Friday, November 13, 2009

On the Run - Spring 1972

Forgive me my self indulgence but this is going to be a long one because I want to remember and share as much as I can about the events of that spring.

Joy would best describe how I feel about my sophomore year of track.  While cross country had been kind of a haze I came out of that daze of fall leaves and cold biting winds awakened by the rebirth that is spring.  I knew I was in decent shape when I time trialed a 4:52 mile indoors at Allen Field House before the start of practice.

Our first meet in late March was at Shawnee Mission North.  It was a cold and breezy day and the track felt crunchy when I lined up to run the mile.  Jim Scott, one of the state's best milers was there and my teammate Glen Lemesany was hoping to give him a real race.  I don't remember much of the race.  I think Glen was second or third and I was fourth or five.  I ran 4:48.  I doubled back in the Medley Relay running a 2:12 880.  I was completely out of my league running the half.

I wasn't fast enough to run at the state indoor.  I remember going and watching but a lot of those memories are a fog lost in the cavernous Ahearn Field House in Manhattan.   The aforementioned Jim Scott won the 5A mile and thanks to Jim's prompting I remember Tom Honer barely winning a tightly bunched 880.

Winter didn't want to let go that spring.  We ran in cool conditions at Shawnee Mission Northwest in a triangle with Shawnee Mission South.  Two things stand out from that meet.  South's coach Verlyn Schmidt berating Mitch Powlas, one of his best runners, throughout the two mile.  Powlas won but he left the team the following meet.  I ran a PR in the mile, 4:43, but more importantly beat Glen in the two mile running 10:21.  It didn't go over very well with my senior teammate.

A trip to Pittsburg State reaped two more minor PR's but I was more focused on running at the Kansas Relays.  I would run the 1320 in the Distance Medley on Friday followed by a crack at the mile steeplechase on Saturday.  The DMR was a complete bust.  I felt flat and ran flat.  The steeple was a disaster.  I had the advantage of practicing at Memorial Stadium.  Kent McDonald offered one bit of sage advice.  "Whatever ever you do," Kent said, "don't land with both feet in the water jump."

The gun goes off we make the first lap and head to the first water jump and I did exactly what Kent had warned about.  It was crowded and I was flustered and I hit the pit with both feet, and promptly fell on my face.  My spikes slipped right off the slick tartan and I went from fifth place back to dead last.  I spent the rest of the race slowly working my way back up.  With a lap to go I was within striking distance of getting back to fifth and as I sprinted around the final bend preparing to pass Yael Abouhalkah over the next to last barrier... Yael shifted out into my lane sending me sprawling over the barrier.  I quickly got back on my feet and finished an embarrassed 8th.  

I was at my wits end.  My workouts told me I should be running much faster.  The disasterous steeple left me wondering if I was cut out for track.  I finally took to heart something coach Steve Sublett had been telling me for six months, run heel-toe, stop running on your toes.  My idiot of a junior high coach had really brainwashed me and my disappointing efforts at the Relays put me in a frame of mind to listen.

Our next meet were the Shawnee Mission North Relays.   It was one of those rare spring evenings where the temperature was perfect and there was no wind.  North does something that most meets don't... run the two mile before the mile.  I was getting a shot to run eight laps fresh and I intended to do the unthinkable, lower my PR by 20 seconds and break 10 minutes.  I was going to do it running heel to toe.

I spent my entire 30 minute warm up staring down Larry Grecian from Topeka West.  I knew he would break 10 and I wanted to be on his ass the entire way.  I'm sure he thought something was wrong with me but I didn't care. 

The track at North was the best cinder track I have ever run on.  It was rolled and had a crisp schene to it that most cinder tracks never offered.  It was fast and my spikes felt great digging into the track when the gun went off.  Grecian settled into fourth place and I sat right behind him.  I remember going through the mile 4:54 and thinking wow, that's fast.  Somewhere after the mile I pulled past Grecian and continued to run freely.  I know somebody past me in the last mile but I remember flying over the last lap in 63 seconds.  I had run 9:49.5.  Heel to toe had work and I was ecstatic.

Glen Lemesany wanted nothing to do with me and was shooting darts in my direction.  He was running the open mile and had only one thing to say to me, "It was a fluke."  About ten minutes after the race my head was pounding and I was close to dry heaving.  I ran an uninspired opening leg of the two mile relay in 2:08 an hour later.  I was spent and I successfully put my team into a major hole it would never recover from with my poor effort.  But I wasn't discouraged, I was a sub-10 minute two miler.

I talked the coaches into letting me run just the two mile the following week at the Sunflower League Meet.  I wanted to prove the week before hadn't been a fluke.  It was a miserable rainy day.  The meet was run in conjunction with a dual meet that Kansas was holding with Southern Illinois.  I ran a scared race.  I played it safe and never really put in a full effort for fear of blowing it.  I honestly think I could have given Charlie Gray (who later won state) a real run for the money if I had tried but as it was he beat me by a good six second and I ended up in fifth in 9:54.9.  I wasn't even tired.  I had managed to beat Stan Vernon, a junior from Topeka High who later went on to be a standout at Oklahoma and a first rate runner on the American road running scene in its infancy.  I had managed to prove that the North meet wasn't a fluke.

We had only a day to recover because on Monday we hosted the Lawrence Night Relays.  I remember telling Glen in the school cafeteria the afternoon before the meet I wanted to run a qualifier for state indoor in the mile.  He looked at me with contempt and said, "No way."  Glen had been running really well that spring breaking 4:30 in the mile.  My best was 4:42.

The weather was perfect and I remember some kid from Leavenworth went out like a banshee and Glen and I were right on his tail.  We hit the 440 in 63... way too fast.  I hung on behind Glen as we went around the upstart but we were both later passed by a human bowling ball from Manhattan.  I later found out it was Mike Motley, a sophomore just like me.  He ran 4:29, I ran 4:33.0.  I had run a PR by nine second and streaked past the state indoor qualifying time by three seconds.  By now Glen was having to admit that I could run and that what I had done over the last ten days wasn't a fluke.

All the hard racing caught up with me six days later at Regionals.  On the bus ride over to Shawnee Mission South I noticed that I was getting a sore throat.  By the time I stepped to the starting line that chilly Saturday afternoon I was feverish.  I hung on as best I could running 10:19 and finishing fourth, one spot shy of qualifying.  When I got home I was running a fever of 101.  Glen qualified in the mile which he deserved, but I would have loved one more shot at running eight laps in Wichita.


  1. Hey John, seems like only yesterday, doesn't it ? Perhaps I'm misinterpreting, but it sounds during that year, however, you were plagued by nagging illness. It might have been linked to the way training was conducted back then. Not enough rest, too many races, perhaps. In any case, it hampers one's efforts in striving towards one's potential. If you were sub 10 minutes at 15 years of age, you were demonstrating significant talent. Cordial salutations, Marc-Antoine

  2. Another thing, John, I wonder if young runners today have ever even heard of a cinder track. That was really a classic surface, and yet, I think it has pretty much gone by the wayside, much the way grass surface and red clay tracks have disappeared in Europe. Also, you could probably subract ten seconds from a 2 mile time achieved on a cinder track compared to what is possible on the modern surfaces ! Kind regards, Marc-Antoine