Thursday, March 20, 2008

Running, College & Life Lessons

At my age most runners, competitive runners, are in their prime but I hung up my shoes years ago. Although I have memories of my competitive years so vivid I can still taste the sweat and feel the dried mud caked on my calves.

Yeah, its been over ten years since I decided to become ( become that is) an adult with a day job. That sounds so boring, doesn't it? Well it hasn't always been boring - working in the media (my current occupation) has its moments.

They say you can't change the past and I wouldn't, but it sure would be nice to relive one of those races again. In high school I was an average runner. Only an inquiry about possibly running at the next level did I get a chance to see what running in college would be like. I had already enrolled at Morehead State in Kentucky in the fall of 1994 and thought it couldn't hurt to test the waters.

Morehead State Men's Cross Country

Coach Dan Lindsey had several walk-ons among his scholarship runners and as long as you showed that you were willing to do the work, he was happy to have you. If you were enjoying yourself and it didn't interfere with your work toward a degree, why not?

It didn't take long to fully understand what I had gotten into. The first full cross country practice once classes started I found myself behind, WAY behind, most of my new teammates about a mile into an eight mile run. It didn't bother me, but it was a signal that these guys were not there to waste time. It didn't hurt that I was not in the greatest of shape to begin with as I had spent my summer working my butt off to pay for school.

My freshman year was spent running and practicing with my far superior comrades who competed nearly every weekend. You had to be halfway up to par to take part in scheduled meets and races, but it was a blast. We all got along and hung out together. It was sort of like our own fraternity.

Though, I did get to race once. It was a small meet near my hometown in southern Ohio. My friends and family were able to come and watch even though I finished in the back of the pack. At least I could say I competed at the Division I level.

The second year was much the same for cross country as this time I took part in two races, but track season was another story. I competed in the half mile at every meet. Funny, I had only starting running the half as a high school senior because we just didn't have anyone to do it (I went to a small high school). Nearly making the state meet and breaking the school record made me realize I had some talent.

The record I broke had been set by my Uncle John 20 years earlier. I was lucky enough to have him around when I eclipsed his mark. Sadly, he succumbed to the AIDS virus in December of the following year. I liked to think he and I had a connection that others in my rather large extended family didn't. Many of them ran in high school, but he was the only one who seemed to have the desire to run in college, which he did.

Little did I know my prowess at the half was the at the same level as my college teammates. We traded off as to who had the faster time each week with myself picking up the honor a few times. We were all friends, but very competitive when it came to race day.

Though I was still running as a walk-on, I didn't mind...I was having fun. Also, I think my extracurricular activity made me focus on how important school was and what I needed to do get a degree.

The summer before my junior year I spent the weekends traveling around Ohio taking part in road races. This was much more fun than just running to stay in shape all summer long. That ended up helping me build the base I needed to get the next cross country season off on the right foot.

When school began it took a couple of days to get used to being back in the rolling terrain of the Appalachian foothills, but the transition was much quicker than in the previous two years. This time I was competing with an actual collegiate uniform on race day for the entire length of the schedule. Three years after high school, I finally had a cross country season to work on.

Things started slow for me, but getting to focus on a race the following weekend kept me determined and it showed. I was the only one on my team whose finishing time dropped every race. I might not have finished in the top half of each race, but I was improving every week and moving up the team roster.

Midway through the season we split our team in order to keep everyone competitive . The first team (our top runners) when to the much more competitive race at Miami (Ohio) and the second team went to the Berea College Invitational. A race that was a little less competitive, but great experience for us to get used to competing as a team.

It rained that entire weekend. It was muddy, nasty, was fantastic! There are no better days then races against both the competition and the elements. Half of the course was under water, the hills were mud slides waiting to happen and the creek we had to cross was knee high and I'm not exaggerating.

Focusing on remaining upright and not drowning; a short while later it was hard to tell exactly where your position was in the race - the front, the middle or the back. The course took us through a heavily wooded area which helped to keep us uninformed.

As we entered an open field the finish was within sight and I could tell I was at least in the upper half. Upon finishing I realized my thinking was correct. Not only was I in the upper half, I finished seventh! I was second on our team and as a team we finished third. I had beaten over a hundred runners - that was a proud moment.

I had exceeded my expectations by a mile. At that time I was on cloud nine and had beaten my PR by a good thirty seconds, but the best was yet to come.

By mid-week Coach Lindsey and I had a discussion. This had to have been hard on him because I was a goof ball. I joked around, pulled pranks and was always laughing. I think this was a sign to him that I wasn't taking things seriously. But that wasn't true. I'm sure I got on his nerves, it wasn't the first time someone was leery of my odd ball personality.

But for three years I had come to every practice, every weights session, followed all the rules and had run myself into exhaustion because I wanted too - not because I had too.

So, when coach approached me he was obviously indifferent towards what he was about to do. The next weekend was a highly competitive race at Indiana University, not a race for those who were not prepared. Coach, instead of telling me I was joining the first team on the trip to Bloomington, he asked me if I wanted to go. I really did not want to bump one of my teammates off of the first team, but this was no time to be a "friend". I had worked my butt off for this opportunity and I took it.

A walk-on joining the top seven in a race at a Big Ten school; I was happy, but also wanted to show I belonged. A cross country Saturday in October at Indiana University is a sight to see. Partly sunny, breezy, the leaves changing and barely clinging to the trees...this was my dream. Over twenty teams, 300 runners, against some of the best collegiate cross country had to offer and I was among them.

This was no time to focus on setting records, but instead it was a time to work for myself. As the gun went off I found I was still a bit in awe at how far I had come, but within minutes I found my race mode. With as many runners there I ignored the names on the uniforms and I kept scrolling through my checklist. How's my stride? My breathing? When should I surge?

And I have to admit the thought of, "Wholly crap I'm running at IU!", was also present.

As I approached the finishing chute I glanced up at just the right time to get a glimpse of my time out of the corner of my eye. Are you kidding me?! Another PR? No, I wasn't wrong. I had shaved thirty-eight seconds off my previous best. I narrowly missed finishing in the top 100, was our team's sixth man and we took fourth overall.

The ride back to Morehead was awesome as I kept replaying the race, and the day, in my head. I couldn't find anything I could have improved upon. I nonchalantly took some congrats from teammates and coach, but I know I had to be beaming with pride. I could feel it.

I proved to Coach Lindsey, and myself, that I was no fluke and could handle the pressure. The following week was fun. Practicing with the knowledge that I could compete and belonged with these guys made everyday toward the next race that much more exciting.

Before you knew it was Friday and we had headed down the road a bit to our chief rival Eastern Kentucky for their invitational. EKU was less than an hour a way, our graduate assistant was an EKU alum and our teams knew one another personally. There were other teams there (Virginia Tech and the like), but beating the Colonels was our goal.

This race was one to remember for me in more ways than one.

The weather was perfect and we were ready. From the gun there wasn't much separation, we all wanted to win on our rival's home course and our rival wanted to beat us into submission. A mile or so in we are still elbowing and bumping into one another. The leaders had moved up a bit, but those of us trailing were tightly packed.

Suddenly, I feel someone step on the back of my right foot and pull my spikes halfway off. Still maintaining race speed I had to make choice. Stop and put the shoe back on and lose time and placement or just kick it off for good. I chose the latter.

It was a dry day, the course wasn't rough...I could do it. To avoid knocking someone out with my spikes I waited till we passed under a tree and I flipped it off my foot and into the branches. I now had to finish with one shoe.

To tell you the truth I don't think I slowed down at all, I may have even picked up speed. The thought crossed my mind as to how I was going to cope, but I didn't let it bother me, I kept pace and felt good about where I was in the race.

Then it hit me.

About a half mile to go the heel on my spike-less foot was throbbing. It wasn't the kind of pain you would associate with a fracture or sprain, this was different.

I slowed down, but kept on - I as sure as hell wasn't going to stop. I had come to far to stop. A few guys passed me, including a teammate, and I eventually crossed the finish line with a limp. What did I do? Making my way to an open area I plopped down and noticed my sock was covered in dried blood and conveniently had a hole in the back of the heel. Removing the sock revealed a nice gash just below my Achilles.

Apparently, the gentleman who stepped on the back of my heel had run one of his spikes through the back of my shoe and about a quarter inch into the back of my heel. Since we were both moving at a pretty good pace my forward momentum had pulled the spike down my heel a short way after it broke the skin. Thus, the dirt and sweat from the following 3 1/2 to four miles worked its way into the gash and an infection ensued. Needless to say it was painful.

Teammates found my orphaned spike complete with a hole in the heel area big enough to stick your thumb through. I figured it would take a day or two to recover and get back to work...and I was way wrong.

My breakout season had ended. That damn infection kept me idled for a little over a week and there were just two weeks left in the season. I missed our conference meet (we took second, beating EKU) and the NCAA Regionals.

At Eastern Kentucky, to my surprise and despite my attempt at machismo, I took 29th out of 150 runners, we won the meet and I - yet again - set another personal record. All this with one shoe! I was again our sixth man and could have finished higher if I had either stopped to put the shoe back on or didn't have a freakin' hole in my foot.

I was disappointed at the way the season came to an end. And it bothered me big time.

That, unfortunately, was where it seemed to all go down hill. I didn't run much the rest of the fall or over winter break and it was obvious. The indoor track season didn't go well and I honestly lost the drive.

Coach Lindsey wasn't oblivious to what was taking place. He was unhappy with my work and after a talk where I related that it just wasn't fun for me anymore I left the team. I had let disappointment determine the rest of my year.

Looking back now, it may have been a good thing. I focused more on academics, graduated on time a year later, made the dean's list and had job interviews lined up for the week following graduation.

Running had helped make my college experience that much more enjoyable and fulfilling. I can't tell you how much that meant to me as my high school grades were barely average and not exactly college material. Because of that I had reservations about whether college was something I could deal with.

I still think about that cross country season and can remember every detail. I just wish I could have finished it by sprinting through lakes of mud and climbing monster hills instead of just watching in street clothes.

That was over thirteen years ago and today I couldn't tell you what most of my teammates are doing or even where they live. Some of us kept in touch, but over time we just lost contact. I trust they have been successful and are living happily.

Every year when September and October roll around, it all comes flowing back to me. I can smell it in the autumn air and feel it in the my knees (along with the tendonitis) as a new crop of running wannabes try to turn something out of nothing and prove that they belong.

I did it and have the spike scar (badge of honor) to prove it. I think Uncle John would agree.

No comments: