Saturday, November 29, 2008

Geek Power! Why wussies, dweebs and nerds make good long distance runners

Note: This is a rough draft for a "lighter side" piece for the magazine "Colorado Runner". I started it a year ago, and I keep meaning to finish it and send it off. I'm really swamped with things to do this weekend, so posting this is easier than coming up with something new for the week. I hope it's not too self-indulgent. It's way too long and it needs some serious editing. I'm still working on it....

Wussy: a weak, cowardly, or ineffectual person

Dweeb: an unattractive, insignificant, or inept person

Nerd: an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially : one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits

I’m a distance runner mainly because I was afraid to take PE class in high school. I had lousy hand-eye coordination, so any game with a ball was a problem for me. I played just one season of little league, and it was pretty pathetic to be the absolute worst player on the team. While I enjoyed surfing and skateboarding as a kid, the aggressive aspect of fighting for waves in Manhattan Beach, California in the late 1960s was a real problem for me. I was a total wussy when it came time to shout “My wave!” to catch the best waves. I usually just chickened out and took the waves that nobody wanted. As if my inadequacies in sports weren't enough, I was a total science geek. When I was in the third grade, I was one of those “kids say the darndest things” kids on the nationally syndicated Art Linkletter Show. Art asked us all what we wanted to be when we grew up and I said, with a cute little lisp from missing my front teeth, “A nuclear physicist.” I got the big laughs on that one. Yup, I was a nerd alright!

On my very first day of high school, while I was walking to school all by myself, I got befriended by a similarly geeky freshman. He was equally scared of all the potential social crap that lie ahead of us. Every day we walked to school together and every day this guy would suggest that we go out for the cross-country team. His main selling point was the fact that if you do cross-country, you don’t have to do regular PE class. This sales pitch really worked for me because I was dreading that hour of the day where I would reaffirm my wussy status. The idea of enduring the pain of running eight miles a day seemed like an reasonable trade-off for the pain of being the guy no one wanted on their basketball team. At the end of the week, we both signed up for the team. A week later, my friend quit cross-country, and I ended up becoming a life-long running geek.

My first season of cross-country was probably the most difficult running I've ever done. At the beginning of my very first race, I went into total oxygen debt after about four hundred yards into that two-mile race. We had twenty-six members on our freshman squad, so there was no pressure at all to have to perform well. It was the exact opposite of standing at home plate in a little league uniform with a bat in your hands and everyone looking at you, waiting for you to strike out. All you had to do in cross-country was show up and run. And social interaction within the group was optional.... such a bonus! By the end of the season, I had made some friends and clawed my way up to ninth man on the freshman squad. I even won a “most improved” award at the sports banquet. That trophy really sealed the deal for me, and I was totally psyched to run track the following spring.

Mira Costa High School had a great distance running program in the 60s and 70s, and coach Frank Carl was a big advocate of high mileage and running year round. Our team was one of those classic sports dynasties driven by a great coach, and it was a rare year that we didn’t win the league championships. I loved hearing all the stories from the upperclassmen about the epic runners from our school’s past. I was particularly intrigued with the guys who had run massive training mileage and turned themselves into champions. Back then distance running was a real outsider sport. We would be on a long run and people would stop their cars and ask us, “Why are you running?” as if they’d never even seen a people out on a run before. I really liked that freakish nature of the sport, so at the end of my freshman year I decided to try a full marathon. It was the yearly ritual after track season for our team get as many runners as it could to run the brutally hilly Palos Verdes Marathon. I don't know how I did it, but I pulled off a miraculous 3:14 to beat all of our varsity runners. I still remember the “what are you doing up here?” look on one of our top middle distance runners when I passed him at the 22 mile mark. It was the first time in my life I ever did something truly exceptional, even if I did get beat by two minutes by Mary Decker. She was eleven at the time, and she was just establishing herself as a true legend in the sport.

One of the greatest freak-geek-nerd distance runners of all time is the amazing Gerry Lindgren. In the early 1960s, he took the national high school two mile record from 9:21 down to 8:40. He was teased mercilessly as a kid, and he says that running away from bullies was the start of his running career. The summer after he graduated from high school, he was one of the favorites to win the 10,000 meters in the Tokyo olympics. A sprained ankle the week before that race put him in ninth place behind Billy Mills' epic win. I had the good fortune of meeting Lindgren in 1974 at the beginning of my freshman year in college at UC Santa Barbara. Gerry and Jim Ryun (former world record holder in the mile) had run in the short-lived "pro track" circuit and were trying to regain their amateur status. They would run some of their long runs with the UCSB cross country team, and I was certainly star struck meeting these two legendary figures in the sport. Jim Ryun was the most shy, mild-mannered guy you could imagine, and I don't think he said much to us at all. Lindgren was the exact opposite: crude and obnoxious with this annoying cartoonish voice that felt like sandpaper on your brain. I know it's mean to say this, but I totally see why he was teased as a kid. In 2004, NPR did a story on Galen Rupp's attempt to break Lindgren's still-standing national HS 5,000 meter record, and they interviewed Lindgren. Hearing his voice on the radio was the weirdest experience for me. I said to myself, "Yup, that's HIM alright!"

I'm not sure if the stereotypical freaks and geeks of my era are still the template for distance runners today. The sport of distance running is far more understood and respected by the mainstream now than is was back in those days. And parenting is a lot different now, too. If a kid has any talent for anything these days, most parents will support and encourage them. I think the pendulum has swung too far in this direction, with all the hovering sports-nut parents putting too much pressure on their kids to succeed. But long distance running will always be the perfect venue for the scrawny and unnoticed kids to transform themselves from the ugly ducklings into beautiful swans. I sure do love that aspect of the sport!

Yeah... I like it but might be a bit too self-centered and nostalgic. I never get any comments on these blogs, so any honest input you out there might have would be appreciated. Maybe I'll polish it up and send it off. Here's a link to another one I did for "Colorado Runner". It's about how guys feel when they get beat by girls. It's called "Getting Chicked".


Jocelyn:McAuliflower said...

Ha! I totally get it- you put me right back in the escapist memories of running as a kid.

Running is one of those rare moments as a kid where its ok to be solitary and be quiet.

You make me miss Eugene, the land of Pre and my running coach Joe Henderson.

Don't think it's too self-indulgent at all. Making a piece personal is what opens it up for being identified with. Personal is good.

Anonymous said...

The personal stuff is what makes the piece compelling! I vote for scaling back a bit the ending stuff about Ryun and the other guy and closing w/ some reflections on what happened to your running career in college and post college...what happens when that running geek kid grows up.

BTW, I grew up in Topeka, which is in the congressional district Jim Ryun represented from 1996-2007. I left KS in 1999, so I never was represented by Ryun (I'm afraid he was a bit of a right wing nut). He was beaten this year by a Democrat...a unique occurance in KS. Still, good to know that even a running geek can be elected to Congress.