Not quite sure why I’m writing about this now, except for the fact that it somehow came to mind while I was showering this morning. I get a lot of blog ideas in the shower, but please don’t assume that the dearth of posts lately correlates to a dearth of showers. I’m still maintaining a respectable level of personal hygiene.
This all happened in the distant past, Junior High, so the events may not be quite as dramatic as I remember them, but what fun are memories if you can’t embellish them. In the spring of the yea, still hanging on to hopes of having an athletic career of some kind I was out for the track team. The summer before I had discovered I had a smooth easy stride and since I didn’t have much weight to carry, I could run pretty much forever. Because I was ridiculously skinny and had absolutely no appetite for contact, my last venture into football had been very unpleasant that fall. The words “Keller, what the hell was that?” coming from the coach after a particularly half hearted tackle attempt in practice, are burned deeply in my memory. I tried out for basketball. They didn’t cut many people in ninth grade, but I was one of them. I remember during one scrimmage there was a turnover in my offensive end and the other team got out on a one on none fast break. I ran the guy down and blocked his shot from behind. I thought surely that would put me on the team. But when I looked over at the coaches they were in deep conversation and hadn’t seen it. I made a lot of excuses for getting cut, I thought I was better than some of the players kept, but that they’re families were more prominent in the community. But looking back on it now, given my well deserved reputation as a disruptive influence in the classroom and inveterate goof off (today I think the call it ADHD), if I were the coach I wouldn’t have wanted me on the team either. So I pinned all my hopes for athletic glory (and a cool black and orange jacket with an “M” on it) on becoming a middle distance runner.
My race became the quarter mile (the sixties equivalent of 400 meters) and all though today it’s a sprint, in those days for a ninth grader it kind of qualified as middle distance. I was the third best runner in the event and had some good races where I used my long stride to float the backstretch and then sprint around the last turn, finishing strong and leaving nothing on the track. The coaches took notice. During a pep talk the coach who cut me from basketball deemed me the “most improved athlete” on the team. I was feeling pretty high about myself, even if I hadn’t cracked the top slots on the team.
The final meet of the season was the Fargo-Moorhead Junior High championships, held at the Moorhead State stadium. I don’t know how much the college, now university, has grown up around there now, but in those days the stadium was on the eastern edge of the town, exposed to the viscous prairie weather. I was slotted to run the anchor leg of the sprint medley, a relay consisting of a 110, then a 220 and then another 110 followed by the 440, the last event of the meet. The meet was in the evening, under the lights and the weather just kept getting nastier and nastier. By the time they started calling the medley, the wind had picked up and freezing rain had turned to sleet blowing horizontally down the backstretch. We needed to finish at least second in order to win the championship. There shouldn’t have been much pressure because we were a team loaded with speed and I figured to have a lead going into the anchor lap. But I think most runners will tell you that pre-race jitters well up to the point of nausea, and then disappear as soon as the gun goes off. I was almost double over with stomach cramps by the time the race started. Not to mention that, clad in nothing but my track uniform, I was in danger of frostbite.
The race started and true to form, we opened up a huge lead, smooth handoffs and our superior speed opened up about a 20 yard gap by the time the third runner came around to me. I was thinking, piece of cake, even though Jim Henry, by far the best quarter miler in the area was running the anchor for North Jr. High, our arch rivals. He’d beaten me by twenty yards and more several times already that year, but I knew I only had to finish second to win the meet, and beating them would just be frosting on the cake. Then, disaster. I can’t remember the details of how it happened but I either started too soon or too late as by teammate approached for the handoff. We completely botched it, I think I may have actually dropped it and had to come to a full stop instead of the running start you’re supposed to get in a relay. Henry had passed me, but two other runners had as well. Adrenalin took over.
I realized that there would be no floating down the backstretch, no conserving energy to blow by people coming out of the turn, I had to run like hell just to get back in the race. I started out at a full sprint and passed one runner in the turn, but Henry had opened up a big lead and the second place runner was half way between us, ten yards ahead. Coming out of the turn I hit the wind, and sleet. I put my head down and tried to push through it, the frozen rain was stinging every exposed inch of skin, but I was gaining on both of them. Over the length of the backstretch I reeled them in, catching the number two runner at the head of the turn, passing him as we went around. We came out of the turn and I thought I had a chance to catch Henry. The wind was at my back and I tried to start my kick. But I had nothing. I broke form, started to stagger. Henry had just been playing, he turned on his far greater speed an was pulling away. And the third place runner was catching me. I was at the point where I wasn’t even sure I was going to finish, I wanted to collapse into the infield. I wanted to be home if front of the fireplace with milk and cookies. I wanted to go back to being the know it all nerd that was the laughing stock of the football team. And then I Â heard the cheering from the crowd. I bore down, I forced my feet to plant themselves one in front of the other and tried to maintain balance and I made it to the finish line, taking second place. We won the meet. I collapsed on the side of the track. I was spent and puking unable to do anything but sit with my head between my knees as the sweat froze on my body. Then I heard that we’d been disqualified for going out of the hand off box. I remember vividly that I started sobbing, right there in front of everyone. After a short delay we found out that the officials ruled that it was a legal exchange and the meet was ours. I don’t remember much else.
The following summer, I came down with Guillain-Barre Syndrome spent a couple weeks in the hospital and came out with very weakened legs. I went out for cross country in the fall, but I couldn’t get my easy stride back and couldn’t psychologically overcome that first little pain you get before you’re really running. I had a very bad relationship with the coach on a lot of levels, I’m surprised he didn’t just kick me off the team. He was a fundamentalist Christian and a survivalist, he had a fallout shelter and was training his kids to survive the nuclear attack that was always hanging over our heads in those days, so they could continue the fight against the godless commies. Â Surprisingly we didn’t see eye to eye and we argued a lot. I continued to go out for track and cross country, but I didn’t make much of an effort and I may have been the only person ever to go out for a sport all three years and not get a letter. I never got to wear that cool black jacket with the orange “M”.