Our college track team drove five hours to compete in a track meet at Buena Vista college in the far western corner of Iowa. The ride out was boring, to say the least. One of those rides that can sap the will right out of you.
When we got out from the team bus the first thing we noticed was a heavy wind coming out of the northwest. It was gusting to nearly 50 mph at times. A wind such as that is always bad news for a track meet, especially for distance runners, because it makes a section of every lap a struggling misery. For my event, the steeplechase, it made the competition absolutely dangerous.
As the first event of the meet, the steeplechase typically drew a crowd to watch runners go through the water pit. But that was not where the real danger occurred this April day. While warming up I ran the long straightaway into the wind and realized the significant possibility of blowing backward into the 4″ x 4″ barriers.
A steeplechase race is a 3000-meter event with 7 water jumps and 35 total barriers. It takes immense concentration on a good day not to drag your leg a little and clonk your knee on the unforgiving barrier. The headwind made that task that much more difficult.
The tail wind was no bargain either. Normally when you approach a barrier that is the height of an intermediate hurdle (42″ as I recall) there is time to calculate the right takeoff point, and how you want to land. That is something you practice, develop a rhythm and a feel, and count on for consistency.
But a tailwind throws all that off. So when I ran down the backstretch in my warmups and practiced a few barriers, a raw sensation rose up behind my ears as the fear of being blown forward into a barrier became very evident.
As we lined up for the start of the race, I noticed that one of my competitors was actually wearing a pair of work gloves like you might wear to weed the garden or work with a shovel. That day, I thought he was wearing the gloves were for warmth. I was wrong.
The gun sounded and we started running. As we rounded the first turn and encountered the first hurdle, I was astounded to see my competitor throw his hands forward on the barrier and vault over it like a gymnast. It was perfectly legal as long as his feet did not extend past the barrier on either side. But it was highly disconcerting. He did this at every hurdle, against and with the wind.
This method of “hurdling” was particularly effective going into the wind. He could use his arms to propel himself over the barrier like a pole vaulter releasing his pole at the point where his body was completely over the bar. It enabled my competitor to keep up with me. I was hurdling each barrier in traditional fashion, and at one point I blew backward and bumped my tailbone on the solid barrier. It hurt.
So it went for more than 10 minutes of running. The backstretch was just as difficult and dangerous with my traditional hurdling technique. Still, I’d leap out ahead for a few strides and had no trouble negotiating the water jumps because the wind was a crosswind. But against the wind, my barrier-vaulting competitor always caught back up with me because his low slung approach let him stay low and save time somehow. It was supremely frustrating to try and stay ahead of him.
I barely beat the guy, and most of that was because of anger. It didn’t seem fair to adopt such an unorthodox way of keeping up. While I grudgingly admired his ingenuity, I did not consider him a worthy competitor in other respects.
Unconventionality does have its traditions in track & field. That’s how the Fosbury Flop was invented and revolutionized high-jumping. It’s also how the spin move in shotput changed the game entirely. But running with gloves on to try to vault to a steeplechase win? That was a survival technique as much as it was an innovation.
Of course, there’s a lesson in all this. It can be very difficult to compete against an unconventional opponent. It’s often said that basketball teams will “play down” to the level of a lesser opponent. The same goes for football and baseball and soccer clubs. You can only play a highly skilled match against opponents with equal or greater skills.
That’s why boxers also have to watch out for fighters who are lefty, or who don’t fight by conventional means. Ostensibly that’s why the mythic fighter Rocky Balboa was so tough for Apollo Creed to beat. We all saw how Joe Frazier made it tough for Muhammad Ali to float like a butterfly because Frazier closed down the ring and worked so hard inside Ali was forced to punch it out. There was no room for dancing or for beauty. It was just a fight.
The unruly impact of unconventionality and seemingly unworthy opponents holds true in the world of business and politics as well. Look at the example of Aldi supermarkets. Who would think that an unconventional, understated chain of lowball grocery stores would have a chance out there? But they win by superior pricing and by creating their own brands that compare well to bigger merchandisers without the marketing costs. It’s like they’re vaulting over the price barriers while the other stores are trying to hurdle them in glorious fashion.
The world of politics is also full of vaulters and lowballers who excel at convening the lowest common denominators and the populist vote. People simply love an underdog and they love unconventionality.
Once a groundswell begins for a personality like that it no longer matters whether they look or sound like a total idiot. If they keep up the banter or make a slicker competitor look bad, a certain segment of Americans will rally behind them. It’s our fatal flaw, it seems, and why the world sometimes wants to turn their back on our Ugly American tendencies.
Yet unconventionality can have its costs, and it all comes down to sustainable methods. When the winds of change aren’t blowing so fiercely that they level the playing field for those willing to grunt it out and get ahead with seemingly unconventional methods, that’s when the truly talented take the race back over. The world of track and field is beautiful because of this ultimate efficiency. Examples of truly ugly runners seldom wins the day. The last was perhaps Emil Zatopek, who looked like a trainwreck coming down the track. But he won, mostly because he outworked his competitors, and was tough inside.
So the world has a way of testing unworthy competitors. Sometimes it enjoys the novelty of all that goes on. Surely there were people cheering on my competitor that April day in the high wind. But when we competed again in May during the conference meet, I beat him by 30 seconds. Without the wind to help him, there was no way for him to keep up.
But I learned an important lesson about unconventionality. It can be hard to beat, and even harder to defeat in a popularity contest.