Category Archives: High school

My Indoor Track Career: Thank God No One Documented It With Cell Phones

I’ve been watching a lot of indoor track and field on TV and the Internet lately (it’s a cry for help, really), and it’s making me nostalgic for my indoor track days. And when I say “nostalgic,” I mean that I never want to relive the embarrassment of being a 14-year-old in 1980s short shorts again.

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Who’s that  handsome fella in the middle? The “L” on my singlet does not stand for “loser.” By the way, I am thrilled to be a freshman.

First of all, I didn’t even want to do indoor track, and definitely not distance events. My older brother was a distance runner, so I wanted to carve my own mark. (I ended up switching to distance my junior year because it was clearly where I belonged.) Plus, indoor tracks are notoriously small, and I didn’t want to run in so many circles. A standard outdoor track is 400 meters per lap, or about 4 laps to a  mile. However, indoor tracks are always much tinier. I’ve never seen a 400-m indoor track; good ones are 200 meters, or 8 laps to a mile. My high school looped a track around the main gymnasium, and it came out to something ridiculous like 11 laps to a mile. I’ve seen worse.

(Note that I use “mile” when I refer to 1600 meters; in the 1970s, most states switched to metric distances in high school events, and nowadays most high schools are running 1600-m races instead of the mile, which is 1609.3 meters. Just to clarify for you statistics nerds.)

So I decided I was going to be a sprinter. My best friend on the team, Keith, also wanted to run sprints; we went to the first practice as freshmen together, all wide-eyed and hope-filled in February. All the sprinters gathered along the wall as the sprinting coach, Coach Turnbull, stomped in to deliver his opening remarks. (His last name was actually Turnbull, and he was terrifying. I probably don’t need to mention that he had a crewcut and coached football in the fall.) Unbeknownst to us, the best sprinter on our team, who was a senior, had just informed Coach Turnbull that he was skipping track to focus on his studies because he was going to be a quarterback on an Ivy League football team after graduation. Coach T was not happy about it and took it out on the rest of us. The welcome speech went something along the lines of, “Brian doesn’t want to hurt his precious little fairy arm and is going to sit at home on his computer doing homework instead of being a real man!” and got worse from there. We ran extra laps, apparently to punish Brian for his selfishness.

Boys and girls shared the track, and on cruddy-weather days, even the distance runners were stuck inside running endless loops around it. It got crowded. Generally, the faster runners are given the inside lanes and the slower runners stick to the outer lanes. One day after a grueling workout, Coach T told us to get off the track and hit the showers. I was chatting with Keith, walking from the infield (the inner part of the track) to the exit doors, when I heard some girls yelling, “Track! Track!” I thought, That’s strange, we all know we’re at a track; I wonder what that means. After more screams, I turned around to find about 15 girls barreling down on Keith and me, hair flowing, determined looks on their faces. One of them lowered her shoulder into my chest and sent me sprawling across the track. She kept running and yelled at me over her shoulder, “When we yell ‘track,’ it means you get off the track, freshmen!” Duly noted. On the bright side, at least I got the ladies to notice me.

Here was something unique about our indoor track: It was made of this rubbery material that I guess helped make the basketball court in the middle of it be bouncy, but it was really slick. Since we couldn’t wear spikes on it, we had to have shoes with good traction to keep ourselves from slipping around turns. We had to practice block starts for the sprints. The starting blocks are these metal thingies that have one long piece of metal in the middle and adjustable foot pedals on which to push off your feet at the sound of the starter’s pistol. There’s a whole science of blasting off from starting blocks; see Usain Bolt for details. (Not to toot my own horn, but I was a  pretty good block starter; I was the fastest out of the blocks and for the first 10-15 meters compared to everyone on my team. If only the sprint races were 10 meters long instead of 50 or 100.)

The starting blocks came with spikes that kept them in place on outdoor track surfaces; but because we weren’t allowed to use spikes in the gym, the starting blocks had to be supported by another person. Keith and I paired up and grabbed some blocks. I went first. Keith braced the block by standing on top and putting all his weight on it. I took off from the blocks and got used to them.

Then we switched. Here’s where we ran into trouble: Keith was about 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, and the freshman version of me was 5’3″ and 110 pounds. (Don’t worry, I’ve filled out over the last few decades and added an inch and a half and 10 pounds to my frame. I’m huge now.) Even a basic knowledge of physics would have come in handy: large Keith could nonchalantly stand on the blocks and my small force in driving off of them with my legs didn’t make them budge. What I should have done was sit behind the blocks for large Keith and put my feet and all my small weight against the back sides of the blocks. But I didn’t; there I stood on top of the blocks like the grinning idiot that I was, waiting for Keith to push off. I can only assume that it was a coincidence that the whole girls track team was looking over when Keith started. Or tried to start: When he pushed his legs back on the blocks, there was very little resistance from my weight holding them in place. Consequently, his feet slid straight back and he ended up on his stomach. Meanwhile, his force whiplashed me sideways, and I hung in the air for a split second like Wile E. Coyote hovering over a cliff, my body in a perfect line parallel to the ground, before I came crashing down on Keith’s backside.

I looked over at the girls track team and gave them the most relaxed “Well, hello, ladies” look I could muster before my teammates started in with a slow clap and someone said, “Nice job, freshmen!” I clambered off Keith, who said to me, “We must never speak of this.” (Sorry, Keith; readers of my blog deserve the unvarnished truth.)

We also practiced relay handoffs. A relay team consists of four runners, and each one has to carry a metal baton. The baton has to be handed off in an exchange zone marked on the track. Any sooner or later than the zone, and the team is disqualified from the race. In sprint relays, this exchange has to be carefully choreographed, and the person about to receive the baton usually times his takeoff so that he runs and reaches back with one hand without looking at his teammate. The onus is upon his teammate to say something aloud to indicate when he should reach his hand back. (Our team yelled “blue!” and hoped that no other team used that word.) I was practicing with another big guy (look, I know they were all bigger than me), a football player named John who loved to be cool for the ladies. Since I was going to be the leadoff runner on our relay and John was second, we were getting the timing right.

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Izod polo? Check. Feathered hair? Check. Jeff Spicoli facial expression? Check. Must be the 1980s! My freshman yearbook picture, 1986. Oh, what the ladies were missing out on.

After a few halfway-decent tries, Coach T told us to really turn up the heat and do it as close to full speed as we could. The thing about indoor tracks is that they are so small that you feel as if you are constantly turning left. So every time I came flying around, I was coming out of a turn, calling out “blue!,” and giving John the baton. So I got a running start, kicked into high gear, and ran as fast as I could toward John, who took off and waited for me to say “blue.” What I failed to do was to wipe the dust off the bottoms of my shoes, so that when I came off of the turn, my legs slipped out from under me on the rubber-surfaced track and I slammed down onto my side. Because the track was slippery, I kept sliding along the track, looking ahead of me at poor John. In his confusion about why I didn’t call out the signal and give him the baton, John came to a complete stop and looked back behind him. I can still see the look of shock on his face when he first saw nobody running toward him and then looked down to see me just as I swept under him and took his legs out, sending him crashing down on top of me. We slid together for another 10 meters or so. Another round of slow claps from our teammates, another special show for the ladies.

(Strangely, the only two girls that I dated in high school were runners; one of them witnessed all three of these events and still agreed to go to two dances with me. The other one transferred to our school a few years later, and I can only assume she wouldn’t have eventually married me if she had been on the track back then.)

Several years ago, our high school built a fancy, gleaming fieldhouse with an indoor track that puts their old one to shame. I only know this because some former teammates of mine told me about it. I’m surmising that the school purposely didn’t invite me back for the dedication.

My First Varsity Cross-Country Race: The First Time I Ask, “Why Am I Doing This?”

Now that my son is on the high school cross-country team, I’d like to take this opportunity to write about my favorite topic: me. Oh, wait, you thought I was going to say my children, or teamwork, or school, or something like that. This must be your first time reading my blog. (Subtitle: “The All-About-Me Blog. Starring Me.”)

I was built to be a long-distance runner.  That’s not just my opinion; it’s science. The November 2014 issue of Runner’s World had a discussion of the nine factors that would allow a human to break 2 hours in a marathon, and their description of the perfect physical specimen for this sounds a lot like me: “He’ll be 5’6″ and a buck-twenty soaking wet.” (Perhaps the first time “me” and “the perfect physical specimen” were used in the same sentence.) Which makes it all the more surprising that I played football my freshman year.

My football career didn’t last long. It turns out it’s not easy tackling or running past someone who outweighs you by 100 pounds. I played halfback and safety, scored one touchdown, made one game-saving goal-line tackle, and traded my football cleats for running spikes at the end of the season. It took a while, though, before I ran my first varsity cross-country race.

I was in 11th grade, happily plodding away on the junior varsity squad, running with a pack of teammates and holding conversations during the JV races. (Handy tip for aspiring XC runners: If you can hold a conversation while running, you are going too slowly. Other handy tip: The cool kids call cross country “XC.”) I recall one Saturday-morning meet discussing a teammate’s previous night: a Pink Floyd concert that kept him out past midnight. He was nearly incoherent; he kept talking about a giant pig flying above the crowd. (Pink Floyd aficionados: This was the A Momentary Lapse of Reason tour, 9/25/1987 at the Rosemont Horizon.)

The next week, my coach pulled me aside and said, “Dudley, I have good news and great news: The good news is I’m moving you up to the varsity. You’ll be our seventh man at the Pow-Wow. Be prepared.” “Wow,” I said. “What’s the great news?” “I’ll tell you later,” he said.

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I still have this 28-year-old shirt from my first varsity race. Still fits me. Strangely, it is a size large.

The Crete-Monee Pow-Wow was a fun cross-country meet (not an oxymoron!) that was unusual in its format. The typical meet has the top seven runners from each team running in one race. At large invitationals, things can get crowded. The first year I ran the Pow-Wow, there were 65 teams, so that’s over 450 runners. The meet organizers came up with a unique way to get around the crowding problem: seven different races, or flights, one for each individual runner on a team. All of the seventh runners would run against each other, then 5 minutes later, all of the sixth runners would run. After those flights were done, the fifth and then fourth runners would go, and so forth until the final flight would pit the best runners from each team against each other. This would mean that we didn’t actually run with our teammates, but the payoff was that, for those of us who were not the best runners on our team, we could still earn a medal or even win a race, since theoretically we were running against people at our level only.

The scoring was different from a typical meet, too. In a typical meet, you add up the places of your top five runners, and whichever team has the lowest score wins. The perfect score is 1+2+3+4+5=15. It is embarrassing to lose a meet when the other team scores 15 points. (I speak from experience.)

The sixth and seventh runners aren’t scored, but they can help by pushing the scores of the other teams higher. In case of a tie score through five runners, you would check the positions of the sixth runners to determine who wins. In the rare case of a tie finish between two sixth runners (if, for example, they came across the finish line together, holding hands and skipping), then the places of the seventh runners would be scored. And hopefully there would be no ties with them. (“Guys, quit holding hands and skipping across the finish line with our opponents! It’s the first rule of cross country!”)

In the Pow-Wow, the perfect score was 7 points; conceivably, a great team can have a runner win every race. The flip side is that, if you are on a bad team and every runner comes near the end in their race, you could score 400 points, and no one wants that. The race organizers also gave out a nifty trophy for most improved team, the team that lowered their score the most from one year to the next.

My XC team that year was not good. There’s no sugar-coating it. We were mediocre. They needed a boost, someone to come forward and light a fire under them, thereby uniting the team and propelling them to greater glory. That’s the reason I always tell people that my coach decided to promote me. Honestly, his thinking was more along the lines of, “Well, this guy’s brother was a halfway-decent runner; as long as he doesn’t trip over his shoelaces, he’ll be serviceable.”

On the bus ride to Crete, our coach gave his usual pep talk and then talked strategy with us. “Guys,” he said, “everyone knows we are not going to compete in this thing, so I have a way to make it more competitive for all of us and allow us to have some individual success. Our first man is going to run a race down, against every other team’s second man. Our Number 2 will run against the Number 3s. And so on.” The first through sixth guys on our team loved this idea and started talking up their chances in their races right away.

I sat there for a while mulling this over. Finally, I raised my hand. “Coach?” I said. “I’m the seventh guy on the team. What do I do?”

My coach’s eyes lit up. “This is that great thing I was going to tell you about. You have the opportunity to run in the top flight against all of the best runners in the state. In your first varsity meet ever.”

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This is actually from my senior year, wearing the gold and blue (note the 3-38 on my shirt, meaning I was the third runner on my team that year). It was raining that day. The guy in front of me looks like a stud.

Wow, I thought. That sucks. But I kept this to myself. I spent the morning watching all of my teammates run their races and have success matching up against slower runners than them, and I got more and more freaked out by having to run the top race as the day went on. What made it even worse was that we had to run through a wooded area that had turned muddy in the previous night’s rain, and a teammate lost a shoe during his run. Like, literally lost it in the mud, never to be found again. What was I getting myself into?

When I toed the line, I looked over at my teammates. One of them gave me a thumbs-up. I felt like raising a different finger to him. When the gun sounded, I sprinted out to position myself with the lead pack. That lasted for about half a mile. Then I faded badly. It’s good to have a mantra when running, and my mantra for this race was, “Please don’t let me be 65th place. Please don’t let me be 65th place.” Etc.

I think it would serve us all if I just skipped over the details of the race. Here are the positive takeaways from my first varsity run: 1. I finished. 2. I did not lose my shoe in the mud.

Oh, and I did not come in 65th place. I came in 58th. Meaning I was better than the top runners on 7 other teams. Unless (and I just thought of this 28 years later) those 7 teams also had their worst runner go in the top race. Well, now I feel bad.

P.S. The Crete-Monee Pow Wow, once billed as the largest cross-country race in the United States, was discontinued after 42 years in 2009. According to an article in the February 26, 2010 Chicago Sun-Times, ”The Pow-Wow field peaked at 71 teams in 1978, but has dropped into the 20s in recent years.”

P.P.S. The next year, my team won the Most Improved trophy. I’m assuming my 58th place finish the year before had something to do with that. Maybe that was my coach’s plan all along.

It All Goes By So Fast

Sometime around when my son was in the fourth grade, I made the mistake of blinking. Now he’s a senior in high school.

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Fun Ferris Bueller fact: Matthew Broderick was 23 years old during filming. I always thought there was something “21 Jump Street” about him playing a high schooler.

Whenever I post pictures of my kids on Facebook, a longtime friend  will see how big my kids are getting and ask, “How the heck did this happen?” Answer: I have no idea. Because I was a teen in the 1980s, I am legally obligated to quote from a John Hughes movie in this post: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” That’s Ferris Bueller, for the two of you who don’t know.

I am trying to look around. It’s hard when you have a life outside of that one kid’s to be present for all his milestones. Sometimes I am so caught up in the day-to-day (my dad likes to say that the days drag on but the years fly by) that I’m not even aware of a milestone slipping by. When my son finished grade school, my other two kids were still there, so there wasn’t a “we’ll never walk these halls again” moment. Same with preschool, middle school, etc. Now our middle child, the patient one, is a freshman. A freshman! And as a matter of fact, our youngest (light of our lives) is in her last year of grade school. (Look for my “We’ll Never Walk These Halls Again” blog post in May.)

I realize that it’s the beginning of the school year and I am already getting all maudlin about the end of it. I’ll try to “Be Here Now,” as George Harrison sang (he cribbed that title from Ram Dass). George says, “The mind that wants to wander ’round a corner is an unwise mind.”

The thing is, my kids seem to like high school. It makes no sense to me. My lovely wife Jen certainly enjoyed it. I hated high school.

What exactly did I hate about high school? If you say “everything,” you’d be mostly right. (I am exaggerating, of course. The chocolate chip cookies in the cafeteria were a particular highlight.) I did meet Jen in high school, so there’s that. But we started dating once I went away to college. I spent most of my school days doing one of three things:

  1. Running
  2. Avoiding bullies
  3. Studying

One of them was a career-preparation activity. One of them was a life-preservation activity. I should point out here that bullying was seen in a different light back in the day. There was more of a “kids will be kids, there’s not much we can do about it” attitude. It was like Lord of the Flies in the boys’ locker room. If you really want to get an idea for what life was like at my high school, watch any John Hughes movie. I always imagined myself like Jake Ryan in “Sixteen Candles.” Pretty sure I was closer to the Anthony Michael Hall geek. Strangely, I loved my big suburban high school and getting lost among the 3,200 kids who roamed the halls. The Beach Boys put it this way: “Now what’s the matter buddy, ain’t you heard of my school? It’s number one in the state…”

But enough about my miserable existence before the halcyon days of college. As for what the kids seem to like, certainly they are involving themselves in school way more than I did. Already, the freshman is in the art club, drama club, color guard, band…am I missing something? Probably. I’ll let you know the next time I’m driving her somewhere in the minivan. The senior is running cross country and soccer simultaneously. (Not literally simultaneously; that would look strange. He alternates from one practice to another.) They are packing their schedules this fall.

I’m enjoying attending their big events, knowing we might not pass this way again: the cross-country meets, the soccer games (Senior Night is only a month away), color guard performing in the football halftime spectacles. I’m trying to be present when I’m with these kids, and especially this boy before he is off to college in (yikes!) less than a year.

In Counting Crows’ “A Long December,” Adam Duritz sings, “I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself to hold on to these moments as they pass.” That’s me, pretty much, for the next 9 months. And then the 3 years after that for my middle child. And then the 4 more for our youngest…

“A Long December” by Counting Crows

“Be Here Now” by George Harrison

“Be True To Your School” by the Beach Boys