Thursday, April 15, 2010


In Which We Run...

The starter’s pistol is surprisingly loud as the report echoes across the field, making me jump in my seat. The runners jump too and spurt forward, arms pumping, legs kicking, looking from this distance like colorful grasshoppers, bounding their way to the finish line in front of me.

For spring, it’s hot out. The actual temperature’s probably only in the high 70s, but sitting in it for four hours, no hat on my head, at rest in bleachers made of shiny, reflective aluminum, I feel like a martyr, sentenced to die a slow, baking death.

But it’s a good death. My son is competing in his first track meet—he’s the blue grasshopper, about 75 meters away and coming on fast in this first elimination round for the hundred-meter event. Not for the first time, I’m amazed that I have a runner in the family.

My people have never run for sport. This is not to say we’re not quick on our feet—we are, but only in life-and-death situations, or when our personal motivation is sufficiently high enough. When I was eight years old, my Big Brother saw me out the kitchen window, dashing across the yard with the last Twinkie, a Twinkie he’d been promised. He was a portly child and never known to do more than amble, but that day he moved faster than I knew he could, crashing through the dining room and vaulting an end table in the den in order to make it to the back door of the house and tackle me before I could leave the yard with his Twinkie.

Not too long after that, BB decided to take Dad’s truck for a spin. Dad stood a little better than five feet tall and had an impressive pot-belly. Not a born sprinter, but the sight of his 11-year-old leaving the driveway in his Chevy pick-up was enough to propel him out the front of the house (taking the screen door off one hinge as he did), across the yard and then up along the top of the rough, uneven stone fence that separated our front yard from the road. BB had to be going 20 or 25 miles an hour by then, but Dad caught up to the truck and, in a feat of agility I wouldn’t witness again until I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, he leapt from the stone fence into the bed of the pick-up, then clambered in through the passenger side of the cab and brought the truck to an abrupt halt.

Despite my underfed, chicken-legged runner’s physique, I was never fleet of foot. Or even able to run any distance. I wanted to be a runner—especially if the last Twinkie was at stake—but I never seemed able to summon the speed or the lung capacity to go the distance. Although God knows I tried over the years.

I don’t know why, but my body was just not able to run. I had terrible form. I was laughably flat-footed. And I was painfully susceptible to every known running malady. I couldn’t stride a lap without getting nipple chafe. I suffered from legendary side stitches: All it would take would be a run of no more than 25 yards, and I’d collapse to the cinder-strewn track, clutching my ribs as though I’d just been run through with an invisible pitchfork. I suffered leg cramps of such immediacy and severity that one waggish running coach suggested I change my name to Charley Horse. And don’t even get me started on all the weird digestive side effects that can come from hauling your intestines down the track. In those instances, I proved that my body was proficient in only one kind of running.

To top it off, my head was too big.

I’m serious. Every time I ever tried to run, I became almost instantly aware that I had a big head. I could feel it wobbling around on top of my shoulders, this outsized pumpkin on a stick, jiggling me this way and that, throwing me off my stride. There is no other way to describe it—I had a head that was too big to run with.

So it was both thrilling and surreal to watch Thomas. For the last month, he’s been training at practice two days a week and running every night on the walking track near the house. Blaze and I go with him, but it’s understood that we will never keep up. Thomas doesn’t seem to mind, and he sees us often enough as he passes us on lap after lap.

Now we’re at the first meet. Thomas is 50 meters away. He was second to last a moment ago, but he seems to have found an extra gear and kicks into overdrive. My son is full on sprinting, passing competitors, edging into 5th place, then 4th.

It’s very hot out and my head is spinning. I feel out of breath. The sensations mimic perfectly how I’ve felt every time I’ve ever tried seriously to run.

Hurdles, 1978:

Like Thomas, when I was in 5th grade, I tried out for track. Every boy in our class tried out—like playing baseball or making fart noises with our armpits, it was just what we did. There wasn’t much else going on at that age in rural Kansas. My friend Shawn, tall, long-legged, was a natural at it and fast too. He ran just about every event that was on offer and beat all but the oldest of kids. I tended to bring up the rear in every event. So the coach, after watching me jump a fence, decided to try me on hurdles.

If I’d been required to jump only one hurdle, I might have done okay. But there were four on the practice track. I cleared the first one, buffed the second one with my ass and then, attempting the third one, caught both shins on the thing and fell nose-first onto the track. The word “face-plant” was not yet known in our little corner of the world, but I was the living embodiment of the term as I landed with a flat smack that reverberated like the shot of a starter’s pistol across the school grounds. The coach peeled me out of the track—the impression of my open-mouthed face is probably there to this day—and found a towel to mop up my bloody nose. He offered me the job of water boy, pulling a rusting Radio Flyer with two plastic coolers from place to place, and I accepted gratefully.

Relays, 1980:

It’s the school play-day—a sort of micro-Olympics pitting each grade against the other in all manner of physical activity. I won the baseball toss for my class—say what you will about my legs and lungs, but my left arm was a thunderbolt. I was the only kid in little league who could throw a baseball from the outfield fence all the way to the backstop at home plate. In the finals, I placed second, beaten only by a Neanderthal from 8th grade who had the arms of a silverback gorilla.

I was so pumped from this performance that I foolishly agreed to fill in as a last-minute replacement on the relay team (the other boy had twisted his ankle in the long jump). I was third in the relay, expected to hand off the baton to Shawn, the anchor man and our best hope for a win.

Or he would have been, if I hadn’t managed to somehow get the baton caught between my own legs and trip, falling open-mouthed onto the grass and skidding on my tongue. I got up and crawled the remaining few feet to my friend, spitting turf and looking wildly for the baton, which I thought had rolled in front of me. Instead, sometime during my spectacular sprawl, I had managed somehow to kick the baton up through the back of my gym shorts, where it lodged like a hot dog between two buns. With a courage uncommon in someone of his tender years, Shawn reached down the back of my shorts, pulled the baton free, and raced down the track, taking the baton and the torn waistband of my underpants with him. We came in dead last. I bore the pain and shame of the loss—and the accidental wedgie—for the rest of the day.

Finals, 1987:

It was finals week—not for racing, but for college, and I was late to my exam in English 440: Restoration and the 18th Century. I’d been living in London since the fall. I knew my way around the city, but that knowledge only got you so far when you missed the 88 bus and had no money for a cab. So I ran. Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” and in the 45 minutes it took me to get across the city on foot, I was mighty tired of both. I staggered up the steps to my school and burst into the classroom looking like a crazy man. A crazy sweaty man. A crazy sweaty man panting great plumes of cold December air into the quiet exam room. I staggered to the professor’s desk and sort of collapsed halfway across it as I reached for a couple of blue exam booklets.

The professor was a kindly man, but right now he looked alarmed, as you might look if one of your students had just splayed himself across your desk. “Are you all right?” he asked.

In fact, I was not. My last effort to mount the steps had taken everything I had. The world literally grayed out for me. I was beyond speech—which for me is saying something. I panted heavily onto the desk, feeling the invisible pitchfork in my side, leaving great ropes of drool on the desktop. I was practically insensate, except for the fact that I could hear a strange whistling noise, as if someone had left a door or window open. My professor realized before I did that the whistling was coming from me.

“Do you have asthma?” he asked. The wheezing—and the blue tinge to my dribbling lips—evidently led him to leap to that conclusion.

Of course not, I wanted to say. I just have allergies. I’ve been living in a damp, mildewed, basement flat for months. That’s all. I turned out to be wrong about that. When I got home a month later, my doctor diagnosed me with exercise-induced asthma and I began life as a guy who carried an inhaler with him wherever he went. Back in the classroom, though, I just shook my head (scattering sweat everywhere, like an overheated dog), grabbed my blue books and half-walked, half-crawled to my seat. My chest was tight as an overwound rubber band. I could barely get a sip of breath. I closed my eyes and tried to go to my happy place, but it was too far to walk, even in my own head. The kindly professor offered me a cup of tea (he was a great one for tea and kept a pot on his desk). It was very strong, and very hot, but I was grateful for the infusion of fluids and caffeine. Miraculously, my airways opened after a few sips and my color got better. In a short while, I felt well enough to start working on my exam—just as the kindly professor called, “Fifteen minutes left, class, let’s wrap it up.” All of a sudden, my chest got tight again.

The Marathon, 1995:

Well, I call it “the marathon,” but in reality it was a 10K race.

Okay, a 5K race.

But it was a big deal to me, and a not unambitious goal. Since my asthma diagnosis, many doctors and fitness experts had told me I should try a little running, citing increases in lung capacity and decreases in instances of asthmatic episodes as you became a fitter, more accomplished runner. But by now, the problem wasn’t acknowledging the truth. The problem was getting started.

So I enlisted two coworkers in my resolution and we three signed up for a local 5K run. I deliberately picked two women to run with, reasoning that they’d be more sympathetic and encouraging of me than a couple of guys. Plus, once they pulled ahead of me—as they inevitably would—I figured that at least I could enjoy the scenery as I staggered along behind them.

As it turned out, I managed to keep pace. A friend at a running magazine—a fellow who had once qualified for the Olympics and trained runners of every fitness level—gave me an interval training program that enabled me to slowly build up my endurance. We started by walking for a minute, then running for 30 seconds, then walking a minute, then running 45 seconds, and so on until three weeks later I was walking for 30 seconds and running for as much as five minutes at a time, and without needing to stop and use my asthma inhaler. By the end of our training program, I didn’t need a walking interval at all, although at points my running speed was not much faster than the pace my grandmother set at a brisk stroll.

The day of the race dawned bleak and cold. Cold air had a way of aggravating my asthma, but I’d been practicing breathing through my nose in order to warm the air up before it hit my lungs. When the starter’s pistol went off, my partners and I were in the front of the pack and it took an effort of will to pace ourselves and not try to keep up. By the time we reached the halfway point of the race, we were somewhere in the middle, behind the real runners, but ahead of the grannies and the children. I was losing steam fast, though. No photos of my participation in the event exist, thank God, but I think it’s fair to say I looked a bit frightful. My trackpants were drooping with sweat. My hair was wildly askew. As I plodded on, I became aware that I must have looked and sounded like a bull, head down, snorting out great blasts of steam, my lower face engulfed entirely in mucosal mung.

In the last stretch of the race, my partners at last abandoned me. One of them looked at her watch and realized she could finish the race in under 30 minutes, which had been her goal. My goal was simply to stay upright. I wordlessly waved her on and she and the other woman surged ahead. But as they left, I foolishly began to wonder if I could break the 30-minute mark. Runners out there won’t see this as terribly ambitious, I’m sure, but for a first-time, pumpkin-headed, asthma-addled racer, it sounded like an awesome achievement to me, so I dug deep and with a mighty blast of air and snot, lunged ahead. I fell across the finish line just as the display clock read 29:58, sank to my knees and gave out a scream of triumph. Well, I intended it to be a scream of triumph, but witnesses say it actually sounded like a wounded bull. Then I threw up. I haven’t tried to run since.

Thomas looks regal, like a thoroughbred, head high, back slightly arched. He is neck-and-neck with the boy in second place and it’s an exciting dash to the finish. I’m up on my feet, hopping a bit, trying to scream “Go!” and "Move!" simultaneously (it comes out, of course, as a long “MOOOOOO!”) He crosses the finish just a fraction of a second behind his nearest competitor, but still fast enough to place in the final. I dash down the bleacher steps and across the grounds to greet him as he drapes himself over the fence, panting a bit, but otherwise looking pleased with himself.

Before I can congratulate him, he looks up at me and gasps. “Water,” he says, then throws his head in the direction of his team’s tent. “The cooler over there’s empty.”

“No problem!” I tell him. Back up in the stands, I have a backpack full of bottles. I turn and sprint back the way I came, the perpetual water boy, supporting the team. Despite the heat, despite my flat feet and pumpkin head and asthmatic lungs, I feel great, almost euphoric.

This, I know now, is the kind of running I was always meant to do.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Congratulations, Thomas! That is awesome! :)

I'm trying to become a runner biggest problem is trying to do too much too soon. I have a 5K on Saturday and I plan to run the whole time. I managed to run for five kilometers on Monday so I think I have a chance! :) My time is going to be pretty horrendous, though; on Monday it took me an hour. Maybe someday I'll get to 30 minutes...but it won't be anytime soon.

That might be your problem, too, MM: trying to do too much too soon, and overdoing it. Pace yourself :)
I've never been all that much of a runner mainly because having two left feet and being a bit pigeon-toed too tends to make a person trip a lot. So, as such, I really admire those who can do that with a lot more grace than I.
That's quite an awesome feat for your son -nothing shameful about a close race and finishing as he did, for sure!

I apologize too for the loud laughter that took place here as I read this post -at your expense -especially with the relay race and the other kid grabbing the baton! Just too doggone funny. But I definitely could visualize that! I'll be giggling all day now over your running exploits!
Your visuals are going to keep me laughing for a few days.

It seems Thomas has inherited the best of both you and your wife.
Every September up here we do the Terry Fox run (a 10K in support of cancer research.) One year I was running with a couple of friends who are sisters and in the last 2K, one of the girls and I left the other behind. When she came across the line a couple minutes after us her Dad met her to congratulate her on a PB. She said, "" as he hugged her and said, "Great job hun, let's get you some water." She tried again to say, "Dad, NO!" as he hugged her closer...then she puked down his back.

So anyway, now you have a super smart kid that is also an athlete? AND a ladies man apparently? Thomas is one amazing young man.
First, Congratulations to Thomas! Way to go!

MM, this story is... well, you must get tired of me telling you that some tale you've told is great (or other words to that effect.) I've been doing it for five years or so. But, this one is.

People say, "I laughed out loud", when in fact they are just expressing the idea that they enjoyed something. It's a nice thing to say, but sometimes not true. But some of this stuff, and most especially the segment about the relay race, made me literally expel air in a barking fashion. And "mucosal mung" deserves a spot in the alliteration hall of fame.
Professor Hathaway: "Do you run?"
Chris Knight: "Only when chased."

Real Genius, 1985

I hold pretty much the same philosophy. I've also been known to "jaunt" when jaywalking.

Congratulations to the kiddo! I always give credit to those who enjoy running. I've always looked upon it as a form of self torture. =)
It's probably indicative of something that you & Thomas immediately popped into my mind when I saw this...but I'm not sure what...

Congratulations Thomas...enjoy yourself; and too :)
The girls used to do cross country and one of the meets was in Manchester at Deeryfield park. There was a great hill about half way through the run (so I was told) that your Uncle Denny would always run up ahead and cheer them on as they got to the top. Years later other girls on the team have told us that it was the greatest boost that they could have had. So you see your running ability is from family. What a parent will do for their child is amazing. JAG
You are an awesome writer. And I plan to slip "mucosal mung" into conversation at least once this week. (It shouldn't be too hard, since I have little kids.)
Proving once again the least-known of Newton's Laws. A portly kid in motion accelerates at a rate directly proportional to that of the Twinkie.
Also, "Mucosal Mung" would be an outstanding name for a rock band.
Oh, Art Lad. How wonderful! I hope you know that your legions of fans (myself included) are all tremendously proud of you! :)
I got into running when I was in the military but I've been steadily in decline since then. I realized last year that I enjoy walking much more and that it doesn't hurt my knee any, so I've been concentrating on that instead. Glad Thomas did well in the race!
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