Monday, April 16, 2018

13 Minutes and 31 Seconds

40 years ago -- yes, just about exactly 40 years. It was the spring of 1978 -- I ran a one-and-a-half-mile cross-country course in 13 minutes and 31 seconds. Well, I actually didn't run the whole way. About halfway through, for a short stretch, I and a couple of others walked. I think I may have spotted someone ahead of me slowing from an agonized jog to an unhappy walk. That may have been what it was which gave me the idea to do the same. I didn't do it for very long. I could vividly picture being spotted walking instead running, and being yelled at by an authority figure, the gym teacher or someone else. In retrospect, I don't know what the authority figure would have done to me, besides yelling, if he had spotted me walking. At the time, though, I was scared enough of it to limit the walking to only a short stretch, and on the part of the course where we were farther away from the school and disapproving adult eyes.

I did not do this running (and walking) by choice. I was forced to do so, in school, in gym class. We had gym 3 times a week in high school. 3 times a week, and the beginning of every period of gym, we were required to run five laps around the gym, which came out to a half-mile, and to make a round on some Nautilus weight-training apparatus. I don't remember whether we ran first and then did the weights, or the other way around.

In the 9th grade, once during the school year, we did the 5 laps, the half-mile, as a timed race. 5 of us ran at once, and everybody's time was recorded. And then in the 11th grade came the outdoor mile-and-a-half.

Before the start of the 9th-grade half-mile race, I had assumed I was going to do pretty well. I had thought that I had been more into the 3-times-weekly half mile run than many of my classmates, and that I was in good shape. I remember that there was one other student in our group of 5 whom I assumed I would beat easily. I don't remember his name or much of anything about him, but I remember that, when we were lined up for this half-mile race, he looked puny and pasty and no threat to me.

Then the starting whistle sounded, and it was as if all 4 of the others were at the first turn before I had taken a step. I had assumed that I would be going at considerably less than top speed for this half-mile, but I had to run as fast as I could the whole way, just to stay a considerable distance behind all of them. As I was finishing the final lap, surprisingly, many of my onlooking classmates began to yell, "Go, Steve!" and "C'mon, Steve!" and things like that. It was surprising to me that they knew my name, and even more surprising that they were expressing goodwill. I responded by finishing the half-mile to the absolute utmost of my ability, and crossed the line to a big round of applause. I don't remember my exact time. I remember that it was between 2:45 and 3 minutes, and, if not the slowest time in the class, it was 2nd or 3rd from the slowest at best.

In the 11th-grade mile-and-a-half cross-country, the other boy I remember walking also seemed puny and pasty. And then, approaching the finish line, with most of the class having finished and recovered enough breath to yell, there was a puny and pasty boy a little way ahead of me. I don't know whether it was the same boy who had walked, but he or both of them were definitely not the small pasty boy who had trounced me in the 9th-grade half-mile. I ran faster, trying to catch the other boy, and, again to my amazement, I was cheered on by thunderous applause and shouts of "Go, Steve!" and "C'mon, Steve!" I dug deep, and although the other boy sped up greatly as soon as he figured out that someone was gaining on him, and seemed to be taking this contest with grim seriousness and to be very upset, angry, even, when I caught and passed him, I won the duel and crossed the line at 13:31. A few other boys came in later. (A 5k is a little bit more than twice as long as a mile and a half, and the 5k cross-country world record is well under 13:31.)

I remember them cheering for me in both races. I don't know whether at the time I noticed any cheering for anyone else, but if so, those memories are long faded and gone.

Maybe everybody was cheering everybody. Or maybe -- and this has occurred to me only very recently -- the other boys had noticed that I had been absent from school for long stretches, and had heard something about the psychiatric facilities I had spent time in, and had concluded that I was disabled -- "special" -- and therefore were giving me extra encouragement because they had concluded that I needed extra help, and these two races were the only times when I had noticed the help. In retrospect, it seems to me that I was so oblivious to what was going on in the other student's minds that either possibility is quite plausible.

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