Over many years of running with hundreds of teammates, I’ve learned many ‘origin tales’ about how people (both men and women) got into running. When I began this blog series on 50 Years of Running, the origin tale began with a freshman season in cross country at tiny Kaneland High School in the cornfields of Illinois. By then I was fourteen years old, a skinny, determined kid with a mix of anxiety and competitiveness at his core. I made the Varsity that first year of running. From there, the sport of running defined much of my teenage and young adult life.
No one arrives at such a journey as a blank slate. By the time I competed in high school cross country at the age of 14, I already had five years of high-quality baseball experience under my belt. Even before that, my world was defined by sports and especially by a combination of sibling rivalry and admiration. All that was mixed together with parental guidance that both shaped and warped my sense of being.
By the age of twenty-eight years old, I’d gotten married and started to taper down the training in anticipation of bringing our son into the world. Perhaps I could have gone on running and training hard into my early 30s, but by that time I also recognized that there were other parts of me that needed attention, and perhaps some fixing. Running was a good treatment for my native anxiety and depression, and even helped to some degree with my as-yet-undiagnosed ADHD (though I should have known) I sensed it was time to seek a better balance in life rather than continue pursuing the competitive running side of my personality.
As part of the journey of self-examination at that age, I thought back to the events that drove me to compete so hard for so many years. This is the record of events and experiences that turned me into Competition’s Son.
I want you to picture a kid of just six years old, standing on one corner of a perfectly green lawn the size of a tennis court. That’s what our side lawn in Lancaster, Pennsylvania once was, and after we moved from Seneca Falls to that home, that side lawn was the focus of my world. So you can imagine me holding a sweep-second-hand watch in one hand, staring intently at the quietly advancing dial approaching the number 12. Then I took off running.
Before starting that time trial, I’d gone to each corner of the tennis court lawn and dug small holes in the grass with the heel of my sneakers. They were Red Ball Jets, perfectly white since they were new shoes, and I regretted getting the heels dirty when I dug those holes in the ground. Thus began a lifelong fascination with athletic shoes that I’ve never abandoned. My “Red Ball Jets” these days are far more sophisticated, but I still believe they make me go faster.
I dug those heel marks in the grass at each corner because I wanted to be honest about my efforts. I already possessed a deep sense of fairness, a native instinct that would cost me in some ways over the years. But I felt it was important to set some standards by which to compete in that mini track meet in our Pennsylvania yard. “If you can’t play by the rules,” I reasoned, “Why play at all?”
The grass was slightly slick that morning due to the morning dew, and when I started running on the first end of the lawn and made a hard left turn, my feet slipped. I don’t know why I chose to run counter-clockwise, which is the direction in which all the world’s track competitions are held, but that’s what I did. Lord knows there were be many laps to come while running in that direction.
I ran the longer length of the lawn and had to slow a bit to make the sharp left turn on the west end. As I wheeled around that corner and covered the far end, I had to first dodge a cherry tree and then cut around a holly tree with its sharp green leaves. I knew better than to crash into that thing.
The third turn was complete and I charged past the pear tree on the south side of the lawn and went sprinting home with the watch clutched in my hand. I glanced down as the second hand swept to its next number and I recall a sense of satisfaction in the effort.
Then I stood there panting, glancing again at the watch and wishing I could somehow make it stop so that I could check the next run against the first with utmost accuracy. It took several minutes to catch my breath and I lined up to run the perimeter again. And again. Somehow my young mind figured that I’d get faster each time. That’s not how it worked out. My second run was faster, but after that, my legs grew tired and my times faded by a second or two. That was my first lesson in the act of building fatigue and lactic acid in my legs.
My white tee shirt was soaked with sweat by then. Pennsylvania summer mornings are typically hot and humid. I stopped to pick up the hose end and get a drink. Reaching down to twist the handle, I got a shock and jumped back with a yelp. I’d forgotten that the hose knob conducted electricity if my hands were wet. I stood there angry at my stupidity and looked around to see if any of my family saw my reaction. If they had, I stood for some serious teasing.
I shook my hand and stuffed the watch back in my pocket. Heading back inside, I took a long drink from the kitchen sink and returned the watch to my father’s bedstand. It was a good session, I decided. It sure felt good to run, even if my Red Ball Jets were now grass-stained on all sides.