Friday, June 19, 2015

Post-Defeat, Part II: Why Do I/We Care So Much about Athletics?

Reading what a big scar losing a race in an obscure high school track meet left on my psyche has left me a bit, well, embarrassed.  After a wrenching end to a marriage and other close relationships, being a single foster parent, watching my parents and two close friends my age die from cancer, learning how to be a loving husband, adopting and parenting an amazing son and watching him become a man before my eyes, and so forth and so forth and so forth I have to wonder: Why did I care so much about getting second place in a race?  Why was running at the center of my life for so many years?  And why did I immediately translate the competitive drive behind my running to fields like Evangelical Christianity and academia, prompting me to in a few years burn out from each?  My desire to be the best would plunge me into an activity for hours, weeks, even years, then spit my back up on the beach of life, exhausted and confused well into middle age.

And why do so many men, especially, care so much about how our sports teams do?  Why are we so depressed and angry when people we don't even know playing in games we have absolutely no control over "fail us"?

And why do so many adults who appear otherwise reasonable spend hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars making sure that their children have every imaginable advantage in soccer, basketball, gymnastics, or other sports?  And this even--or especially--when the children themselves don't seem very interested?

The answer: I don't know.

OK, I'm enough of a real man to not be able and willing to stop there.  So here goes:

1) Modern men get so fixated on sports in part because we can.  We have the time and money for hobbies, and sports--especially if it involves ourselves or our children--is a compelling hobby.

2) We are also bored.  Most of us have pretty routine lives, and the opportunity to compete vicariously through out children or even our sports team gives us something to look forward to and to savor.  With children, too, the future seems endless.  They dream of  playing professionally, and we are excited to see how far they can go.

But is all of this really necessary?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Post-Defeat: Part I

Despite running my hardest and and achieving lowering my time in the mile by about ten seconds, losing to Jeff Edwards left me feeling bitter.  What if you lay it all out, push yourself to your physical limits, and still lose?  What if someone who is two years younger, who has only begun to make the sacrifices necessary to run hard and well, beats you simply because he was born a better run than you were?

Of course I kept running.  It was really the only part of my life that excited me.  I did well the remainder of the season, getting down to 9:53 in the two-mile and finishing sixth in districts (behind both Bob Olsen, who got second, and Jeff Edwards, who got fifth) in a race against runners from twelve teams.  I trained hard over the summer and went off to run cross-country at the University of Idaho for a semester, then for a year and a half of track and cross-country at Blue Mountain Community College.  It was after track season there that I trained a couple of weeks for the marathon, then entered one in Vancouver, British Columbia, hoping I could break three hours and instead ran 2:48 with surprising ease.

I liked training for marathons, which required a high tolerance for discomfort (which I could handle for long periods of time) rather than pain.  I was a mediocre runner in community college.  Pretty much everyone running in college was serious about it and getting good training, so I could no longer count on my dedication to training to set me apart.  So I figured I'd finish up my undistinguished cross-country and track career and then focus on the marathon.  I had no illusions of getting to the Olympics.  I figured if I trained relentlessly for ten years or so I might break 2:20 and get to run in the Olympic Trials, which would be glory enough.   I ran 2:42 after cross country season my sophomore year and my junior year, at the University of Oregon, was training for the marathon for the first time, running about 100 miles a week and in great shape, when I turned my ankle badly three weeks before the marathon I intended to run in 2:36.  Then I came back to soon, messed up my knee to favor my sore ankle, went to a top-notch running doctor who told me that my knees were a mess and I'd never be able to train or run seriously.

To hear that was something of a relief, to tell the truth.  For more than five years, ever sense Coach Dominey had shown me the map of the U.S. and told me that I'd run across it, I had focused my life around running faster.  But the sad truth was that I'd never be an excellent runner, even though the single-minded pursuit of that goal had made me extremely fit (resting pulse of 30 beats per minute) and disciplined.

But what does an athlete do when athletics ends?

Friday, June 5, 2015

What I Learned from Running, Part III

So, all week that spring of 1975 I knew that I'd at last have a good chance to win a race.  I had already run PRs (personal records) in the 2-mile, getting down to around 10:00, so was running much better than I ever had before.  All that stood in the way of my crossing the finish line  first was the cocky sophomore who had spent most of the winter playing basketball while I was out in the wind in the cold putting in my 50 miles of base training a week.

In the days before the race, though, I made what might have been a critical error.  Whereas I was a very methodical runner, Jeff ran more on adrenaline.  He was highly competitive.  So I would have been wise to tell him that I didn't think I had much of a chance against his talent, that he was obviously the superior runner.  But of course I was too proud to do that.  Instead I told him that he'd go out fast, I'd hang with him, then I'd break him on the third lap.  So Jeff was fired up to prove me wrong, not, as I had hoped, intimidated by my superior experience and strategic acumen.

But when the race finally came, it looked like my strategy was working.  Jeff wasn't able to just run away from me.  He took off pretty fast, but I stayed in contact, tucked in behind him for two laps despite the rising pain.  As we crossed the start/finish line for lap three, I shot ahead and pushed the pace as I had told him I would, doing my best to break him as he had tried to break me.  But he stayed right with me, and one lap later, with one lap to go, 440 yards, he shot past me.

So, it was time for Plan B: Hang on his heels and then outkick him.  I was really hurting, but I was a faster sprinter than he was, and I often passed people in the last couple of hundred yards of a race.  So I hung with him and was right on his shoulder with half a lap to go and thought the race was mine.  The prospect of passing him and winning the race started to override the burning sensation in my legs.  So I got right on his shoulder as we went around the curve, then swung out into the second lane as we came onto the final 100 yards and started to sprint.

And Jeff just pulled away from me.  There was nothing I could do about it.  He crossed the finish line with his hands held high, his head thrown back.  I crossed, dejected, a couple of seconds later, with a PR of 10 seconds, having run what my coach would soon describe as the best race of my life, staggered to the grassy infield and started retching, the taste of defeat and vomit bitter in my mouth.

Friday, May 29, 2015

What I Learned From Running, Part II

A bit more context before getting to My Big Race with Jeff Edwards in the Spring of 1975.

The summer of 1972, the three months after Carl Dominey told me that I would run 3,000 miles in training before graduating from Astoria High School, was a sort of a solitary  boot camp.  My training for ninth grade track had consisted of days that alternated between jogging a couple of miles out to Miles Crossing and back or doing "intervals."  The distance runners would run an untimed lap, some of us trying to go fast, then collapse in the grass for a ten or fifteen minutes or half an hour until the coach noticed us, then told us to run another lap.  We usually did about four in an hour and a half, I think.

Mr. Dominey was much more demanding.  He laid out a schedule of runs ranging from four to ten miles almost every day and of varied intensity for me over the summer.  I vaguely remember how difficult and painful it was, being three miles from home after already having run five miles or seven, just to keep running.  But I kept at it, and pretty soon it wasn't so hard.  I remember playing football near the end of the summer over at the Seppas, and wondering why everyone wanted to take a break after an hour.  By repeatedly subjecting my body to stress, I had crossed some sort of barrier that most people never cross.  And ever since, running eight miles hasn't seemed like a big deal.

But, like I said, I wasn't a very good runner my sophomore or junior seasons.  Part of the problem was lack of talent.  But I was soon over training.  I would read about how some high school runner somewhere was running 120 miles a week, so I'd try to do the same.  That led to injuries or just getting run down physically and mentally.  Or I'd be in great shape at the start of the season and peak before we even had a race.  And in races I wasn't very tough.  Running hard requires a willingness to subject yourself to a lot of physical pain.  It feels like you are suffocating; and all you need to get relief is to slow down.  So I tended to go out slow and then finish fast, taking it easy and then letting the adrenaline override the pain.  I remember an 880 my junior year when I ran about 72 seconds the first lap and 62 the second, something ridiculously inefficient like that.

At the end of that year, after two years and some 4,000 miles of training, three things were obvious: 1) I needed to train sensibly and consistently; 2) I needed to go out harder in races, putting myself in position where, by running a steady pace, I could start picking runners off one by one after the mid-point of a race, using the challenge of catching a flagging runner as a carrot to override the pain; 3) We had at least five runners with more talent than I had.  It looked like at the start of cross-country I would probably be our sixth runner.  So I accepted that this might be the case, resolved to be the best sixth runner in the state if that's what it came down to.  Six became my special number.

By training consistently over the summer and then keeping contact with the runners I wanted to beat during the first half of a race, then pulling past them in the second half, it turned out that I was actually our fifth-best runner, and we ended up in a tie for sixth place in the state meet, even with our top runner hurt.  And I was just five or ten seconds out of third for our team.  I was running much faster than I ever had before and consistently beating runners on other teams that had consistently beaten me.

So that's why when I faced off against Jeff Edwards, that cocky sophomore, some four months later, I figured I was entitled to beat him.  Plus, I had a plan.

Friday, May 22, 2015

What I Learned from Running, Part I

The hardest lesson I learned from track was that hard work doesn't necessarily get you where you'd like to go.  I started running at the end of junior high school, mostly because I hadn't figured out a way to deal with the dreaded Smith brothers on the bus rise home from school. (They had not yet been shipped to the McLaren School for Boys.)  So going out for track seemed like a good way around that.  My mother was puzzled and not at all happy about this sudden interest in track and field, as she had to pick me up after practice.  But she agreed.

Anyway, not being particularly fast or strong, I of course ran long distance.  Our practices were pretty easy, and I actually won a race--though Don Heiner, who trained with the high school runners, once lapped me.  I checked out the high school coach at the end of school, who had the reputation of being very serious, and he pointed me to a map on the wall of the U.S. and told me that I'd eventually run across it: 3,000 miles of training.  I liked a challenge, so was hooked, despite my lack of talent.  In fact I probably called him about every other day that summer to check on my training.  I would set the school record for miles trained my junior year and eventually crossed the U.S. and back again and then some, logging some 7,000+ miles.

But I didn't learn how to train smart until my senior year, and that's when I finally became a good runner.  We had one of the best groups of distance runners in the state, so even with one of our top guns injured there were always at least two guys faster than me in the spring of 1975, my last track season.  So I seldom had a chance at winning a race, whether it was an 880 (2 laps), mile, or 2 mile.

Then coach told me I'd be running the mile against a weak team and that only Jeff Edwards, among our stable of strong runners, would also be entering it.  Jeff was sort of the opposite of me: young (a sophomore); cocky; raw (he hadn't been logging 50 miles a week all winter); and, alas, talented.

I had long given up my Olympic ambitions or dreams of winning any state titles.  I thought I knew my limitations.  But I figured that I should beat Jeff Edwards and win the race.  And I certainly thought I deserved to.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Peter, Me, and Track

Distance running was my "thing" in high school.  My son, Peter, who is forty years younger, has from
an early age been obsessed with soccer.  As a sophomore he tried track for a couple of months and did well.  This year he came back and, after some indecision over what event to focus on, ended up in the 300 meter intermediate hurdles.

I had set the school record at Astoria High School for miles trained mid-way through my junior year, but it wasn't until my senior year that I became a good runner, one of the top 100 or so in the state, and my senior year I placed sixth in the two mile at district with a time of 9:53.  A couple of years later I ran a 2:42 marathon and was in shape to run about 2:36 at age 21, training about 100 miles a week, when all the years of pounding caught up with my knees, and that was that.

Years of soccer have always kept Peter in pretty good shape, but he didn't really get fast until a year or so ago--though most everyone seemed to assume that since he was skinny and black, he must be fast.  But there were faster sprinters and middle-distance runners on the team, so Peter was prevailed upon to give the intermediate hurdles a try.

Hurdling, however, requires a lot of technique as well as boldness.  Peter had never done more than a couple of hurdles at a time when he entered his first race, and he was shocked when it actually went pretty well.  His crash course (no pun intended) with Coach Conrad had him shaving about a second off per week, and on Monday he easily qualified for the district final, displacing runners who had been working on their technique for years rather than weeks.  In the final he was in position to get around 40 seconds when just before the finish line, when your lungs are burning and your legs feel like lead, the runner just ahead of him knocked his hurdle into Peter's lane, causing Peter to lose a second or so of time and a place.  As Peter noted, it was a tough way to end his last race.  Even so, he finished fifth and has one of the fifty top times in the state after his month of hurdling.

After ten years of athletics being so important in Peter's life, I wonder, what's next?  I kept running seriously as long as I could, long after it was obvious that I would never be Olympic material, and if I'm honest I'd admit there's still a part of me that misses it, nearly forty years later.  When I started working on my dissertation, eventually published by Harvard University Press, it occasionally crossed my mind that writing a book was a whole lot easier, at least for me, than running a 9:53 two mile in high school or a 2:42 marathon in community college had been.

My running achievements were the result of hours and hours and hours and years and years and years of sustained training, even suffering.  I learned what focus and effort could accomplish.  Getting through graduate school and countless hours of research and writing and rewriting wasn't so different, and it sure hurt a lot less.

Peter's soccer achievements have required more years of dedication and probably more hours of training, all told, than my running career did, as he got started at such a young age.  His brief track career testifies to a different set of virtues: boldness and confidence, a willingness to risk getting hurt or, at the very least, looking less than elegant in an unforgiving event.  I'm excited to see where these qualities take him off the track.  I suspect and hope he'll do much bigger things than write books.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Our Big Event

Hi, all:

Yo Ghana! at last had its first big event, in collaboration with the
Association of African Students of PSU on Sunday, May 3.  It was a bit of a blur for me, as there was so much to keep track of and keep up with, including, of course many things we had not thought of!

By all accounts, the event was a great success.  The 230 people in attendance loved Madam Victorine's food and the Obo Addy Legacy Project's music.  Mr. Matthew Essieh delivered an eloquent keynote address, and Dr. Kofi Agorsah conveyed some of his vivid experiences as a student growing up in Ghana.,  Miss Mercy and her helpers taught Oregon students how to play Ampe, the West African skipping game.  Our six honorees (Dr. Michael Williams; Miss Elizabeth Fosler-Jones, Mr. Roy Thompson, Ms. Jane Carlton, Mr. Rashid Hafisu, and Mr. Brando Akoto) shared heartfelt remarks.

Part of what I most enjoyed about the event was its blend of diversity and commonality.  The ethnic diversity was readily apparent.  One would not have guessed that Portland is the whitest city in the U.S. from visiting our event.  But too often we inscribe ethnicity as the alpha and omega of our identities.  At one point Mr. Essieh pointed out that he has been in Oregon long enough to consider himself an Oregonian as well as a Ghanaian.  More and more, our cultural identities are dynamic hybrids, not static and mutually exclusive boxes.  Yo Ghana! aspires not just to bring people from different places or ethnic groups or colors or races together, but to facilitate "transformative exchanges" that open us up to each others' cultures, relationships that enable us to both care for and learn from each other in ways that leave us different from who or what we were before.  There was a lot of that happening last Sunday afternoon in the Smith Center Ballroom of PSU.