couple of weeks later I played in a student-faculty basketball game – another late blooming sport for me – and I was tripped by the assistant basketball coach and wrecked my left ankle. I would not run any track meets until late in the season, when I had to step off the track because my ankle was killing me.

That was the end of my high school running career with the exception of Explorer Scout Olympics later in the spring of 1971.

(To be continued in Part Two)

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