The Distance Runner
It was the summer of '68. A hot and humid one as I recall. I guess the heat got to allot of people back then from the way the protesters acted during the Democratic Convention in Chicago that year. For me I was taking summer courses at the University and training for the up coming cross-country season. As always to close out the summer semester there was the annual summer marathon other wise known as the Panther Pant. It was just a couple of weeks before the meet that during a practice run I managed to eclipse the course record by more than 4 minutes. I hadn't planed on running that fast because I was feeling kinda sluggish that day so it really surprised me that once I got going I just fell into a rhythm that was uncharacteristic of the way I usually ran. Even my coach was quite surprised. He just considered me just an average runner, not world class, but good enough to contribute to the teams overall success. That day was different.
As race day approached the hotter it got. The heat and humidity was unrelenting as temperatures rose into the 90's. Sweltering to say the least. It just so happens that any time adverse conditions arise the better the times I finish in. Can't explain the rational behind this because one would normally expect ideal conditions produce record breaking performances. Not me. Just the opposite happens whenever I entered a meet. To make matters more interesting for whom I can't say; it certainty wasn't for the runners benefit because race start time was high noon, the hottest part of the day. Already the temperature was in the high eighties with blistering sun and very little cross breeze made the air feel as sticky as flypaper.
Back then running was not a popular sport or for that matter a popular form of exercise. Not like it has become today where you see both boys and girls men and women jogging up and down practically every street and in every park. Where athletic shoes are so popular in various fashions compared to back 50 years ago all we had were classic gym shoes and Addias was the most popular shoe worn by all athletes. Most of the warm ups were just baggy sweat pants and sweat shirts. Today there are warm ups that are as fashionable as any well dressed man or women would wear and not just for working out either. Things have come a long way since back then.
The nite before race day tradition has it like before the Boston Marathon the annual spaghetti dinner is held. For us it was the annual summer cookout for all students and entrants for the next days race. As memory servers me correctly that evening what was supposed to be a time to load up on carbohydrates I chose instead burgers and fries and a ice cream soda. Many others had just a tad too much beer. But, back then distance running wasn't considered the athletic event it has become today. For me running was a most disciplined sport having been coached and trained from a very early age. It is just you against the clock in training and in many ways in competition too.
Race day was hot and sticky. For all those beer drinkers soon were to become very sorry for consuming so much the nite before. Only water from the time I woke was the only consumable I took. Just like swimming who would like to be in the heat of competition only to cramp up by eating before hand. Then there is your nervous energy to consider. As it turns out too many times in the heat of competition nervous energy depletes athletes ability to enhance their performance. Whether to run faster or farther nerves play an extremely important role in all athletes abilities. Sure I was always nervous before any athletic event but the more laid back I was the easier it was to glide into a rhythm that fits my own ability, whether it is running or swimming. When I shattered the course record two weeks prior I never did quite duplicate that time again. Although on this day from the 300 entrants from the Big Ten Conference I was just a handful to actually complete the whole distance of 26 miles. Runners were dropping out like flies all along the course route. It must have been the heat and humidity that drove so many runners into that first aid tent.
Training in different temperatures or climate conditions enables one to overcome the many obstacles are always in the way in just completing the event or course. For me that race was a lesson learned thought my time was not earth shattering I was just tenacious enough to will my body through difficult conditions to finally finish and reach the finish line. Distance running or swimming, I mastered both in my athletic career, is a most disciplined sport. It is just you against the clock and in so many ways the solitude that ones goes through in training is a great resource in carrying one through in the heat of competition and in life itself. It took years of conditioning and training to reach the level of collegiate athletics and from there it carried over to the years of a professional career that lasted over a quarter of a century.
For all those want-a-be distance runners or swimmers out there if you have the desire, the will and the heart to discipline yourself to train relentlessly over years of practice baring any unforeseen major injuries you too can succeed and make a difference in your life and all those around you. May you always have the wind at your back as the saying goes. It was just the opposite in my case. I always was headed into that head wind in life. But through it all the experiences that I went through in training and an athletic career that followed there was no better way for me to meet life head on.