Posts Tagged ‘cross-country’

“I tell them to thing of the play, and not of the fame,
‘Cuz if they have any future at all, it’s not in the game,
‘Cuz they’ll be crippled and starting all over again,
Selling on commission, remembering when they were flying,
Remembering dying.”

-Stan Rogers, “Flying”

The Olympics are always a wistful time for me. I never watch them, but I remember that I might have competed in them myself, if I had chosen not to accept my limits.

That’s not fantasy or boasting, either. I used to train with one or two young men a few years older than me, and they qualified. So, with more dedication, I might have managed the same. But probably I’d have been lucky to be a finalist. I never would have won a medal, which was the whole problem.

From Grade Eight to my second year of university, competing in cross-country races and long distance track events was a major part of my life. In those years, I averaged seventy to ninety miles a week. Often, I’d train by doing half mile intervals up 17th Street in West Vancouver, or along the seawall at Ambleside Park. My summers were marked by track meets, and my autumns by road races.

And in my age group and distance, I was a standout. My legs are too short for me to compete successfully over 800 meters, but at 1500 meters and above, I won my share of gold medals and cross-country championships. I also set several records that stood for a few years. At high school, I was known for running, so much so that, decades later, that is what many people remembered me for.

Quite literally, I was a front-runner. I would take the lead early in a race, and keep it. As a tactic, this habit lacked a certain variety, but it was psychologically effective. Other runners thought it so natural for me to be in front that once I won a cross-country race with the ‘flu. My time was slow, but nobody thought to challenge my lead – although if anyone had, I wouldn’t have been able to defend it.

But that was high school. At university, running was an altogether more serious matter. In high school, I had usually trained alone, and my coach, not seeing any reason to argue with success, was content to let me do so. But, at university, I was under pressure to train with the team. More – I was expected to support the other jocks and do things like paint banners to display on campus. Since I was commuting by bus several hours a day, I had trouble meeting those expectations.

Even more importantly, for the first time in my running career, I was at a disadvantage. Not only was I suddenly competing against fully-grown men, but I was still recovering from smashing my knee into a steeplechase hurdle. Suddenly, I was no longer the star.

I soon realized that I would have to make a choice. I could focus on running, cutting down my classes and taking up weights and cross-training, spend some time in physio to strengthen my damaged knee, and make training a more regimented and even larger part of my life.

Or I could drop out of athletics altogether. In the circles in which I was moving, there were no places for casual athletes.

Eventually, I realized the obvious: I was good, and with proper training I might become very good. But I wasn’t great, and I never would be.

The realization troubled me, but the choice was clear. If I put in the kind of time I would need to remain a serious competitor, I would spend years in which my life was defined by competition, and, in the end, have little to show for my efforts. It wasn’t that I needed to win at all costs, so much as I recognized that the effort simply would not have been worth the results.

This was one of my first realizations of my limitations, and for about eight months I struggled against the unavoidable logic. I didn’t have any moment of realization – it was more a matter of priorities – but at the end of one spring semester, I cleaned out my locker in the gym and knew that I wouldn’t be coming back. At that point, I had drifted so far away from the running team that I didn’t even have anyone to say good-bye to.

Almost immediately, my knee improved and running became fun again. For years, I logged the sort of mileage that I had done while in training. But gradually I eased off, and now I do as much swimming, cycling, and walking as I do running in an effort to preserve my creaking knees. And it’s been years since I exercised with a stop-watch.

Looking back, I am confident that I made the right choice. Still, every now and then, I hear news about long distance running. Then I regret the necessity of my choice, and grow nostalgic for things that never happened.

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In high school, I ran long distance track with some success. But it was the four meet cross-country season that I loved best. Long distances around a track require a tolerance for repetition that even the most disciplined teenager lacks, while cross-country requires endurance over changing terrain, making it better suited to the strengths of a boy with overly short legs. Over five years, I received two first place season total and two second place ones – and would have had a strong chance of another first place finish, if a crippling ‘flu hadn’t caused me to miss a couple of races. But, of all my victories, the one that was most satisfying was the first race of my Grade 9 year – not least because it was a group victory as well.

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.

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