As a kid I wasn’t happy about being told what to do. My father was a bit authoritarian in his approach, and something in me always fought back. Classic father-son stuff, really. Nothing that millions of kids in the 60s and 70s didn’t also deal with.
For all my resistance to fatherly guidance and the exasperation that often came with it, none of those instincts carried over to the world of sports. The baseball team for which I tried out as a ten-year-old kid had plenty of rules to follow. No playing softball at all. That harmed your hitting. No swimming on the day of baseball games. Too easy to get tired out. Don’t wear the uniform except on game days. That included the red hat with the oval Local 285 union emblem on the front. I was proud of that hat, because I’d earned it by making the team the second time around.
So I respected the rules, then learned the fundamentals of baseball through constant drills in practice. We were taught how to bunt properly, and how to slide into bases. I dreaded sliding practice those first few sessions because the side of my hip was got bruised and the skin was an abraded mess. Then one day, I ran toward the base and felt a sweet spot. From then on, sliding was not an act of fear, but a point of pride. I could slide into the base and pop back up on my feet in one smooth motion. That came in handy whenever the ball was overthrown. With a pop-up slide, you could run to the next base and into scoring position. Learning fundamentals was part of the discipline of playing baseball the right way.
I learned the 1:1 relationship between discipline and success with that baseball team. We won the prestigious Lancaster New Era baseball tournament, and I pitched the team to an 8-6 victory in the second game of the series. There wasn’t much to me in those days except a wiry frame and a strong arm, but that was enough to become a solid contributor.
I brought that respect for discipline to the world of running as well. Our coach Rich Born gave us a handout with a list of guidelines on how to be a better runner. One of the “rules” was avoiding soft drinks such as Coke during the season. And from the first day of practice through the end of cross country season, I didn’t touch a Coca-Cola or any kind of soft drink. Other runners volunteered their experience and the value of that rule. “Coke gives you sideaches,” a teammate warned me.
I knew what sideaches felt like. I didn’t want them. Avoiding Coke was not a hard rule to follow. It didn’t require much discipline.
We were got some dietary advice as well, such as avoiding eggs for much the same reason as we didn’t drink Coke. It was thought that eggs could cause sideaches as well. So I didn’t eat them either. Later in life, we learned that the cholesterol in egg yolks isn’t that good for you. So who knows?
Despite all these sensible directions, some kids on the team neglected them on occasion. Minutes before an invitational on our home course at Elburn Forest Preserve, I watched one of our runners scarf down a greasy donut offered to him by one of the parents carrying a big box of pastries.
“What are you doing?” one of our guys asked.
“What?” the donut eater replied. “I’m hungry!”
“You’re going to barf that up,” someone said, and we all laughed. He didn’t exactly barf. But he did run horribly with that awful feeling of food nearly coming back up. I remember Coach Born shaking his head with a mix of disgust and amusement.
All about discipline
It’s not a stretch to say that everything about running is a discipline. Granted, that’s a word traditionally associated with a form of punishment. But there’s another meaning to the word as well. To excel at a discipline is to work at achieving a high level of proficiency. That’s the type of discipline we’re talking about here. From the get-go, that’s how I viewed running. Not as a punishment, but as an expression of will and control of mind and body. It was also a source of freedom in many respects.
That doesn’t mean I was never forced to run as a form of punishment. In eighth grade gym class, I refused to play badminton for some reason. The gym teacher Bob Welke turned to me and said, “Fine, you can run the whole hour then.”
Little did he know that I would relish that hour as an act of defiance and expression of personal discipline all at once. Perhaps my entire running career, even my entire life, has been a balance between acts of defiance and expression in different kinds of disciplines. That’s true in writing. In art. Even my trips afield to study or count birds have long been a counterculture discipline.
Occasionally I’ll drive or cycle past the Kaneland High School campus and recall the many laps we did around the grass. We wore a rut between the trees in the campus perimeter. That was evidence of our discipline, but also an act of defiance by a bunch of skinny young men who didn’t always fit the perception of what it meant to be cool or manly.
But we learned how to run, and faster. That was the appeal of discipline.