It’s been 30 years since I stepped on a track. In the midst of my extended layoff, I want you to know I disciplined myself. Like clockwork, I watched the men’s 1600-meter Olympics final every four years. I learned to speak fluent track and field, thanks to a Sports Illustrated article on Bill Bowerman’s invention of the waffle sole. Then, I stumbled into reality.
A few months ago, my odometer clicked over to an even 60 years. Mortality caught me daydreaming. What would it take to make a comeback as a runner? A fresh pair of shoes from Big 5 Sporting Goods? Check. A Steve Prefontaine-like barrel chest (minus his lung capacity)? Check. Motivation via a former teacher? Check plus.
It was third-period P.E. class in junior high, and the teacher was Gary Teague. You’ll notice the bronze skin, the formidable pecs, the result of relentless weight training, too much cocoa butter, or both.
Gary Teague had “svelte” before Merriam-Webster knew what the word meant. His vast thighs would have made Earl Campbell jealous. His voice was a mix of FM smooth jazz and General Patton: “Okay, on your backs!” As in one, long enjoyable set of 50 uninterrupted stomach crunches.
On the last day of seventh grade Mr. Teague changed up his play list. “You’re all going to do a timed mile. Head outside and line up on the track. Let’s go.”
Fear blew us down the hill to that sweaty moment of truth: one muddy oval, 27 spooked adolescents, and a million butterflies.
Teague flashed his stopwatch, and we were off. By the end of the first lap, my lungs were on fire. The second lap I credited to quiet desperation, the third lap to steering clear of the wreckage up ahead.
Guys were heaving and stumbling, tilting into the wind with assorted side aches. It was the Mayo Clinic in tennis shoes.
I finished in eight minutes-and-something, showered and dried off with the last, surviving used towel.
“We’ll do it again next fall,” smiled Teague.
Dang, if he didn’t kept his word. That first day of the new school year we were back at the start line. As if going off script, our teacher held up a little paperback book with a curious one-word title: Aerobics. He waved Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s new over his head like a manifesto:
“Last year I thought running was the key to true physical conditioning,” he beamed. “Now, I have the proof. True cardiovascular exercise for the heart pumps more blood more efficiently supplying more oxygen to muscles and organs.”
As an exclamation point, he offered up the famed Norwegian cross-country skiers whose uber tickers cruised at 33 beats per minutes. Uff da.
I hated every mile that year, even though my times dropped. Soon after, our family moved from Bellevue (Seattle) across the state to the wheat fields of Pullman, Washington.
One day, at the Washington State University bookstore, I bowed to research and bought copy of Aerobics. Ken Cooper and Gary Teague had finally gotten the best of me. I ran up and down and around the asphalt corridors of Sunnyside Hill chasing names like Jim Ryan, Kip Keino, and Frank Shorter.
I shed some pounds, developed shin splits, and left running at the side of the road.
My P.E. teacher still paced around in my conscience, To train for my 20-year high school reunion, I found the front door to a neighborhood gym. There, I befriended an elliptical trainer, and it got my blood rushing.
Maybe it was all just a good warm-up act for these past two decades, because the other day, under thickening clouds, I stepped onto to a local junior high track, and for the first time in forever I ran a mile.
No screaming lungs, no twisted ankles, and no stopping.
The lactic acid party starts tomorrow morning bright and early when I plan to lace up and go after my goal to break the elusive 12-minute mile.