High School Cross Country, Track and Field Running
Most of you are probably aware that I’ve become quite enamored lately with high school cross country, and track and field. This came about as our son became active in running for his high school these past three years. At first, it was simply being a proud parent in the stands watching a young athlete developing his athleticism, competence, and confidence. He’s probably not going to be a great runner, but he’s a very, very good runner, an asset to the team, and one hell of a lot better than I ever was or could have been. In fact, I’m living vicariously through him!
But now, as I’ve become more involved with working the meets as a parent volunteer, and able to spend time down on the field, “up close and personal” with these young athletes, it’s taken on a more spiritual, existential note. And, I’ve shared some of the intensity of these feelings in a few of my recent ramblings here in the MRW newsletter.
What drove it home yet again was an experience at a local invitational meet two weeks ago. I was officiating at the discus throw, which placed me on the infield of the stadium, right at turn three. The gun sounded, and a heat of young men took off, running the 3200 meters, or two miles. The 3200 is a different race, with a different strategy than certainly the sprints, but even the mile.
It can be a very tactical race, but one young man took off right from the gun, and led the entire race, building his lead over the eight laps, lapping some of the slower runners in this, the fastest heat, and winning by 15 seconds. You have to have seen his face each time he approached that turn at the end of the back straight. The grimace of sheer effort and pain grew with each lap. Here was a young man determined to win – not just win, but to win on his terms. He probably could have hung out with the pack, drafting till the end, and then kicking to win. But, for whatever reason, he chose to win by running out front. I’d seen that strategy and intensity before, but couldn’t place it.
The next day at work, it all came home to me. There was a young runner back in the early ’70’s. He was brash, he was sublimely confidant – some say egotistical. He was, quite simply, the greatest American runner of his time. Hanging on the back wall of the store is a picture of this young man finishing a race at Hayward Field in Eugene Oregon on May 29, 1975. The picture is taken at the tape – the runner breaking the tape in his inimitable style by sweeping it with both hands as he looks over his shoulder to see where the competition is.
The shot clearly shows the length of the track behind him – without another runner in sight. It was Steve Prefontaine, who, tragically, was to die in an automobile accident the next day – winning the race in his singularly unique style, winning his last race in the only way he knew – out front and in pain.
I do my bike training in the basement. It always elicits strange looks and comments when I tell folks this, but I’ve done it for years. About the only time I ride outdoors is when I’m racing, or when I’m on vacation. It’s great training – no cars, dogs, weather, pedestrians, or any other dangers or distractions. Plus, there are no downhills on the trainer – if you ride 20 miles on the trainer, you’re pedaling the entire way. I figure an hour on the trainer is as productive as an hour and a quarter outside.
It’s boring though, so rather than “riding” along staring at the basement wall, I have an old TV and DVD player set up, so I can watch movies, sporting events, or the History Channel. I drape the bike with towels to catch the sweat, cover the floor under the bike with towels to catch the sweat, jump on the bike, tune in something to watch, and hammer away.
Yesterday, remembering my fascination with Steve Prefontaine, I did a very intense workout, and watched a movie I haven’t seen in a long, long time, “Without Limits.” It’s the Steve Prefontaine story, and is compelling viewing. I highly recommend the movie – not merely as a retrospective on the finest runner America never had, as his career was tragically cut short, but as a portrait of someone who, through his gifts, had a tremendous impact on running in America and the world. His outspokenness regarding amateur athletics changed them forever.
The movie is filled with pithy quotes. One of my favorites is from Bill Bowerman, Prefontaine’s legendary track and field coach at Oregon: “Men of Oregon, I invite you to become students of your events. Running, one might say, is basically an absurd past-time upon which to be exhausting ourselves. But if you can find meaning in the kind of running you have to do to stay on this team, chances are you will be able to find meaning in another absurd past-time: life.”
The movie is hard to find – but worth the search. And, if you can’t find it, I hope you found the time to attend a most reasonable substitute – one of the various district or regional track and field championships recently held at high schools across Northern Virginia. If you missed them, shame on you – you missed some of the most beautiful, thrilling, and heart-warming athletic spectacles you’ll see in your life.
Happy Summer. Support your local high school athletics program.
- Big names galore at Saturday’s Prefontaine Classic (seattletimes.nwsource.com)