The dorkiness of the long distance runner
Long, long before I made my exercise bones as the dude at the walking track giving the head nod to the old-timers with canes, I was a high school runner of some modest, very, incredibly modest ability. Which means I could handle practice runs of varying lengths without much of a struggle and during races I could somehow manage to not embarrass myself by crossing in the middle-back of the pack.
Being the open-minded liberal guy I was, starting the boys and girls races at the same time wouldn’t have been that big of a deal. Sure, chances are some really fast girls would have finished ahead of me, but I could live with that as long as I could have crossed the finish line with a respectable contingent of similarly anorexic looking comrades.
But during the last race of my senior year, I knew damn well that me starting the same time of the girls was going to result in me finishing hand in hand with a gaggle of pint-sized ninth grade girls slowly shuffling along in their Hello Kitty sneakers.
Which means it is time for a flashback. I know, I know, I’m already in the fall of 1987, but I still need to flashback a month or two before that. To the slightly earlier fall of 1987. Hold on tight and try not to get motion sickness.
That’s when I suffered my one and only sports injury. I was running the loop behind the high school when I planted my ankle conveniently inside a tree stump as I turned my entire body, with the exception of my ankle and foot that were stuck in the tree stump.
It kinda hurt. I sat on the ground and watched my ankle assume the color, shape, and size of something in the eggplant family. Perhaps an eggplant. Several of my teammates ran by and asked if I was okay. I told them I was fine as long as I wanted to spend a pleasant fall day sitting under a tree behind the high school and didn’t need to walk anywhere. I asked them to let the coach know what happened, just for kicks. I sat under the tree. I waited for someone to give me a hand. No hand was forthcoming. I hobbled back to the high school on my eggplant ankle. Went to the hospital where the general consensus was that I had a sprained ankle which could prevent me from running for a while.
After a week or two, when the size of my ankle shrank to the size of pretty much your garden variety, noneggplant ankle, I started practicing again. During my first race back, I discovered that my normal moderate, not attracting any undue attention pace was replaced by a much slower, I’m making everyone wait in the bus while I finish the race type of pace.
Which brings me back to the final race of my senior year. Where I would be leaving the starting line at the same time as a bunch of 14-year-old girls wearing pink pom pom running socks. And the older girls who would have probably beaten me even on my best day.
Gun goes off, the first couple hundred yards is good, because I am using my typical race “strategy” …
Unfortunately though, for my three years on the cross country, I had just about the most asinine race strategy in the history of running. During practice runs where no one bothered to time me, I could keep up a healthy pace for six or seven miles, run side by side with the best runners on the team, and not feel like someone had taken a sledgehammer to my guts by the end of the race. Somehow, all this attention to pacing and stamina went out the window on race day. I’d hear the gun go off and automatically think I was a ‘roided up Ben Johnson trying to run the 100-yard dash in under seven seconds. I may have had the best 50-yard cross country splits in the history of MHS, head bobbing legs flying through the air as I took the early lead. By the 100-yard mark, I was neck and neck with the best runners, by the 200-yard mark, I was in the middle of the park, by the quarter-mile mark, I was usually doubled over in pain clutching my stomach as all but the most ploddingly of the plodders passed me by. After that, I would be able to pull myself together enough to get back in the race, actually pass a plodder or two, and find me back towards the back of a pack of skinny guys who at least looked like they were runners.
So, the big race, I sprint out and, much to my amazement, having a bum ankle does not improve the “Running like a drunken asshole from the police” cross country strategy. Within a quarter mile, I am doubled over in pain, clutching my stock with the added bonus of having a throbbing ankle and I am eating the dust kicked up by a half-dozen pairs of Hello Kitty pop pom socks.
I right myself enough to get going into a nice slow jog groove, cursing my ankle, cursing the damn stomach cramps I had never figured out how to avoid. (Which I know realize I may have been able to at least partly avoid had any of the coaches bothered to mention that — Hey, you might want to drink water and not coke from the soda machine before a race, staying hydrated could help you.)
Somehow, I finished the race not quite in last place. Despite having gotten off course and charging through the decorative hedges at the entrance of whatever high school we happened to be racing at that day and not on the official cross country course. At this point, the bus had been running for a while and the officials were probably just happy to have me off the course.
And so ended my glorious high school athletic career.