The Run On Staff Recount Our First Races
Hi! We're the staff of The Run On, and as a way for you to get to know us, we're sharing #tbt stories from the first times we laced 'em up to race.
Jump to a story:
Gordon Bakoulis: Tube Socks, Bandanas, Short-Shorts, and Way Too Much Cotton
Hollis Templeton: Jumping the Gun... By Five Months
Ted Doyle: There's No Wrong Way to Run a 5K. Having Said That...
Have a retro running story you'd like to share? Leave it in a comment below.
In the mid-1970s, the first running boom was sweeping the country. My dad—middle-aged and newly sober—started “jogging” as a way to strengthen his resolve and shore up his shaky health. At first he ran alone—like his drinking had been, his running started as something clandestine and isolating. Quickly, though, he was drawn to a group of similarly discomfited new runners. Some, like him, were in recovery, while others struggled merely with decrepitude. Running brought them together on a journey toward a brighter future.
They made their Saturday run a habit of unfailing regularity. The course would vary but the ritual was the same: gather, chat, stretch, complain, argue about the route, finally set off on an out-and-back course to allow for individual variations of pace and distance, and reunite for a diner breakfast with plenty of coffee (and in the early days, cigarettes). Here they are in a photo from the late 1970s, complete with tube socks, bandanas, short-shorts, and way too much cotton.
I took up running in 1978 to stay in shape between field hockey (fall) and lacrosse (spring) seasons, and ran most weekday mornings from November through March, at which point I ditched lacrosse for spring track. A bond grew between me and my dad’s running group. I’d join their Saturday runs during my college breaks, and later, when I moved back to the northeast, I’d return to my hometown to run road races with them—tiny events where everyone knew everyone else and you got a popsicle stick at the finish to note your place. I’m grateful for those early, gentle forays into the sport, and for the memories of the fun, friendship, and camaraderie we shared.
In May 2011, I was already nervous about a 5K I’d committed myself to running in October of that year.
I was 25 and I’d never run three miles all at once. Aside from playing field hockey for a couple of years in high school—because I needed to look well-rounded on my college apps—I was not an athletic kid. My parents pushed me into art and orchestra and an internship at a local law office. But once I had finished grad school and settled into my first Real Job as a Real Adult, I needed a new challenge, and I thought running could be it.
So began an after-work routine of aimless run-walking around Allentown, PA. This isn’t me. I look like an idiot, I thought. How do people do this for more than a mile at a time?
On a random Friday night in May, after a day of editor-inflicted work stress and an argument with my long-distance boyfriend, I signed up for a small 5K (21 finishers, to be exact) that was taking place in a neighboring town the next morning. I didn’t tell anyone.
I arrived at a park in Center Valley, PA, super early and nervously tied and untied my shoes probably 50 times—too tight, too loose, too tight—as I waited for the race to start. It was raining. I should have stretched. I spotted a girl from my gym who I’d sometimes jog next to on the treadmill. Oh god, she probably thinks I’m stalking her, I thought.
When the race started, I did all I could to stay ahead of white-haired man who was in last place. Every minute of the 3.1-mile loop was difficult. I was uncomfortable and hot. I could tell my face was beet-red. That girl from the gym was probably laughing at me. But I finished. It took me a little over 32 minutes. I came in next to last and placed in my age group entirely by default. (Gym girl won the race, and in the coming weeks I’d learn she was actually a super-nice person.) Afterward, I was exhausted and sore the rest of the day.
That was six years ago, and I haven’t stopped running since. I’m still slow. It’s still hard. My face still gets red. And I still find the need to prove to myself over and over again that I can complete a race.
While every finish line could be an opportunity to say “Take that!” to the field hockey coach who made me cry or the frat guy who called me fat, it’s never like that. Instead, every finish line forces me to find my next challenge. Last fall, after finishing the TCS New York City Marathon, I signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon and ran it two weeks later.
Now, if we want to get technical about my first individual race from high school, it was a 55-meter dash in January 2004, and I ended up tearing my hip flexor right around the 40-meter mark. The story of that race is not particularly fun, so, let’s move on to my first distance race!
The year was…also 2004, and the setting was the New Jersey Catholic Track Conference class meet in Warinanco Park. After a few weeks of physical therapy and getting back in time to run outdoor track as a sprinter, I had decided to sign up for my school’s cross country team that fall. (Plus, since in-season athletes at my school were exempt from taking gym, I figured at the least, three-season athlete = three-season extra free period.)
Anyway, I don’t have anything like GPS or heart rate data to share from this race (as I would today), but here’s what I do remember.
I remember being given a jersey that didn’t quite fit right, and despite my best efforts, the off-the-shoulder look is still not a popular one among 15-year-old boys. (See evidence to the right.)
I remember following my older teammates’ advice and getting out fast, because the course had a 150-degree turn around a post about a quarter-mile in—you didn’t want to get caught in a pack and boxed in or tripped up.
I remember soon after that overly aggressive start that I had my first experience with the wall, the rig, the refrigerator-on-your-back; whatever you want to call it, I went out too hard, and my body was telling me to cool my jets, so I did.
A few harder-than-expected miles later, I rounded a turn toward the finish on the park’s track. I stepped onto the track, and, seeing what I thought was the finish line about 60-70 meters up the straightaway, I started my kick. I passed one guy from another school with a few meters to go, crossed the finish line with a lean (as former sprinters do), stopped, and…saw him keep right on going.
Apparently the course called for a full lap of the track.
I don’t think I passed him back, but I did come away from the day with some valuable lessons about what you can do right in a race, and a lot more about what you can do wrong in a race—both equally helpful! A week later, when our team raced the same course again, I finished 19 seconds faster, and I knew for sure where the finish line was that second time around.