The following is from a journal writing I made in the mid 1990's after graduating from college but was reminescing about my cross country career. There wasn't an exact date, but I would guess 1996. The date of my first race was August, 1985.
I was going into my Freshman year in high school and I had decided to hang up my football cleats in 8th grade and move onto the wonderful world of cross country running. I had a lot of my current friends running already and they encouraged me to join their ranks. Mark Bauer, Jeff Johnson, Scott Johnson and Peter Caffrey. They were all there amongst others, and we had fun. The practices intesified leading up to the first meet and I remember that meet vividly. It was the Lincoln Invitational , held at Tuthill Park in Sioux Falls.
Anyone on the team that had run the race before told horror stories of "the hill"... their tales usually involved people collapsing at the top from exhaustion, people who wouldn't be able to continue, maybe ever, it seemed, as their stories seemed to take on bigger and bigger life. People who "fell going down the hill and knocked themselves unconscious and would lose control of all bodily functions"... oh, those tales were out there and to the uninitiated, they scared me. I remember being scared the whole van ride from Garretson to the park on south Cliff Ave off of I-229. My stomach was unsettled and fluttering. There were so many unanswered elements to a cross country meet for me. How many runners are there? 25? 500? How many people come an watch a cross country meet? 25? 500? Are there ambulances there to help cart off the dead and injured? Will I be able to make it up the big hill? Will I even be able to finish this race?... so many open-ended questions for this just-turned-15 year-old.
It was the last days of August and school hadn't started for us yet. So far, it'd been cross country practices and getting ready for the big move to high school. I was just about to test my body's abilities at a brand new sport for me and I was very nervous.
We arrived at the park plenty early and walked the course. The upper classmen showed us youngsters how to go about this and then took us down by the parking lot to begin the routine of stretching before a race. Coach wanders over by us during this time to make sure we're all participating in the full stretch routine and not horsing around as some of the guys tended to do when unsupervised.
Right leg tucked up behind by butt, sole of left foot up against thigh of right left, lean all the way back away from the right knee... stretch.... two, three, four, five,six, seven, eight, nine, ten... Switch! Then do the same thing to the other leg. Stretch, two, three, four, five,six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Switch stretch.... to ten... both legs.... next stretch, then the next and the next and the next. I could do the who routine still to this day in my head, having done it for so long exactly the same way every day at practice..
The JV race is first and we are called to the starting area. There are a few familiar competitive faces from junior high track meets amongst the other teams, but this race also includes teams from Sioux Falls and Brandon and some other bigger schools, so I am immediately intimidated when there are more kids from Lincoln in the JV race than we have on our entire JV, Girls and Varsity team combined. We take off our sweats and hand them back to the managers in a group behind us. They instruct us to toe up to the line and before we know it we're ready to go. My heartbeat quickens and my palms get sweaty in anticipation. Coach Sylliaasen is asked to start the race so he goes down the course about 20 yards and raises one hand for everyone to get set, then raises the other with the pistol and BANG!.... we're off!
It's a mad stampede and everyone is at a sprint to get out to the front first. I stride it out with a few other runners and am quickly realizing that I am near the lead. Thoughts of doubt quickly take over and I wonder if this is a wise decision or not. I don't think I can keep up this pace the entire race and think about settling back into the pack, but immediately so does everyone else. The settle pace is still a pretty solid pace and I stay right behind a couple of guys that appear to know what they're doing. I start to think about the upcoming hill and begin worrying that I won't be able to make it up it at all so I slow a bit to save some energy. A few runners pass me up and I have to shift gears again to stay with them.
We get to the base of the hill and begin the trek up. I dig down and lift my knees and pump my arms. I throw my hands right up toward my mouth and think about literally eating up the hill. I take the bites as I keep up a solid pace as I ascend. It's quickly self-evident that I am passing those guys that had just passed me and I am eating this hill up like a champ. I take over a couple more positions and before I know it, I'm at the top. I have pulled myself up that hill and into third place. Coach is up in the top area of the course and is yelling at me to go NOW NOW NOW! I try to put a little extra into the pace but before I can gain any ground we're making the turn back down the hill. Going down the hill, it turns out, is really almost worse than the journey up. At least going up, YOU are in control of your pace. But going down, GRAVITY tends to be the dominant factor and you are constantly fighting going too fast or letting your center of gravity lean out over the front too much and biffing it face forward. The bottom of the hill is similar to the bottom of a roller coaster and my stomach drops as the G-forces increase. It takes a couple of strides to get back to a good steady pace and posture. From the bottom of the hill I can smell the finish line and I pick up my pace again for the final 800 meters or so. I have the leaders right ahead of me and we all kick in with about 400 to go. I have a good kick and catch one of the two guys that I followed the whole race, but the leader, from Harrisburg kept his lead on me. As I cross the finish line I realize 'I can DO this sport!'.
The biggest satisfaction I got out of that day, besides the fact that I settled any questions of self-doubt about being able to even do the sport, was that I defeated all the runners from Sioux Falls and other big schools as well as everyone else except the one kid from Harrisburg. That's when I first thought that maybe I did have a gift and could be successful at this if I really try. I remember Coach making his way back down the hill and finding me after the race. He was so proud of me ... and I was too! It was a beginning for me of a new excitement.
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.