“My fitness program was never a fitness program. It was a campaign, a revolution, a conversion. I was determined to find myself, and in the process found my body and the soul that went with it.” – George Sheehan
My running team roped me into a relay race—my first in roughly fifty years. You read it right—fifty years! The last time I ran in a track meet was in third grade. You do the math.
That doesn’t include marathons, triathlons, century cycling races, that kind of thing. I consider those endurance races, not track and field. Track meets take place on a 400-meter track, and have starting guns and lanes and are timed by digital clocks—too regimented for my undisciplined soul.
I warned my team that they were desperate if they needed me, but, like my kids, they ignored me. Or maybe they were just trying to humor me, or more likely, humor themselves. Old guys running around tracks make great YouTube. I was likely Instragramed, maybe even a Vined, though a lot of editing would be required to get my performance into a six-second Vine video. The runners on my team are much younger than me, most by decades. Funny thing, age never enters my mind because they are all so accepting. We run, talk, laugh and sometimes eat a pizza after a run, at six-thirty in the morning on Broad Street in Philly.
I got involved with my team Back on My Feet inadvertently, not through running but rather through writing. My first encounter with BoMF was as a volunteer for a race, and then they invited me to their Fifth Anniversary party. Before I knew it I was running with them. I committed to volunteer for one year, but the year came and went and I got attached to my runners. They inspire me, give me energy. It’s a funny thing about volunteering, you think you are donating your time, but somehow it reciprocates. It changes you in some small way, maybe even a big way.
If getting roped into the track meet wasn’t bad enough, the relay race was progressive, meaning there were four stages—a 400m, 800m, 1200m, and 1600m. Somehow, I couldn’t talk my way out of the 1600m. When we got to the track, I entered the 1-mile race earlier in the competition to warm up for the mile I’d do as an anchor in our relay team. How bright am I?
When the race director was organizing the runners for the 1-mile race, he announced through a bullhorn, “All sub-5:30 milers over here,” and I thought, 5:30! What the hell did I get myself into? I consider it a good day when I hit an 8:00-minute mile during a marathon, so that was the estimate I gave the race committee. The race director went on to call the 6:00 –minute milers, 7:00-minute, and so on. I just walked to the far side of the track and took my place.
The gun went off and immediately a pack of lean guys and gals wearing singlets separated from the rest of the field. They were stallions. Fortunately, there were enough runners within my pace group so I didn’t look like a recreational runner who had mistakenly strayed onto the track. I concentrated on striking a steady, comfortable pace. By the third lap, I knew one of the stallions was somewhere behind me, and I wondered if I’d be embarrassed to be lapped. Midway through the final lap I heard his footsteps, and had no desire to speed up to avoid the inevitable. When he blew by I thought, more power to you.
I came in at 7:00, my fastest mile in decades.
The relay was the final event of the night, and the mile was the last leg of the event. The sun had set, lights were on, and the starting gun sounded. Jesse ran the first leg, which wound up being the 1200m, and then Peggy did the 400m. Steve ran before me doing the 800. By the time Steve handed me the baton I was on my own. I just concentrated on running as fast as my aging legs would carry me. When I began my third lap, I shouted to the race director, “Don’t turn the lights out on me,” and when I began the final lap yelled, “Now I’m going to make my move!” Fans, teammates, son and daughter-in-law screamed as I crossed the finish line. Then I remembered that I never took note to the clock when I started, so I had no idea of my time. But I felt strong and didn’t care, in my mind it was my fastest mile I’d ever run.
In the final assessment, I surprised myself. I had no expectations other than to have a fun night out with my teammates, and on that account I succeeded. That I ran much faster than I would ever have dreamed was a bonus.
You can read the April 2012 post The Impossible Relay Team about the Penn Relays here.