Monday, September 14, 2009

A Half Mile at Full Speed

When I was a junior in high school, back when dinosaurs were roaming the earth, I tried out for the track team. Obviously, it wasn’t to impress the babes. The only ones who attended track meets in those days were the participants, the coaches and stray dogs. I think it was just one of those things I did to prove something to myself.

Robbinsdale was the biggest high school in the state of Minnesota at the time. The tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades had well over 3,000 students, all confined to one huge building of organized discipline and teenage rebellion.

Being a top athlete was not an easy nut to crack with so many jocks under one roof. The anti-jocks didn’t make things any easier either. In fact, just surviving through a single day in the blackboard jungle of Robbinsdale High could be a challenge.

My intention was to find the best running event to suit my skills and give it the best shot I could. The shorter distances would be out of the question. There were lots of great sprinters on the team and I knew I couldn’t beat them no matter how hard I worked at it. The longer distances were also out of the question since I didn’t have the stamina for running a mile or more.

Thus, I decided on the 440-yard run -- once around the track, a quarter of a mile, at full speed. No big deal.

After a couple of weeks of hard work, the coaches held some competitions to find the best runners at each distance. The top five in each event would be allowed to represent the school in competition.

The 440 runners were broken into two groups. They ran the first heat with the returning lettermen in that event first.

I stood near the finish line, with the other group of 440 runners, waiting to run in the second heat.

Watching a senior named Dick Bassett heading toward the finish line was a real eye opener. He was an all-state wrestler and one of the leaders of the state champion football team, soon to become a starting linebacker at the University of Minnesota. As he came charging around the final turn at full throttle, he looked like a runaway train with thunder thighs seeking a brick wall to shatter.

One thing for certain, I couldn’t beat him, and he only came in third.

So I slithered over into the 880-yard runners group and tried to blend in. There were nine of us. I figured I might have to run a little farther, but only had to beat four of them to make the team.

The 880 trials followed the 440 guys. All nine of us ran together, twice around the track that afternoon.

I was running well, just trying to stay even in the main pack. But most of the others had an extra kick and began to pull away near the end of the final backstretch.

I came in seventh, beating the last two guys by a good margin. Although I didn’t do too well, I assumed I would improve over time as I continued to prepare myself for a longer race than I had originally intended to run.

A couple of weeks later, we had a “practice” with St. Louis Park, another high school in our conference. It was an unsanctioned event between the two schools and the coaches agreed to allow unlimited competitors.

Six St. Louis Park runners squared off against all nine Robbinsdale runners in the half-mile run. I was now in much better shape and had a good feel for the 880. Plus, I had a foolproof strategy.

The gun went off and I darted out in front. I was in the lead going into the first turn and that was exactly where I intended to stay. I ran at full speed, hoping to pull away but never quite could. Coming across the finish line at the head of the pack on the first pass, I could see the coach watching me. Unfortunately, we had to go around the track a second time.

Down the backstretch, I went into the zone. My legs were moving like two pistons and I couldn’t feel a thing except exhilaration for maintaining my position in front of the others, eagerly awaiting the adulation of victory.

Into the final turn, Brian Henry, our top 880 runner, and a guy from St. Louis Park passed me. Coming out of the final turn onto the home stretch, several more runners shot past me as my legs turned into Silly Putty and my lungs began screaming for me to shut off the engine and take up another more civilized sport.

I came in eighth out of fifteen, beating the same two Robbinsdale runners and five out of six of the St. Louis Park runners.

Afterward, Brian Henry thanked me for setting such a brisk pace and I went off to find another sport that suited my taste.

In the end, it was a wonderful learning experience. For example, I learned that if I need to go a half mile at full speed, I should probably use my car.

It wasn’t long before I chose pocket billiards as my new sport. One could compete indoors, year-round, with a minimal of stress on your leg muscles or lungs. It’s a sport for refined people with large egos who like to wager on their skills.

In fact, I took it so seriously that I was the University of Minnesota billiard champion at age 19 and the Third U.S. Army pocket billiard champion in each of my two years in the service. It also supplemented my income to help get me through college. When I actually had to start working for a living, I gave it all up.

Shooting pool is a great way to spend your youth. It keeps you off the streets and you get to hang out with lots of slippery, devious characters where you learn the real meaning of life rather quickly.

Quote for the Day – “When I played pool, I was like a good psychiatrist. I cured ‘em of all their daydreams and delusions.” Rudolph Wanderone (a.k.a. Minnesota Fats)

Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and more than 880 yards from the nearest neighbor. His blogs appear on several websites, including

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