June 11, 2024

FTV: Track and Field


     With the results of the Upper Peninsula Track Finals in the books, let us say ‘congratulations’ to all of those who toil in the world of Track and Field.  No other sport I can think of demands as much personal discipline as being a track athlete.  Reading the results a couple of weeks ago sent me down the path of remembering my own less than remarkable track career.  My participation didn’t earn a varsity letter, but it was still a great experience.  I have always been involved in sports but was never one to join organized teams until I tried out for track.

     In the spring of my junior year in high school, I developed a nagging case of the shin splints.  I kiddingly blame my old buddy Jim Soderberg for this because it was at his suggestion I decided to go out for track.  My last involvement with organized sports was elementary school flag football.  There was a simple reason for my sudden interest in joining a team sport:  it would relieve me of my obligation to take gym class for the rest of the year.  Gym class during the last part of the year was mostly softball or track stuff.  It seemed to make sense;  skipping a third consecutive year of spring gym would give me a free period to hang out in the band room.  

      I first considered tennis but didn’t think my skills were up to that level.  Jim said, “Hey, come out for track.  You will have more fun than tennis.”  For the record, I would end up playing a lot more tennis in my life – throwing the shot put would not occupy nearly as much of my time as fuzzball (tennis).  Our first year chemistry teacher threw javelin and shot put at NMU and he added his two cents to the debate:  “You are big kid – try shot put.”  Jim can only be blamed for giving me the idea;  the shin splints were my own fault because I hadn’t bothered to ask more questions before I started training.

     As a newbie, I was given a hoodie and sweats that were less red than the official school colors – not quite pink but getting there.  Street training was the rule as we waited for spring to melt the snow on the track.  This was after the particularly snow filled winter of 1969-70, so it would take a while.  Until then, we would do calisthenics in the gym, then take to the streets to run.  I still remember the route:  west on Fair Avenue, north on Gray, east on Wright, and then south on West until we got back to Fair.  Not knowing a thing about running shoes, I wore my good old canvas Converse All Star basketball shoes.  That was mistake number one.  Assuming I was in good enough shape from playing pickup basketball games at Northern’s gym, I trotted off with the pack.  They had already been running for a couple of weeks when I joined and running with the pack, that was mistake number two.  I held up pretty well for the first half of the route but the pain in my side told me I needed to hang back and pace myself.  The coach drove by those of us lagging in the back.  He reminded us we were supposed to be running before speeding away to catch up to the runners well ahead of us.

     We did this routine for a couple of weeks.  When we got back to the gym, we went to lift weights for thirty minutes before we worked on the mechanics of shot putting.  The assistant track coach had also been a shot putter at NMU and he showed us the proper mechanics.  Coach emphasized ‘speed lifting’ to train our muscles for the quick burst of power needed to properly propel the shot.  He also told us to grunt loudly upon releasing the shot to make sure we were getting maximum energy into each toss.  After weeks of indoor training (including some ‘around the gym’ relays to break up the monotony), I was more than ready to get outdoors.  It was during one of these indoor races I got my heel clipped rounding the orange cone marking the inside lane.  After I went down like a ton of bricks, the coach wandered over and extended a hand to get me off the deck.  He asked, “You okay?  You went down kind of hard.”  “Yeah, I am alright,” I replied, “but my lower legs are sore.”  He informed me running on the streets without the right shoes had given me a case of shin splints:  “You’ll heal,” he told me.  He just didn’t happen to mention how long it would take.

     After some of the team spent a weekend shoveling snow off the track to speed up the melting process, we moved outdoors.  Coach insisted we do some weight training before heading to the track and then he had us run a couple of 440s.  Each lap of the track measured 440 yards and four laps equals a mile.  At least twice he timed us in our 440s just to make sure we were not just jogging our way around the track.  We were pretty rubber legged by the time we went to the shot put pit at the south end of the field.  Coach reminded us we were there to work mostly on technique and grunting.  “You won’t have tired legs on the day of a meet, so fresh legs and good technique will help you perform better.”

     Another group training exercise the head coach liked was having everyone run dashes against each other.  He called us to the straight away near the bleachers and told us to form a line in each lane.  When we got to the front, we would take our turn.  The first time I did this, I happened to be in a heat with a bunch of freshman sprinters.  The smirks told me they were going to enjoy leaving this lumbering old junior shot putter in their dust.  At the whistle, I put my head down and dug in without bothering to look left or right.  I do not know how far behind the rest of the pack was, but when the coach pointed at me and called out my time, I thought, “Hey, that isn’t too shabby.”  No, I do not remember the actual time, but I do remember the coach yelling at the freshmen, “You guys think you are sprinters?  You just got beat by a shot putter!” The next time we did the group sprints, I could not help but notice the freshmen made sure they lined up behind the shot putters.  

     By mid-season, my shin splints were bothering me big time.  I asked some of the other athletes and coaches about it and they all said the same thing:  “Time is the cure.  If you want to improve faster, stop running.  If you don’t want to sit out of everything for a year, then make sure you warm up before running or playing ball.”  Some days were better than others and the ‘warming up’ advice helped (some).  Six years later, I found myself playing city league basketball in Ontonagon.  Even though there had been some improvement in my condition, the old aches and pains in my shins would take several more years to finally go away.

     It would be great to tell you I placed in a meet and earned a varsity letter, but I missed my golden opportunity by an inch.  A fireplug of a freshman beat me for third place in a triangular meet, but it was my own fault.  I made the cardinal mistake of stepping out of the ring to the side on my best throw (one must only enter and leave the ring at the rear).  They don’t measure scratched attempts, but it looked to be a good six inches longer than the fireplug’s best toss.  My second best was, you guessed it, one inch shorter than his.  He got a varsity letter and I got a winged foot to put on the lettermen jacket I didn’t own.  

     It could have been worse.  When a JV meet was scheduled in Negaunee, the roster was posted with my name included.  “Coach, I’m a junior, am I supposed to go to this meet?” I asked.  “Geez,” he said, “You are a junior?  Good thing you spoke up.  That could get us disqualified!”  Apparently there isn’t a varsity letter given for not getting the team DQed.  It was kind of fun learning a new skill and my shot coach said my technique was pretty good:  “Pump the weights and next year you will be better yet.”  I thought about it, but we already had our eye on playing real gigs for money with my band The Twig.  In the end, the band trumped track my senior year.

     After all the work the core group of shot putters put in, it was rather disheartening to find out the best guy on the squad never practiced shot putting.  He was one of those gifted senior athletes the coach plugged into as many events he thought he could win.  Collecting the most points at any one meet was the name of the game.  This senior could sprint, high jump, hurdle, and, as we found out, toss the shot.  He was in so many events, he had to ask the official running the shot if he could just take all of his attempts in a row.  The other coaches agreed it was okay, so he did just that.  He had terrible technique but enough coordination and strength to just muscle it out there.  He beat the best shot putter in the first meet by at least a foot and then trotted off to his other events.

     I had pretty much forgotten my track and field ‘career’ by the spring of 1975.  During my student teaching stint at Bothwell Middle School, long time teacher Fred Rydhom approached me and said, “I need an assistant track coach.  Would you be interested?  Were you in track in high school?”   “Sure, Fred, I would love to help out.  I was a shot putter.”  “Great.  Come to the  locker room after school and I will get you a track suit.  I will work with the runners and you can work with the field events.”  I dusted off my best technique and training advice.  It was a relief to find I could at least throw a shot farther than my Junior High charges.  We had one meet in Negaunee and I paid my old friend Jim back.  He was home on summer break from college so I invited him to come along.  It turned out the host school didn’t have enough helpers so Jim ended up running the high jump and I had to man the shot put event.

     As I approached the end of my first year teaching in Ontonagon, the A.D. asked if I would be willing to help out with the track meets.  I said, “Sure.  I was a shot putter in high school.  Could I officiate that?”  He asked me a couple of questions to make sure I knew the rules and said I was good to go.  Remembering the boneheaded move that cost me a letter, I made sure everybody was clear on what they had to do to avoid having a toss DQed.  I am glad I did because the second meet I worked, a coach got after me when his star shot putter lost a first place toss for stomping his foot on top of the barrier at the front of the shot put circle.  “How can you not count what was clearly the winning toss?” he fumed.  For his part, the kid spoke up and said, “He told us not to do that (step on the restraining ring) and I forgot.”  The coach apparently didn’t know any better because he still went away mad, but at least he went away.

     The other thing most casual observers didn’t understand is how the distances were measured.  I would have an assistant holding the zero end of a long wind up tape measure.  When the shot hit the pit, he would hold the end of the tape at the rim of the hole made by the shot.  I would be in the ring with the other end and slowly move the tape back and forth over the inside edge of the barrier.  The lowest number that lined up with the barrier ring was the distance recorded.  “Why are you moving that around’” some would ask, “hold it steady or you won’t get the right distance.”  Just the opposite is true – you have to move the tape around to get the right reading.

I may not have lettered in high school track, but I did know how to officiate the event.

     In high school, those of us who didn’t qualify for an event at the conference championship were pressed into service at the meet.  As the host school, we had to move hurdles between races and act as runners between the officials and the scorers table.  I would much rather have been working on the shot put but I got stuck with a corner judge.  These people watch runners and look for any interference caused during the race.  My one and only duty was to stand around and wait for the official to make a call before sending me to report it.  Race after race, nothing unusual happened.  During one of the distance races, the official I was working with turned and said, “Run and report that Number 18 interfered with Number 23 in turn two.”  The official at the scoring table looked up at me like I was crazy:  “Are you sure those were the right numbers?  They are both on the same team.  Why are you telling me this?”  The only answer I had was, “Because he told me to come and tell you that and it isn’t up to me to question what he told me to do.”

     That was the biggest reason I much preferred working at the shot putt pit.  The last big meet in Ontonagon my first year here was for the conference title.  It was held on a Saturday but I had an appointment in Marquette the day before.  The AD was really disappointed when he found out I was going to be out of town.  After much pleading on his account, I told him I could leave early Saturday morning and make it back before the official’s meeting at 9 a.m.  “If you want to meet the rest of us for breakfast, we will be at Syl’s,” he said.  I thanked him but said I would be there in time for the pre-meet meeting, but not necessarily for breakfast. 

     Things worked out just fine time wise, but when I got to the old school gym to get my officials badge, the AD acted surprised to see me.  “Oh, I didn’t see you at breakfast so I assigned so and so to do the shot.”  This was not what I expected.   He thought for a minute and said, “I am short a timer for the sprints and distance events.  You can do that.”  Having never been a timer before, the lead race official gave me a stopwatch and instructions:  “We award points for the top six finishers.  You are the timer for sixth place.  Keep and eye out and when the sixth runner crosses the line, stop your watch and go out on the track and hold them there until the results are recorded.”  It seemed easy enough and as long as I had rearranged my whole weekend to help, it made sense to do something.  How hard could punching a stopwatch be?

     The first couple of races were easy.  There was quite a gap between the top finishers and those who placed 4, 5, and 6.  Then trouble arrived.  In one of the later races, I did my thing and when I got to the sixth place finisher, the fifth place official arrived to claim the same runner saying, “She was fifth.”  The other official pointed to the girl in the next lane and said, “She was in sixth place.”  This was a little confusing because the fifth and sixth place finishers were a good yard apart and I did NOT make a mistake.  I protested mildly and the other official (who was a good deal older than yours truly) called over the head scorer and started to make a fuss about it.  He raised his eyebrow, looked us both over, and then recorded the result the way the older official called it.  This became the second reason officiating track meets went down on my list of priorities (showing up and being told they hadn’t expected me to show up was the first).

     After the final results were announced and everyone was packing up, I crossed paths with the head scorer.  He said, “I know you weren’t wrong in that race placement.  Did you notice the other official happened to switch the finish in favor of a girl from her school’s team?  The couple of points involved were not going to change the finishing order so I let it go.  Both runners got to place and it didn’t affect the final team scoring order.  Thanks for not making a big thing out of it.”  The head scorer’s reputation went up several notches in that conversation, but it made me a little angry that someone would stoop so low to try and influence the outcome of a high school track meet.  Heaven help us if it had made a difference in the final order of finish. 

     With the advent of electronic timing, such shenanigans wouldn’t pass muster these days.  Like the days of the cinder track, stopwatch timing for track meets has gone the way of the dinosaur.  Even with that rather sour ending to my officiating career, I still look back and fondly remember my days as a ‘thin clad’.  All these years later, my friend Dan’s ‘little’ brother Pete (all six foot six of him these days) still reminds me I taught him how to throw the shot put when I was student teaching and he was in seventh grade.

To Piece Video:  Okay, I wasn’t a runner but this seemed to fit, shin splints and all!