I had been a strong but largely untrained runner in elementary school, finishing fifth in the provincial championships in Grade 7. I managed a consistent second place finish in my Grade 8 cross-country season, and was well-satisfied with it; I’ve never been one to believe that “silver is the first loser’s metal,” and was pleased to be a contender.
However, at the same time, I was determined that, next year, I would beat the runner who had always finished first to my second. That was the year that I began to train seriously, running every day over the summer and fall, and boosting my daily mileage, first to fifty miles a week, and then to sixty and seventy, and encouraging some of the other lead runners on the team to do the same. Come the March cross country season next year, I was fitter than I had ever been in my life.
Nervous but focused, I arrived with my school team at the first meet of the season. As I warmed up, I kept looking for my nemesis of the previous year, but couldn’t see him. However, with a couple of hundred runners in each of eight categories, that wasn’t surprising.
At the gun, I was running hard to take an early lead, certain I’d see my nemesis near the front with me. I didn’t, but I kept going strongly. Taking an early lead is a tactic that can sap your strength if you aren’t well-trained, but can be psychologically devastating to others, especially when they face you repeatedly; I believe that I won one of the races in the year of the ‘flu simply because people expected to see me out front, despite the fact that I was still feeling weak.
Besides, my nervous tension left me little choice except to explode into action at the start.
Before half a mile, I had enough of a lead that I couldn’t hear any footsteps behind me. However, as a Vancouver runner, I had been raised on the story of the 1954 Miracle Mile, in which Arthur Landry lost to Roger Bannister because he looked back at the last moment, and I was determined not to do the same. For the first mile, I ran all out, and kept my eyes front, resisting the temptation to look back.
At the halfway point, when the course turned into a path through the woods, I could wait no longer. I twisted back, and suddenly I had one of the moments of pure joy in my life.
Ten yards behind me was another runner from my school. Twenty yards behind him were another two from my team, with the next runners a good thirty years back.
I was elated, but also alarmed to see the next runner closer than I had imagined. As the cedar chips began to fly up from under my shoes, I accelerated down the trail as fast as I could. By the time I reached the finish line, I had at least a thirty yard lead. Then, bending over to catch my breath, I watched with fierce exaltation as our team took the first four positions.
Considerable wordless shouting and thumping of backs ensued, you might say. Even our coach, whose normal mode of expression was sarcasm, couldn’t help grinning happily at us.
The only disappointment was that my rival from the previous year was no longer running. But I did beat his course record by almost thirty-five seconds, so I felt that, in one sense, I had defeated him regardless. I kept hoping for the rest of the season that he would show up, but he never did, not until a couple of years later, when smoking and lack of training made him finish well back in the pack.
We couldn’t keep up our perfect score all season – not quite. But we did win the team score that season, as well as three of the top four individual positions, including my perfect first place score. Yet none of the other wins could quite compare with the feeling of pure victory of that first one, or the sense of being part of an apparently unbeatable team.