We are driving
back from a meet in Tuscaloosa. Ala. Jeff and I are sitting in the cargo seal
of the rented station wagon. Coach is driving and lecturing extemporaneously,
oblivious of everything except the point he's trying to make. We hear a loud
pop, and the car veers toward the right shoulder of the interstate. Coach
doesn't notice at first, then comments that the car doesn't seem to steer very
well. We are quiet for a minute before Jeff offers. "Coach, I think we just
had a blowout."
Nov. 9, 1974. We
are at a thoroughbred farm outside Lexington, Ky. for the conference meet. The
air is warm and dense, and dew soaks our feet and soft ground dampens our steps
as we follow a white lime stripe across grassy pastures. An hour before race
time a large crowd is already milling around the finish line. We decide to jog
the course to see the terrain, avoid the people and compose ourselves for the
We had driven to
Lexington the day before by ourselves. Coach made the motel reservations, gave
us travel money, and told us he'd be up as soon as he could get away. He still
isn't here. We're beginning to think he won't show up, but we don't talk about
it. We need to do well today. A team's reputation is based in no small measure
on its performance in the conference meet. Teams that do well here are
respected; teams that do poorly are snickered at. We have a respectable team
and have done well in our dual meets, but the last two years we have bombed in
the conference, and we want to make amends for that today.
strategy. Those of us who have no hope of going out with the elite
front-runners and staying with them have two options: We can go out at the
front of the main pack and hope we can hang onto our places during the last
half of the race; or we can go out at the back of the main pack and hope we can
move up steadily after the first mile. None of us expects to finish in the top
10 today and, except for Monster, who always goes out last, we all favor
running from the back.
We head toward
the starting line. In the distance a man announces over a P.A. system that we
have 15 minutes until the start. As we pass the finish area a man calls to us.
It is Coach. As soon as I see him I feel a surge of adrenaline. Les asks him
why he's late and his answer implies he drove up last night, stayed at the same
motel where we stayed, but didn't try to contact us. We wait for him to
explain, but he says nothing. His reticence troubles me. (I believe now he
avoided us deliberately. He knew then, although we didn't, that this would be
our last race with him as our coach. In his own peculiar way he was preparing
us for the separation.) He accompanies us to the starting line, a quarter-mile
away. My arms and legs feel heavy, but I tell myself they'll lighten with the
start. Through a megaphone the starter asks us to report to the area assigned
to our team. We strip off our sweats and go to the line. We are on our own now.
We stride out on the course 40 yards—a mock start—then regroup behind the line
and, to reassure ourselves, shake hands touch and wish each other heartfelt
Robbie, let's run tough."
"Let's do it,
The starter calls
us to the mark. We take a stance. He calls, "Runners set." We lean
forward, poised. Then he fires the gun and we're off.
The start is
idiotically fast. The early leader, who is almost never the winner, goes
through the first mile in about 4:30 I try to control my pace, to just hang
onto the main pack. My legs are still heavy and my arms tight, and the humidity
bothers me. I go through the first mile in 5:07, when the effort feels like
4:50. I'm exactly where I want to be, at the back of the main pack, but I no
longer feel confident about moving up. During the second mile I have to start
making my move, but my legs are tight and my arms tingle with fatigue. The main
pack begins to pull away. I curse myself. At the three-mile mark, when the
split time doesn't register in my head (so different is it from what I
expected), I give up the chase. Nevertheless I refuse to drop out. Even if I
walk I'm determined to finish, to cross the line.