A Penguin’s Guide to Long Distance Running

I am not a jock. It isn’t so much physical as mental. You have to care to be good at sports and I find other things more challenging.

Part of this evolved from a lack of enthusiasm for sports on the home front. There was little vicarious parental drive to see me excel on the playing field.

Being as blind as a bat didn’t help much either. Like most young people, I was not excited about wearing glasses. When Mrs. Wells, the school nurse, came to class with her eye charts, I would memorize the lines and then breeze through the test. As for class work, I sat close to the black board and squinted a lot.

While I got away with this in the classroom, it became a serious hazard on the Little League field.

I remember going out for the team in Diamond Springs. All of my friends played. Social pressure suggested it was the thing to do. Nervously, I showed up on opening day and faced the usual chaos of parents signing up their stars, balls flying everywhere, coaches yelling, and kids running in a dozen different directions.

“Okay, Curtis,” the Coach instructed, “let’s see how you handle this fly.”

Crack! I heard him hit the ball. Fine, except where was it? The ball had disappeared. Conk. It magically reappeared out of nowhere, bounced off my glove and hit me on the head.

“What’s the matter? Can’t you see?” the Coach yelled helpfully. “Let’s try it again.”

My Little League Career was short-lived. I went back to carrying out my inventory of the number of skunks that lived in the Woods.

This didn’t mean I was hopeless at sports. In the seventh grade I finally obtained glasses and discovered the miracle of vision; trees had leaves, billboards were pushing drugs and the kid waving at me across the street was flipping me off. I could even see baseballs. It was time to become a sports hero.

It says something about your future in sports when your career peaks in the eighth grade. Thanks to Mrs. Young kicking me out of the first grade I was slightly older than my classmate and, thanks to genetics, slightly bigger.

More importantly, I had mastered the art of leadership: make noise, appear confident and charge the enemy.

As a result I became quarterback and captain of the football team, center and captain of the basketball team and pitcher and captain of the softball team.

Unfortunately, such glory was not transferred to El Dorado Union High School in Placerville. I blew it. Any red-blooded American male knows that you have to go out for football to become a high school sports hero.

There’s some glory in basketball and a little in baseball, but other sports are pretty much on the level of “Oh I didn’t know you did that.” What did I do? I went out for the cross-country team. Now if you are really, really good at cross-country, like best in the state, you might get an occasional story in the school paper.

But say you are the quarterback of the football team and you throw the winning pass in the annual game against your major out-of-town rivals. You are immortalized. You get the front page of the school paper and major coverage on the sports page of the community paper. As for the babes, they come out of the woodwork.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the best runner in the state, or in the community, or in the school, or the freshman class for that matter. In fact, I am not really built for running. My friends sometimes describe me as penguin-like. I have the upper body of a six-foot-six basketball player and the lower body of a five-foot-five VW bug racer.

It was only excessive stubbornness that usually found me somewhere near the middle of the pack in my cross-country races. It certainly wasn’t a love of running. There was to be no glory in the sport for me, and certainly no babes. But a lot of character building took place. Great.

By my sophomore year I decided I would have more fun playing football, but it was too late. I didn’t eat, dream and sleep football. I lacked the necessary motivation to smash my way to the top. I would come to practice after a long day of work in the fruit orchards where I had put in nine hours of hard, physical labor.

The first thing I did was don miscellaneous body pads that were still slimy with yesterday’s sweat and smelled like week-old dead fish. By then the coach would be yelling at us to hurry up and get out of the locker room and on to the field.

I decided there must be a high correlation between football practice and boot camp including push ups, wind sprints, humiliation and more push-ups, everything it takes to turn a wild bunch of undisciplined young men into an organized group of would-be heroes eager to go out and win one for the Gipper.

The hard work was okay, even fun, but I was highly allergic to being yelled at. I still am. My rapidly waning enthusiasm took a sky dive leap when the coach decided my position would be second-string left guard.

Now don’t get me wrong, guards and tackles are critically important to the success of a team and I confess that smashing into opponents and sacking the quarterback resembled fun. Where else could I practice physically aggressive behavior and be applauded? Even second-string made sense. The other kids had played freshman football and earned their places.

But I lacked the psychological orientation for being second string and had something else in mind in terms of position. I envisioned myself charging down the sidelines with the people in the stands on their feet cheering wildly.

I dutifully put in my time, finished out the year and decided to forgo a career in sports. I am glad I played. I gained new friends and new experiences, both valuable. But I can’t say I learned anything of great significance. What I recall from the season was there was little ‘thrill of victory’ and lots of ‘agony of defeat.’ We were not a team destined for glory.

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