A CYNIC’S CHALLENGE

Coming Together: High School XC

In light of the recent national election there remains much to be cynical about in the American redoubt.  While many on the Left feel rejuvenated, even mandated by President Obama’s re-election, a near equal number on the Right feel vindicated by the return of the House of Representatives to a Republican majority.  The nascent secessionist movement underscores the deep divide in the national mood, the early eye toward 2016 – even before the sulfurous fumes of 2012 have fully dissipated – betrays the uneasy acceptance of November 6th, and next month’s fiscal cliff and the specter of an onerous sequestration – along with February’s debt-ceiling debate – promises to again cleave the body politic into a rancorous opposition.

What does this have to do with running?  Not much, really, unless you seek an antidote to this growing cynicism.

All you have to do is peruse your Facebook friends to see how runners tilt easily to both political poles.  And yet, running and racing themselves transcend political influence from either side. Dedication, effort, and suffering toward the furtherance of speed strips the facades of politic affiliation as they shore up the foundations of pulse and sinew now in service against that most measured and implacable foe – gravity.

As I’ve always said, get bored with life?  Get a little intense.  The same when cynicism creeps ahead. You don’t have to sit still and stew in it.  Instead, try attending a high school cross country meet.

We can take the bitterest among us to this weekend’s Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon, or to the following weekend’s Foot Locker Nationals in San Diego, plop him amongst the young strivers gunning for cross country glory, and even the most hardened will emerge with a renewed sense hope.  Continue reading

CELEBRATING COACH SQUIRES AT 80

Talking Points with Coach Bill Squires

This Saturday, November 24, 2012 friends of Coach Bill Squires will gather at Boston College from noon till 3 pm for an 80th birthday celebration. From far out on the California coast, a toast and fond salute to the coach who famously led Boston State College and the Greater Boston Track Club during a career that carried many a runner and team to national and international titles, all with no budget or home track, while revolutionizing marathon training with athletes like Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Greg Meyer, Bob Hodge and Dick Beardsley.

But it wasn’t the Xs and Os of his training programs that made Coach Squires a New England running legend, or that earned him the Bill Bowerman Award from the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in 2002. It was much more than what he said.

How to best explain it?

Well, I guess I could go back to the early `80s and take you on the drive with the coach and New Zealand Olympian Kevin Ryan as we headed from Boston to New York for the Millrose Games, the drive that got the coach talking about his “date” with Hollywood starlet Natalie Wood – or as coach called her, “Natley”, in his clipped Arlington, Mass. born accent.

As the coach told it, the date had been arranged by Photo Play, or some such Hollywood magazine.  Squires was a miler at Notre Dame at the time, and he and another athlete in L.A. for the NCAA Championships were to escort Ms. Wood and Annette Funicello, the ex-Mousketeer, on a date for publicity purposes.

I could go on and tell you about Coach’s reaction after Kevin Ryan caustically remarked from behind the wheel, “Huh. No way a beautiful woman like that would go out with an ugly prick like you,” said as he downed another Foster’s while zooming at 80+ down I-84, and yet uncannily knowing when to slow down for a soon passing state trooper.

“ME-E?!! ” exclaimed the coach riding shotgun, his voice rising two octaves, accent straining in startled indignation. “I was handsome : six feet tall, 160 pounds, blawnnd crew cut hayuh (sic), 100 push ups a day – I had definition in my bawdy!  Are you kiddin’ me!!???”

I was left in a puddle of hysterics in the backseat.

Or, I could regale you with Coach’s story (again indignantly told on the same drive) about how he used to pee in his college dorm room sink in the dead of night, because he didn’t want to pad down the hall to the communal men’s room.  And how after his roommate complained to the good fathers of Notre Dame about the coach’s indecorous behavior, how the coach proceeded to present a paper at his disciplinary hearing detailing the disinfectant properties of urine as utilized by soldiers in the Boer War as a weapon’s cleaner.  And yet, notwithstanding this uncontested testimony, how the coach was firmly instructed never again to use his sink for anything beyond hands and face washing and tooth brushing, and that included no weapon’s cleaning.

Sure, I could do that, but why go back that far? Continue reading

HOLIDAY PRESSURE

Men: Lovable but dumb

And so we enter the holiday season, or, if you like, gift-giving season, as it is most represented on these shores.  There is already a big kerfuffle about Walmart opening on Thanksgiving for the first time as Black Friday begins to give way to Glazed Over Thursday.  And of course we all saw our first Christmas ads and hummed along to our first carols well before the left-over Halloween candy was fully consumed.

Be that as it may, this is a particularly difficult time of year for the male of the species as the pressure to produce the right gift for one’s beloved is exceeded only by the pressure to discern what that gift might be.

Men, you see, generally don’t have antennas for such things, or if they do, they aren’t in good working order.  We are more like television sets of the 1950s with rabbit-ears antennas wrapped in tin foil that had to be jiggered with every fifteen seconds to stop the picture from dissembling or to make the ghost images disappear.  For those too young to remember the pre-digital days of TV, go to YouTube for disturbing example of the dark, blurry age of television viewing.

In any case, the American male finds himself still very much technologically backward in the area of gift selection. Yes, we understand that despite your declarations that, “Oh, I really don’t need – or want –anything”, you have, in fact, been dropping hints like Hansel and Gretel bread crumbs along the trail for months.  No doubt we’ve been told in a 100 subtle ways what your fondest desire is.  But these signals, so self-evident to you, are not so clear and obvious to us. Continue reading

THE RACER’S LIFE

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Runners Legs

They rise like a song on the air,
The dreams the fleet cast as prayer,
That issue from deep, in the clouds of their sleep,
Where they wrestle, with a blush, `gainst despair.

From the battle to quell our desires,
to the longing we put on display,
From the torch that burns with our passion,
to the ashes that time sweeps away:
Competition’s come a calling; we’ll be racing on the day.

Fine-tuned ‘neath a coach’s strict hand,
Now to test upon the starter’s command,
We’ll run to explore, the measure and more,
Our limits on foot upon the land.

 

The challenge is how we get through,
The effort as the distance accrues,
Past limits self-imposed, that often expose,
The paucity that is soon coming due.

 

We’ll all yearn for the power and the grace,
In our lunge for victory’s embrace,
Searching for the moment when we can dispatch our opponents,
And course on with an intransigent face.

Till the moment of truth is revealed,
As the vanquished are placed on their shields,
Where the anguish has wrought, not the moment they sought,
But one that cannot be repealed.

 

It’s then triumph nods in assent,
Acknowledging the ransom and rent,
Dues that were paid, to the service that made,
This time in the sun so clement.
 

We do it as a marker in time,
To declare that this moment is mine,
Beyond sorrow or wishing, or goals that go missing,
To stand in the spotlight sublime.

Ah, these days in the service of speed,
That we embrace with such urgency and need,
Give way to the mundane, and the means that sustain,
A life of firm measure not greed.

 

Till the sweep of our years lay behind,
Muted like a film for the blind,
Who have lost their way, in this age of decay,
Still grappling for the reward undefined.

But we’ll know the truth about glory,
Any more than a bit might well bore thee.
And leave you bereft like a child that’s been left,
To seek out the rest of the story.

Finally released from our ego’s hard stare,
We’ll walk in the evening’s soft air,
Where memories drift in hollows, and small steps are what follows,
The miles and trials and cares.

 

And we’ll recall these as the memories that hold,
Their typeface in italics and bold,
The ones that truly matter, not drift and then scatter,
To some reliquary both distant and cold.

 

Yes, this is the why and the wherefore,
To those who question what we’re here for,
It’s the reason that we race, then at the finish do embrace,
For the chase was the thing, nothing more.

 

END

 

ROAD GREAT JOSEPH KIMANI HAS DIED

ROAD KING JOSEPH KIMANI

Yesterday, November 13, 2012, Kimbia Athletics announced the passing of Joseph Kimani of Kenya, a road racer whose light blazed with unequaled brilliance during his comet-like run atop the American road circuit in the mid-1990s. Kimani, age 40, succumbed to pneumonia November 1st at his home in Eldoret, here he was buried this week.

For racers the road is contested territory upon which the battle of wills is played out against the march of time. In the annals of our sport there have been many whose greatest athletic expression have come on the hard surface of the road rather than across country or atop the laned geometry of the track. None more so than Joseph Kimani.

Where to begin?

Tall, trim and impossibly superior, Kimani notched victories, course and world records like a Top Gun pilot notched enemy aircraft. During the 1996 road season alone Kimani set six course records and two world 10K records. His marks at Atlanta’s Peachtree 10k (27:04), Utica’s Boilermaker 15k (42:40) and Cleveland’s Revco 10k (27:20) still stand as atop a plinth in granite, monuments to excellence. His 33:31 win at the 1997 Evansville, Indiana Arts Fest 12k remains tied as the road world record for the distance.

He won by margins, as if the rest of the field had been lost along the way. At the Bolder Boulder 10k in 2000 he created a gap of  57-seconds to second place.  He lanced 52-seconds off the already impressive Peachtree Road Race record in `96.  When he made a move it was like a V12 purring amidst of a lineup of growling V8s.  Nobody was as dominant as the angular Kenyan.

“He has to be considered one of the best road racers of all time,” his agent, Tom Ratcliffe, said in the news release. Continue reading

CLEANING IN PROGRESS

San Diego’s Mission Bay Park

San Diego’s Mission Bay Park was awash in sun and wind today for the final of the 2012 USATF Dirt Dog Cross Country Championship, an 8K slog over the 2K loop famed for hosting the 2008 & 2011 USATF National Cross Country Championships.

As I headed to the men’s room beside the bay before my wife Toya’s race, I was stopped by an orange sandwich-board sign blocking the entrance.  It read, “Sorry, Cleaning in progress”.  Fortunately, as I pondered my fate, the maintenance man whose name-tag identified him as Mitch emerged in a matter of seconds.

“Getting ready for the morning rush,” I inquired, ever the willing interlocutor.

“Oh, you mean the marathon runners?” Mitch replied as he removed the sign and leaned it against the wall.

“Well, cross country runners, yes.”

“Oh, they’re mean.”

Mean?

“Yeah.  And the women are the worst. “

Now, Mitch had no idea I was with the meanies as I was dressed in my non-meanie civvies.  But I had evidently sparked a topic of interest in him.

Mitch – Parks & Rec

“If I’m in here cleaning, and they want to use the facilities, I’ve had women throw water at me from their bottles. I just avoid ‘em now. If there’s bunch of ‘em around, I wait till they leave.”

I felt a twinge of recognition and pain, and sensed a corresponding responsibility for my sport.  Though Mitch wasn’t speaking specifically about any of today’s cross country crowd, Mitch’s impression of runners in general was, in a very minor key, in tune with what New Yorkers thought about the marathoners last week in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

“Well, you see, they have everything back-timed from the start,” I explained. “So any disruption to the timing can compromise their race.  And they’ve trained very hard and are very nervous, too.  So maybe they’re a little on edge.”

Mitch just snapped out a white trash-can liner, inserted it in the nearby waste bin, then gathered his orange “cleaning in progress sign” from the entrance.

“I learned the hard way,” he concluded heading toward the playground nearby.  “Let them take care of their race, so I can take care of my business.”

No scientific survey, just a a single unsolicited opinion of runners as fellow citizens: tunnel-visioned zealots so wrapped up in their enterprise that they lose perspective on the rest of the world outside their bubble.  We see ourselves as well intentioned, even relentlessly positive in terms of health and in support of charity.  But perhaps just a tad too self-involved?

Oh, well. Image cleaning still in progress, I guess.

END

“I’M WELL – WITHIN REASON”

I was out today, and as always when out and about you endlessly get asked, “how are you doing?” by every Tom, Dick or Sally who stands behind some sales counter awaiting the release that only a Friday afternoon’s closing can offer.

Like most, I usually give a “fine, thanks. And you?” response.  But lately I’ve taken to replying, “I’m well – within reason.”  Because reason must always be considered, yes?  It could just as well be, “I’ve been considering bunion surgery and feel a bit gassy”.  Then what?

But to most people the ‘how’re you doin?’ inquiry is met with something along the arc of “fine, thanks” to “great, thanks”.  And really, what is that but a verbal stiff-arm to the equally off-handed inquiry?

I recall a European runner friend visiting America for the first time being approached by the greeter at some box store we entered.

“Good morning, how are you doing?” asked the greeter with all the pleasantness of a lowing cow.

My friend pulled back staring in befuddlement even as the greeter turned and continued with the litany of “how are you doings” to other customers.

“Was that person talking to me?” my friend inquired.

I explained that this faux geniality was an American shopping tradition not unlike unreasonable markups and nasty return policies.  She remained dumbfounded.

“But that person doesn’t know me.  Why would a stranger approach me like that when it takes years of acquaintance to reach such a rapport?”

“You can’t take it personally.  She didn’t mean it personally.  She says it to everyone.  It’s purely rhetorical.”

“So not only is it an intrusion, but it is also a false one?”

“If you like.  But you can’t attach sincerity to that.  It’s off-hand, company policy, perfunctory, at best.”

“You Americans,” she said shaking her head with a chuckle as we threaded our way to the supplement supply aisle.

But having travelled widely, I can attest that America is the home of fake friendships and false geniality.  Other, more hidebound societies have much more rigid social frameworks.  America, still a relatively new country and home to so many immigrants fleeing from just such constricted pasts, fancies itself as a friendly nation – though the friendship, as my European friend discovered, is often no more than skin-deep.  But where people generally ask such pointless, I-honestly- don’t-mean-it questions is at stores, airplane entrances and the like.  So would a reply like, “I’m doing great” truly be expected or desired?

“Really? You’re doing great at the Macy’s Semi-Annual sale on Friday afternoon? I had no idea we were achieving that level of success.   I’ll be sure to tell the higher-ups.  I’m sure they’ll be pleased. I wouldn’t think people would actually be peaking here.  And, of course, once you have already achieved a state of “Great”, there’s nowhere to go but down.  So, in that sense, I’m sorry you’ve made it that far up toward the sublime at this location.  Seems like a waste.  But maybe you have more gears on your emotional derailleur than I do.”

Unfortunately, the sale produced nothing beyond the above observation. And so it goes. La dee da, la dee da.  Enjoy the weekend – well, within reason.

END