First Running

My fitful association with running began when I was a freshman in high school. One might even say that my greatest success as a runner came at the same time, but I get ahead of myself. In the Midwest in the ’50s, smaller schools normally only had a head coach and an assistant coach. These two individuals were expected to oversee the physical education programs for the various grades and to coach the basketball, track and baseball teams. This, of course, was for the boys only. The girls got a physical education teacher who also took a stab at coaching the girl’s basketball team, a sport largely ignored as girls in the ’50s weren’t actually expected to be serious about basketball. But I digress. As an additional chore, the coaches normally also taught a regular class, usually civics or history. Theirs was a full day.

Hence, it was not unusual to find the coaches combining two or more activities into the same class. This was especially apparent as basketball season approached when the coaches used gym class as a surreptitious means to get in some extra basketball practice. This was actually useful to both the basketball players and the regular members of the gym class. The basketball players got to practice and the rest of us got to sit around and goof off for the period. Condoned at all levels of the school administration, no one ever complained.

Such was the case also for track. The end of winter saw the end of basketball and the beginning of training for track. Much the same arrangement approved for basketball also applied to training for track, except this got us out of doors. We would be told to put on our gym clothes and then we would go outside to the track, at that time a large field comprising a baseball diamond, a quarter-mile cinder track and areas for pole vault and shot put. For our school, this was a quarter mile away. We were never surprised when we arrived at the track to see the track team already there, practicing for various events. If the coaches were in a good mood, the non-athletic among us were left alone, otherwise they would tell us to make a couple of laps around the track, assured that, for most of us, we would be gainfully employed for the gym period.

On this particular day, our fate had not yet been decided as the coaches busied themselves with setting up races for the sprinters. I am not certain how it began, but we of the ranks began to clown around, imitating, I believe some of the more ungainly runners. I happened to get caught and was called out. ?You think you can run as well as these guys, smart ass?? I didn’t answer as I thought the question rhetorical. The coach obviously thought otherwise and I was told to line up with the runners for the 100 yard dash. ?Get ready, get set, GO!? And I ran, willing my legs to move ? and I won. ?Lucky break,? the coach said, ?I don’t think you can do that again.? We were lined up again and ?Get ready, Get set, GO!? And I did do it again, handily. The coaches stood there with their stop watches, talking. I didn’t know my time, was not told, but thought it must be good. ?Wise ass,? was the comment. ?Line up,? he said. And I beat his team for a third time. This, I think, was too much for his pride, a novice runner beating the best he could field. ?You think you’re so damned smart,? he said, ?do a lap around the track and go get dressed.? As I started out, I watched the team and the rest of the class depart and turned to join them. ?Get back on the track, you can go back when you’re finished.? I remember finishing the lap, tired and very thirsty. I went to a spigot on the side of the equipment building and took a long drink. A mistake, I realized, as I vomited into the grass. I caught the hint of a smile as the coach turned and walked off. Despite my performance of the day, I was not asked to go out for track. And I never asked.