Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 3 Apr 2005 08:56:52 -0400

Competition at Its Best

RUNNING COMMENTARY 565

(rerun from April 2000 RW)

Too many track seasons have raced past since I first hit my stride as a runner. Stumbling onto the right combination of speed, distance and consistency led that spring to my first state high school title in the mile. That season gave another prize far more lasting -- a first lesson in what competition can be at its best.

This story has its prologue in Chicago, where I spent the 1960 summer running races with the elders of the sport, grizzled vets in their 20s and 30s. Until then I'd viewed competition as me-against-the-world. I didn't hate my competitors, but did fear them for what they tried to take from me. I didn't care to cozy up to them between races.

Hal Higdon would find fame as a writer, but at the time he was an Olympic hopeful. Gar Williams would later serve as Road Runners Club of America president, but then he was a runner almost as talented as Higdon.

The two of them warmed up together for their races. Imagine that, competitors acting like friends.

Arne Richards was an early prototype for today's road racer, compensating with enthusiasm for what he lacked in talent. He offered to pace me in my first track race longer than a mile. Imagine that, competitors cooperating.

I took their lessons back to school in the fall. My senior year was to be a race against the stopwatch now that all serious competitors from the past season had graduated. I hadn't counted on creating a rival.

Don Prichard, a half-miler from another school, told me, "I'm thinking of stepping up to the mile. Would you be willing to give me some training advice?"

This is the nicest question one runner can ask another: "Can you help?" I happily handed over some tips.

Don would repay the favor by locking us in a season-long contest between runners who liked and respected each other. We worked together without giving an inch to the other in competition.

Don, like me, now trained through the winter. Almost no one else in our state did at the time, so we shared a big head start.

He followed my old plan of mixing modest distances with regular speed training. I tried something new -- the longer, slower base-building suddenly in vogue since Arthur Lydiard's New Zealanders won two Olympic races in Rome.

Don's training worked better than mine, at least at first. He won the first mile he ever race, while I lagged 10 seconds behind.

We raced three more times leading up to the state meet. Don won twice, and we tied once.

In a panic to recoup lost speed I raced mostly half-miles that season. My time at that distance led the state.

I could have dodged Don by skipping the mile in favor of the shorter race, but that would have cheapened both of our victories. We'd come this far together and now had to finish our high school careers in tandem.

As fastest qualifier at State, Don took the pole position. I started to his right as second-quickest.

He offered a clammy hand, and I took it with one equally wet from worry. "I hope we both get it," he said with a pained smile. He didn't have to say what "it" was -- at least under 4:21.6 for the state record, and at best a sub-4:20 mile.

"Good luck," I said with an almost-grimacing grin. I really did wish him well, because his luck would help determine mine.

The day didn't go quite as well as either of us had hoped. I missed the state record by a measly six-tenths of a second -- mainly because Don's kick failed him and wasn't there at the end to pull or push me.

Bent over at the finish line, hands on knees, we gulped back the oxygen we'd spent in the past few minutes. "Good... job," Don said on his chest-heaving exhales.

"Sorry... it wasn't... closer," I gasped. I wished we could have tied... well, maybe been inches apart with equal time.

The epilogue to the story is that Drake University recruited both Don Prichard and me. Our next race would come that fall as teammates.

In a way, we already were. Team effort had carried us higher than either could have climbed alone.

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