Middle and High School Running (years 12-19):
Adjusting to American culture and trying to make new friends in a new place was a trial for me when our family moved to Salina, Kansas, before my sixth grade year. One of the few places that eased that transition for me was the sandlot. When I refer to the sandlot I am talking about the open fields and courts where kids meet to play. It was a new scene for me as it was the first time I was introduced to team cooperation in the big three of football, basketball and baseball. One of the perks of being tall was that I had a built in advantage that allowed me to be competitive in these sports, even though I had basically no skill at all. These were semi-organized events at best: just kids getting together and doing their own thing. Over the next couple of years I spent enough time in the "sandlot" to get some decent skill at basketball and football, but I never really got into baseball. I wasn't involved in any "organized" leagues at this time - that was still a foreign concept to me. I had no experience with uniforms, set rules, parents watching, referees, and all that. But playing in the sandlot was where I spent a lot of energy.
The neighborhood that I grew up in had a lot of kids of similar age. In fact, within one block of our house there were enough children to field some pretty intense running games - one of the most popular being "Jail". In Jail you have one or two people being "it". The rest of the kids spread and hide. Those who are "it" have to find and catch everyone else, which sends them to "Jail". The others may free those in jail if they can evade capture and tag the captives. Here in California everyone has "privacy" fences. On our block in Salina at the time there were no fences between the houses that we used as fair game for jail. This made for some really nice games that we played generally after the sun set. The dark made the games that much more exciting and challenging.
During those first couple of years I can't remember doing that much running - just for runnings' sake. Every semester I think we tested in the mile in PE class at school. It's funny that I can't really remember how well I did for these tests. I know I beat basically everyone, but I just wanted to get back to the games.
The summer before my eighth grade year I got a letter in the mail. The middle school football coach sent the letter to all the incoming eighth grade boys to invite them to try out for the team. This obviously sparked some interest in me, but I had no idea what I was getting into. Most of the other boys that were trying out had played in organized leagues for years. They knew how to put the pads on, what position they might play - they even knew the rules. They knew how to listen to coaches, and most importantly: they knew what they were doing. When I showed up the first day it was all very foreign to me. I basically just followed everyone else around and tried to do what they did. I remember the first day of "pads". After watching how everyone else put the pads on I finally was all suited up. I felt invincible with all of that protection. Then I tried to run. It is a totally different thing to try and run around with all of that stuff on. But then we lined up for the Oklahoma drill. If there was ever a mano a mano test of manhood (outside of a fight) it is the Oklahoma drill. In the Oklahoma drill an offensive lineman lines up across from a defensive lineman between two cones. There is one running back that tries to advance the ball through the cones once the coach says go. Generally, the lineman who controls the "line of scrimmage" wins the contests. Once the coach says go, the lineman collide into each other to push the opponent in the opposite direction. That is basically it. There is plenty of technique involved that I could go into detail about, but that would be for another blog. The first time I got to feel that primal satisfaction of besting my opponent in the Oklahoma drill I was hooked. This sport was definitely for me.
I could write about football forever, but I will just say that I was pretty good at it. I ended up starting at tight end and defensive end and loving every minute of it. After football season was over I decided I needed to try some more of these "organized" sports. The next sport was basketball. If ever there was a sport where prior experience with organization would have been helpful, it was basketball. It's funny - you think when you play for as many hours at the playground as I did that those skills would transfer over easy to an organized league. The problem is that you may never have learned good technique. Or learned how to run a "play". Or learned how to "box out". Etc. It is like a totally different sport. A sport I was determined to master. There were about seventy boys trying out for twenty spots for the basketball team. I was totally out of my element, but I was tall, had some athletic ability, and I tried hard. Basically I had some promise, but I did not make the team. After getting cut, the coaches explained that there would be an "intramural" league, that you could participate in if you still wanted to play basketball after school. They also explained that if one boy impressed them enough during intramurals that they would draft them onto the organized school team after christmas. I was determined to earn that spot. During the next month, I got better and better at what the coaches were expecting in the organized setting. I learned about playing a role on the team, about patience and discipline on the court. After intramurals were over that semester, the coach pulled me into the office and explained how pleased he was with my progress and invited me to join the team! I was on cloud nine. The next semester of basketball was a continuation of my learning experience. It was tough and slow, but I knew I could be good, and I wanted to be good.
After basketball was over for the year I decided to continue with my experimentation with the school sports. Next I was to decide between playing baseball or running track in the spring semester. Easy call. I showed up to the track tryouts where the coaches basically test you in various events to gauge your aptitude and decide where to have you practice so maybe you can represent the school in some events to earn points for team. I remember lining up for sprints, and being terribly slow. Then I tried hurdles - couldn't clear them. Then I tried throwing discuss - almost hit an innocent person. I was awful at everything. So what happens to someone trying out for track that is bad at everything? They get relegated to the distance events - regardless of aptitude. I remember there weren't a lot of us - that is: distance runners. Nobody really "wants" to run the mile in middle school track, or at least no one on my team. So the first track meet came and I was entered in the mile. To my coaches surprise I ended up keeping up with the front-runners and then pushing the final lap to edge out for second place! I don't remember my time in that first mile race, but I do remember the coaches making a big deal out of the unexpected points for the team. The rest of the year I placed top three in every mile that I ran with my best mile being 5:20. I got a reputation at the school as a runner. During lunch one day the cross-country coach from the high school visited and found me at my table to ask if I wanted to join the high school runners that summer in colorado for their running camp. I remember feeling slightly awkward that this coach had taken time out of his schedule to come talk to me specifically with hopes that I would be their next star runner or whatever, and then I explained that I was going to be playing football for the cross-town rivals next year. He got a glazed-over look on his face and told me to have fun with that - and then left.
My scholastic identity was solidified by the time I reached high school. I was a jock. I lived for sports, and my dreams were filled with hopes of greatness in any of the big three (football, basketball, track). I continued to excel in both football and basketball - even climbing the ranks in basketball where I was getting floor time with the "first" team. Track was tough for freshmen. You had to have enough skill in your particular event to compete with kids three or four years older than you. There was the junior varsity though, which allowed me to continue to represent the school in distance events. I was able to contribute to the 4 x 800 team where I was solidly running around 2:15 consistently and being one of the top three on the JV team. Running the 4 x 800 didn't allow me to continue practicing the mile because of the schedule of events, but I got to try my hand at the two mile. I place as high as 5th with 11:30, but that was about it. The thing was that the other "distance" runners, by high school, had dedicated themselves to the sport. They ran cross-country in the fall, trained during the winter, and arrived ready-to-go for spring track. They were all skinny and small and not good for much else. I never ran more than 100 meters until I hit track season, and then would go out and run the distance events.
Through the four years of high school I continued to focus mostly on football - as that was where my heart was at. I spent the summer doing football camps, lifting, and doing drills for football. I kept putting on weight - a necessary metric to allow me to be a varsity football player. I never progressed in track. I didn't really lose speed, but I never got faster. It was kinda silly by the time I was a junior lining up against the distance runners from other schools, being on average a head taller than everyone one else and weighing 50 more lbs. The writing was on the wall that I had to find another track event if I ever wanted to make "varsity" by my senior year. I decided to give discus a go as it seemed like I had the body type for the event. I focused on that single event, and dedicated myself to perfecting my form and ended up actually doing pretty well. My senior year I made varsity for discus and got better at it at every meet, eventually qualifying for the state championship. It was an incredible ride, but the distance running days were over for me.
The next leg of my journey with running might be described as whatever I had to do to contribute to my singular athletic focus for the next five years of my life: football. To be continued...