I’ve introduced you in this space to my astounding athletic prowess as a high school sports figure with great potential…baseball—couldn’t hit my way out of a wet paper bag; football—couldn’t hit anything or anybody (and didn’t much want to be hit either); wrestling—found no fun in being mauled nightly in the wrestling room by another 112 pounder who was a district champ; basketball—the Woody Harrelson movie title “White Men Can’t Jump” says it all.
In the spring of our junior year, my best friend, and frequent seatmate in alphabetical arrangements, talked me into trying my luck with the track team. He and his two-years younger brother were hurdlers of some renown…he assured me I’d love running hurdles. I had seen hurdles up close. They each consisted of about forty pounds of indestructible hardwood built in an open square and attached with railroad spikes to a twenty pound pair of large, equally indestructible wooden bases that were aligned perpendicular to the gigantic open square. They looked to be taller than the high jump bar, and they sat, eight or ten evenly spaced barriers in a row ( I don’t actually remember how many) over the length of 180 yards from the starting blocks to the finish line.
The thought of purposely running up to those things and flinging my scrawny self over them without dying brought a bit of bile up into my throat. I had seen myself pluck the blossoms off all of my father’s prize flowers with my feet in every bed of posies in the side yard, simply leaping for a football thrown by my brother…and they were only maybe ten inches off the ground. These hurdle things were probably three feet high, and they were lined up on a cinder track. This was a recipe for stripping the hide off my bones and leaving broken shards of shiny white skeleton on a killing field of pure black…no doubt about it. I went all in. Couldn’t wait to try it!
Picture a sand piper in track shorts, skittering as they do, quickly out of the way of ocean waves creeping up the beach, exhausting their energy and sliding back down the sand to rejoin the great body of perpetual motion sea water. I would have preferred to say picture a stork in track shorts, but honestly, my legs aren’t that disproportionately long. They are, however, that skinny. And white! White as the hair on a collie’s chest! As for track shoes…ballet slippers with spikes! And that is oddly appropriate…clearing a hurdle in full stride requires full extension of the leading leg, not unlike one of those graceful-as-a-swan leaps across the stage performed effortlessly by the likes of the legendary Barishnikov several times a night. Wouldn’t it be fun to watch ballet performed in track shoes…?
Much of sprint racing depends on getting out of the starting blocks quickly and under a full head of steam, arms and legs pistoning perfectly. That, and counting your strides between hurdles. We had a kid on the team who unfolded in slo-mo like the petals of a rose at the sound of the starter’s gun, and then gathered himself to commence the actual running part of the race. Meanwhile the competition was strides away from the tape, and this young athlete was adjusting his poorly timed steps to brace himself for the first hop up and over a hurdle. I thought to myself, “There’s at least one guy in the league I can beat.”
It turned out that I fell madly in love with hurdling, even though I could never once in two years beat my friends, the Dibble Brothers. I trained like my life depended on it (because quite frankly, it might have!) and I also never once tipped a hurdle or broke my stride. I did however see the shins, chests and faces of guys around the league who did…it’s horrifying, what heavy wooden hurdles and an endless runway of cinders can do to pristine flesh that slams into the ground and skids for several yards before friction brings the headlong crash to a grisly halt.
I took great pride in my efforts to emulate the Olympic hurdling heroes of the day---guys like Lee Calhoun, Hayes Jones, Willie Davenport. The immortal Edwin Moses came along in the ‘70’s, after studying, I’m sure, my personal training tapes.
The nearest I ever came to glory on a scale comparable to all those legends was on the track at Troy’s Alparon Park in my senior year. I was matched up that day against one of the fastest guys in the league on his home track. My coach, who had suffered through years of trying to make me into a football player, came to me pre-race with a bit of whispered advice…”Try not to be too disappointed.” He always had a way of stirring your soul with just the right encouragement.
It was a ridiculously hot spring day, I had just got a haircut the day before, so my glasses tended to slide around on my closely shorn, sweaty head, even as I dug into the starting blocks. I glanced quickly at the Adonis in the next lane: perfectly sculpted physique, massive legs, barrel chest, and I was painfully aware of my pigeon chest, my rubber band arms, and legs so skinny there was room on them for only one drop of sweat at a time. And my glasses slid down my nose, prevented from dropping onto Alparon’s dirt track only by a pimple on the tip. I had just enough time to push them back into place before the gun sounded…and we were off!
Two strides out of the block, Adonis was three strides ahead and my glasses were bouncing around as if it was their job. I cleared the first hurdle as Statue-Boy was halfway to number two. He was pulling away as the second hurdle passed beneath my perfectly timed stride, and in that instant I grabbed my out-of-control glasses in my left hand and flung them toward the track’s infield, in the direction of a teammate I had spotted. In that same instant, the entire world went so utterly out of focus that I really had no idea just how far back I was. A calmness took me, and Calhoun, Jones and Davenport whispered in my head, “Count your steps, count your steps.” I didn’t have to see, I just had to know. I could feel the gap between me and Adonis closing, I could hear his ragged breathing as the tape approached. I had him! I knew it! We cleared that last hurdle like a trained dancing team in perfect stride. I was close enough to know he turned his head in surprise…and that was the difference. The pigeon chest leaned into the tape a split second before the barrel chest. I was really glad the teammate who caught my glasses hadn’t beat me to the finish line.
If there’s a moral to this tale this is it: even when you can’t see the future, embrace the challenge…and pray that someone has your glasses in the end.
Contact Lloyd Davis at email@example.com