The state meet is a special place for me (along with thousands of other people in Ohio), but this one will be more special than most. Twenty-five years ago at this meet is when I went from someone who thought track was nice to someone who was fascinated beyond any normal level. In essence, this weekend is the 25th anniversary of when I became the Track & Field Superfan.
It’s a long story, and highly personal, but I think it’s a good one. So I’m splitting it up into a series of five posts, one released each day this week. Here is Part One.
It is September, 1983.
I’m waiting for the school bus on my first day of junior high, the most unpleasant two years of my life. I hated literally every second I spent in that school. I never felt like I fit in; whereas I had been odd and nerdy at my elementary school, at least everyone had always known me.
There we had less than 700 kids from kindergarten through sixth grade, and while it was racially and ethnically diverse, we mostly had the same financial lot in life: as much money as we needed and not a whole lot more. Junior high combined seven grade schools into one teeming cauldron of 1500 spastic pimple-faced nervous wrecks, almost all of which were strangers and clawing for their place in the preteen social hierarchy. I knew mine–just about at the bottom. I got my first taste of snotty upper-middle-class kids with money, and I didn’t like it.
Our grade school had only two sports, football and baseball. I was always the smallest in my class, and didn’t have the evasive skills necessary to do well in our endless before- and after-school games of tag we called “black top”. With neither size nor quickness, I knew football wasn’t the sport for me. I thought baseball might work, and tried out three years in a row. I got cut three years in a row. I got the hint after that third time.
This is not to say I wasn’t active as a kid. I’d tried out for baseball because we played it all the time in the street and the corner church’s parking lot. And our neighborhood had something special that most city kids never experience. Just one block away was the expansive Ottawa Park, with all kinds of wild undeveloped areas along its creek, and a paved bicycle path going miles and miles through and around it. Once I learned to ride at age five, I had freedom to explore the outdoors and—this being the 70s and me having unusually permissive parents even for back then—by age seven or so I could go where I liked, when I liked. That path and my bike were my tickets to freedom.
The neighbors two doors down had kids my age and their whole family was on the front lines of the fitness revolution then sweeping the country. They biked and ran and played hockey and lifted weights and all kinds of other stuff. I started biking with them, and dragged my mother along with me. We signed up for a local “bike marathon” in which you competed to see how many laps of a two-mile course you could do within an eight hour time limit. On a one-speed Huffy dirt bike, I did 56 miles. I was eight years old.
I didn’t think it was all that big a deal to be able to keep going for hours on end, but I guess it was. My parents started cycling and it became their thing. They’re still doing it nearly 35 years later, now in advanced age. Even into their sixties they sometimes hit weeks of three or four hundred miles. My father is 81, and last month he put in 25 miles the day before his open-heart surgery. I did a lot of this with them when they started, but got bored with it as I approached my teenage years.
So while waiting for the bus on that first day of junior high, I told my best friend, Tom Myers, that junior high had all kinds of sports and maybe I could try out for track. He told me you had to be fast to run track and I wasn’t fast, but since I had endurance I could do cross country.
“Really? You think I could be good at that?”
“Oh yeah”, he replied.
“OK. What’s cross country? I’ve never heard of it.”
Once he explained, I went and found the cross country coach on the very first day of school. The next day I brought shoes and shorts and joined the team. We did three miles at my first practice, and I thought I was going to die. But the coach didn’t cut me and said he never would. Even better, I was slow enough to be running with the girls. And I wasn’t such a dork or loser on the cross country team, I was just another guy. Even though I hated school with a passion, I liked cross country.
I was really bad, too. All that ultra-long-distance biking made me far too conservative in races. In the seventh grade I ran barely faster than a jog. In the eighth grade I got the idea of pushing myself harder, but I was still a JV runner. Our school was so huge and our team was so huge that we needed two buses to go to a meet, and we beat the crap out of everybody just by sheer force of numbers.
It was something I did, but I wasn’t passionate about it. It was fun. Maybe I’d keep doing it in high school, maybe I wouldn’t. That’s the next installment in how I became a Superfan.