Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My Running Career

When I was in high school, I was not at all athletic. For some reason I was clumsier than most children and not as nearly as good at sports as the average child. I've joked about myself when telling people I am just getting to know "You know that kid in school who was the worst at sports?" I frequently get the reply "You were that kid!" Then I "correct" them by saying "I made the kid you knew look like an NFL superstar." People then chuckle.

In high school I knew I should try various extracurricular activities. Doing so would be a big help when applying for college. I did join the debate team. That was right down my alley. I did some other things as well. I was aware that I should at least try out for some sort of athletic team. I picked track -- running to be specific. Steinert High was big and growing. I was known as one of the smartest students in my class. When I ran a quarter mile, just about everyone ignored me. I do remember doing so in 90 seconds -- but that did not draw any attention. That was with no training at all. Coach Marchand, wanting to help out the nice, bright teenager, made me team manager. That got me an athletic credit for college. I enjoyed being team manager. It was something that was easy for me. I got to hang out with much more athletic friends.

In 1963 I entered Rutgers, majoring in physics. Once again I approached cross country (fall) and track team (spring) and asked if I could be team manager. They were happy to take me on in that volunteer position. I spent the next four years following the team around, learning about runners and running -- but not doing any myself. Coach Wallach was a really fine coach. He was also friendly to me as team manager. I developed a very high impression of people on the track team -- and as more than just good athletes.

I graduated from Rutgers in May of 1967. Three months later I was drafted into the Army. That made me very unhappy. A few interesting things happened my first week in the Army. I did really well on the IQ test. My 150+ score was the highest of anyone at Fort Dix, New Jersey. That probably saved my life. Then there were the physical fitness tests. You could get 100 points on each test. There were five tests. The first four involved some sort of coordinated movements. My scores fit my self image completely. I got two zeros, one 17 and one 18. I did say I was not much of an athlete as a teenager. Then came the mile run. I had never run one mile all at one time in my life. A little over six minutes got me 95 points. I was really surprised. Within a few weeks of basic training I was down to running miles in about 5:30. A Few Basic Training Stories has more about that part of my life. Basic training, in some ways, turned me into a bit of a rebel.

Over the next few years I started running outdoors when the weather was good. Some of that time I lived in Northern California, some in upstate New York, some in New Jersey. Between the positive impression I had developed of runners, especially at Rutgers, and now discovering some talents along those lines, I became a bit of a runner. I also enjoyed my runs. I thought they might be good for my health as well.

Then came 1974. I was doing yet another career transition. I was moving from being a grad student in physics to a grad student in social psychology. Yes, that is quite a switch. In the summer of 1974 my father was put into the hospital. Dad had had a crippling injury to his left leg when he was in junior high school. The older Pop got, the more sedentary he got, the heavier he got. He was at least 100 pounds overweight when he entered the hospital. The surgery he had seemed to go well. Mom and I were looking forward to having Dad at home soon. It was August. Two days before Dad was to be released from the hospital, a blood clot that had gone undetected because of Dad's weight broke loose and killed him. I still remember seeing Dad on his hospital bed. I phoned my Uncle Don. He was shocked. Mom missed Dad down to the depths of her soul. She missed him until the day she passed away -- over 34 years later.

In September I began my grad work in social psychology at Columbia. I also started two other things -- running and swimming on a six day a week schedule. Since this was New York City and I didn't own a car, I also did a good bit of walking. I finally lost my adolescent baby fat. I got down to 139 pounds.

When I moved back to New Jersey, I kept up the running and swimming. I kept it up even after I began work as a computer programmer for New Jersey. All that changed was my schedule.

During this time whenever I bought new shoes, I was told about some upcoming race and asked if I would sign up. I always said no -- that I only ran for health reasons.

In March 1990 I began work at Goddard Space Flight Center. They had a running club that, every April and October put on a two mile fun run followed a week later by a 10K race for serious runners. Since I ran about six miles a day, I couldn't say no to a group that told even nonrunners to come out for the two mile fun run. It turned out I was one of the fastest runners at Goddard. I made friends with fellow runners. I even organized the running team for the supercomputer center. I started doing races outside of Goddard with friends. Even in those races I routinely finished in the top 15%-20% of my age group. I felt really good about that. Discovering athletic talents in middle age changed my life in some ways very positively.

October 1992 was another Goddard 10K race. I didn't realize how fast I was compared with other 40+ runners. That month two faster runners than me were training for the Marine Corps Marathon. My time of 45:20 WON me the over 40 trophy. I was surprised -- and thrilled. That trophy still sits in my living room. That Christmas time when I sent out my cards, I included a note that told people about winning that race among other things.

In May 1993 my cousins organized a 50th anniversary party for my Uncle Don and Aunt Kay. Uncle Don taught health and phys ed in high school and was our high school's first athletic director. My Cousin Don played football in high school. They were clearly in the more athletic part of my family. At that party, Cousin Don told me he could not run a 10K that fast -- and that he had completed four marathons. He told me I had at least one in me.

Over the next few years I kept up my running activities. I started to find out what I would need to do to train for a marathon. It seemed my normal six mile a day running was almost enough. The only thing I needed to do besides that was every other week do an increasingly long run. In the summer of 1996 I did a 9 mile run, a 12 mile run, a 15 mile run, a 18 mile run and finally one over 20 miles. I did all these runs in one of my favorite parks -- Greenbelt National. After the 20 mile run, I decided I was ready for a marathon. Back in 1996 it was much easier to enter the Marine Corps Marathon. I signed up about a month before.

Then came the day of the marathon. I was well rested. I ate appropriately. I drove to the start quite early. I began my marathon slowly. I still remember some things from that run. Around mile 13 some people from the National Space Society saw me and shouted "It's Chuck Divine!" They then began cheering me on. At mile 17 I saw a physically attractive woman wearing a White House Hash House Harrier T shirt with the slogan on it saying "The Drinking Club With a Running Problem." The only reason I didn't crack up laughing was because it was only mile 17. I reached mile 19 in about 3 hours. I realized I had only 7 miles to go -- and over 3 hours to do it. I started mixing running and walking. I reached Iwo Jima Hill just short of 5 hours. On that hill I saw one man down. The Marine Corps was taking good care of him. I crossed the finish line. I was thrilled to do so. That evening Mom phoned. She wanted to know how I did. I told her I finished. She was happy for me. She also told me to look at the cover of Parade that day. On the cover I saw photographs of people who had done something remarkable. One was of a 81 year old man who had just finished his 20th marathon. He began at age 61.

After the marathon I fell back into my usual running pattern. But, now, I had a plaque with my photograph and name on it to show the world that I had finished a marathon. I'm still proud of that accomplishment.

Remember my comment about the Hash House Harriers? In June 1998 I did the Race for the Cure with some friends. Actually I should say ahead of my friends. That race was only 5K. I was waiting around the finish area when I spotted a couple wearing hash T shirts. I walked up to them and introduced myself.. Next thing I knew I had a sheet of paper with a telephone number on it to find out about future runs. That summer I took up hashing for fun and games. I am glad that I did. I still occasionally show up for a hash run.

Some years ago I got the idea of writing to Coach Wallach and telling him about my running career and the role he played in it. A few days later he phoned me. He told me my letter had moved him to tears. He was happy to have played such an important role in my life.

I've written way too much. I'm up to 1800 words. Sigh. Short posts don't seem to be my thing.

1 comment:

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