Thursday, December 10, 2009

Glory Days: Part Two

1971 Explorer Olympics

I was more despondent than I let on with missing my final track season. I don’t recall going to any of the meets, not because I didn’t support the team, but because I couldn’t bear being a spectator when I should have been a participant. Coach McCurry was also unhappy with me, and given what he had done for me I felt I let him down as well. As my ankle got better I trained on my own, both at the track – ours was dirt – and around my neighborhood, back through the soybean fields to the Salisbury Brick clay pit mines. This latter course was right at 3 miles that I usually covered in 18 minutes or so, using our old Rambler American station wagon to measure the course and timed with my Hanhart stopwatch, which I still own.

My training was not very scientific, except for longer runs of 10 miles (and one of 15 with my friend Paul down SC Hwy 61) most were done about as hard as I could manage. As I write this a flood of memories are coming back to me, people I saw and images of the past….

In 1971 the regional Explorer Olympics (older Scout troop) were held at Parris Island, yes, where they make Marines. I found out there was a rule that no one could compete in any event if they had been on a high school team in that same event. However, we had no cross country team – only a single trial race – so I would be able to run it. I seized on this as my race of redemption, and although the thought of winning it was not the specific goal, the thought of dying in the race did come to mind. I was going to give it everything I had.

The race

While I was a senior in high school, my dad suffered the first of his heart attacks. My dad and I were not very close, but like most boys, I sought his approval. His sport was baseball and he was a very good first baseman, playing for the Navy in San Diego after WW II. He came to see me finish nearly last at one track meet. He was in the hospital when we were to go to the Explorer Olympics, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to attend the games. I don’t recall the specifics, but I did travel down with my post, sponsored by the Summerville Fire Station with Jackie Sweat as our adult leader. Some of my best friends were there, Eric, Tommy, the Steves and Joey.

The morning of my race was a typical hot, humid, sticky South Carolina morning. We were piled into a Marine troop carrier and were trucked to our starting line 3 miles away. I recall sitting on the end by the door, glancing at my competition, one being Billy Long, an outstanding kicker for our football team. Some guys were chatting it up with him about winning the race. I sat alone with my thoughts, thinking how I would like to win this race for my dad. I wanted him to be proud of me. It wasn’t really about the winning to win. I wanted him not to die and to be proud of me.

We arrived at the start which it was a picnic/recreation area. The course was a rough inverted U design, and for some reason I had it in my mind that each element of the U was of three equal mile lengths when in reality that was not the case at all. I don’t recall how many runners were in the race, I was off in space, lost in my thoughts, totally absorbed in the moment.

Runners take your mark, get set…GO. The thought of pace wasn't on my mind; I was in a mental place I had never been in before. By 100 yards I was in the lead with Billy, who soon dropped behind and I did not look back. After perhaps a quarter mile I could hear a muffled conversation in the truck, they were trying to decide whether to stay with me or the other runners…I don’t think they believed I would be able to hold pace and the truck slowed down.

I ran and I ran and I ran my heart out. By the time I (thought) I was halfway it dawned on me that I was winning, that I had a chance to win this race. Not just run it, but win it. It lit me on fire and I ran like I was being chased by some wild animal intent on making me its meal and I was running for my life.

As I made the last turn that would take me to the finish line, I could not see it…I think the course bent a little to the right and it was much further away than I had in my mind. I was also feeling the intense stab of pain from an increasingly angry side stitch, something that was a nemesis of my youth. I ran on grabbing my side, trying to get some relief from the knife twisting deep there, and finally slowed to a stop where the hurt ceased. Oh how sweet. I then noticed perhaps a quarter mile back the next runner was approaching.

Explode, burst, kill me but I am going to run. Off I went with something larger than the usual runner’s distress of racing, I don’t think I have ever hurt like that and not been bleeding or broken.

Finally, in a distance that was actually arriving, I saw the finish. I dug down, not looking back, running for all that I was, through the pain, into the blinding grayness of another world. I barely remember crossing the line, collapsing on a bench, heaving my lungs out while trying to catch my breath.

A sergeant tells me my time: 15 minutes, 4 seconds. I can’t comprehend it; I have never run so fast before. I ask him if he is sure, to which he explains to this skinny civilian he is damn sure. Ah, but later he admits to a mistake, uh, time adjustment. 15 minutes, 12 seconds, he misunderstood my average mile splits of 5:04. I was in shock. I had won the race.


Later at the hospital I told my dad what I had done, he smiled and told me he was proud of me, then the conversation shifted and that was that. My friends were happy for me; we were close and shared in our accomplishments and failures. They saw me finish, had an idea of what I had done, and celebrated.

My plaque was displayed at the firehouse for several weeks and I think they wanted to keep it there. But this was something I had to have, knowing what I had done I wanted this small momento of a race far beyond any I had dreamed.

I went off to college and did not run for the school, but I ran for myself still. One night on the cinder track I believed I ran faster than this race, much faster for a mile, but I had no watch time for an unofficial PR. I did have some friends who were spectators who later said I should have run for the university after watching me that night.

Who vainly the dreams of youth recall;For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
- Whittier

I have no idea what might have been, and time eventually takes the last rose of summer. But I am thankful for the memories of what I have done, and for the ones to come.

They are already shining.

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