Jon Guldager, a quiet, round-faced child wearing hand-me-down green satin shorts and a white racing singlet, takes a very purposeful stance when his name is called and runs as if he knows just what he's doing. He draws "Ahhs" from the crowd and eventually wins the four-and-under competition.
One particularly hot day everyone under five has red Kool-Aid stains around the mouth. Two tiny children sit at the end of the long-jump pit, oblivious of everything, hugging and kissing each other with Kool-Aid lips.
Huge turnout on Friday: the fast heat of the jogger's mile had 65 people in it. Connie tried for six minutes in the slow heat and did 6:08. I tried for my six minutes in the open mile, running dead last, and did 6:05.1. I think if Connie and I had been in that race together, we might have made it. I was amazed at how good I felt. Kenny keeps telling me that I have to run harder, that it's supposed to hurt. Frankly, I'd rather it feel not too bad, like today.
Lili Ledbetter ran the two-mile, aiming for 12 minutes. We watched her lead a section of men twice her height and three times her age. Connie said, "She's breaking the wind—for their knees." After finishing in 11:56 Lili was surrounded by quiet-spoken boys about her size. No one was raucous, simply appreciative and pleased for her good run.
After the long jump on Thursdays comes the 70-yard dash. The starter is Wade Bell, 1968 Olympic half-miler. Dozens of heats are run every week. Bell fires the gun and Ragsdale has the next heat on the line before the first has hit the tape. One begins to notice particular sprinters, whether for their ability or for their individuality. One boy tucks his chin down into his collarbone, running the entire race with the top of his head leading, like a battering ram. Surprisingly, he wins almost every time.
During the girls' four-and-under race the shouting from the stands is tremendous. Then the leader stops a foot from the finish, shyly unwilling to break the string. All the little girls behind her stop, too, wherever they are, grinning happily at this unexpected new game. Inches away from the leader, the timers stand helplessly laughing, stopwatches ticking. Several parents just on the other side of the line hold out their arms, alternately laughing and pleading with their daughters to cross over. Then the father of the tyke in last place, seeing a chance for a ribbon, grabs his daughter's arm and propels her through the pack. Laughter stops. Parents holler at their kids to break the string. The father's movement seems to end the game and the leader finally crosses the line. In the next heat a tiny redhead wins, screams "Mom!," hands her mother the blue ribbon and slaps her knees in glee, delighted with herself.
Wade Bell is sending off more races. The 6-year-olds stand at the start and wave to everyone waiting for them at the finish. The 10-year-olds stretch and shake and succumb to their nerves.
"Runners, take your marks."
"I don't feel ready for this. I feel sick," confides a 9-year-old.
"Set." The boy swallows and gets ready.