My main concern was hiding my latest misadventure from my track coach, Joe Rogers. He already had enough ammunition against me to seriously question whether I had the mental and physical aptitude for track.
The preliminaries for the low hurdles were at 10 that morning. I was in the second heat. I got dressed without anyone noticing anything, but during my warmups, through the thin sole of my track shoe, I could already feel a tenderness starting that was shortly going to bring tears to my eyes. I was warming up on the infield grass rather than on the cinder track when Coach Rogers noticed me. He came over and said, "What's the matter with you? Get over there on the track. You don't see any hurdles set up out here, do you?"
Now, it was Coach Rogers's habit to give all his sprinters and hurdlers a Hershey bar about 30 minutes before their event, obviously on the assumption that the sugar would give them that explosive energy necessary for a good start out of the blocks. I had eaten my Hershey bar, but all it did was make me feel a little sick to my stomach. Or something made me feel sick to my stomach. Probably the thought of how big a fool I was about to make of myself.
I was walking around by the starting blocks, trying not to limp, when Rooster Andrews asked what was the matter with me. Rooster was the starter. He had started me in any number of races and probably officiated at more track and field meets and other athletic events than anybody in Texas. I think he was fond of me because we both shared athletic handicaps. He had overcome his (being only five feet tall) to play football at the University of Texas. I was still suffering with mine—an erratic coordination that always seemed to strike me when I least needed it. I told him nothing was the matter.
He said, "Well, you act like you are limping." I told him that, no, I was just practicing being light on my feet, trying to walk without letting them touch the ground, and right then I was working on my left foot. He said he'd never heard of such a training method, but that it just might work.
Coach Rogers's rap on me was that I didn't sprint between the hurdles. This was especially true of the highs but didn't hurt me so badly in the lows. Apparently, the greater distance between hurdles in the lows gave my brain more time to communicate with my legs and tell them, "O.K., you're over the hurdle. Now the idea is to run like hell until you get to the next one."
Or something like that.
It came time to get down in the blocks. My heart was going like a trip-hammer. Gone was any hope of making the finals, much less placing. All I wanted to do was finish the race. If I didn't, if I had to limp off the track, the coach was going to examine me and find the blister. And what would I tell him then? That I had stepped on top of the kitchen stove? That I had been striking matches with my toes? I sure as hell wasn't going to tell him the truth. If I did, I would be known as Candlefoot the rest of my days at Bay City.
Rooster called, "Set!" and an instant later the gun went off. I don't remember much about the first part of the race. All I knew was that I was springing off that left foot, trying to limit its time on the ground to the smallest possible duration, and racing like hell to the next hurdle so I could get it up in the air for a brief instant of relief before I had to snap it back down and drive for the next hurdle. I wasn't even aware of how fast I was running. It didn't even begin to occur to me until I cleared the last hurdle and was on my way to the finish line. That's when I noticed, for the first time, that unlike my usual races, nobody was in front of me. I hit the tape a clear winner by 10 yards.
I coasted a few steps and veered off onto the infield grass and just stopped. I was scared to take another step. Coach Rogers came running up to me, and he was ecstatic. "Boy," he said, "that's what I been trying to teach you! Sprint between those hurdles! Boy, you did it today!"