Thursday, May 24, 2007

Barefoot Runner

It’s time for another runner’s tale.

It was the early summer of 1980. I was but 22 years old and impatiently waiting to get into the Air Force. During the 7 months it took me to transfer between the Marines and the Air Force I lived with my parents in our home on Beyer Road in Birch Run, Michigan. My wife and baby daughter were visiting family in the Philippines and I was missing them. They had been away for weeks.

To while away the days as I looked forward to my family’s return, I ran the rural roads of the area, feeling nervous about my forthcoming transition to my new service branch. My weight was down to less than 130 lbs, but I was feeling pretty good. I was lean and mean, and in pretty good running shape.

I don’t know if they still do it, but the old hometown used to have a homecoming celebration every year at the Buster Brown Memorial Park just up Beyer Rd from our house. Unfortunately, the park doesn’t exist on that site any longer. Now, that area and much of the fields and woods around it are no more, covered completely with concrete and hundreds of outlet stores. Truthfully, I hate it. As far as I’m concerned, Birch Run sold its soul for a buck. For me, it’s no longer my home; I don’t know the place anymore.

But back then the park was still just a large grassy area with some playground equipment. It also had a double wooden pavilion on a concrete slab, a pair of tennis courts and a couple of softball fields. Its parking lot was nothing but a square of blacktop and a whole lot of dusty gravel. They had advertised for weeks all the fun and competitive things that were going to happen at that year’s homecoming (actually, my brother informs me that it must have been the 4th of July); good clean family stuff like horseshoes, tennis, softball, and a foot race. I thought the race would be fun to try, so in preparation I mixed in a little speed work with my distance runs, but nothing special.

Most of my family showed up early that sunny Saturday morning so they could see me run. My dad had worked the nightshift at Saginaw Steering Gear during the four years I had competed in high school in the early 70s so this was one of the only opportunities he ever had to see me race. Actually, I’m pretty sure he had missed everyone of my track and cross-country meets. The fact that he was there I thought was pretty neat. It kind of felt like it used to when my parents came to see my all my little league games back in the 60s.

I signed up at a folding table and noticed that I seemed to be the only adult meaning to run. Most of the other racers were just kids—girls and boys aged 10 and up. One older teenage boy with a shock of blond hair caught my eye because he was warming up barefooted. I wandered over in his direction and listened to him talk to some other interested bystanders. He was 16-years-old and was bragging that he had trained for months without shoes; and according to him, the soles of his feet were as tough as leather. Just the same, I had a hard time believing that he would be able to run like that for long, since Beyer Rd was not a smooth blacktop, but pebbly surfaced asphalt. I was sure his feet were going to rip to shreds. His braggadocio rubbed me the wrong way. I was going to have to do something about that.

The organizers called us all out to the road to get the race started. I lined up behind the passel of excited kids and that young blonde-headed barefoot fellow. I was completely unconcerned with my so-called competition—in a word, I was overconfident. When the starter’s pistol went off I even lingered a few seconds to let the little mob of racers take off at what I knew was an unsustainable sprint. In no time at all, they were strung out in a line of 20 or so struggling “amateurs,” as I thought of them. I did notice however, that Mr. Barefoot was way out front—he was a good 60 or 70 yards ahead of me by the time I started to actually race. Seeing him so far out in front I figured it was time to get serious.

A mile—that’s all the race was supposed to be, so I knew I’d better start reeling in some people, especially Mr. Barefoot. Less than 100 yards into it and I had passed all the others but one—Mr. Barefoot. I concentrated on quickening my pace, and slowly but surely, I pulled him back to me. By the way, that’s runner’s talk for “I caught up to him.”

The turn around point was at a little bridge just past the Baylor’s house, which was the very next house after ours. Sheriff Cramer, driving the town’s cop car, was down there waiting for us. You know, I think he might still be “the top cop” in Birch Run even until today. If so, he must be in his 70’s by now. Or maybe they passed the position on to his progeny, kind of like the royals do with the succession of their crown.

I was only 20 or so yards behind the running barefoot boy when he made the turn just past the bridge. I studied him closely as we approached each other. I took some satisfaction in seeing that he was mincing along on what looked to be very sore feet. I smiled at him and waved, making sure to show him absolutely no fatigue, no weakness. In truth, I was beginning to feel a little pain myself, but I wasn’t going to show him that. My plan was to defeat his confidence before soundly beating him to the finish line.

I made the turn at Sheriff Cramer’s car and kicked my pace up a smidge to catch Barefoot Blondie. I was at his side by the time we passed my house about 100 yards from the bridge. For a moment, I stayed just behind him on his right shoulder and observed him. I was correct about his feet; he was stepping on them pretty gingerly. Still, I was amazed that he was able to continue running on them. He was in pain and it was affecting his gait—he was definitely slowing down. I thought I’d try to get into his head a little before crushing him physically.

“How you doing buddy?” I asked him without a trace of effort in my voice.

“Terrible!” he gasped.

“Oh really? …Good.” I smirked and took off in front of him in a spurt of speed.

“What!” I heard him say in an exhalation of outrage. At the same time, I heard his feet pick up his pace as he too kicked up his speed a notch. I cringed just listening to the fleshy padding sound that his unprotected soles made against the rough asphalt. Now, it was his turn to run just behind my right shoulder. I began to think that this kid was the real deal. He was showing a lot of moxie.

We practically sprinted as we passed the Stainforth’s place and then the Totten’s. Back then, a large block of woods several hundred yards long still existed from there up to a modest cabinet factory. We battled along back and forth along that wooded stretch right up to a little strip motel called the Cardinal Inn just after the little factory. After that, we were back to the edge of the park.

A wide sweeping curve in the road formed the northwest corner of the park; as we approached it I could hear the spectators start to shout encouragement at the two of us. Upon hearing them, Barefoot Boy made his move to go around me. I could hear his family and friends well over my own family members, and the juvenile egomaniac striving to pass me was obviously receiving inspiration from his enthusiastic vocal support. Damn it!

By then, both of us were breathing raggedly. He came abreast and I merely pumped my arms faster to stay slightly ahead. I had learned long before that the legs follow the arms. He was unable to get past me—I wouldn’t let him. I thought for sure he would start to cave, but no, he continued his charge.

As we came through the broad bend and into the last 150 yards into the homestretch I found another gear and kicked into it. Unbelievably, the kid sped up right along with me. By this time the onlookers were screaming at us. It was a blur of sound that worked to drive the two of us into new levels of effort. If I hadn’t been racing him, I would have been very impressed with the kid. Thing is, you can't beat someone while feeling "impressed" with them. I began to realize that I shouldn’t have taunted him. This young fellow was tough! Still, I knew down in my guts that I WOULD beat him.

The finish line was more than halfway to the top of a man made upgrade in the road that ultimately led to the I-75 overpass. As we got to the bottom of that hill we were side-by-side and panting like steam powered locomotives. The finish was the entrance to the park up the hill and to the left. It was going to make for a very awkward race conclusion, but all I could think of was getting there first. Mr. Barefoot, to his credit, had the exact same thing on his mind.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, I was slightly ahead of him. To my surprise he was able to find the energy to surge ahead of me. I was shocked and enraged. With only 15 yards to go I forced my feet to almost double in turnover, again by using my arms. For that last 10 yards I ran as fast as I EVER have in my entire life, before or since. I flashed past the kid, bolted to the left and across the finish just 3 or 4 feet ahead of my fierce competitor.

Improbably, that little so-called fun-run turned out to be the most aggressive race I’ve ever run.

After the race notes:

While I was bent over holding my shorts at the knees I was amused to hear Barefoot Boy’s mom complain bitterly that I should not have been allowed to compete in the race against her "little boy" (He was actually physically bigger than me.) It reminded me of my little league days when my own parents became incensed because of an over-sized 12-year-old player, a catcher, on the other team. Parents WILL do and say those things I realized. I shook my head and smiled at their sour grapes.

Once I could speak normally again, I went over to the kid and shook his hand. His feet were hamburger. How he raced so strongly like that I have no idea. I told him that he might well have beaten me if he had worn running shoes.

Life is a funny thing. That was a mere pickup race, a throwaway run, and yet it turned out to be one of the defining memories of my racing career—and all because some young showoff was determined to win a little race in front of his family. Sorry, but I couldn’t let that happen, not with my own family watching!

I’m sure we both learned something from our experience—overconfidence (not curiosity) can kill the cat.


Kevin said...

Great story. The first year they had that race, I went and ran. Louis Dodak was the only adult that year (I was in high school)and he was using it as a photo-op. He was the Democratic Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives for a time, and thought of himself as a pretty good runner.

Until I read your story, I hadn't realized how much both of us were disciples of the late-great Steve Prefontaine.

Dodak thought he would win the race, and get a picture of himself crossing the finish line as the winner. I let him lead until the last 100 yards, then just sailed by him. No taunting, but he wasn't gonna win. I'm pretty sure he was a little ticked that I blew by him like that. I think he actually inferred that had he known, he would have run a faster race and been able to hold me off at the end. I think I laughed and walked away at that point. Not only was not as fast, he knew nothing about tactics either. I was such a smart-ass when I was 18.

Amadeo said...

Phil, an exciting account. I guess the Spear family was into running from the comment above.

Re outlets in Birch Run, I do recall mentioning that we stopped by it during our last trip to Michigan to visit my brother. And shopped in one of those huge strip malls.

My "peak" weight was about 130lbs and I am only 5'8". So you must have been one lanky dude in your 20's. Now, even with regular jogging I still tip close to 160lbs.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Kev, I am aware somewhat of Steve Pre's life story, having read some articles and watched the movie, but in what way was he our "guru?" You talking about his race tactics? He was a hard ass wasn't he?

Let's see you were 18 in '79, so you won the race the year before I did. I guess we kept it in the family for two straight years and both had a little tale to tell afterwards. Pretty cool.

My own tactics that day were based on me thinking the kid's feet were all done. All I managed to do was fire him up and turn it into a real race. But, it was a hell of a finish. The best I've ever been involved with, thanks to that kid!

PhilippinesPhil said...

Amadeo, I'm also 5'8" and at my lightest as an adult I was down to 122lbs for a while in Germany in '81. Funny, it was during that month in Germany that I raced my brother, Kev, twice doing roadraces sponsored by our Air Force bases. I was on temporary duty at Ramstein Air Base and he was stationed at the Air Force Hospital in Frankfurt. He kicked my ass the first race and I kicked his during the second. We were both very good runners back then. You wouldn't know it to see us today!

Ed said...

Excellent story. The barefooted kid reminded me of the local amish who run around barefooted on our gravel road all the time. I can barely stand to walk really slow across it.

I also used to play in a sand volleyball league and the first couple games were always brutal until the feet toughened up.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Ed, no matter how toughened the human foot becomes it is not designed to run for long on concrete and asphalt. Unless you're Abebe Bikila, the barefoot African Olympic marathon winner in 1960 in Rome; now that man was just a sheer running animal. And in '64, he repeated as Olympic marathon champ just 40 days after having an appendectomy! Incredible. And always barefoot. He was THE man!

Amadeo said...


I seem to be following your footsteps in places where you have been.

I also have been in Germany because my son-in-law was in the service. Though we must have passed through Ramstein, we actually stayed for a week or so on government housing in Heidelberg.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Yup, spent some time in Heidelberg doing tourist stuff. Nice place for that. Ultimately, its a small world, eh?