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The Biggest Crowd You Never Competed in Front Of


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  • The Biggest Crowd You Never Competed in Front Of

    A thread titled “The Biggest Crowd You Ever Competed in Front Of” appeared a couple of months ago. Sydney, Moscow, Penn, Hayward Field, and LA Coliseum were bandied about like so many badges of honor with descriptions of jitters and stage fright. Those venues are certainly impressive, but with all due respect, for nerves and raw fear, they’re nothing compared to.....Junior High Field Day!

    Spring 1976. A presidential campaign was underway. The Olympics were headed to Montreal. In Louisville, the dogwoods would soon be in bloom. Bold Forbes was moving steadily toward a win in the Kentucky Derby, an event that defines spring in the River City. I turned 14 and was in my second season on the varsity track team (we had 7th through 12 th grades under one roof.) For my birthday, I received my first subscription to Track and Field News (“Gee, thanks Mom and Dad.....but I had asked for Runner’s World. Look, this newspaper thing doesn’t even have a shoe review or training tips.”) Junior High Field Day (7th and 8th grades) would be coming up soon. The year before, I had finished fifth in the 440, losing only to four 8th graders who also ran track. Surely I would win any real running event held this year. Then, three things happened in parallel. I began whittling my PRs down to 5:32 and 2:35. A 7th grade pixie named Jenny Martin began bludgeoning hers down to 5:16 and 2:25, times that in mid-May would garner her second place honors in both events at the Kentucky High School Girls State Track Meet. And the Field Day Committee decided the day’s events would conclude with an 880 yard run. It became apparent that whittling and bludgeoning and the 880 would soon collide, with very unpleasant consequences for young DrJay.

    There I was, a skinny, pimply-faced 8th grader faced with running 880 yards against Jenny in front of the entire junior high school. My friends, my teachers, Karen, Paulette, Valerie and other girls I had had crushes on... they would all be watching. Karen and company had probably long suspected I was a loser. Now their suspicions were about to be confirmed in a very public way. That Jenny would destroy me was a forgone conclusion. There was no way I could take 10 seconds off my PR. I imagined the race...Jenny would go out fast, in 34.5 and 70, with me hanging on for dear life and the crushees watching intently. It would feel fast, but I would have no choice. The pain would really hit between 550 and 660 and I would begin to lose contact. Things would get desperate in the final turn and I could see myself falling in the last 50 yards...falling...falling like Ike Low in Brian Glanville’s “The Olympian.” Defeated. Loser. Life as I knew it would be over. I might have to change schools. Or my family might have to move to another city under an assumed name.

    I began to could I get out of it? I could feign a knee injury. Or I could claim indifference:”The 880 has never really been my best event. The three-legged race is the race for me.” I could skip school, pretending illness. I could pay Jenny to throw the race. No, all of these would be so obvious. Bert Nelson would send one of his henchmen, probably Garry Hill, to sniff things out and report back. It would be in US Scene (predecessor to today’s Track Shorts):”Well, we was all alookin’ forward to the big race and then DrJay got skeert and...well...just plain chickened out!” Or in Status Quo:”Marty Liquori, hamstring. Houston McTear, hamstring. DrJay, chicken!” Suddenly I realized, like Quenton Cassidy, that I was going to have to go through with it! For weeks, whenever I thought of it, I’d get weak in my stomach. Not the total-body-adrenaline-induced-weakness one gets the last half-hour before a race, but that sick feeling one gets when he knows that an inevitable event in his life is going to be really bad. I despaired.

    And then.....a miracle occurred. My guardian angel descended–in his pajamas, like Jimmy Stewart’s–and attended a meeting of the Field Day Committee. And in the Waggener Junior High School Field Day Mission Control Headquarters, a decision was made, and a decree was issued:”No members of the boys or girls track team may compete in the 880 yard run. It would not be fair to the other boys and girls.” Saved! I was saved! My knee suddenly felt fine. My interest in the three-legged race evaporated. That stomach bug never developed. My money remained safe in the bank. Karen, Paulette, and Valerie’s suspicions about would me would remain only suspicions. My father could keep his job and my family would not have to move. Jenny, the odd teacher, and my friends chided me occasionally about my escape, but I didn’t notice. Springtime never seemed so fine.

    And the race? Craig Whittenberg, a good athlete on the junior high basketball team, went out in 65. The second lap was painful to watch. He came back in 90, but hung on for the win in 2:35. I watched from the stands, confident I could have squeezed out another couple of seconds against Craig, glad I didn’t have to face Jenny.

    So if someday soon you’re toeing the starting line in Helsinki or Zurich or the smog of Beijing and you’ve had diarrhea five times in three hours and your heart’s about to jump out of your chest and your head’s exploding, just think to yourself.....”It could be worse.....I could be in DrJay’s Junior High Field Day nightmare.”

    Happy New Year

  • #2
    Re: The Biggest Crowd You Never Competed in Front Of

    Post of the year so far.


    • #3
      Re: The Biggest Crowd You Never Competed in Front Of

      >Post of the year so far.

      The year's only, what....61 hours old right now? But thanks! Embellished, but all the facts were true (I had a hard time verifying the guardian angel bit.)


      • #4
        Re: The Biggest Crowd You Never Competed in Front Of

        >Embellished, but all the facts were true

        That sounds familiar.


        • #5
          Re: The Biggest Crowd You Never Competed in Front Of

          The best post I've ever read! Obvious question: where are they now?


          • #6
            Re: The Biggest Crowd You Never Competed in Front Of

            >The best post I've ever read! Obvious question: where are they now?

            DrJay ran 4:47/2:11 as a sophomore despite shitty coaching, and, with that coach gone and a 3:58 miler friend about to help out, was about to embark on The Program to take a shot at the WHS mile record of 4:25, set in 1964 (still stands, as far as I know), when an Achilles injury put paid to consistent training (no natural talent, any improvement through hard work only.) With 4:25 not happening, he elected to hit Daytona Beach with his buddies on spring break senior year and, well, enough said. He thinks, realistically, without injury he would have been one of those 4:30 high school milers Frank Shorter referred to in “Once a Runner.” He is happily married (see “Mrs DrJay.”)

            Jenny’s coach was quoted in the Courier-Journal the morning after her 7th grade State Meet success as saying, “She’ll win everything, including the Olympics...” and so on. Her state cross-country finishes were 4th, 3rd, 3rd, 12th eighth thru eleventh grade, with mile/880 finishes of 3/3, 2/1, and 5/2 eighth thru tenth grade. The scrapbook ends after that. I don’t believe she ran in college. She is an RN in Louisville, at last report.

            Valerie was a good runner as well with state xc finishes of 12th, 6th, 5th, and 6th, state 440 finishes of 3rd and 2nd, and 220 finishes of 1st and 4th and a relay title or two. She is an ER physician somewhere in the Midwest.

            Karen was, years ago, rumored to be fat and working for Big O tires in Ohio.

            Paulette transferred to a Catholic girls high school and her whereabouts are unknown.

            Garry Hill's chance at a career-making story ended with the Field Day Committee Decree and he is rusting away as editor of an obscure little running magazine that doesn't even do an Annual Shoe Review.


            • #7
              Re: The Biggest Crowd You Never Competed in Front Of

              I can't top that one, but it does remind me of the one Field Day I was in. Fifth Grade. Moses Y. Beach Elementary School, Wallingford, Connecticut. I was by far the smallest boy in the three 3rd grade classes (I didn't grow till AFTER my sopomore year in HS!), but luckily no one had hit puberty yet, so I didn't have the disadvantage I faced in Jr Hi where EVERYONE else was mainlining Human Growth Hormones.

              Anyway, the piece de resistance event was the 100 yard dash at the end of the day. I had already gone down to ignominious defeat in both the potato sack race (dnf) and the Watermelon Snarfle (I don't even like it and I had no idea what to do with all those seeds), so when they called for any takers to the line, I looked around to see what the competition might be. I had always been good at touch football, despite my size, because I had waterbug moves (it's actually pretty easy to cut when you only weigh 56 pounds soaking wet). So I thought I could hold my own.

              About 20 of us lined up at one end of the field, with the finish line at the other end of the field: two metal posts with a piece of white twine tied between the two posts (are you getting ahead of me now?)

              The larger boys looked at me with obvious disdain (which, translated into 10 year old behavior, means they pushed me behind them at the start). But what I lacked in physical stature, I made up for in deceiviousness (yes, I made that word up, sue me). I tripped several at the start from behind! What ensued was not so much a footrace, as them trying to catch me and beat the bloody snot out of me. I literally ran for my life.

              I'm sure I have never run that fast again, and since I actually probably ran an extra 10 yards dodging people catching up, it really was remarkable that I did arrive at the twine first. But you have to know what happened next. The string was set for a normal boy to break with his chest, but, alas, it was exactly coincident with my tender young neck.

              The term 'clotheslining' someone was in full embodiment that day. I almost spun around the twine like some perverse cartoon character, as it lifted me off the ground with my little churning legs still frantically grasping for traction (remember now, the 'race' was not over for me yet - with enraged hooligans hot on my tail). I felt a hot stinging sensation as I was suddenly looking straight up at some oddly shaped clouds.

              Luckily all the teachers were at the finish, so I did not get pounded into a small pulpy mass right there. They were all clucking like hens trying to
              a. determine whether I was dead
              b. determine whether I had won, since I had not technically broken the twine to signify victory
              c. determine whether we should all be disqualified because by then the ruckus at the starting line had been communicated to them.

              Long (too) story short - I was indeed crowned the winner - and I hoped and prayed that the nasty 'rope burn' on my neck would become a permanent scar that I could brag about for the rest of my life. In fact, I healed, and this is the first time I have ever told this story (due to my obvious complicity in the chicanery of the running). I actually earned the begrudging respect of the older boys, not only for my win, but even its manner (cheating being the accepted modus operandi of the age).

              There I'm glad I got that off my chest.


              • #8
                Re: The Biggest Crowd You Never Competed in Front Of

                <<n obscure little running magazine that doesn't even do an
                >Annual Shoe Review.>>

                ya never know.....


                • #9
                  Re: The Biggest Crowd You Never Competed in Front Of

                  The three-legged race is the race for me.

                  Nice post Dr. Jay.
                  I just had to add that the first ribbon of any kind I won was a red ribbon (2nd place) in the 8-9 year old division of the three-legged race at a competition called "PlayDay" in 1969, my teammate actually ended up as a life-long friend named Kevin Montgomery. This was another defining moment, what memories.
                  I participated in a track meet 4 weeks earlier, witnessed my older sister and brother destroy the competition, but I stunk up the track that day unfortunately. My 50 yard dash time was in the area of 11 flat. Arggh!!!

                  Hey Jay, 2.35 in the half for a 7th grader is cookin', you ought to make a comeback.
                  Peace JP