Game, Set and MATCH!
Can you think back to that exact moment when you “peaked” at something? I’m at the point where I know that there are things that I will never do as well as I once could. I realize I’m leaving myself completely open to ridicule on that little observation, namely from my good pal, “Mick” Healy, but I’ll risk it. I can take his “good natured” jibes …I guess (sniff, sob, and shudder).
Physically, I’m now a wreck, but I wasn’t always the fat, hurt’n “has-been” I am now. Early in 1982, I was a couple months into my second year with the 4th Component Repair Squadron, or CRS, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. Back then, I was as yet more marine than airman, but still, I was enjoying the "kinder-and-gentler" culture I found in the Air Force. Marines pride themselves on operating in an atmosphere of tension, or as we used to call it, “hate-and-discontent;” I didn’t miss that rubbish in the least. The new spirit of cordiality I found myself ensconced in was quite refreshing. I was glad to be in the Air Force where people were just plain NICE. Just the same, I maintained a regimen of running and exercise similar to what I had practiced in the Corps. Some habits are had to break.
One day in early March, the commander of the squadron, I think his name was Lieutenant Colonel Sams, came into my section, the Instrument/Autopilot Shop.
“Where’s Spear?” I heard him ask. I was checking out a bombing component for an F‑4E Phantom on one of our benches. The shop chief brought him over and I settled into a position of attention as he approached, even though I didn’t have to in an electronics shop. “Good morning Sir!” I greeted him marine style.
“At ease; relax; please!” Hardly pausing, he continued, “Sergeant Spear, I have a job for you!”
Unconsciously, I snapped back into attention, “Yes Sir!”
The colonel grinned and crossed his arms, “Phil, is it?” He went on, “The commander of AGS has just challenged CRS to a duel. He says his runners can beat our runners in the 5K race coming up this May. He bet me a case of beer on it. I’m told that YOU are my best runner, so I want YOU to put together a team for CRS and kick AGS’ ass. Is that understood?”
Still at attention, I practically shouted, “Aye Aye Sir!”
“Very good. Don’t let me down Spear; I’m counting on you! If I have to buy a case of beer for that AGS prick I’m gonna come looking for you. Is that understood?”
No sooner did he leave then I started to think about who else in the squadron might help me to successfully follow his orders. AGS, which stands for Aircraft Generation Squadron, was a much larger organization. They had several hundreds of people compared to our paltry little unit. They outnumbered us by at least three or four to one. I needed to come up with four other runners to meet the minimum requirements for a team. There was only one other fellow who approached my own level as a runner; he was originally from Egypt, and he had run in college, or so he said. The other three were “sometime runners,” and not all that good. I had about two months to whip my guys into the best running shape possible, including me.
I worked hard at getting into racing shape. I became obsessed with doing my very best in accomplishing what I assumed was a valid order from my commanding officer. I took it all very seriously, and I began to daily badger my teammates, making sure that they also trained. Our schedules never allowed all of us to run together as a team, so I did my best to get two or three of us out on the road as teammates every other day or so. As far as my own preparation, I worked harder on my running prowess than I had ever before done in all my 24 years.
My training regimen was fairly simple—the best plans usually are. It consisted of a four-day cycle:
Day one—interval training, including speed work and recovery jogging covering five or six miles total;
Day two—medium distance running of no more than four to six miles;
Day three—LSD or Long Slow Distance of between six and twelve miles, and finally
Day four—jogging, usually no more than three or four miles to give my body a chance to rest and restore.
The days passed quickly. I approached the best physical condition that I had ever been in. I shed five pounds, getting down to a “speedy” weight of 132 lbs. As my high school track coach, Mr. Peters, used to tell us, “The hungry horse runs the fastest.” And I WAS hungry; I was hungry to win. I knew I was ready, but I worried continuously about the race. It was a team competition, and I knew the AGS runners greatly outmatched my poor little running team.
Less than two weeks from race day, an older gray-headed AGS second lieutenant, a grizzled former enlisted man and now an aircraft maintenance officer, was in our section on business. I greeted him respectfully, mindful of his rank; and knowing that he was on the AGS team, I queried him, “How’s the training coming Sir? You ready for the race?”
He responded smugly, “I can tell you this—WE are going to destroy CRS. You guys don’t have a chance. We got some real horses on our team, some stallions!” He couldn’t contain an arrogant smirk as he said it.
For a moment I lost my bearing, and answered him almost insubordinately, “All right buddy, we’ll see! I can tell you this though,” almost poking him in the chest as I took three steps toward him, “no matter which squadron wins, I guarantee that I will kick YOUR ass…….!” I nearly forgot whom I was speaking to and only just remembered to finish my declaration with an obligatory, “……SIR!”
A week before the race, I was training in a park outside of the base that was laced with several miles of soft dirt trails. I had planned on a simple day of easy distance running, but I couldn’t hold back. I decided to throw in a two-mile spurt at a ¾ rate of full-speed. Mind you, full-speed is as fast as one can run—it’s sprinting. I began to run faster and faster yet, and it seemed as if I could NOT get tired. I finished the last mile quicker than I had started the first. It felt completely effortless and I KNEW and felt that I was ready! I wanted nothing more than to race—the sooner the better.
Race day. It was a warm, sunny Saturday morning. I got up early and ate a light breakfast. With my wife and three small children, we drove to the base gym in our white 1975 AMC Pacer. The area was filled with scores of cars and even some buses. One bus was from the army base some 50 or so miles south of us, it had carried in several dozen troopers from Fort Bragg. Some of them were Special Forces guys and they looked like they were in pretty good shape, but I didn’t care about them. My mind was only on AGS and how badly I wanted to beat them—NO—humiliate them!
With butterflies in my stomach I got in line at the sign-in tables. One of the tables was set up for teams; and I signed in under CRS. I was pleased to see that all of my teammates had already showed up and were signed in. The attendant minding the table was a captain who worked at the base hospital, a fellow runner; he knew me, and OF me. He greeted me declaring loudly with a huge grin, “THERE’s our winner!” This caused every runner in earshot to look at me and size me up from top to bottom.
I looked up, shook my head, and with a wry smile mentally grumbled at the captain for “hexing” me. I would rather have heard “break a leg!” Swallowing my superstition, I managed to maintain a half smile, took my number from him and went looking for my team. I spotted Wendy Burke, my supervisor and a fellow CRS runner. She was with the other CRS guys near the start line getting ready to run. She was calm and jovial, but she was also upset. She told me why.
“Can you believe Colonel Sams is NOT here? He didn’t show up because he thinks we are going to get beat by AGS! Son of a bitch!” Wendy said through clamped teeth trying to disguise her resentment with a smile. She continued shaking head in angry disbelief.
“Never mind him,” I told her and the others. “Let’s run the best we’ve ever run today. Did you know that the winning team will be based on aggregate time and NOT on places? That means if our times add up to a lower total than AGS’s, WE win. We can do this guys! Let’s get loose and get our heads into this race. No matter what, don’t give up. Make every second count, okay? We all quietly shook hands and wished each other good luck. I called over my shoulder, “See you at the finish folks!”
With that, I left them alone and concentrated on getting ready. After stretching my hips, hamstrings and Achilles, I jogged slowly for about a quarter mile, interspersed with a few spates of short sprints. As I warmed up, I spotted the AGS team; they were hard to miss. The AGS commander was one of the runners, and he had bought his team “uniforms.” They were all wearing the same color shorts and t-shirt—bright red. I felt like a bull in a ring, and the sight of those red AGS pukes made me rage like a bull. Actually, they looked impressive. As the lieutenant had said, they were “horses.” They looked well-trained, long-legged, and ready to run. And THERE was the lieutenant too, dressed in the same red uniform. Our eyes met and I spat in his direction in spite of myself. I was feeling pure hatred—and it was GOOD!
With just a minute or two before start, I made my way to the mass of nervous fidgeting runners at the starting line. You could almost smell the adrenaline and dread. I loved it! I pushed to the front of the throng, feeling very aggressive and unapologetic about it. Anyway, no one complained, so no harm—no foul. The starter yelled at us through a bullhorn, “Runners! Standby! I will say ‘Ready, Get Set,’ and then I will fire the pistol. I will do this in 15 seconds.” He looked down at his watch, and then looking up, he raised his starter's pistol in one hand, his bullhorn in the other and spoke, “Runners! Ready, Get Set…”
I took off like I was fired from a cannon. For about 100 yards I was sprinting in a small group of ten other runners, then six, then two, and then, it was only me. Finding myself at the front, and so quickly, was totally startling and unexpected. I began to doubt the wisdom of my current lightening speed when I realized I was at almost a full sprint. Behind me, I heard one of the runners counseling another, “Don’t worry, he’ll come back to us.” I threw him a mental rejoinder, not wanting to waste my breath on spoken words, ‘Kiss my ass!’
Now that I had the lead, after a very fast first ¼ mile of the total of 3.1 miles, I got my head into my work and began to settle down. It’s important to think about what you’re doing in any footrace, and the longer the distance is, the more important having a strategy becomes. I slowed my speed down to ¾ and took stock of my body. I was breathing fast and deep, but nothing hurt and I still felt strong. My confidence held steady and that was encouraging. Once a runner stops believing, it’s all over.
The course turned right and left and right again, but I wasn’t too worried about following the course. There were plenty of volunteer race marshals to point the way and to shout encouragement. I made a right onto a long straightaway that ran eastward the length of the base golf course, straight towards the flight line almost a mile away. This long course leg undulated over a series of fairly steep hills; and hills like these can make or break a racer. It was on this road that a marshal began yelling my time at me as I approached his position at the one-mile mark: “4:48, 4:49, 4:50!” ‘Hmmm,’ I thought, ‘that’s pretty fast!’
Hills. I was on the hilly part of the race route and that required that I “kick” my concentration into the next gear. The trick to racing over hills is to use them to your advantage going down, and to work hard to maintain pace and momentum going up. Easier said than done, but winners know how to run hills. I’d learned in California how to let my legs go into huge ground-eating strides running down steep hillsides and roads. Even more importantly, I had developed the discipline and technique required to keep my pace fast going back UP the damned things. My method is to keep my eyes down, about 5 to 10 feet on the running surface to my front, so that I can’t see the actual grade of the incline. Then once I am up and over, I raise my focus back up to normal and simply let my legs fly out behind me as I increase stride down slope, always making sure not to over stride. No matter what, the first rule in running is ALWAYS keep your feet UNDER you when they hit the ground. Anyplace else is inefficient and slows you down.
Halfway through the long stretch along the golf course, a buddy from my shop stood at the top of one of the hills and yelled his support to me: “Come on man! Looking good! Keep it up! Go! Go! Go!” It was nice to see him there, but it also irritated me. Inexplicably, I was feeling grumpy with him, so I took off my shirt and threw it at his head. He laughed and caught it good-naturedly, “Go man, go! They are RIGHT behind you! …and thanks for shirt!”
‘Damn! Was there really someone right behind me?’ His remark did the trick. I didn’t want to know if there was a runner back there or not. I simply assumed that someone was on my tail and I found the determination to kick it back up into overdrive. I was VERY uncomfortable now, my breathing was deep, fast and loud, and I could feel the oxygen debt building up in my legs and arms. Even so, I would ONLY allow myself to think of one thing, ‘SPEED, MORE SPEED!’ Winning was NOT enough. I had to win with a time as quick as possible. I pushed against the pain with my mind, as my body began to protest. I was at war with myself.
Then, it was time to make a right turn, to the south, along the flight line. Just ahead was another timer at the two-mile mark, and I pushed my pace back up again by pumping my arms faster and higher. He began yelling, “9:48, 9:49, 9:50! Good job man! Go! Go!” I was amazed at my time, considering the hills I had just passed over. Imagining there was someone just behind me, I continued to press ahead, always trying to find a way to increase my tempo. Now that there were no more hills to speak of, it was working. I WAS going faster. I felt pretty damned good! NOT!
Now I was into the second longest leg of the race, it was fairly flat, but I was quickly losing focus. At that point, I was simply trying to maintain foot speed and it was a constant battle. I must have gone into a sort of trance, because before I knew it the 3-mile timekeeper came into view. I struggled to hear him over the raspy roar of my breathing, “14:57, 14:58, 14:59, 15 MINUTES!” I found I had no real interest in what that meant anymore.
Next thing I knew there was a boy in the road just ahead of me, almost in my running path, offering me a cup of water. I had no time, and certainly no inclination, to adjust my direction and my right arm took him out. He fell backwards over the curb. I remember thinking through a fog, ‘I’ll feel bad about that LATER! The little IDIOT!’ Then there was the turn right heading west. It took all my concentration to take the turn as sharply as possible and still maintain momentum. Damn, I was fading.
The last turn left was “almost” easy, because I was on the right side of the road and could make a sweeping “farmer’s turn” into the final stretch. The finish line was only about 200 yards away down that last leg—I could see it! I put my head down, pumped my arms, and SPRINTED! Through the fog of pain and over the hoarse groans of my breath I could hear my wife, “Look, there’s daddy!” I looked up and through sweat and tears I could see my kids, Marie and Josh, jumping up and down near their mom, yelling: “Daddy, Daddy!” I would have felt exultant and satisfied if I hadn’t been so used up. I staggered through the finish line. I could barely grab the Popsicle stick with a number “1” marked prominently on one end from the race official who thrust it at me. “How fast…pant, pant, was, pant, my time?” I gasped.
“16:12!” I heard. ‘Wow! Personal best. Good time for it,’ I thought. I walked around in little circles for a minute until I got my normal breathing back, and started to return to the here-and-now just in time to see the second-place runner turn the corner. I was happy to see he wasn’t wearing red! I had beaten the runner-up by more than a full minute. The first AGS runner didn’t show up until well into the 18-minute range. I had beaten the first AGS puke by MORE than 3 minutes! Then the rest of the runners started coming in, finishing as a streaming horde, and so I lost track of who finished at what time in what place.
Most of the AGS runners, in their cute little red outfits, finished ahead of most of my group; but my guys gave it their best. The Egyptian fellow finished in the 18-minute range and the other three in 21 minutes and more. As each of us came in and recovered, we ran out, and as a group we yelled in the rest of our teammates, until we were all across the line.
I swigged a Gatorade, glanced around and saw the AGS colonel over at the scorer’s table. He did NOT look happy. His hands were on his hips and he was shaking his head in disbelief. My heart soared as I realized that I had done it! NO, WE had done it! I nudged Wendy, pointing at the crestfallen AGS commander, and she pumped her fist and went over to confirm our victory. She came back beaming, “We beat AGS by a FULL minute!” We high-fived, shook hands and joyously congratulated each other. As one, we got the AGS colonel’s attention and waved cheerily at him. He shook his head angrily and turned away. We couldn’t have asked for a better reaction—priceless!
The trophy award ceremony came next, and we grinned like Cheshire Cats as we accepted the team trophy. Then my teammates, squadron members, friends and family cheered me as I was awarded the first place individual trophy. Sweet!
After the awards, Wendy could not contain her anger at our commander. She got us together and she made us all agree to caravan over to his house. He lived just a short distance away over in base housing. At his house we piled out of our cars, and some twenty of us gathered in his carport as Wendy banged on his screen door. His wife answered and Wendy sweetly asked her to fetch her husband. He finally showed up and we enjoyed seeing another very embarrassed colonel as Wendy presented him with OUR team trophy. Ashamed of himself, he retreated into his home again and came back out with the ice-cold case of beer he had already purchased for the “AGS prick.”
Wendy said what we were all thinking, “Next time have some faith in your people sir.” She continued to scold him; “We did this for you sir. You should have been there!” Not normally at a loss for words, he certainly was then. Served the SOB right!
The next time I saw Colonel Sams was when he came in to congratulate us at the shop. All of his runners, actually MY runners, were gathered together at the CRS trophy case for the installation of the new 1st place trophy. He told us the story of what happened when he confronted his chagrined AGS counterpart. Colonel Sams described the conversation: “The first thing he said when he saw me was, “Who in the hell is Spear?” I just told him, “Oh, that’s my secret weapon, an ex-marine. Every squadron should have one colonel!” We all got a good laugh out of that, and I could feel myself pumped up to about twice my normal size!
My final bit of sweet revenge (and most revenge IS sweet, isn’t it?) came the very next weekend after the race. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was out for a run. I made my way off the base through the side gate, and there in front of me, no more than a hundred yards ahead, was none other than the “AGS prick” and his “lapdog,” the grizzled old second lieutenant. ‘No way!’ I thought. ‘Thank you God for delivering them both to me at once!’ I kicked my speed up a couple notches and soon caught up to them.
“Hello gentlemen! Nice day for a jog.” I said jauntily startling them. I pulled up next to the colonel slowing down to his pace. In his grumpy grudging way, he tried to be gracious and offered a bit of congratulations on my fine run during the race. I thanked him, but then I went for the gold, unable to contain myself. I said to his gray-headed companion, “Lieutenant, I want to thank you for motivating me to run the fastest 5K in my entire life!”
“What? What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, that day when you said AGS was going to kick CRS' ass, that’s all I needed to pump me up to the point that I was NOT going to give you the satisfaction,” I chortled.
“What are you talking about? No… I…” he never finished his denial, at least not that I could hear.
I interrupted him: “Well gents, got to go. Nice talking to you!” At that, I kicked up my speed to a sprint, leaving them in my dusty wake, made a sharp turn and vaulted over a 6-foot wide ditch and onto a dirt road that angled away into some woods. I glanced over my shoulder and saw them staring after me. I could see that the lieutenant was in the midst of trying to explain what had REALLY happened to his arrogant boss. Ha! Game, Set, and MATCH!