Just one more meet for sure unless I do well then, I get to go to New England’s again up in Maine this year. Everything is happening fast I’m a senior I got my drivers license –have to chuckle thinking about that one and now we moved and Dad remarried seems like everything changed and somewhat came together overnight.
Amazed to get that letter from KU and Bob Timmons Jim Ryun’s Coach I mean is he really interested in me? Probably sent the same letter to hundreds of kids anyway I mean I ain’tnothing special. I really got to do something about my hair what a rat’s nest I got here and graduation coming up I’m just gonnasuck it up and get the mop cut off.
I did and it felt good, I felt lighter but the trip to the local barber was torture and I had to listen to the asshole barber make fun of my hair in front of all the old neighborhood barstools and punks.
What the hell am I going to do with myself all I want to do is run myself into the ground geezus there has to be something wrong with me but it’s the only thing that lasts.
“Hey Willy, you with us?” “Yes, sir Mr. Cut, I didn’t quite hear you.” The class laughed and Mr. Cut shook his head. “Willy, you’re a space cadet you need to pay attention in my class.”
Cut was okay but his class was a bore– but at least it was easy and I could do no worse than an average grade good enough and almost over. Just get me outa this place even when it’s good I still don’t feel right feel like the only person in the world standing in one spot and everyone else moving all around me.
I took the bus out to the stadium with the football team since I was the only cross-country runner with any season left. I met up with Coach Wild a real misnomer given how laid back and calm the guy was. He wanted me to start out and run our two-mile road loop “Willy, give it a good effort.”
I had no idea so I ran pretty nearly all out and when I came screaming back in to the stadium parking lot Coach Wild nearly swallowed his pipe. “Willy you just ran a 9:25!” “Well Coach, maybe it’s short.” “Willy, I measured it in my car and it’s a deuce, now trust me on that.”
He then had me run it again and I ran the same exact time. “Willy, you got a shot to win at All-State I only ever had a couple of kids ever run that loop under ten minutes holy friggincow man!” It was a pretty tough loop with a half mile long hill in the middle of it. Probably, and I sensed that I had run the workout way too fast but with my current mindset I really only had one gear and that was run until you nearly drop and then pick it up.
I jogged a few laps on the track and stretched out while watching the footballers go through their paces. “Man, I thought, “football is dumb-umb.” My fiend Chris came over “hey Willy, good luck at States.” “Thanks, good luck in your game, Coach and I should be back from Boston in time for the second half.”
Most of the footballers thought that they were God’s gift but when they had to sit there and applaud my sorry ass as I walked up on stage to collect that athlete of the year award a few years ago and get my photo in the papers ha. The paper had called me the “Sophomore Sensation” and later a group of footballer cretins had driven by me yelling out the window “hey look it’s the sophomore sucksation.”
I had recently been running more miles sometimes doing two runs a day but coach had warned me about doing too much and I was still growing and all that. I respected coach a lot and I knew that he had been a good athlete a middle-distance runner whose close friends called him “feets.” But I figured if I listened to him I would not be looking to win states or would I have been the AOY.
I had been reading about the great runners of the past mainly their biographies because I could relate to them and none of them ever talked about “burn out.” Famed New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard explained that a program too heavily based on interval training on the track as was practiced in the United States was the culprit and not plenty of moderate paced running that built the aerobic house.
The books provided motivation and methodology and I read them over and over again and passed them around to my teammates. I was a student of running I wanted to pursue it doggedly and was willing to exclude things that seemed to interfere. But now high school was coming to an end and college was not at all certain so how would I be a runner then and more importantly why?
It was a lot to think about so I focused on the dream of glory.
Coach gave me a ride home and wanted to talk strategy “now Willy you need to establish good position but don’t…..” His voice trailed off in my head– I had heard it all before ignored it and did what I always do because win or lose you will be tested.
In the morning I walked to the stadium to meet Coach and we drove down to Boston Franklin Park in his car stopping at HoJo’s on the way for coffee. We didn’t talk at all coach knew it was useless to try and converse with me before a race I was in another place.
I did not think about the actual race at all I just let my mind wander off with Joni Mitchells voice trailing in and out the peak fall colors the rapidly clearing sky floating past I was fixin to die a little.
Coach held my racing flats while I warmed up a bit following a ritual ceremony to become the slaughter of the lamb the petard was ticking inside me. Just slip my bare feet into those holy blessed shoes do a sharp stride and BOOM!
I walked the beach barefoot with my pant legs rolled up and a heavy hooded sweatshirt on. I began to jog and immediately felt the tightness in my hamstring conjuring up the Olympic Trials race a spot on the team within my grasp… had to laugh the hand of fate one that got away. As bad as that was at least it was an ending not like that long-ago state meet in cross country at Franklin Park when I was leading the field by fifty yards and ran off course man I have never lived that one down.
Coach was apoplectic, “Willy I told you they changed the course at the end there you pudding head how could you run right past the cones and the kid pointing the way?”
I wasn’t paying attention to coach at practice or in the classroom where he taught Algebra. I wasn’t paying attention to no cones or no kid pointing the way I was possessed channeling Pre, Ryun, Bikila, Halberg, Snell, Clarke all my heroes not to be distracted since I knew that course like the back of my hand until the peckerwoods went and changed it.
I was generally off somewhere else glory be.
I ran some good times that year setting the school records for the mile and two miles but I never did hear anything more from Bob Timmons KU or any other schools so in the end I enrolled at good old State U. just around the corner from my home but because I had done so poorly on the entrance exam I was accepted on a provisional basis.
With the help of a guidance counselor I registered for a bunch of classes I already knew I was going to hate. I got a part time job in a supermarket bagging groceries and on my days off I made trips to the mountains or the beach.
I ran twice a day and one week hit 105 miles total. I also ran some low-key road, cross country and track races where I did well even against the older fellas.
The college scene didn’t interest me much and if it weren’t for running I probably would have just got a job and said the hell with that. I thought the whole college gig was bogus fraternities and all that but the thing is I did love to read and learn especially history and geography anything that could make me feel a sense of place or the world and my place in it.
I sat in that old worn out classroom staring out the window just like high school but beginning to get a grip on myself not so panicky or insecure –one day the world was my oyster next day I was flunking out of college.
I figured I needed a reset all the way back to primordial ooze but college was just some type of security blanket keeping me from my true next steps.
A debutante hobo hood.
Everything seemed to be an indoctrination into something dominated by sycophantic types and I wanted no part of it wanted things to be more on my own terms.
I was having trouble being a student while trying to avoid any and all responsibilities. Running was still keeping me afloat on an even keel because it was the only thing that lasted but I couldn’t play along being the dutiful student athlete forever and I knew it but was in denial.
I was reading “Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis and had just read an essay by Jack Kerouac called “The Vanishing American Hobo” yes, I was reading this not the Economics and Statistics texts I had been assigned.
My elders shook their heads and wagged their fingers at the little subversive some with a look of resignation thinking “Willy will come around, they all do in the end.”
I spent most of the money I had saved on a bus ticket that would take me anywhere in the country and Canada. I told my Dad I was going on a trip for the summer and intimated it had something to do with school so he wouldn’t know the truth that his son was going rogue with no definite plan.
I packed my rucksack and left early in the morning and when the driver called out “The bus to New York City” I had a moment of intense anticipation and a pang of remorse leaving my family with the wrong impression even though it was the only way out.
I was planning to visit a fellow runner an acquaintance who I had raced against a few times and who lived in Brooklyn in a very small apartment. His name was Pete and he was a law clerk attending law school and a very dedicated runner hoping to qualify for the Olympic Trials.
We would train together for a few days and if there was time he would show me a bit of the city. Pete was five years older than me but we were possessed to a similar degree by athletics and slept ate and breathed it. Pete envied me not having a job but was also worried about me bumming it around on my own a rube and rebel without a clue.
So, he set me up with some fellow runners I could contact and get together with in other parts of the country. I marveled at my luck to get this kind of support from my fellow dreamers– runners stuck together.
I ran early in the mornings with Pete usually a ten miler and when he went off to work I went back to sleep on his couch. I bought a few groceries and made simple meals pasta or cans of tuna. Pete had a nice collection of books for me to browse and read and also played guitar as did I and he let me mess around with it.
At night we did another ten or went to a local track to meet up with a group and run some intervals. Back at the apartment we talked athletics and books and Pete gave me lots of practical advice. He hit the hay early and I would read for some time before falling asleep. I ended up staying for a week and was loath to leave. But it was time to go– next stop Denver CO.
I awoke from my dream state on the couch where I had drifted off after my run and in my dream, I was back in that summer of Willy on the bus to Denver where I had awoken in the night to the sight and feel and smell of a dark-haired woman’s head asleep on my shoulder.
I watched her intently wondered should I wake her when she opened her eyes and looked into mine and right through me and she smiled and lay her head back down and I put my arm around her shoulder held her and fell asleep.
What a summer and now just a memory. I got up to make some tea all a part of the little routine I had established retired from full time work puttering around writing and never getting too far with any of it which was okay—just mental exercise at this point with an occasional eureka moment.
I sipped my tea and remembered calling my Dad from California to tell him I was not going back to school that I had essentially flunked out when I stopped attending classes regularly. I told him I was studying running, how to become a better athlete and I was learning from some of the best in the country—visiting with them and training with them.
“Okay son, be careful and stay in touch.” That was all he said.
I went to shower have more tea and toast and sit down to read my rejections from myriad publishers but there was that one who offered helpful suggestions and encouraged me that what I was doing was a worthy pursuit, that was nice.
I wrote for an hour took another nap eager to return to my dreams, had more tea and went for another easy run on the trails.
Luckiest man alive.
Penny and I got off the bus together in Denver. She was travelling light as well with her rucksack but it was unclear where she was heading, she spoke fluent Spanish and struggled with English. I cursed not paying more attention in my two years of Spanish classes in high school. If I had known I would meet a Penny…
From a pay phone I called my contact in Boulder Jack, a fellow runner who I had met once back in Boston. “Willy, if you are ever in Boulder…” Now here I was. I explained about Penny and initially they were not pleased, “Okay Willy, but besides me and Billy here I got a paying guest coming in next week.”
Jack drove down to pick us up and we stopped for provisions on the way. Turned out Jack spoke passable Spanish and Penny said that she wanted to cook a good meal for us. Jack and I split the cost for the food.
It turned out we all loved having Penny around and one day we drove up to Switzerland Trail and she ran with us for several miles and at that point we were all completely smitten with her. I thought about staying in Boulder, “Willy, you could get a job with me at the café and Penny too.”
Penny called her family in California and they insisted she come right away and “leave the gringo behind.” I told her that I wanted to travel with her but in the morning, she was gone. Jack had given her a ride to the station. My first impulse was to go after her and then I found the note she left me.
Adios la amante…
Willy dream sequence
I awoke and fell out of my little bed not quite sure where I was “oh shit ya I’m at the cabin.”
Dreams sequence won’t let me be can’t write fast enough feel like it’s all shit but it don’t matter no more.
I thought about Penny every day all my life even more so now old aged her note lost but burned in my memory how she lifted me made me a better man. All of nineteen I was.
Boulder was brilliant all of sky and mountains a fairy tale land but the reality of my compatriots working eight to ten hours a day as baristas running on a hope and dream while in noble pursuit left me wanting needing to make further discoveries.
Heading to California but first a friendly competition a mountain race nine miles up Pat’s Peak.
It would be a good test against these mountain types a different breed from the usual track road cross country type athlete. These fellas were kamikaze and usually raced both up and down—no thank you.
The trail was good footing starting out not rocky and rutted like others we had run. After a couple of miles of what felt like easy running one runner started to assert himself—Pablo the local legend. I stayed a respectful distance behind him and the rest of the pack fell steadily behind us. I was happy he took it and I felt sure that I could hang with him but it was getting tough and we were only half way up.
There was not hardly anyone on this section of trail and all I could hear were our breathing and footfalls almost in unison. The altitude was having an affect on me playing with me legs rubbery I decided it was time to shake things up and so I came alongside Pablo but he wasn’t letting me pass he put up a fight all the way to the finish we were throwing round house punches at each other and with the finish in sight without saying a word we joined hands and raised our arms in triumph together.
I stopped momentarily not having reckoned how I would get back down I guess only one way and I started my long walk jog down to the trail head as the round trippers steadily passed me I just walked on and enjoyed the views.
California here I come.
Jack and Billy and I bought some cheap beer, hot dogs and veggies for a salad and had a little party my going away the next day. I had never been to California but I did have a contact in Oakland and another in San Diego. A small slice of the running community stopped by to send me off including Pablo my rival on the mountain. I tried to convince him to compete in cross country nationals at least but he just smiled “Willy, I been there done that nothing left there for me. I got my job making deliveries and good thing because I got five kids and another on the way.”
Pablo was 35 years old but he could pass for a teenager. Most of the runners here were serious racers either on their way to the top or heading back down to the bottom. I didn’t meet many “fun runners” though we racers certainly had our share of fun chasing our ultimate potential.
Jack and Billy took me to the bus stop in the morning and I climbed aboard with my rucksack and a shopping bag full of peanut butter sandwiches. The plan was for me to stop back by here on my way back east if things worked out that way hey, that’d be alright.
Figured I would never get lucky enough to meet up with another pretty girl on a bus trip but I was wrong. The bus barely left the station when a young woman sat beside me and introduced herself. “Hi Willy, I work with Jack at the Café he told me to look out for you, my name is Maureen all the guys call me Mo.”
“Oh Wow, Jack never said anything.” Mo smiled, “Ya, I asked him not to wanted to sneak up on you take you by surprise.” Well this really is the summer of Willy then and Mo told me her story heading home to San Francisco for her brother’s wedding. “Hey Willy, how you feel about weddings?” “Fine, long as it’s not mine” “You want to come as my date? I just broke up with my boyfriend.”
“Love to, but I don’t have any threads and no money to buy any.” “My brothers got you covered and you can stay at my parents house with me until I head back after the wedding.”
I told Mo all my hopes and dreams and plans and schemes and it turned out she had many of the same dreams as an athlete she had been a California State Champion in the 1500M. How did this happen to Willy never had a date in high school and meet two beautiful women in just a few weeks.
By the time we hit the state line Mo and I were making out and holding hands and all that good stuff another Greyhound romance, who said bus rides were long and boring?
Mo’s family were wealthy and they lived in an actual mansion on a hill. I felt out of place right from the get go. Her brothers looked at me as if I were some kind of stray their sister picked up on the bus well I guess that’d be right. I went along with things for a few days enjoyed the extravagance, one day I asked Mo, “honey don’t you feel embarrassed?” “Why Willy?” “I mean all this wealth and so many we know going hungry.”
“Willy, my family do a lot of giving but why do you think I am out in Boulder making coffee?”
“I know Mo, you want to make it on your own.”
When everyone was occupied I packed up and snuck out the back door down to the highway and stuck out my thumb. And there she was like a Beach Boy’s vision of California, good blonde in a VW Bug pink convertible with the license plate, BUBBLZ. I threw my rucksack in the back and hopped in, she never even asked where I was heading.
Summer of Willy was now on steroids.
Bub’s was a party girl so when I told her I needed to run ten miles she thought I was joking. “Listen, you can drop me here along this beach bike path I think it follows along the road and I will meet you ten miles from here in one hour.” I left all my stuff with her money too and I ran in nothing but my shorts and shoes. Bub’s didn’t let me down she was parked on the side of the road with a couple of cold Pepsi Cola’s.
Bub’s put on her bikini in the car and we walked to the ocean for a swim and then a long walk on the beach. “You must be some kind of athlete knocking off ten miles like that no sweat.” “I want to be Bub’s I am on a mission to find that out and visiting runners around the country who have been there to the Olympics and such.”
I stayed with Bub’s and her roommate Suzy and we had a great time talking, listening to some far-out surfer music and playing around with a nice Gibson a gift from a former boyfriend. In the mornings they both headed off to work while I slept in until the sun got warm and then went for runs on Mt Tamalpais in the forest and in the evening on the beach.
I wanted to hang there forever but summer was ending and it was almost cross-country season time to get serious. My funds were running low the pile of Travelers checks growing thin horror of horror’s I might have to get a job.
Bub’s dropped me off at the station next stop City of Angels.
I awoke at the cabin remembering last night how I got excited with the writing I was back in LA that summer of Willy about to meet my mentor Jack and the words came in a torrent. I would read them later as was my custom. Awake coffee and a nibble, putter around cleaning then sit and read the local news, poetry a novel.
Okay I’m ready let’s look this over.
I arrived in the LA bus station at midnight after we were delayed due to mechanical issues. I had no desire to stay in LA I was passing through and would catch the next bus to San Diego but first I had to kill about twelve hours. I changed into my running gear in the Men’s room and checked my bag with a clerk who gave me a claim check.
I hit the hard-dark streets of the city at night. It took me a while to get my body going it now being around three o’clock in the morning. I figured to go straight out and back but that wasn’t possible. I was lost until I saw a road sign on the freeway down below me as I ran over a bridge.
I ran down the entrance ramp onto the freeway breakdown lane and almost immediately a California State Trooper pulled over ahead of me. “Son, what are you running out here for are you nuts?” “Sorry sir, I’m lost.” “Let me see some ID.” “Uh, I left at the bus station where I checked my bag.”
“Get in.” And so, I went for a little ride in the police car lights flashing and everythang like I was a major criminal. Once they looked over my ID and listened to my story they calmed down and even gave me a ride to Griffith Park where I promptly fell asleep under a tree after eating some donuts and coffee.
When I awoke I made my way back to the bus station and called Jack from a pay phone. He said he had arranged for someone to pick me up and bring me to his house where I planned to stay for a month and train with his guidance. We had a lot to talk over when I finally got there.
Jack was now in his thirties and married with a young child. He was a coach and a teacher at a Junior College and was continuing to compete at the highest level. He had just run in the World Cross Country Championships in March helping the US Team to a third-place finish.
I was a huge fan of his and had corresponded with him by letter and he had agreed to meet with me and possibly coach me if I came out there but he wanted to meet me in person and discuss things first.
I arrived in San Diego in mid afternoon and Scotty a member of Jacks cross country and track teams picked me up. Scotty was the same age as me and he was nonplussed by my adventures I guess he lived a sheltered life.
When we got to Jack’s place we were welcomed into the kitchen of the well-kept little cottage where Jack his wife Jenn and their young son Tyler were preparing for lunch. I was in awe meeting one of my idols he was wearing a beat-up t shirt was unshaven and had a few grey hairs but looked fit as a stallion.
Jenn wore a t-shirt, running shorts and some little sandals and was a stunner my jaw just dropped and I was embarrassed when Jack noticed and said “That’s okay Willy, everyone has that reaction when they meet my Jenn. You will love her even more when you get to know her a little.” Jenn just smiled and said “You hungry Willy?”
We talked about my running routine over the last six weeks for a bit and I handed over my running log. “Pretty impressive Willy, very consistent even with all the hoboing around.” “You run any races?” “Only the mountain race with Pablo who I believe you know.”
“Ya man, Pablo and I were teammates on World Cross and afterward him and I traveled in Italy and France and ran two more races. I’m happy to hear he is still fit and doing well.” “Jack, Pablo has five kids and another on the way.” “Wow, way ahead of me.”
“If you could hang with Pablo on Pat’s Peak that is a good sign you have to be fit.”
Jack and I talked for hours. “One thing Willy, you need to get a job.” “I know Jack I don’t have much money left anyways.” Jack handed over a job application.” “Willy, you ever done laundry?”
I moved into a room above the garage finally living large my own place for at least a month. In the morning I filled out an application for a job in the college athletic department athletics department gym.
They were hiring a couple of people so I liked my odds of getting something at least part time, nothing glamorous, washing the team’s uniforms, cleaning the locker rooms, checking student ID at the door and that type of thing.
The pay was minimum wage about $4.00 an hour.
Jack gave me a tour of the small campus where I honed in on the library. I also registered for a course on human anatomy. The course would be in the evening school with mostly adult learners.
In the late afternoon I met Jack at the track with the rest of the team. I would not be training with them regularly as Jack didn’t want to upset the team dynamic with an outsider. I would do long runs with them on Sundays, the only exception.
The team headed out on one of their regular routes for a moderate run and Jack had me do a two-mile time trial on the track. “Willy, I know it has been a while since your last track workout so just feel it out and shoot for 70’s, I don’t want you getting out ahead of your skis.”
I went out and did the first quarter in sixty-five seconds “slow the fuck down” Jack yelled. Well being the little pin head I hit the half at two ten and shortly after something hit me on the back. Jack had thrown his watch at me and chased me down and pulled me from the track.
“Willy, I ain’t gonna say this again, you friggin wise up and follow my instructions or pack up and hit your hobo trail.” “Jesus Jack I’m sorry.” “Good, now start over and do it right.”
That night at dinner Jack was silent and I knew I had upset him. Jenn asked about my day and I helped clean up the dishes. I grabbed a couple of books from Jack’s running library which he had invited me to borrow from. A two-volume autobiography by Ron Hill caught my eye and I holed up in my little room reading immediately caught up in this incredibly moving and forthright story.
I got the job in the athletic department, started my class in anatomy and trained according to Jack’s precise instructions. Soon we would plan a fall racing schedule and I had a decision to make whether to make this my home base or head back to New England.
Life was good a solid routine just what every athlete needs but I felt a little lonely thinking about home and my recent dalliances with Penny, Mo, and Bubblz. I learned some things about Jack that were unsettling and I was trying to put those things aside telling myself that we all end up with a few skeletons in the closet.
Jack had swagger and the guys on the team started to open up on our Sunday runs together about Jack’s abusive manner. I was appalled but also as I had suspected Jack was having an affair with a co-ed which really had me angry “how could he do it, Jenn was everything any man could ever want.”
Jack didn’t even really try to hide it he somehow put himself above it all on some kind of pedestal. He was a great coach and my running was going very well but I knew I could not stay with him so I planned to leave when the semester ended in December.
In the next few months I would race a few local roads and cross-country races pretty low key and then run the Senior AAU Nationals in Durham NC. My ultimate goal would be the Junior International Cross-Country Trial in Gainesville in February a qualifier for Worlds in Auckland New Zealand in March.
My first race came in October a four miler over some dirt roads and trails where I would line up against my coach and mentor. It was a small field of locals mostly from the club Broken Arrow, a great group of guys most with native American roots. I had joined their club at Jack’s insistence and would compete on their team at Senior Nationals.
The first mile was a modest pace around five minutes and Jack and I were cantering. Jack said “Willy work the hills.” We ran together the entire way and I figured we would tie but going around a tight curve Jack ran me into a tree and got three steps on me as I tried to chase him down then changed my mind and jogged across the line in second.
I was initially upset with Jack but that night at dinner he looked at me and laughed, “Willy, you got to be prepared for moves like that, cross-country is a contact sport sometimes.”
After dinner I went to a get together a house party with the Broken Arrow guys. I had not been drinking beer at all after being a binge drinker through my brief college days and sometimes on the hobo trail. Tonight, I look forward to having a few and getting to know the guys a little better.
These guys had some hair-raising stories. Their lives were not easy and yet they were happy go lucky , unlike Jack’s college team. College for the Broken guys was not really on the radar. Most of them hadn’t graduated from high school no matter the schools here were low quality anyway. But they were smart and had to be to survive and not wind up in jail.
I bought a six pack of the cheapest beer I could find. Axel, one of the leaders of the club, an older guy who acted as kind of a manager for the team looked at me closely, “Willy I can’t believe you’re gonna drink that skunk piss.” “Watch me.”
The group treated me like one of their own and I suppose It was because we runners’ athletes who if nothing else in common always had our next fix to look forward to. We also had a solid team for nationals and I was looking forward to competing and travelling to NC.
I explained to Axel and a few of the guys how Jack had run me into the tree. Axel smiled and stroked his chin, the others shook their heads and I could tell that they were very hesitant to be forthright in their feelings about him. No one said a thing.
It was time to call it a night. I had walked the two miles over to the party but when I left I immediately began to run home to my room over the garage, drunk as a fart.
Older and wiser thought I, I finished up my longest run in many years on a hot evening sun setting I grabbed the garden hose and dowsed myself and drank in huge gulps then I went into the house grabbed two beers and the ice bag and towel and took up a seat on the porch in my rocker.
The writing was starting to come around and go someplace though I wasn’t sure where. I was knackered but it was a good tired. Maybe I could escape my dreams tonight and just get a restful sleep, though the dreams were feeding the writing, that and all the jumbled thoughts coming together while out running for two plus hours. You have lived a long-life Willy and there are some things that you just never completely overcome.
One weekend Jack took the team to the regional championships an overnighter. Jenn and I and little Sammy had dinner and then Jenn put Sammy to bed while I cleaned up. As I was about to leave Jenn said “Hey Willy, you want to watch a movie with me? I’ll make some popcorn.” “Sure Jenn, what movie did you get?” “Dances with Wolves” I borrowed it from the library.” “It’s a long one about three hours.”
I sat down on the couch with Jenn with the popcorn bowl between us and as the movie started I reached into the bowl and then Jenn’s hand was in mine. My heart is ready to explode all these years later remembering what happened next. I never did see that movie, I heard it was a good flick.
I was nineteen years old then not too good about covering up my feelings. When Jack got back he was ecstatic that his team had won the region. Each day I had to see Jenn usually wearing those little Ellie Mae shorts and a tank top and my arousal nearly made my heart explode.
I started to skip meals with them and eat at the cafeteria at school and then stay late until the library closed telling Jack and Jenn I needed to study for my final exam. My training progressed and I ran an 8:45 for two miles with one of Jack’s team pacing me through the mile.
I ran one cross country invitational hosted by Jack on his home course, as an unofficial entrant. I ran the five-mile course in 23:08 over a minute faster than the course record. Jack and I had a great working relationship but I knew all the drama going on behind the scene would eventually blow up in my face.
I couldn’t be around Jenn, I was in love with her.
I would go to the nationals with Broken Arrow at the end of November and then come back for a few more weeks until school ended. After that I had no idea what I might do.
I started getting together with Broken Arrow more often even though Jack preferred that I train on my own. Axel called a team meeting to decide who would go to nationals. The Arrow’s were very good at running as a team working together and did not necessarily choose the fastest runners. They automatically included me on the team as a favor to Jack. That meant they would choose only six other athletes from the thirteen currently eligible.
Axel brought up my name first and asked if there were any objection and there were a few jokes about me but no objections. They then chose the rest of the team and it was a tight battle for the sixth spot which made me feel bad given that I was taking a spot.
The college athletic department let Broken Arrow use one of their vans through some community outreach program. That’s right, we were going to drive to NC in two days and would only stop to run and re fuel. Jenn packed a couple of coolers for us with good food and drinks.
I met with Jack the night before we left. He tossed a copy of Track & Field News on the table and we perused the NCAA cross country regional results together plus other assorted invitationals. The AAU National would be a mix of older athletes from clubs like the Florida Track Club that had won the team the last few years. I was eager to see how I would fare against both the collegiate and the older dudes.
“Willy, just get out well– I hear the course is a bear and becomes narrow after the first half mile.” “But don’t go crazy these are most of the best distance guys in the country, rookie.” Jack had begun to call me rookie and his general behavior around me had changed, so I was worried he knew about Jenn and me.
“Jack, after nationals I’m gonna be leaving but I hope you will continue to coach me.” “We’ll see Willy.”
The Arrow’s picked me up at six A.M. There would be nine of us in the van, Axel brought another driver who everyone called “Uncle Lou” It was nice having time to just sit and think and watch the country roll by. Everyone was pensive and quiet as the miles rolled by. Axel had mapped out the route with ideal places to stop for a run and it was nice to break up the monotony of the road going for easy group runs.
We ate nothing but sandwiches but Axel promised us a good meal the night before the race. The first day was easy but the second day after not getting much if any sleep in the van sitting upright we were all beginning to feel washed out.
We arrived in Durham in the afternoon of the third day and went straight to the race course to have a run over it. It was a tough one lots of hills but the ground was dry so it would be fast. We only got two rooms for all nine of us at the hotel. Axel slept in the bathtub and Uncle Lou slept out in the van to give the rest of us room.
It was getting late and we all needed some sleep so I suggested to Axel that we just get some pizza and a few six packs and everyone agreed, Axel said only one beer each. While we ate I told the guys the story of my high school race at Franklin Park when I ran off course. They thought that was hilarious and started calling me Mr Magoo. I was anxious but I slept well and was up early out for a walk while the others still slept I sat in the coffee shop and looked over the local sports page with a story about today’s race.
I started feeling like I was in way over my head.
We got into our running gear, packed up and hit the road. We would be leaving immediately after the race heading back west. We did a short warm up, found our start box and stripped down to our shorts and singlets with the Broken Arrow logo, made by Axel’s wife and daughter white singlet and blue shorts. The logo was black just the arrow not lettered.
A guy in the next box with an Oregon singlet took a close look at mine and said, “nice singlet, righteous.” Turned out it was Billy Hernandez the NCAA Champion recently crowned. Uncle Lou was our official photographer with a couple of disposable cameras. Axel was making notes throughout the race and would be trying to identify as many finishers and their places as he could.
There were over three hundred on the start line, I had never run in a race this large. As I stood there in those last moments before the sound of the gun, I knew I would remember this moment forever. I figured to stick with Hernandez, and I was off to battle.
I sure got off the line and as we hit the end of the open field about a half mile in things began to thin out. Something snapped in me though and I just kept the hard running going leading the pack through the mile where through the crowd noise I heard four something teen. Had to be wrong too easily on the other hand how am I leading? Jack would be pelting me with rocks if he were here.
When it came to racing, I was a born leader too much of a rook to even think about the consequences over your head. I felt good and was committed now and just could not slow down. We entered the wooded section with few if any crowds and I heard no footfalls or breathing. I was out in front by a good margin waiting for that two-mile split, not that it mattered but eight fifty something.
“Just relax Willy it’s only running, and you know running, we all know running.”
I hit the halfway mark still out front. I was getting caught up in it felt so good I wanted to shout back at the spectators, the ones with the quizzical looks “hey, this is what I do, this is who I am, how you like me now, how you like these apples!”
I loved this course, made for me and one minute a big crowd and next minute back in the woods, silence and my mind floated away, I thought of Jenn and Jack how he got me primed and I snuck a look at the sky and clouds because I never look back and down, down, down, I hit the ground and lay in shock.
Twisted my ankle badly on a tree root, got up slowly, tried to get back in gear as the pack came streaming by and I cursed, the rook lost his concentration and focus at the most important moment. One-minute Cinderella boy on the cover of “Track & Field News “next minute a chump.
I limped it in a couple of my Arrow teammates slowed to encouraged me and I urged them on worst I let them down greatest mates I would ever have with my stupid rookie mistakes. I finished and lay on the ground and Axel and my mates walked me over to the medical tent for some treatment.
As I lay on the cot in the tent, I could hear some conversation outside. “Who was that guy leading at four and a half miles? He had this race in the bag.” “His name is Willy Desmarais, probably a Canadian.”
I got a chuckle over that in my pain not physically but just overwhelmed, humbled and not sorry for myself but grateful to have had the good fortune to even have this experience whether everything went sideways or not, counting my blessings.
But I did feel the need to get drunk and get drunk I did.
The Broken Arrows finished tenth and would have been fourth if I had held on, I was not even sure what place I finished.
Axel wrapped my ankle in ice, and we got in our ship and sailed west home to talk it over with my captain and his spouse whose impossible love broke me like a walnut.
My ankle swelled like a baseball, Axel said “Willy you should get an x-ray. Go to the trainer at the college when we get back.” “I’m sorry Axel, I messed up.” “Hey Willy, you gave us the thrill of a lifetime seeing someone in our singlet leading the National.”
Axel got me a six pack of “that skunk piss beer you like” and I sat back and slugged em down. Uncle Lou came over for a chat “Willy, I know you are planning to leave but if you change your mind you can stay with me.” Uncle Lou’s wife had died recently and his son was incarcerated.
“I appreciate that Uncle Lou, I need to give my running a chance or I know I will regret it when I’m older, also I just love it, the feeling I had leading that race with a shot at winning.”
My ankle was still very swollen when the guys dropped me off. Jack and Jenn came out to greet me, Jenn giving me a hug. Jack squeezed my shoulder, “Willy, Axel called me with the blow by blow and he was so excited talking a mile a minute boy you put on a show.”
“Ya, until I lost my concentration, rookie mistake.” “Willy, I thought you would be doing well to make the top twenty-five and you were on your way to winning the whole thing. Let’s go to the trainer first thing tomorrow and maybe you can get in the pool for some water running.”
The next day Jack handed me a slip of paper with a phone number, “It’s a writer from “Track & Field News” would like you to call him.” I didn’t want to talk with him and I threw away his number.
I did not run for ten days, an eternity for me but my ankle would be okay. I just needed to be careful, continue my treatment and not get impatient. My Dad was excited that I might come home for Christmas but I wasn’t ready. I had a few more mentors to visit.
“Track & Field News” had a photo of me leading with the caption “Desmarais nearly steels the race.” There was also a story about a new club that had just formed in Boston called the Beantown Bombers and that caught my interest a club for mainly post collegiate runners.
I continued to stay at Jack and Jenn’s but spent more time on my own in my room reading and planning out my next hobo time on the road. I spent most of Christmas day with the Broken Arrow’s at Uncle Lou’s. Lou had some good pictures of Nationals and he gave me one of me in full flight.
Now an old man I cherish that black & white photo three inches by five inches. It is framed and sits above my writing desk, sometimes arousing a state of melancholy at all that went down.
I gave notice at the college and finished up my course in Human Anatomy getting a B. The professor didn’t like me too well because there were a few instances when I had to leave the room when he was using very graphic examples of say, bleeding and I nearly passed out.
He made a case about it in front of the class that was just embarrassing for me.
On New Year’s Day I went for a twenty-mile run and my ankle felt fine thanks to the treatment I had been getting and after not running for ten days and then holding back for a few weeks I was like a caged animal. I then packed up my rucksack and headed for the bus station. I didn’t want to face Jack and Jenn and so I wrote a long note of thanks and left it for them to read and then I slinked out and was gone.
I was heading for Atlanta where I had a few running acquaintance’s but first I wanted to visit New Orleans and maybe spend a couple of days there but where? I would look for a cheap room with my meagre funds saved working at the college. I had read “A Confederacy of Dunces” and Got it in my head to visit New Orleans where the book is set.
Today, all these years later I remember the lost and lonely feeling of leaving these people who had become my family on New Year’s Day on a bus and I cried and a young woman came over to console me. One of only four people on the entire bus. I got over it.
Jude was on her way back to Houston where she went to college and the miles went by quickly as we shared our stories. I showed her the picture of me leading the National from “Track & Field News” “Willy, you are almost famous.”
At one of the many stops we made I bought some Mateus Wine and we drank it on the bus from little paper cups and had some snacks. We found seats way in the last row and cuddled up and went to sleep.
In Houston Jude showed me around and said she would invite me to stay but her roommate would not like it. I went for a run from her dorm and showered quickly before the roomie got back. Adios girlie, it has been fun for the ride. I made my way to the Galveston- Bolivar Ferry and took the short ride with some great views, giant tankers and shrimp boats, the Bolivar Lighthouse and Dolphins.
When I got to the other side I decided to hitchhike and eventually got a ride with a van full of hippies smoking weed. They were students at Tulane University and they were going to be camping out the next few nights as they made their way back. They said it was fine if I wanted to tag along.
The first night I went for a run from the campground “Hey Willy, how far did you run?” “Ten miles.” “What? That’s crazy man.” I then went for a nice swim in the lake and slept in my bag under the stars.
I dreamt about all my myriad experiences since leaving home and I thought about my family, mostly my Dad. I had written him a long letter and sent him a copy of the “Track & Field News” article and photo.
I felt like I had made much progress, might I have done as well if I stayed in college? I thought not, rather be out here hoboing around a learning experience you don’t get at any college.
I dreamt about all my myriad experiences since leaving home and I thought about my family, mostly my dad. I had written him a long letter and sent him a copy of the “Track & Field News” article and photo.
I felt like I had made much progress, might I have done as well if I had stayed in college? I thought not, rather be out here hoboing around a learning experience you don’t get at any college. Lo and behold I had a visitor with me in my bag that night. “Summer of Willy” continues into winter.
In my youth, a voracious reader with no agenda but just only following my instinct I had come across some writing that knocked me sideways realizing that there was something to this life and I was not the only one trying to understand and survive and thrive and deal with whatever hand I was dealt.
John Kennedy Toole for no exact reason and his posthumously published “Confederacy of Dunces” made some powerful impressions on me. I think just the weirdness, the language of the place, the honesty is not barred. It is a weird story with highlight comedic moments and sad so sad.
Well, anything can have a powerful effect if it captures you at the right time and place.
The hippies and I got along okay, I mean really, I was just like them just not so overt about it. We had another night like the last and then arrived in New Orleans where they dropped me off on the banks of the Mississippi and I met a few Navy men who were singing sea shanties.
I toured around the city a bit on foot and then left my ruck sack at a local bus station where I changed into my running gear and went for a long easy run scouting out places where I might be able to camp out for the night.
I found what looked like a nice spot adjacent to a golf course at a public park called Bayou South. New Orleans felt like a foreign country sophisticated but funky at the same time. It was a lot to take in and I just needed some shut eye. When I arrived at the park with a few supplies just as it was getting dark, I spotted a police car that seemed to be watching me.
You know it is difficult to hobo though you are doing nothing wrong just want to lie down for the night under the stars and rest your weary head and be left alone. Perhaps it was just my paranoia and they left and stopped following me.
I had a good sleep that night and woke up early to the sound of the sprinklers on the luxurious grass of the golf course. I put on my running shorts and hid my bag in the woods and then ran barefoot around the edges of the course avoiding the few golfers who were out this early.
When after an hour or so I finished my run, I stood in a sprinkler to cool off and clean off. “Hey, what are you doing?” “Oh, sorry, just rinsing off.” “Where are you from?” “Massachusetts.” “Is that how you do it for their son?”
The groundskeeper told me I could shower at the clubhouse if I wanted and I was surprised by this friendliness and hospitality. “Thank you very much sir, I will do that.”
He watched me as I walked off into the nearby woods to grab my ruck sack. When I got to the clubhouse he pointed the way and handed me a towel. “You been hoboing son?” “Yes Sir, I just wanted to see New Orleans.”
“Of course, but I wouldn’t overstay your welcome.”
In the afternoon I left for Atlanta, a bus ride that would take about ten hours. I planned to sleep through most of it and re-read “A Clean Pair of Heals” about Kiwi Champion Murray Halberg. Early in his career but after he had reached an international level of performance he travelled to Europe and the United States for a lengthy tour of racing and training living sometimes right on the edge of poverty with other athletes all determined to get their kicks and hopefully “come right” on time and win a medal at a major games.
It was me against the world fighting my own battle of Thermopylae defending my own free will, just barely nineteen years old, a sometimes-lonely struggle, but in Atlanta I would be joining up with another mentor who now owned a running store and would hire me to work for him as well. I would be pointing for the World Junior Cross-Country Trials in Gainesville FL in February.
My new mentor, coach and employer was Sal Parker, a former Olympian in the 10,000 M. Sal opened a store called Spiridon a specialty store with nearly all running related gear for inventory and a knowledgeable staff.
I was not sure yet where I would be living or if I would even be making enough money to get a place of my own. Sal was picking me up at the bus station when I arrived and we would talk things through. There was a pretty vibrant running community in Atlanta with a solid schedule of cross country and road races and track meets.
Spiridon had their own running team and I would compete for them at least until cross country trials six weeks from now and probably for a month or so afterwards somewhat depending upon if I made the team by finishing in the top six.
The bus trip was uneventful, I only had a cup of coffee and a stale donut and was starving when Sal picked me up around three in the afternoon. He suggested we go for a run from the store out around Piedmont Park. At the store he introduced me to Dickie and Freddie and Annie, my new clubmates and workmates.
I was immediately smitten with Annie, a little red head cute as a button beautiful and smiling. These three would become my constant companions and I gave them all nicknames. At some point Annie became “fire plug” Dickie became “jocko” and Freddie became “Hazel.”
They were all about four years older than me but somehow, I was already worldlier or world weary due to my recent lifestyle and experiences of life. We would share living space in a small house in a runner’s commune.
Dickie was mostly a road racer and pointing toward the Boston Marathon in April. He had recently run a 2:22 and won the Atlanta Marathon his first. Freddie ran the steeplechase and the mile in college and liked track racing best and Annie was aiming for the Senior Cross-Country Trial in Gainesville as well.
That first night we had dinner together with Sal and he handed us each an outline of upcoming workouts and races to prepare us for our upcoming events. We would run together every morning, usually a five miler, a combination of roads and dirt trails. In the afternoons Sal would meet with us for more individualized workouts which we sometimes did alone or with one or both of the others.
After a few weeks Annie and I ran in a small cross-country invitational with mostly college teams. I won the five-mile race in 22:45 breaking the course record by over a minute. Annie won the women’s race in similar fashion. Sal told me “Willy, I don’t really gush but that was fucking nuts. You have to be the best talent in the entire friggin country and you’re riding around on busses sleeping in parks…. WTF.”
Sal gave me and Annie the afternoon off from the store. We put together a picnic lunch and went to a nearby lake and found a secluded spot where we went skinny dipping. Annie let her longish red hair loose from its usual ponytail.
I finished up a long slog of a run known only as “the loop” by me and my old man friends who only occasionally these days, would take it on. Eight miles of up and down murderous hills with beautiful views of the Whites in the early Spring snow melting rivulets of water flowing down the roads in all directions.
Last night’s writings and dreaming’s brought me back to my youth, the days in Atlanta and Annie, beautiful Annie. None of the young women I met that year on the road wanted any kind of long-term relationship, I think knowing that at my age of nineteen and my peripatetic lifestyle I just was not ready.
Jocko had a big road race coming up the National 20KM Road Race Championship in Massachusetts. Hazel and another runner from Spiridon would also compete there as a three-person team hoping to knock off the favored Beantown Bombers, some of whom I knew from growing up in Mass.
I had only a few weeks to go until the Cross-Country Trials when disaster struck. My Plantar Fasciitis flared up likely due to the workouts I had begun doing in spikes on the grass. Sal wanted me to stop running entirely and rest but I didn’t want to so he taped it fairly effectively, problem was if you taped it too loose it was ineffective and too tight and it could make matters worse.
For a while it got progressively worse and it didn’t help that I was on my feet all day at the store, but there was nothing to be done. They needed me there. I continued to do my easy five milers in the mornings at a very slow pace but in the afternoon, I would run maybe a mile or two and then come home and stick my foot in a bucket of ice water. I took aspirin as well.
The week of the trial I finally took two days off entirely and Sal gave me a full day off from the store. It helped but there was no way I would be able to compete in spikes. Sal said, “Willy, maybe you shouldn’t run trials. “ “Sal, I’m running even if it has to be in training shoes. I am going to be on that team.”
Annie and I travelled to Gainesville together leaving on Friday morning flying down for the Saturday race. Sal was not able to make the trip but he had arranged for a friend of his to pick us up at the airport and this friend would also doctor my foot and tape it for me before the race. Annie was a long shot to make the team and Sal had planned with her to have a conservative strategy. “Willy, what do you think about Sal’s race plan for me.” “Honestly I think you should go from the gun their fire plug because there is a good chance they will let you go since they won’t know much of anything about you and once you get that lead darling you ain’t coming back to them.” Annie smiled, “Oh Willy you give the best pep talks.”
We jogged the course together on Friday afternoon, a flat as a pancake course which was going to be fast, not good for me since I could barely get up on my toes on my injured foot. The Junior Race would be eight KM two four KM laps. I brought spikes but decided to go with flats and I had to take some of the tight turns on the course real wide to stay on my feet.
At the end of the first lap I was in the middle of the pack with a lot of work to do and I dug deep and started to pick people off. I could see a straight line of runners ahead and I figured I was about twelfth.
With about a half mile to go I went into an all-out kick all I could muster and I moved all the way up to seventh before I started to run out of gas slipping all over in my flats.
I caught the runner ahead of me but could not get past him. This was for the team I never imagined not making it. We finished in a dead heat. I was unsure if I had made the team and the officials were all huddled around conferring.
“Are you the Desmarais who was leading Senior Nationals back in November?” “Ya, that’s me.” “Why the hell are you wearing flats?” “Plantar injury.”
Annie was lining up for her race and I headed over to watch. She was right out into the lead, man if this strategy doesn’t work I hope Sal never finds out it was my idea. After the first lap she had fifty yards but the pack was closing. “You look marvelous fire plug, keep your foot on the gas!” I think she actually smiled at that.
I watched as they came out of the woods for the final half mile, Annie had fallen back to fifth and was passed by one other but she made the team. Annie and I did a short cool down run and my foot was killing me. Sal’s buddy took us to the airport, no shower no time no room anyway off to Atlanta.
“I hope you are on the team with me. Willy, it would be great to travel to New Zealand together.” “Ya, thanks fire plug, guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
I ordered a beer on the plane, the first of many I would have that evening.
Sal was in touch with the US Track & Field Cross Country Committee that week and the Manager/Coach for the team wanted to put me on it as a sub after it was determined that I had finished seventh. But that would not be happening. USATF weren’t known for being magnanimous.
The plantar was still hurting in any case even worse than ever after trying to race on it. Annie and the others tried to cheer me up but I was despondent. Dickie had finished second in the National 20KM and looked to be coming right for Boston. Freddie had just run a four flat mile indoors.
I continued to limp through the five miler each morning and then after work, on the days where I didn’t go for ultrasound treatments, I would go by the library and borrow some books and then buy a six pack and sit with my feet up reading all night.
I realized the truth of athletics that all athletes get injured no matter how careful they are. The human body will have its way, no matter how strong you are mentally you cannot outrun that fact. No question I was in a funk and Sal came over one night and saw all the empty beer cans and piles of books. “Willy, you look like a frat boy college student.” “I had no use for college Sal, that’s why I’m here with you.”
I staggered off to bed around midnight looking forward to my run the next morning hoping the plantar would be better. I pulled back the covers and there lay sweet little fire plug Annie, resplendent, naked as a jaybird. I right then forgot all my troubles and all my cares.
The next morning, I was up early making breakfast coffee for me and Annie whistling and smiling stupidly when Hazel walked in and said “Willy, you have the look of I just had sex repeatedly all over you.” “Ah Freddie, just looking forward to another great day.” “Well from the sound of things you had a great night.”
On our run that morning I never even thought about my plantar and it was like the injury had never even happened. I went for ultrasound that evening and the therapist could not believe the difference from just a few days before. That evening I ran our ten miler alone in fifty-one minutes singing “sexual healing” in my head and smiling the entire way!
I rolled out of bed legs creaking back and hip achy I shuffled my way to the bathroom slowly waking up ever so slightly easily slowly and then downstairs kettle on the boil newspaper retrieved from outside slice of toast nicely burned with lots of butter the sit down on couch roll foot on roller old plantar injury and stare out the window while I slowly sip my coffee bringing it all back home.
The days in Atlanta were some of my best days and memories but Massachusetts still tugged at me in New England in my bones, family there and friends who thought I had gone mad.
Annie left for New Zealand and I was so very happy for her and envious too, but now that my own running was coming around my outlook on the world had improved and also through my reading I was beginning to broaden my horizons and Athletics was the prism I saw this world through.
I did some long runs with Jocko and Hazel, one a twenty miler at 5:15 per mile, the pace that Jocko hoped to run at Boston. It felt okay, not as hard as I thought it was going to be and Jocko was cruising. “Jocko, you can handle 5:05’s no problem.” “Kid, what do you know about the marathon?”
He was right, I didn’t know much.
Me and Freddie went to the Florida Relays in March where Freddie ran a 3:39 for 1500M qualifying for Nationals which would be in Knoxville in June. I won the 5 KM in 13:44 a huge PR but I had never actually raced a 5KM before only three miles.
Sal planned for me to run a 10KM on the track in May to hopefully qualify in that event as well. Sal gave me fatherly advice and explained that I had some bad luck mostly brought on through inexperience and just plain bad luck.
Yes, luck plays a part I’ve learned and mine had been running well but I had worries and concerns I was not immune, no.
Back home in Mass. My Dad had had a stroke and his recovery went well and my brother and sister made sure he and my stepmom were going to be okay, but out here on my own engrossed in my own obsession, hesitate to call it a career where none existed, I wondered if I was doing the best right thing.
Annie ran great in New Zealand and didn’t come back cause the fire plug went and met her a fella, a New Zealander international.
She sent me a long letter, so I knew she loved me, but I was just a dumb kid and needed to mature, my interpretation.
I felt elegiac.
I was hurt but truth be told my running was going great and she was my real mistress.
Over the next few weeks heading into the Nationals everything went according to plan although Sal had been trying to petition the AAU to allow Annie run the five thousand unsuccessfully. Annie had one of the fastest times in the country but no concern of the AAU, her entry was late and they decided not to accept it. It is disheartening and demoralizing when your governing body works against the sport and against the athletes it should be serving.
The Fire Plug added a lot to our little group and she seemed changed by her recent experience living in New Zealand. “Willy, I will be honest with you. I just missed home and you guys too much being way down under. We may get back together someday, he is a great guy and I miss him too. We will just have to wait and see if it was meant to be.”
Sal had each of us in his office before we left for a bit of a strategy talk. It had been decided that I would run the ten k only. “Willy, the forecast is calling for extreme heat. I want you to keep the pace honest but don’t try and go out there and blow this field away or they will make you pay. These guys are the real deal and they are no more than slightly impressed by your 3:55.”
Unfortunately, Sal’s strategy was not lining up with my dreams.
We ended up driving the couple of hundred miles up to Knoxville with the store van full of merchandise we would be selling outside the venue. We would all work after we had completed our events and Annie would man the van for both days since she was not competing.
The ten k was on Friday night at 7 and we arrived at our hotel at noon. I went for a three-mile shakeout run and then had lunch and took a nap. I was nervous and was overloaded with adrenaline. I was thinking that the heat wasn’t so bad and that Sal was being too conservative. “He knows how I love to run, how I must run, why insist that I do it his way? I need to go by feeling that is all I know.”
At 5 I put my gear on and as I was trying to pin my number Annie came in and did it for me and then gave me a hug. “You OK Willy? Sure, Fire Plug I’m doing great for someone who is preparing to die a little.”
I got to the track and put my spikes on and did a few strides on the back straight and I chatted a bit with Hernandez, the NCAA Cross Champ I had met briefly last fall on the starting line of the AAU Cross where I ran with Broken Arrow. “Hey Desmarais, we have to stop meeting like this.”
We were twenty-five strong and they lined us up, me on the outside of the first row. The pistol cracked and I broke for the front, bye, bye Johnny, bye, bye Johnny be goode.
The meet organizers had given the coaches a little seating area near the finish line. I was 65 for the first lap and 2:10 at the half. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sal waving his hands at me. Next lap I ran a 63 and I am now clear of the field and then 4:18 at the mile.
Anyone there who was paying attention sat there with their mouths agape but when I kept pouring it on well they got into it too and a group of high school age kids kept a rhythm clapping going every time I passed them. “Willy’s gone mad! They shouted.” At two I was 8:43 and at 5 k 13:41 a PR. I was on an American Record pace and had a 100-yard lead, maybe more.
I was off somewhere my mind began to wander and drift, my hands started to tingle. I couldn’t remember what lap I was running and was shocked to see a 7 card and I was sinking into the abyss. I was now in survival mode with waves of runners passing me and Jocko patting me on the ass as he went by and I was far away.
The last lap I was wambled and looked like Dorando Pietri in the 1908 Olympic Marathon. The medical crew were already prepared when I finished and collapsed into their waiting arms.
Don’t let the Sun go down on me.
The medical crew put me in a tub of ice and hooked me up for some I.V. fluids. Annie came in to see me and she started weeping it up. “Don’t fret Fire Plug, I’m only partly dead.” “Willy, don’t be an asshole, I was really worried about you.” Sal wouldn’t speak to me, he didn’t even look at me so I just ignored him too.
Jocko finished seventh in the ten k, very respectable and Freddie would wind up finishing fifth in the 1500M in 3:37. He followed Sal’s instructions to the letter. I was super happy for those guys.
Sal took everyone out to dinner but I stayed behind in the room and then went out and got some fast food and a bottle of cheap red wine. I didn’t get drunk though, I just sipped it and contemplated my navel.
The next day we were back in Atlanta and back working in the store when Sal called me into his office. I was happy and I figured we would talk it over and everything would go back to normal but I was wrong.
“Willy I am going to have to let you go. I have other athletes I can coach who are not as stupid, selfish and just plain crazy as you are.” It was a real gut punch.
“Sal, I appreciate everything you have done for me so thank you for that but don’t ever call me crazy, you don’t know nothing about me. I’m just twenty years old trying to figure things out.”
I got up and left and went back to the house and started packing my things. Maybe I was crazy. My Mom died at the State Hospital when I was ten years old though I never found out what she was in for. That was where they sent people with psychological conditions, manic depression etc.
Maybe it’s crazy to try and run yourself into submission but wasn’t that how you became a champion by pushing the boundaries and going where no one was ever willing to go before?
“I beat my body and make it my slave.”
Annie told me that Sal said I could stay as long as I needed but that he had another athlete to take my place coming within the next couple of weeks. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be okay once I get over the shock.”
I went out for a ten miler mostly on the trails in the State Forest, except I just kept going and ran the loop three times in three hours. Then I bought some beer and pizza and got drunk. Jocko, Freddie and Annie were all out. I think they were as shocked as I was.
When Jocko got back he said “Geezus Willy why don’t you beg for forgiveness or something Sal would keep you on.”
“Willy don’t play that.”
I had a little nest egg so I bought a tent. After a few days sitting around plotting out my plan I packed up my rucksack while everyone was out and left them a note and then I hit the road hobo Willy again.
I got down the road a piece and stuck out my thumb. I headed for the Great Smoky Mountains for some forest bathing.
The memories weigh and come, go and sometimes overwhelm. I awake disoriented in my little tent in the White Mountain National Forest of NH remembering my long hike through the Smokies with Jared the “Mississippi Mule.” All those years ago.
I had caught a couple of quick short rides that left me stranded and then I walked along with my thumb out worried the State Police might hassle me. In the late afternoon after I had walked for an hour or so a beat up pick up stopped and a friendly face peered out.
“You headed for the Smokies?” “Yup.”
“We should be there by sundown if Nellie here don’t get too cranky.” “I am Josh, I am meeting my brother Jared who started at Springer and is hiking the AT.”
“I’m Willy, been down in Atlanta just looking for a little escape for a week or so hiking and camping.”
Josh was bringing Jared supplies and camping out at Fontana Dam where Jared would continue his hike through the Great Smokies. I figured I would do the same.
When we were nearly there Josh said, “Just so you know, Jared ain’t much of a talker. Guess I ain’t neither.” We found Jared sitting at the entrance to the campground and then drove around looking for a site. I set up my camp and made a fire and sat down for a bowl of soup and some crackers.
I was feeling at peace with myself. I didn’t even think about going for a run and decided right then to hike the AT through the Smokies for a week and think things through. Hiking close to twenty a day will keep me fit and clear my head.
As I was about to hit the hay Josh came over with a few beers and offered me one. I laughed when I saw it was the same “skunk piss” I drank. “Jared is taking off early around 5 A.M. and he is pretty tired so he is asleep. I’m going to hike with him for a few hours and then head back here and back to Georgia.”
“I appreciate the ride and the beer, I may see you in the morning or out on the trail. I am planning to go the entire trail seventy miles over the next week or less.”
I hit the hay but couldn’t get to sleep right away thinking about the last phone call with my Dad who had been contacted by some meet promoters and AAU officials regarding my invitation to run a big mile race in London the first week in August.
I knew that some thought that my 3:55 mile I had run was a fluke and I doubted myself as a miler but since my reputation as a racer could not get any worse I was thinking “what have I got to lose? Go to London town, see what you got.”
Fact was if I ran like Sal thought I should instead of the reckless abandon I had in that race, I would be a 3:59-4:00 miler and never would have got to 3:55.
Nationals were different and maybe Sal had been right, a ten k in the heat was a different animal.
I awoke with the sun in my eyes and knew it must be close to mid-morning. I slugged down some water and a few slices of bread while I quickly packed up my gear. From the time I first opened my eyes to hitting the trail was about twenty minutes. If Josh and Jared hit the trail at 5 A.M. They were four hours ahead of me but I would likely see Josh on his return trip.
I walked slowly at first limbering up then began steady climbing and as my heartrate rose so did my pace and my mind and body clicked into a solid groove in this for the long haul. I passed some hikers taking a break and they were eating hard boiled eggs and man they looked delicious and I wondered if I had brought enough real food.
I would be surviving on peanut butter, chocolate, cookies, apples and soup.
Josh came down the trail toward me in the early afternoon. “Jared is heading for Mollies Ridge Shelter that is eleven miles from Fontana, I guess you’d be about half way there.” “Thanks, that is my goal for today if I can make it by dark, I did not bring a light.”
Josh handed me a flashlight. “You can have this, I won’t need it today.”
I stopped once late afternoon to eat and rest and then pushed on. I knew I was approaching Mollies when I saw the light of a fire and smelled the smoke, I had been on the trail for ten hours. But I wasn’t prepared for the scene I was about to witness.
As I approached I could see people dancing wildly around the fire chanting and banging on pots and pans, like a scene from “Lord of the Flies” I was passed a bottle of whiskey by a guy who was chewing tobacco. No thanks.
Someone else passed me a fresh bottle so I took a tug and took them all in, a motley crew. Jared came over and introduced himself. “Will, they will all be in their bags asleep shortly, a bunch of peckerwoods.” “Me too, that was a long day. I’m going to get set up yonder and come back here and heat up my soup.”
One by one they scattered off to sleep and I sipped my soup by the fire. It became deafeningly quiet and the night sky brilliant with stars. I thought about Annie, the fire plug would probably be worried about me and it was a good feeling knowing someone gave a shit.
The next morning, I awoke late again around mid-morning, everyone who was there the night before was gone. I would follow this routine for the next five days where I would get a late start and then come upon the wild scene after dark at the next shelter when I arrived. Someone nicknamed me “two-step” but I never figured out why.
I met two women hiking together, at first, they seemed kind of leery of me but at the next shelter we camped out close to each other and shared some food. Sadie was from Vermont Connecticut River Valley and Mary Jo was from North Carolina. I told them of my adventures over the last six months or so but I’m not sure if they believed me.
Sadie said, “Well Willy, you just snub your nose at everything and everybody, don’t you?” “Well, that’s a harsh girlie, you don’t even know me.” We went on like this for a while before I realized the girl was flirting with me.
I hit the hay early and planned to go all the way to Hot Springs the next day, the end of the line. I was anxious to get back to my running routine. In the morning I slept late again and Sadie and Mary Jo were gone so I hit the trail alone.
I arrived in Hot Springs after dark and debated whether to spend the money for a hotel. I found a little dive hotel and crashed after eating several fast food burgers. I watched a ball game on television and read the local newspapers. In the morning I would call Pete in NYC and hitchhike to Gatlinburg to catch a bus. My future plans are still evolving just as I like it.
Wild and crazy dreams again getting older no one told me I would have to re-live everything, all the trauma and joy every time I closed my eyes at night. My old coach with the Beantown Bombers I will never forget our first meeting he just called me 355. “Hey hotshot you think we’re buying that 3:55 mile you ran at the rinky-dink palace track meet in southern east bumfuck?”
I arose early unlike out on the trail and I took in my surroundings. I went for my first run in over a week an easy hour and I felt pretty good, just a bit sore in spots and weary. I took a quick shower and then headed to the coffee shop for the lumberjack breakfast. The pretty waitress asked me if I was a thru hiker and I said “Ya, I’m all through hiking and heading for NYC.”
I hit the road and stuck out my thumb and right off the bat a VW Bug pulled over and Sadie from the trail a few days ago sticks her head out, “If it ain’t Willy our old friend.” Somehow, I got squeezed into the back seat amongst all the hiking gear. We talked over the last few days experiences and then Mary Jo said, “Hey Willy, when you need to be in New York because we have decided to head to Vermont but we are planning to go to the coast and hit a few beaches and other sites on the way.”
“I’m in. I just need to be able to run as we travel.”
I called Pete in New York with my revised plan and told him I had accepted the invitation to run in London three weeks from now. “That’s great Willy, got news as well, I got married.”
Sadie and MJ were smart cookies learned college students and they talked non stop so it was hard for me to keep up but sounded interesting like “hey, maybe you do learn some things in those there ivory towers of higher ed.”
They were also sexy and beautiful, about as different in appearance as two women could be but definitely stimulating in their little shorts and t-shirts. I was hoping they packed their bikinis. I managed to get stretched out a bit in the back seat. We were headed for the Chesapeake Bay about five hundred miles. We would spend a day resting up and enjoying the beach before leaving the following day for Atlantic City and then on to New York.
We stopped in the late afternoon in West Virginia and I went for a run. Sadie started out running with me and I was shocked that she had no problem running five miles at a decent pace, I mean I almost started to push it just to see what she got.
I confessed to the girls my apprehension about competing against the top milers in the world as an unproven kid. Sadie said, “Willy, I can’t believe what you have gone through trying to reach your potential as a runner, man you like a hound dog and once you get the scent you sure gonna stay after it.”
Why not? All of life is a gamble.
Still old I go on and remember.
Old man take a look at my life dream on dream on Sadie and MJ on the beach at Chesapeake one old man dream worth having and I do and I don’t give in to my old man, carry on, carry on.
Long ago long gone lust is a many splendored thing but love hey ho there we go.
As I write and remember I know I am in this for the long haul as long as I’ve got.
I remember my young man wistfully his whimsy.
I re visit him often as past and future collide.
Five years after many trials and tribulations I did learn about love when it grabbed me by the nose and kicked me in the ass.
It is a monumental occasion when you give your entire life to someone full of trepidation at first then lasting peace.
We arrived at Sandridge Beach VA on the Outer Banks around 9 P.M. We found a hotel and the girls went to check in. It was a small room with a double bed for the girls I would curl up on the floor in my bag.
We pulled up some lawn chairs by the motel pool and sat for hours talking fueled by a cooler of beer and some wine and snacks. I swam some laps in the little motel pool and did some leg kicks to revive my legs after so many hours stuffed in the back of the Bug.
I left the girls talking and headed in to have a shower and then I got into my sleeping bag with a copy of Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels.”
The girls came in laughing and MJ said “there is plenty of room in this bed for you too Willy.” I just ignored her. Sadie said “Mary Jo, we don’t want Willy getting a woody.”
Hardee har har, silly girls.
I drifted off dreaming of the sea and the beaches just down the road from the hotel where I would run tomorrow and swim in the surf and relax and read and watch the girls go by my oh my.
I awoke to the smell of coffee brewing and the girls had gone out to get some pastries and juice. “Willy, I hope you didn’t mind us teasing you last night.”
We were blessed with a perfect beach day and strode the half mile to the beach with our provisions. I ran on the beach with a thin running flat on my feet in only a pair of shorts wearing some cheap sunglasses.
I went out just over an hour and then turned around. I stopped to take my shoes off and carried them while I ran by the water’s edge and in a few inches of water my footfalls splashing and I wanted to run all day.
Other than a quick trip to get more sandwiches and beer we stayed on the beach all day. I fell asleep for an hour in the afternoon. I decided to do another short run before leaving and Sadie ran with me for a half hour. “You know Willy Mr. International miler to be, I threw the Javelin and ran cross country in high school.” “But not at the same time, right?”
The girls had been invited to go to a bar with some guys they met at the beach. They wanted me to come but I was not in the mood, I was a good tired and just wanted to hit the feathers early. After they left I worried about them like a parent or sibling would.
I had a good talk with my Dad that night, he had been collecting my mail and sorting out anything looking like they needed attention, especially anything from the AAU or race promoters. It was weird to picture myself back home in Galway in a few days after nearly eight months away.
Passage to India
by Walt Whitman
SINGING my days,
Singing the great achievements of the present,
Singing the strong, light works of engineers,
Our modern wonders, (the antique ponderous Seven outvied,)
In the Old World, the east, the Suez canal,
The New by its mighty railroad spann’d,
The seas inlaid with eloquent, gentle wires,
I sound, to commence, the cry, with thee, O soul,
The Past! the Past! the Past!
The Past! the dark, unfathom’d retrospect!
The teeming gulf! the sleepers and the shadows!
The past! the infinite greatness of the past!
For what is the present, after all, but a growth out of the past?
(As a projectile, form’d, impell’d, passing a certain line, still keeps on,
So the present, utterly form’d, impell’d by the past.
I was up early the next morning and out running and had a swim in the pool when I got back. I was beginning to reflect on my time since leaving college and travelling this road. I had begun to keep a journal and had read some of my writing and observations to Sadie and MJ and we got into a discussion about America, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Hypocrisy is rampant, the country was founded in hypocrisy slavery, manifest destiny, trail of tears, civil war, the Alamo, imperialism all underlying the unkept promises and ideas all men are created equal.
It seemed to me at least possible at least here in America you could live more on the edges. You could hike the Appalachian trail and live in a cabin in the woods very simply and not get any more involved than necessary in the daily madness and silliness that is the daily lives of most citizens.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Yes, we do but it doesn’t follow that we can’t be fulfilled in some ways. Freedom is breaking free of possessions, all the crap shoved down your throat on TV break free of TV step outside and sit and be quiet there is your freedom.
Sadie and MJ were cheering me on as I blathered on from my journal, Willy, the rebel without a clue.
I’m not sure why we were landing in Atlantic City; it was just somewhere that Sadie and MJ wanted to see. At the time we arrived there it had been in serious decline from its heyday as a top resort in the country. Recently gambling had arrived and casinos were going up rapidly. It was like the former gold rush in California to me, reaping where you have not sown.
I only planned to spend a few days with Pete and his wife in NYC before heading home. I had been in contact with some friends who ran for this new club, the Beantown Bombers and their fiery coach.
“Come join us at the Boston State track on Tuesday and Thursday nights.” And I did and so then I was on the chosen path.
We arrived in Atlantic City after dark and found a run-down hotel in a seedy neighborhood but the price was right. I went for a short run just twenty minutes feeling ill at ease. The next day was wonderful though at Branigan Beach for the entire day and in the early evening we travelled to Brooklyn where Pete and his wife were putting all three of us up for the night.
When we got to their place Pete and I went for a run to Prospect Park while the girls got acquainted. Pete was excited for me and envious, his career as a runner having wound down he was a wealth of knowledge and just a great friend to have. It was like I had known him my entire life and we hardly even spent much time together before this year.
I told Pete I was going to move to Boston and I had a few leads for a job in a shoe factory. We talked about Coach Gerry and the Beantown Bombers “Willy, wait ‘till you meet the WAC he is a great guy, very knowledgeable has a little trouble sometimes getting his point across but lovely guy, would give you the shirt off his back.”
“Why do they call him the WAC?” “Long story Willy, right now I have got to eat and hit the feathers. I hope you can stay another night I have some more news and information to share.”
“Sure thing, Sadie and MJ will be off to Vermont.”
I stayed up late talking with the girls, Pete’s wife Maria was lovely and I was just very happy for them. I could not ever see myself getting married, of course I was only twenty and knew nothing of that longing nagging pounding in the heart.
Sadie and MJ got the couch and I rolled up in my sleeping bag on the floor. I awoke in the morning long after Pete had left for work at the law office. Maria had the day off and was making a big breakfast. I went for a short run and then came back to eat.
It was tough to say goodbye to Sadie and Mary Jo and I hoped that I would see them again. We went for a walk in Prospect Park and Sadie and I sat for a while on a park bench making out all kissy face fortunately or unfortunately nothing further and later MJ and I did the same thing!
“You better come see me in Vermont Willy.” “I will, I love the mountains and of course you’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
I spent much of the next day on the phone with my pals in Boston. Donnie and Neil had an apartment in Cleveland Circle area a two bedroom. But, they were willing to put me up on the couch or a fold up cot if I could help with the rent. Donnie was working at the local shoe company his job opening letters from people requesting shoes who had sent a tracing of their foot and Donnie would pick out the correct width and package them up for shipment.
Neil was in Graduate School at Boston University and received a stipend from this shoe company being an accomplished runner who had done well in the big one the Boston Marathon. Donnie also received a stipend in addition to his regular pay. Of course, these payments to amateurs were not really legal but were under the radar of the AAU. The athletes were ostensibly employees of the company and paid for work not directly related to their running prowess.
Alby, the Bombers best athlete a Boston Marathon Champion and Olympian was in the process of opening a running store in Cleveland Circle so I might be able to get a job there as well.
Donnie said, “Willy, you can work in the factory whenever you want to start they are always in need of people, but the work is dirty gluing the shoes together all day breathing the fumes.”
When Pete got home we went for a run and discussed the Boston scene. “Willy, there is a lot of excitement being generated there with Coach Gerry and Alby and some great post collegiate athletes joining the Bombers.” “Pete, how come you never joined the Bombers?”
“I would have loved to but I felt some loyalty to the BAA even though they have gotten old and stodgy at this point.”
“I also spoke with Coach Gerry and he said that they might want me to rabbit that mile race in London. He said if I did a good job they would pay me.” “Yes, Willy you should make at least a few hundred dollars.”
“He is trying to get another race for me in Finland a 5 k.” I’m worried about losing my job at the shoe factory if I miss too much time but Coach Gerry said “listen numb nuts you don’t get these opportunities every day. Would you rather sniff glue or run your balls off in Europe?”
“He is right Willy, I never regretted choosing a running opportunity over work when I was younger but I did regret choosing work over running on some occasions.”
I had a relaxing evening with Pete and Maria and hit the hay early. The next morning, I was on the bus back to Boston, Massachusetts.
In part one of our story, Willy leaves college behind and with his limited savings buys a bus ticket, a yearly pass to take him around the country visiting with some of the top athletes and coaches in USA Track & Field circles.
Also, in Part One, Willy gets his oats.
Willy, just nineteen years old, experiences many highs and lows and records his adventures in his journal.
The decision to come back to Massachusetts at this time was made after he was asked to leave his former employer and club Spiridon based in Atlanta.
Willy has a spirit — he is head strong, that is admirable but must be tempered. It is both his great gift and biggest downfall.
Willy has one great performance while based in Atlanta he runs a 3:55 mile and on other occasions shows his all-around potential for greatness.
In Boston Willy will be joining up with a unique coach and impressive teammates in a less formal and just all around more fun group in a dynamic college town where running and road racing in particular are becoming de rigueur.
When I got off the bus in Boston in the early afternoon I heard someone yelling “Hey Elmer, over here.” It was Neil, my new roomie and teammate who came to pick me up. I hadn’t thought much about what I was wearing, a trucker cap, a flannel shirt and some baggy faded jeans. “Willy, you look like you are heading out to hunt rabbits’ tee hee he.” Neil had a very distinctive cackle.
I hadn’t thought about my appearance much being on the road and I never had anyone poke fun at me out there, but I was going to have to get accustomed to jive talking and razzing because my new teammates were relentless.
We headed to the apartment at Cleveland Circle and Neil showed me around, not much to see. Two bedrooms for Donnie and Neil, a bathroom, a hallway , a tiny kitchen and a living room with a couch. We headed to the Aegean Fare to eat and Donnie met us there.
Neil had finished second in the ten k at the AAU Nationals in Knoxville, the race where I crashed and burned, and he would be running in the upcoming dual Track & Field Meet against the USSR in Moscow.
“Willy you have got some brass balls going all kamikaze in Knoxville, Neil said.” “That’s how I run Neil, I only have one way.” “What?!” “That’s how you run, you only got one way.” He said in a mocking tone. Donnie, what are we going to do with this guy?”
Donnie said, “Neil it won’t be long before Willy here is kicking your ass, he got a 3:55 you will never get anywhere near that.” Neil said, “I ran 3:59 on a relay leg in college.” “A friggin relay leg Geezus that’s lame, you know that don’t count Mr. 4:05.”
Well, things went on this way a very lively and animated and comical dialog ensued and I might have joined in but being the new guy, I just sat back and took it all in.
“Willy, we will be heading to the track at four and I need to study, so later.” Neil shut himself up in his room and Donnie and I talked a bit and then I spotted a guitar in the corner.
“Who is the guitar player.” “That would be me Donnie said, you play?” I played a few things, my fingers out of shape not having played for a long while. “Donnie, I will be heading out to Galway tomorrow to visit my family and I will bring my guitar when I come back.”
At four we suited up and ran a few miles over to the Boston State Track. “Wait until you meet the WAC” Neil said. “Why do they call him the WAC?” “It’s just an expression the Coach has his WAC speak.”
About a dozen runners were at the track and Coach Gerry looking dapper in his suit and tie. Neil introduced me to Coach, “Well, if it ain’t the wonder kid. Welcome to the group, we can chat after we get the work done here.
”We did various interval Coach timing us but often neglecting to shout out the split as we passed being busy talking with someone. One of the group, Harold carried a watch and would call splits for us as well as he ran.One thing that was very noticeable was the loose feeling of the group, these guys had fun and worked together not to say there weren’t egos involved.
After the workout I sat in the stands with coach, and we talked about my running and my upcoming race in London. I offered to show him my logs, but he said he got the idea. “Listen Willy you just keep showing up here and we all together will help you and you will help us. I don’t baby sit anyone here, if you don’t follow my instructions fine then go your own way. You are always welcome to run with this group and benefit.”We talked about my former coaches, “They are good men Willy, good coaches, but I have a feeling this group of more mature runners and this atmosphere will be better for you than being isolated out in Podunk.”
I mentioned my interest in running the Boston Marathon. “What!? The WAC laughed, you think you a tough guy? Willy, track racing is like breaking a finger, the marathon is like breaking both legs. Now let’s go to the clubhouse and have a drink.”
“Dream, dream, dream…. of the early day’s ascendant tripping off to London with my newly minted B-Town singlet. The dialectic with Coach Gerry and the ultimate learning experience. As I make the coffee and breakfast morsel my back aches low and I drag myself around the kitchen and try to get comfortable in my seat with my notes and reading materials. Another day around the Sun.”
I spent a few days back in Galway visiting with my family and friends and packing up what I needed for the apartment in Boston. My brother gave me a ride with my stuff and helped me move it in the apartment. Donnie let me put some stuff in his closet.
I worked at the local shoe factory job for a week and then left for Europe where the plan was to run the mile in London and a five k in Finland four days later.
I travelled to London alone but met up with some other athletes at Heathrow and we were taken to a Hostel at the Crystal Palace where the meet would be held. We had a few days before racing to rest up and get acclimated.
I was approached by one of the meet directors and asked to rabbit the race for the first half mile in 1:55. I just hoped I could pull that off, but also, I wanted to stay in the race and finish respectably. Desmond Wally from New Zealand might be attempting to run a sub 3:50 mile so I had an important part to play in it.
I was very nervous in the lead up to the race. The grand venue with 20,000 spectators and all of the foreign athletes, many of the best in the world. Once the spikes were on and the sweats came off the nervousness was gone. I was meant to be here destined and I would be myself just unwind that coil spring out there no need for shrewdness or over analyzing I be the rabbit the rabbit be me.
The pistol shot and I was the bullet breaking out to thunderous applause. I both floated and steamrolled down the back straight and into the curve I felt light as a feather and I hit 56 seconds for the first quarter. The next 300 yards went the same way but, in the home straight I began to lose my easy stride and the weight hit my shoulders and I felt I was falling, the second lap was 59 seconds.
I stayed on the rail as Desmond cruised past and then the majority of the rest of the field my next lap taking 68 secs and then I managed a 63-last lap for a 4:06 finishing dead fucking last.
I suited up and left quickly feeling like I was going to cry and I jogged around the athletic fields in a daze. Other groups of runners were milling around doing their warm ups and downs when Wally passed by and slapped me on the back, “Thank you mate, you did a good job.”
Well, I made $200. I guess I will take it and maybe I can salvage a good race over in Finland in a few days. Desmond Wally got beat by the local top British miler Colin Davey, an arrogant jerk cocky and in your face.
I went out to the Pub that night with some fellow competitors and I began to put the race in perspective and I realized how fortunate I was to be here and how unlikely it was that I would rabbit and run well. I did not consider myself a miler in any case. As I sipped my warmish beer and eyeballed the local talent a man sat beside me and chatted me up.
He was the director of a local road race and he asked if I was interested in competing in this race the same night that I was supposed to be in Finland. “What are they paying you to run over there?” “Nothing, it is going to cost me some money for expenses just getting over there.”
The road race was a five miler and he mentioned that Colin Davey was running and he also said he would pay me $250 to run. “I’m in.”
Coach Gerry would probably be pissed as he went through some trouble to get me the race in Finland but $250 was three weeks’ pay in the shoe shop. I could not afford to turn that down and I wanted a shot at Colin Davey.
I was thinking about how that great American Miler was quoted to say “Road Racing is Rock n’ Roll and Track & Field is Carnegie Hall.”
I managed to get the word back to Coach Gerry and to the meet organizers in Finland neither of whom seemed distressed. That is when I knew Coach Gerry was someone I could work with, someone who understood me and who understood the sport.
I had been trying out some new racing flats that the local company that I worked for gave me as prototypes. They were awesome, very light and cushioned perfectly to my liking. I did a two-mile time trial on the track in the new flats two days before the race in 8:50 feeling good.
Colin would be a tough nut to crack, a 800/1500m specialist and UK Record Holder he was also a very solid cross country and road racer though he did not run the roads often. The race was sponsored by a big department store and had some nice merchandise prizes for the top finishers guaranteeing a good field.
Race day dawned clear and beautiful. I packed all my things the night before as I would need to go directly to the airport immediately after the race, my ride was all arranged. The crowds at the start/finish area were large and enthusiastic. As I was warming up Colin came up behind me and said, “hey mate, how much “bob” you getting.” It took me a minute to understand. “Not enough, but after I win my stock will be rising.”
He laughed and sprinted away.
The start was a bit of mayhem but I put my foot on the gas and doubled the clutch and I was away. Colin spent the first few hundred yards waving and slapping hands with people so it was easy for me to get a lead I did not plan to relinquish. I was 4:20 at the mile and never looked back. I could hear people saying “B-Town?” and “Boston” and “Who is this guy?”
I was tempted to look back but I never liked to do that and also, I could tell I had a sizable lead from the crowd noise behind me which had grown faint. The crowd in the last half mile had closed in and I barely had room to run through this deafening gauntlet.
I finished in 22:10 breaking the course record by 45 seconds. I jogged straight to my awaiting car where my driver took me to the airport, changing into some jeans and a t shirt on the way. I won a color television which I had them ship to Annie the fire plug in Atlanta.
I felt like a rock star temporarily but once I was on the plane and on my way back to Boston I realized I would be back at the factory gluing shoes the next day.
I did not exactly return home the conquering hero as everyone seemed to know about my dead last in the mile but no one seemed to know about my road race win over Colin Davey. I settled into a routine with my roomies and teammates and was given another job temporarily in the shoe factory hanging insulation in the ceiling. This work was almost as back breaking and dangerous as gluing the shoes.
At some point Coach Gerry talked to the company owner and they managed to find me a desk job in the offices working with Donnie. When that happened, I took to running three times a day, usually five miles before work, then eight miles at lunch and then ten miles at night.
I did not have any big races planned until the fall as the team would be gearing up for the National Cross-Country Championships. I did run some all-comers track meets and road races almost every weekend.
I talked with Alby Thomas, my teammate who held the American Record in the marathon, about working in his running store which he had just opened. I ended up just working there on Saturdays and when I told friends and family I worked in a store dedicated to runners they were skeptical and thought that it was just a front for some illicit business. Eventually though this running thing became legit and overnight it seemed everyone became a runner and the Boston Marathon went from a few hundred runners to ten thousand.
And I was right in the middle of it all.
Coach Gerry thought I should go back to college. “Listen Willy, I love this running game more than anyone and it cost me a lot but I don’t regret any of it that is true.” “Coach, most of us don’t want to admit that all we really want to do is run, it’s like we’re ashamed of it or something, but not me. I am going to do this thing while I can and find out what I got and college can wait. College running does nothing for me. Those in the NCAA, corrupt, hypocritical bastards are even worse than the AAU.”
Coach laughed and I felt that he knew I sincerely meant what I was saying and that as someone just about to turn twenty-one I already knew the realities of this athletics game and I was all in as long as it lasted.
Alby preached professional running and more opportunities for “amateurs” to make a living and nearly every run with him turned into a diatribe against the AAU. In one interview he was asked what could be done with the powers that be if they didn’t provide better conditions for athletes. Alby said, “We’ll have to snip, snip, cut their balls off.”
Alby took a lot of heat for his comments in this interview in which he also revealed his disdain for the muscle sports pro sports like football and baseball that they were a fraud and that athletics had superior athletes.
I loved it but he really toned it down after this interview because the media were about to crush him if he kept it up. There were some who were sympathetic but when you began threatening to cut off body parts, well, you lose some support maybe. Yes, folks, running has its share of drama too.
In August I was planning to run a newly minted race in Falmouth on Cape Cod that was created by our bartender friend Francis who was also a runner ex-Marine and all around the most enthusiastic proponent of running on the entire planet. He certainly did more for our sport than the stinking AAU ever did.
The B-Town Bombers helped support the first few years as the race became established and then just took off. This year there will be eight hundred runners, holy cow!
After that it was on to a glorious fall and another shot at a cross country USA Champion Title.
This was about the time that I was hitting the peak of my enthusiasm, my wonderous awe of just being alive unaware of the waves about to break all around my head.
I received some media acknowledgement for my recent exploits, especially my triumph in the road race in London, including a photo of me in the B-Town singlet and local shoe company shoes, getting into the waiting car that would take me to the airport only minutes after my victory.
I am surrounded by spectators cheering and laughing and it is a shot of adrenaline every time I look at this photo.
I was reading many books about athletic heroes back through history and currently reading a little gem by seven-time Boston Marathon Champion Clarence DeMar who also made two Olympic teams winning a bronze medal in 1924 in Paris.
I had this idealism, I believed in the Olympic Oath and I would swear on the statue of Zeus, king of the gods of Mt Olympus. At the same time amateurism will never work, never could work and so many athletes’ careers have been destroyed because of this nonsensical edict.
I wanted to win the Boston Marathon and run in the Olympic Games, and a lot of smaller steps along the way to those goals are what motivated me to continue with almost maniacal devotion.
What I am trying to say is that I was conflicted but I determined that there is no way to reach any type of fulfillment until and unless you work at something until you are defeated and/or satisfied.
Only you will know whether it was a worthy cause.
I had a great summer and Falmouth would be a test of my fitness against some of the best Americans with a liberal sprinkling of foreigners thrown in. It had only taken a few years for Falmouth to become one of the most competitive races in the World.
I had met a girl; Mary and we had been on a few “dates” and she was running Falmouth as well. Mary picked me up at the store after my work shift and we drove to Falmouth with a friend of hers Suzie.
I had a hotel room where I was staying with three other athletes in a single room. The girls dropped me off there and went to the beach. Man, I wanted to join them, see the girls in their bikini’s ah but no, I had a race to run and it was hard to skip the party atmosphere.
I went for a short shake out run and then went out for pizza with my mates. I had one beer at dinner but my mates were well into the party time so I left them and went back to my room to read and hit the feathers early. Plenty of time to unwind after the race.
My mates came back. loud and drunk at about one A.M. and woke me up but at least by then I had gotten some good sleep. These jokers would be hurting in the morning.
It was a hot and humid race day. A bit of haze and fog was slowly burning off as we warmed up a bit in Woods Hole at the start. It was a tight squeeze to get situated on the starting line with the grated drawbridge. To run over you had to be cautious. I got swallowed up a bit but the first few miles took a toll little ups and downs and curves a bit like cross country. At the mile I was just behind a lead pack of ten or twelve and slowly worked my way up.
Just after three miles we hit the beach road, Surf Drive and the heat was intense, the sweat flying off from my body and a side stitch developing. I was in a lead pack of perhaps twelve. A tail wind created a heat vacuum as if running in the sauna. That ocean to our right looked very inviting. “Focus Willy, relax you are barely halfway get yourself some water from these girls up ahead in bikinis holy cow Francis told me it was like this but I never believed him!”
Into Falmouth Heights I was third and held that until the last downhill portion where I got passed by two competitors and finished sixth. Not too shabby. I went for a swim and walked back to the hotel and later went to the awards ceremony at the ball field at the finish line.
I never did see Mary and Suzie again that weekend no matter I had Monday off from the shoe factory and was planning to go to Martha’s Vineyard on Monday morning with a group of friends.
Drunken debauchery followed.
I located a seat up-front picture-perfect day late August. Yes, I have seen a few. A woman at the check-in asked if I was over seventy-five, haha. “What do I get? Some kind of prize?” I did my jog walk over the Falmouth course today. Surf Drive is no more than a path now with all the erosion and rising sea levels. I’ve never lost my attraction to this elbow of Massachusetts, the coastline and the Islands.
Off to Nantucket for a week maybe two trying to write this thing now that it is all I know, that and staying out of the way of all the up and comers, the doer’s, the go-getter’s man all I ever wanted was fuck this shit 0’clock time to hit.
Feeling good today though the run, jog, walk seven miles took me two and a half hours and the swim was nice and the pretty girlies on the beach ah my don’t take that away from me.
The Island Queen slipped out to sea and gently cruised and I stopped reading and let the waves rock and roll me to sleep. I travelled light with just a backpack and I rented a bike to transport me a few miles to my cottage. Friggin ‘place cost a fortune but worth it.
I got myself situated and then rode the bike to the General Store and Farm Stand to pick up supplies including beer and wine, which I had not had any of for a few months. I then took a two-hour nap and when I awoke had tea and sat at the laptop keyboard and banged away for hours quickly forgetting everything and remembering at the same time no punctuation sketchy grammar, hey who you writing for some nit-picking schoolmarms or the jokers talking trash down the corner just words “between the lines of age.”
Maybe unreadable for some, I can live with that. I just got to get something off my chest you know, out of my head onto the page let the chips fall where they may. Sun was setting now in more ways than ever so I grabbed two beers and went and sat on the porch and got my legs up and my ice bag first on the swollen knees yes, yes, yes. We all know time.
After Falmouth and my long weekend, I went back to my job at the shoe factory and settled into a solid routine of running with the Bombers. My roomies and I worked and played together, not sure which was an avocation.
It was hard to believe it had only been less than a year since my ankle sprain and fall while leading last year’s National with less than two miles to go. It was on my mind but my teammates helped me forget it and we were laser focused on winning the team race. Alby would not be running with us because he had the New York City Marathon coming up.
When you run cross country you can/can’t be too careful in those big races you have got to be a bit reckless that is the nature of it when all the work is done and you have physically prepared then running with abandonment becomes a plus those primordial feelings take over but don’t lose your concentration your focus don’t go daydreaming or you may wind up writhing on the ground wondering “wha!? Happened?”
Despite what had happened to me while competing in the high school state cross country meet, my love of running in this most natural state had got me fired up from the very beginning, it was like a bolide and I was still fired up. Can’t burn out if you never catch fire.
Many top post college runners were now joining up with the B Town Bombers the club had become a mecca. Our core group was focused and at the New England Championships Donnie, Neil and I went one, two, three and the team easily won the title.
Somehow Coach Gerry got us into the Canadian National in Halifax and we won there too as invited guests. There were hay bales to hurdle on the course and it was a bit more authentic on a very hilly golf course over twelve k. more like traditional European races.
Cross Country in the States was much tamer by comparison.
The New York City Marathon had grown in stature since they had changed the course now starting on the Verrazano Bridge and encompassing all five borrows of the city finishing in Central Park. I was becoming more intrigued with the marathon despite what Coach had told me.
The conventional wisdom was that the marathon was for the older and slower runners who were losing their speed tapped out on the shorter distances or maybe were never all that good, the masochists. I felt instinctively that the marathon would someday be my best event. And what was I waiting for? I had been a fairly high mileage runner from the beginning so it would not require much of an adjustment.
Neil had run a 2:15 and I felt I was every bit his equal and that gave me a lot of confidence. The National Cross was in Seattle in two weeks and after that I would aim for Boston in April but I wasn’t planning on letting anyone know that I had decided.
Our last hard workout before leaving for Seattle was on the track at Boston State. It was a wintry day with temperatures in the 30’s and even some snow flurries. We met Coach Gerry at six P.M. and it was cold and dark in the cavernous stadium with only a few lights at the corners of the track. We had a brief discussion about the workout which was to start with a two mile run in under nine minutes.
There were just four of us doing the workout so we took turns leading a half mile each. I was feeling the tuna sandwich I had for lunch and the cold was shocking for the first few laps but we got the job done and ran eight fifty-five.
We jogged two laps and then ran a mile in four eighteen. After that we conferred with the coach and just Neil and I carried on with a three quarter in three fifteen, and that was it.
“Hey Neil, my penis is frozen, I forgot to wear my fur lined jock.” “Ya Willy I may wear some pantyhose out there in Seattle.” “Neil, you probably look pretty good in those with your chicken legs.”
Donnie chimed in “froze my balls off, let’s get back and showered up and head to the clubhouse. Alby is being interviewed about the New York Marathon coming up by the TV News Media and he would like us there doing what we usually do after workouts.
When we arrived at our clubhouse, a neighborhood bar where our friend Francis bartended there was a table arranged for all us Bombers and a television crew were filming. Francis had hung photos of Alby and other legendary runners on one wall and it was becoming a mecca for local runners and out of town runners as well.
A friend and reporter for the local newspaper Billy Boom Boom was holding court. Billy was adamant about the importance of television coverage for more top running and track & field events. An author who was writing a book about the Boston Marathon was also at the table and Alby looked bemused by it all.
We joined the group and devoured our pizza and beer. We all chimed into to the lively conversation before the film crew had heard and seen enough and left.
It was an exciting time to be a runner in Boston and it seemed like something important was happening in Athletics. Our sport was suddenly on the radar and the Boston marathon was the premier event. Unfortunately, the organizers of the marathon did not get the memo and carried on as if it were 1950 or maybe even 1897. Even though some of the individuals who worked in the governing of athletics and the organizing had hearts of gold, they had their heads buried in the sand.
Next week cross country nationals would be a big test for me and my goals could not be any loftier, win the individual and team titles. If I could accomplish that perhaps I would get a big shoe company contract so I could get a decent place to live and focus on running alone instead of going to the factory every day. Either way, After that go all out/in for the Boston Marathon in April.
A respite— just awakened from a long nights rest in my little tent overlooking a mountain stream. Fell asleep the previous evening at sunset after writing that apotheosis of my life examined spending hours holed up in my little room and then driving straight here.
I had written this before many times looking for just the right feeling of the point in a young mans life but not quite sure I got it right, never would be.
Since retiring I had pared my life down slowly getting rid of things like my phone with all the bells and whistles and getting a very basic phone I rarely used.
I now wrote almost entirely in notebooks and filled a small bookcase with them in my tiny office.
I had an old laptop to connect to the internet and email, placed on a table I had made my desk and surrounded myself with bookcases and a few mementoes.
Closing in on a half century from the halcyon days having lived a charmed life but still a seeker for peace and truth.
It was a cloudy day, I restarted my campfire from the previous evening, boiled water for some instant coffee, drank some juice and ate half a bagel with some strawberry jam.
I read my ramblings from the day before and then prepared for my run/walk/hike.
I ran a slow mile to the trailhead and then hiked for an hour to the summit of a small mountain. Sitting looking out in the distance I could see the course of my life amounting to nothing in the void. Nothing but a few remembrances.
I chuckled to myself as I thought of that line from Randy Newman’s Harps & Angels; “ You ain’t been a good man and you ain’t been a bad man. But you been, pretty bad.”
I retraced my steps back to my campsite had a bowl of soup and read a novel very much like the one I was writing only better more refined more perfection. I felt a deep seated need not to be so. Not laziness exactly but not far from it.
Peaceful moments in a life’s journey.
We headed to Seattle big old jet airliner the boys from Boston the Boston Bombers taking on the rest of the country including my old team from last year Broken Arrow.
A great group of guys but I never felt truly a part being an outsider and everything else that went on during my time with them, man what a long, strange trip and a whirlwind life is.
I had a bit of a serious talk with Neil on the way as we both thought we had a chance at the individual title though Neil had spoken about it to everyone and anyone who would listen, and I never mentioned it saw no point in doing so.
We went over who was running well and what the course might be like and strategized different scenarios. Hernandez would be there, and he would be tough and the Buffaloes from Colorado some of whom had been training partners while I was in Colorado two summers ago taking in that whole scene.
I felt settled in Boston but nothing lasts so I was holding fast trying to savor it but I needed this win after last year and I did know that on any given day I could be that best cross country runner in the country.
We had a few days in Seattle before the race and went to some tourist sites up in the Space Needle and over to the Pikes Place Market. We ran over the course a golf course not terribly challenging but one nasty hill right at the end that I thought would help me as hills were my strong point and recovery from the top of the hill to the finish line.
Our local shoe company sponsor had set up a photo shoot as well. They now made clothing as well and so we were the models and there were endless takes.
Coach Gerry didn’t give much of his usual sermon and I always felt he favored Neil over me thought Neil had his shit together and I was a flake. Now I will tell you I considered Neil a good friend but there was no one I enjoyed beating more than my friend and teammate. Personally I thought with my outlook on life something that was engrained in me and no use fighting it, well I was the sanest person I ever met and not a flake far from it. I took charge of my life, held my own suffered the slings and arrows and was ready to win a National Championship. How I went about that was my own business though I collaborated with Coach and my teammates at the end of the day I had to live with me.
I played the race over in my head the day before and my plan was to hang with the leaders for the first six miles and make a strong move in the leadup to that final hill then bust a gut up the hill and hope I was in front and able to stay there for the final two hundred yards.
And my friends that is exactly the way it played out I laid back nicely worked my way through at four miles we had a group of six including Neil and Hernandez. I felt good, cruise control and impatient. Each time we passed Coach he would scream for Neil and once he even gave me a shout which just poured more gas on my fire and at five and a half miles, I was off and committed only issue was that Hernandez was right with me and stayed there to the top of the hill where we both sprinted and remained side by side until the tape where I just barely eked by him whew!
Neil was third but the Bombers finished second in the team race behind the Buffaloes. We partied like frat boys anyway, looking for love in all the wrong places and swore we would get the job done next year.
The thrill of victory passed quickly into a form of relief. I had proved myself to the fans who followed athletics my next goal was the tippity toper most. BOSTON.
Not bad for a flake.
I returned to Boston with the Bombers as a conquering hero. No, I didn’t but a small group of friends met me at the airport with a hand-written sign “Congratulations Willy our new National Cross-Country Champion.”
It was embarrassing but appreciated and from there we went to our clubhouse to celebrate a bit with our family and friends. The local paper had a mention of my victory but no story and I was interviewed by a famous writer from “Sports Illustrated.”
I was asked about future plans and I was vague with my answers not announcing my intention to run Boston wanting to keep that under my hat for some reason. It wasn’t that I was unsure I only wanted any pressure on myself to be self-directed, that was a motivating factor for me.
I didn’t want to be asked a lot of questions that were difficult to answer without putting myself on the spot. I knew for example that I would be asked about my teammate two-time winner Alby who was ranked number one in the world and I didn’t want to think about an answer.
That said, I was up for the challenge. At the moment I was focused on a meeting I was having with the local shoe company and hoping I could get a good enough contract to quit my current job there and just run and do some marketing and promo work when needed.
We were moving out of our apartment soon where I was more or less of a squatter anyway, so I needed to find a new place. I had been offered a position in a new running related store in Norwell on the South Shore. It would be part time which would be perfect if I could only get a bit more from my shoe company sponsor.
I met with them and things were a little tense as Neil was on the negotiating team and that made me uncomfortable but they did make me a decent offer, not what I had hoped for but I would make it work.
They gave me a bonus for winning the national and I went straight from the meeting to look for a car. I had never owned one in my life but I had a friend, Chuck, my future employer in Norwell pick me up and take me to a car lot owned by a friend of his.
I looked at the few cars that I might be able to afford and then I set eyes on a 1969 Fiat Spider, a little two-seater convertible, red. Chuck just shook his head. “Willy, it’s a beauty but not too practical.” “How much is it?”
“Eighteen Hundred.” “I can do fifteen, one hundred down, one hundred a month.”
Chuck drove a little Mercedes 280 SL so what the hell, we were young let’s have some fun. The store had a company car anyway, a station wagon we could use for moving inventory between stores and going to local road races.
Next up Chuck showed me a house in Scituate Harbor he intended to rent for the winter. “Hey Willy, you can live here with me and I won’t charge you too much rent.”
I stayed down the South Shore for a week, got my car squared away and went for a long ride out to the tip of Cape Cod where I went for a run on the dunes in Truro. I had a cassette deck installed and bought the Stones “Some Girls” and blasted it as I zipped down the road. I felt like a rock star National Cross-Country Champ, take that.
On the weekend I borrowed the company car and drove to Boston where I loaded my things from the apartment up and then headed to my new home. Feels dumb to say it now but at the time that Spider car was like my best friend. I did my best thinking driving around in my new environment, checking out possible running routes with my top down even in the cool weather ya baby, how you like me now!
Age is hitting me full force today but not so much physically but the weight of all my accumulated experiences melding together my brain is tired, I don’t want to remember everything I only want to put it in its proper place so that I can better understand but it is impossible I am only pretending writing will coalesce it all, a lifetime.
I am in my rocker watching the wind through the tree’s way off in the distance and the Sun setting a blue sky and white puffy clouds overhead, timeless. I had the same feeling driving the Fiat with the top down on a country road heavily forested, music ringing in my ears.
Making the best out of a bad joke, life was simplistic then or was it? I am trying to go back and figure it out, how one thing led to another how I am here today reflecting but it’s time to head inside, it is fall cooling down, I make a fire and sit in front of it watching the flames.
I think now more in the present: the long walk I did today and the meatball sandwich I stopped to eat at the Botanical Gardens with the views of the mountain in the distance I thought about Thoreau and his friend Richard Fuller walking to the mountain from Concord in 1842.
I was a good tired, the wine and the chocolates and the warmth of the fire. And the writing seemed to be coming together. I at least knew where I wanted to go with it. I just had to figure out how I was going to get there. Hell, I couldn’t stop writing this thing if I wanted to, it is my white whale.
At some point in the walk I picked up a walking stick and a neighbor of mine drove up beside me as I walked on the road about ten mile from my home and offered me a ride. “Willy, where are you going?” “Nowhere in particular, just walking.” “How far?” “Well I guess all told about twenty miles.”
The neighbor shook his head and laughed. “Willy, want me to take your picture and send it to you?” “I don’t care.” I knew I probably looked ridiculous or worse suspicious. Anyone walking with no place to go seemed a pitiable offense to some
Living on the water in Scituate Harbor was nice and the first few months the weather was perfect and I fell into a solid routine with my running schedule and work. But after the holiday’s things got grim and running high mileage in the brutal weather with heavy snow was taking a toll.
I had invited Alby and Neil and some other Bombers down to do a long run and have a meal afterwards. I had recently won a turkey at a road race and I tossed it in the oven just before we headed out to run. Alby and Neil were planning to go to either Florida or Arizona or both for about six weeks. They told me that I was welcome to join them.
They both assumed that I would enter Boston and understood my reasoning in being coy. I had not talked to Chuck about it yet but I intended to remove to warmer climes, I just needed to find someone to fill in for me at the store. I had recently started re-soling shoes and I would have to train someone what little I knew so that they could back me up.
Me and my Spider car went for a long ride to talk things through. “Tempo freddo Guglielmo.” I know we need a road trip to Florida.” “Per Favore e grazie.” The Fiat Spider needed the warm weather worse than I did and so it was agreed.
Over the next few weeks I sorted things out at the store and got the Spider tuned up. I spent my evenings looking over road maps and planning my route.
It had been a while since my cross-country bus travels and I was excited to get back on the road just taking my time and getting imy runs in every day “I was never less alone than when by myself.”
Alby and Neil were in the South Miami area where the weather hit eighty degrees just about every day. I was grateful for the time to think, I was no longer working closely with Coach Gerry. I’m not sure why, just a feeling I got that I wasn’t a big priority of his like Neil was and Alby to some extent as well.
I had begun to think that coaching was for insecure people who needed to be told what to do but on the other hand that might be exactly what I was looking for from Coach Gerry, more the personal connection he seemed to have with Neil. I felt he just talked all over me and never would be a good listener what every coach should be. I guess deep down I didn’t think he respected me but maybe it was all in my head. “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
My National Cross-Country win had given me a lot of confidence but the marathon was a different animal.
My win had given me an automatic spot on the World Cross Country team and I was planning to run with Team USA in Warsaw, Poland in March.
So much looking forward then why oh why was I always looking back, cause something unresolved hanging there and that is the essence of my story if and when I ever get there.
I hit the road early, the wind and waves crashing over the sea wall, the Spider and I shivered our way out of town. I was heading to New York where I would stay overnight with Pete and I would do my run from there where hopefully the weather would not be so atrocious.
It was a slog of a ride in the sleet rain and snow and traffic. I tried to pack light as the Spider didn’t have much room in the boot. My running shoes alone took up half of the space. I had a shoe box full of cassette tapes and also managed to land on a few good radio stations.
Late in the day, getting dark I gave up trying to get to Pete’s and pulled off the highway just outside the city and found a hotel. I got settled in my room and headed out for a run. There was nowhere safe to go so I ran about a hundred laps or more around the block for an hour and a half. As I walked back into the hotel the people at the front desk eyeballed me soaking wet, I think they had witnessed me pass the front door about every three minutes for over an hour.
“That’s right people, I got gumption and I’m a little crazy too, like a fox.” I settled into my room with a warm shower and some pasta and wine from room service and I felt a whole lot better.
Yes, it seems I was living large, no? But my life as an athlete might be wiped out without warning for a variety of reasons. I suppose that is the risk we all take just awakening to a new day.
“Be grateful for each new day.
A new day that you have never lived before.
Twenty-four new, fresh, unexplored hours
to use usefully and profitably.
We can squander, neglect or use it.
Life will be richer or poorer by the way we use it today.
Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could;
some blunders and absurdities crept in;
forget them as soon as you can.
Tomorrow is a new day.
You shall begin it well and serenely
and with too high a spirit to be encumbered
with your old nonsense.” Emerson
I relaxed and re-read “Long Hard Road” , an autobiography by the great Ron Hill of England. I fell asleep early and slept long and hard.
In the morning I called Pete and explained that I needed to proceed to Florida forthwith but hoped to catch him on the rebound. I ran around the block again in the morning for a half hour and then swam some laps in the tiny motel pool.
The Spider and I got back on the road determined for a better day on the roads, and it was starting magnificently as we drove across the George Washington Bridge, sun shining the glare of the water and the inscrutable city block upon block of it. “Let’s pick up the pace and maybe I will go for a run on the beach tonight.”
“Posso volare” And as we headed south my mind wandered and I rehashed where I had come from and where I had been so far in my young life. I just knew I wanted more, please just one more day, stick around and make the best of it to see what happens.
Today we were moving and the Spider was purring as we flew down the road doing about 75 MPH. I was planning to stop in Richmond Virginia and go for an hour run and then if I was feeling okay I would grab some fast food burgers and a gallon of water and proceed to Myrtle Beach where I had promised the Spider and myself a day of rest.
It would take about eleven hours which would get me to the beach at eight o’clock at night. It would be the longest distance I had ever driven in a day as I usually cannot stand to be in a car for more than a few hours, but today I was going for it.
The three hundred plus miles until just outside of Richmond passed by in a daze of white lines, cars and trucks exit signs and a bright sun. I located Pocahontas State Park and pulled the Spider into the visitor center parking lot. “Have a bit of rest Spidey, I’m heading out on what looks like a lovely trail and stretch my legs.”
I spoke with a ranger who provided a trail map and some information. The park was first created by the Civilian Conservation Corps and run by the National Park Service. It was later donated to the Virginia State Parks.
I ran on the Old Mill Trail at an easy pace. It felt so good to get the blood flowing. There were very few people around at this time of day and this time of year and it was very calming after the noise and rush of the interstate. By the time I finished my run I was beginning to lose my resolve to press on to South Carolina. I decided to get a few provisions and get back on the highway and go as far as I could without falling asleep.
And I did feel sleepy after I wolfed down my burger and fries so I made another stop for coffee.
I felt revived and decided I could do it and it helped that I found the right music Supertramp “Breakfast in America”
“Long Way Home”
“When you look through the years and see what you could have been Oh, what you might have been If you would have more time.” I sang along at the top of my lungs.
“That’s right Willy-boy” I said to myself. “No regrets, no sir we are going to run ‘till we drop, take no prisoners and burn right out like a flame in the wind.”
I found a hotel close to the beach and got checked in and then got my running gear on and went for a twenty-minute barefoot run on the beach. It was nine o’clock and dark but there was a full moon rising. I ran in the ankle-deep waters and then when I finished I took a quick plunge. It was temperatures in the fifties but the water was nice.
I showered quickly and settled down with a six pack and some snacks to watch Celtics Basketball. It was a good day.
Lost my head today at a reunion of old running friends nearly broke down so overwhelmed I got to pull it together and get to the bottom of my soul grind it out but why—just a very strong urge. Even in the beginning the simple act of the movement began to give me a purpose in life. What about now? Happy to get out and stumble around at twelve-minute pace but that works similar to before when I was young, very young.
I remember a visit to the State Hospital where we waited outside the place on a park bench for Ma while I watched the squirrels manically chasing each other around under the trees of fall, rustling the leaves. Ma came and she’d been crying. She sat next to me on the bench and held “her Willy’s” hand. “Willy, they don’t understand us, do they? Why should I be kept away from my own little boy? How is that going to help me get better?”
I hugged her tight and never ever saw her alive again.
In the morning the Fiat wouldn’t start and it was raining and windy and a near hurricane outside. I had planned to spend the day here anyway to rest but I might be busier than expected. I went out to run for an hour in ridiculously bad conditions and the hotel lost power. I was one of just a few guests and the management came to my room and told me I should vacate. I explained the car was not starting so they came back with some supplies for me, blankets and a lantern and I hunkered down under the covers.
In the afternoon I went out for a run/swim. The Police stopped me and forced me to get into the car for a ride back to the hotel. “Son, you might be crazy.” “Yah, either that or I’m a Viking and a Spartan and a potential Olympic Champion.”
Hell, of a day. I curled up under the covers reading, “Sometimes A Great Notion” by Ken Kesey, a hell of a book. I also wrote in my journal which had become a travelogue. Sometime during the night, I heard the power come back on. I got up and looked outside to a starry full moon sky. Even the temperature was warm for the calm after the storm.
It was just before midnight and I felt the compulsion to run a few miles and I wound up going for an hour. After returning and having a quick shower I hit the feathers and slept like a baby.
In the morning I ran for a half hour and then packed up the Fiat. The hotel manager helped me push the Fiat out of the parking spot and then he jumped in his car and gave me a push and I popped the clutch to get the car started. And with a wave I was off to Gainesville Florida where I knew an acquaintance who would put me up for a few days.
I had been thinking about Boston and running my first marathon and how likely it was that I would do well, after all I had all the ingredients and deep down I felt that I could not afford to fail. “Only running?” you say? Not to me. This was a war and Boston would be a strategic battle in it.
Gainesville, home of the University of Florida and the Florida Track Club was not exactly a running mecca but for a time. The novel “Once A Runner” by John Parker set there was considered by many to be the best running novel. I loved it but I also like biographies of the best athletes and found them more inspiring and motivational.
The Fiat seemed to be running well so I stopped for gas and a stretch out walk I turned the car off and then it wouldn’t start. The gas station attendant tested the battery and told me I needed a new one but he didn’t have the size I needed in his inventory. He got one of his co-workers to help him give me a push start and I popped the clutch again to get rolling all the way to Gainesville.
I arrived in the early evening and Glen, a college student getting his masters degree, met me at the track facility. I had only met Glen once and didn’t really know him well. He introduced me to some of the guys on the track team and then we all headed out for a run.
“Hey Willy, what are you pointing for, Penn Relays? I saw you run in Knoxville last year and I thought you would have broken the American Record if it had not been for the heat.” “Yah, I ran a dumb race, at least my coach thought so. He let me go from the Spiridon team in Atlanta but I’m okay with that.”
I told him maybe Penn and that I just had not decided yet. Where I knew it was Boston and “damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.”
Gainesville seemed like a great place and I began to wonder why I shouldn’t just stay here but I was low on funds and I had a free place to stay in Miami with Alby and Neil. I replaced the battery in the Fiat and got an oil change and tune up. Cost me a fortune but it had to be done.
Before I left I did a workout at the track with Glen running twenty-five quarters, not the legendary sixty of Quentin Cassidy but a nod to him. The next morning, I drove the five hours to Miami stopping to gas up and stretch out for a walk.
When I arrived, Neil was sitting by the pool reading a book and Alby was taking a nap. Alby had his wife Diane there with him as well. “Hey Willy, you just missed Kurt and Ben. They were here for the past week and may be coming back.” “Yah Neil, well it was a long ride and last night I did a tough workout on the track up in Gainesville.”
Willy and I got caught up and he told me about his recent trip to Japan with Alby to run a big 30 k race over there. “Since we got back two weeks ago we have been going ten in the morning and ten in the evening and twenty on Sunday, and a track workout usually on Tuesday’s. We got a couple of really nice loops including some dirt trails along the canal.” “Sounds good Neil, what are you doing for fun?” “We talked about going to the Glades for a boat ride but we haven’t made it yet.”
And so, it went.
We got stuck into the rhythm of daily life in our little enclave. Sometimes we went to the beach for a few hours and had a swim or a run on the beach. The locals thought we were crazy swimming in the cold seventy-degree water. Diane took care of most of the cooking duties and we ate like demons. We ate plenty of pizza as well, Neil would eat an entire large pizza on his own.
We did make a trip to the Glades just Alby and I for some reason. Our guide in the Air Boat was a character and older black gentleman, a lyrical speaker in his descriptions of the gators who he seemed to know personally, he had a long pole to steer the boat around in some tight spots and whack the gators on the snout if they got too close. “That your River Turkey, fur on his body, feathers on his head and tail.”
After the tour we went out for a meal of catfish and hush puppies washed down with a cold one. “Woo doggy.”
The weeks passed quickly and we all ran a race or two. I ran a local five miler and came home with a huge trophy which I left on the mantelpiece of the house when I returned to Boston. I had started reading a book by Bob Hodge, a pretty good runner from back in the day and there were some amazing similarities between us, the same also as I had found reading biographies of others of our ilk.
This one hit me like a force of nature:
Heterodoxy or Life as a Stranger
“The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain
I understood at some moment in my life perhaps around age 13 that I had a tendency to stand alone feel apart somehow if in a large crowd of people I would feel claustrophobic and want out hopefully to a quiet place a forest.
Also in my thoughts I in some way went against the grain and I even remember having my first sort of philosophical debate with someone at a house party age 16 or 17 regarding the relative worth of say a MD versus a Garbage Man of course I regarded the Garbage Man as highly as a physician crazy huh?
I was feeling the pull of some invisible force within me my head and my heart were telling me be calm life has its tragedies and my family had suffered a few and I wondered how long would my life go on and where others despaired or determined to be a success in some career and put the past behind them I determined to run myself into the ground because that feeling the out of body like experience was all that lasted.
It is a thrill to see how far you can push your mind and body and not always healthy but when I raced and I began to know my competitors I recognized others of my persuasion when my teammates would refer to them as “sick” and “not right” they were going to be the best runners no doubt. If someone referred to me that way I considered it a compliment.
In my teens I felt ungainly in my body certainly not an athletic physique just a scrawny kid but when I ran in my mind I was powerful and I proved it to myself by running away from my competitors or most of them.
As I became more immersed in athletics and read the great athletic biographies and strongly identified with the athletes I read about I realized many of them were just like me when they were my age and that I might become transcendent.
Though I was calm on the outside a petard grew on the inside where I raged and it went off when I raced. Otherwise I was very quiet in a group shy even but immediately after a race on the ride home you could not shut me up I was momentarily a different animal still wired from the experience adrenaline staggering and swaggering punch drunk.
And yet I could be morose. One time a friend’s dad asked me “does your father beat you?” Everyone laughed. I gave him the finger.
.As I moved through my teen years and through high school I knew that I could not conform it was only later that I turned this on myself and decided that for me the way I was built conforming would be a form of non-conformity.
Mind games tricks that we play on ourselves at eighteen I thought I knew it all the ways of the world and I did too but then later I met someone…..
“Hey Willy, how you doing today?”
I was snapped from my reverie, old man I am sitting on a park bench having just finished lunch I look out over the sleepy little village in which I sit the once verdant hills still leafy in late November —Thanksgiving soon ah, every day is thanks giving though I could not tell you the day of the week or maybe even what year was the present.
It was a cool day but with a warm sun on my face, my surroundings, the general store, the old town hall, the church and the library. Even the annoying cars on the road seemed fewer and further apart than usual.
I had avocado toast for lunch and it brought back the memory of my first taste of them avocado fruits down in South Miami, the house that we occupied nearly squatters we were and with the fruit bearing trees. The runs in the Coconut Grove, the squawking parrots overhead as the sun set we ran shirtless bodies tanned, rib cages accentuated.
Every day routines are something to strive for and something to get away from but for now I got this bench and the library sanctuary where I spend my time alone contemplating my navel with only a few quick hello’s each day to interrupt my flow.
I mostly ride my bicycle and leave the car at home hardly used. When you step away from the car and walk or hike or bike everywhere your entire view of the world changes.
“A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourist can in a hundred miles.” Edward Abbey
In my mind current state, I have been in Florida many years gone by ago, the “sunshine state” might want to let the sun shine in nowadays, oh well, boohoo. Young Willy boy running away running through running back a life on the run as is natural when you have the affinity for it and deep down everyone does.
Dear reader, I am possibly hitting the apex of this story and after that in the final part of the trilogy comes the time of the end of the season and that challenge will be formidable and long lasting.
To my surprise the owner of the house we were staying in showed up one day in mid-March. He said we could stay as long as we wanted but Alby had already left and Neil and I were planning to leave at the end of the week.
He was some kind of car buff and took a shine to my Fiat Spider. “Hey Willy, how much you want for the Spider?” We haggled a bit but when he offered twice what I paid for it and told me about a 69 Mustang a friend of his had for sale, that sealed the deal.
The Mustang was a classic and in great shape with more room for my gear, all I needed now was a cassette deck so I could blast my favorite tunes all the way back up to Boss-town. It had been a productive time in Miami and I was happy to have made the trip. The weather back home would be shocking after the balmy conditions here. I had grown a beard and my hair was a big bush. I also had a deep tan, probably looked like a refugee.
I was feeling very good though, confident and fit. I looked forward to more adventures driving home. Just before I left I received a package from home with my mail and also some new shoes from my sponsor. My Dad had sent some news clippings from the local rags about the upcoming Boston Marathon.
Boston required a qualifying time and I didn’t know of any way to get around it so I was planning to run a marathon in DC just to get the qualifier which was 2:50. I assumed it would be an easy effort and did not plan on running hard or going for the win. It was three weeks before Boston.
I was planning to spend a day or two in Atlanta to see the fire plug, my Annie. She was still working at the Spiridon Store and working with my old coach Sal. I went on a test drive in the Mustang down to the keys, windows rolled down radio blasting and I pulled over at a roadside stand for a Cubano Sandwich. Sitting on the beach I felt alive right here right now.
In the morning I was up before the dawn, very unusual for me, and I was out the door for a two-hour run. I returned and said some good bye’s and hit the road. I was hoping to go all the way to Atlanta and surprise the fire plug. I had not realized how I missed that girl and just some female companionship. It would be a ten-hour ride to Atlanta but having Annie at the end of the journey kept me motivated and me and the Mustang had a lot to discuss.
I had sent the fire plug a letter to tell her that I was planning to visit on my way back home and that had been a few weeks ago now and I had not heard back from her. Over the past few months I had not been able to stop thinking about her and I thought maybe I was in love with her and love is love and not fade away.
I could not wait to get to Atlanta and bare my soul, she loves me, she loves me not and the Mustang roared down the highway and I, all one hundred twenty pounds of me, brown from the sun, wiry bushy haired and bearded, tapping away to the music, what’s not to love.
A few hours outside of Atlanta I called Annie from a pay phone at a diner. “Hey fire plug, I have something to tell you.” “Me too Willy, can’t wait to see you.” I had the Mustang in high gear as I swept down the highway to see my baby, and I mulled over what to say, how to convey my feelings. I was hoping Annie would move to Boston with me, just pack up and go. I arrived at the house at around eight o’clock at night and I could see that there was some sort of party going on. I was thinking “Wow, they are throwing me a party.”
I pulled into the driveway and Annie ran to me and gave me a big hug. “Hey Willy you are right on time to help us celebrate. Dickie and I are engaged.” I was stunned, you could have hit me with a bat right then and there. “Holy shit fire plug, you and jocko are a couple, well how bout that.”
I joined the party and it seemed like Annie didn’t even notice how devastated I was being all wrapped up in her engagement and such. Dickie wanted to talk running and for maybe the first time ever I had no interest. “Willy, I know you and Annie were sort of a couple for a while but you moved on and life moved on.” “You right jocko, I’m just a bit surprised. I’ll get over it.”
When no one was paying attention, I slinked away, got into my car and up and left. Maybe it was just the fatigue of a long day and seeing Annie and jocko so happy together but I was balling and hurt badly. I found a hotel beside the highway and settled in for a long sleep. I wrote in my journal for an hour what a sap I was , I castigated myself for being such an idiot.
I had been hurt very badly when my Mom died when I was ten years old, but that was different. I wondered about the Athletics game and how I made running my mistress, my life. Was I running toward something or away or both? I started writing Annie a letter… sleep overcame me.
I slept a very long deep sleep and awoke mid-morning unsure of even where was I. I rounded up some coffee and sat reading, first “Long Hard Road” by English athlete Ron Hill and later “Desolation Angels” by Jack Kerouac both of which I had read over and over again.
I went for a short run, just thirty minutes and then made a phone call to the race director of the DC Marathon. He informed me that the weather for this weekend’s race was not looking good at all. It looked about one hundred percent likely that it would snow steadily the entire day. “Hey Billy, you won’t cancel it will you?” “No Willy, not unless city officials make me do it and I don’t think that will happen. We have a small field of about one hundred runners, about twenty-five of whom will be trying to get the Boston Qualifier.”
I spent the day in the hotel room reading and finishing up my letter to Annie. In the afternoon I went for a run and dropped the letter in a mailbox and felt like I had gotten a lot off my chest and that it was a kind of closure. I wasn’t gonna die over no broken heart, Willy Desmarais don’t play that. I would hopefully see Dickie at Boston and I was planning to attend their wedding in June, if they still invited me after my rudeness, leaving their party without saying goodbye.
The next morning after a short run I packed up the Mustang planning to drive about halfway to DC and I arrived in Greensboro NC in the late afternoon. It was a chilly day in late March and the first run I did in a full track suit in about two months. I stayed in a dive motel with no television and I had a pizza and some beer and a radio station playing some bluegrass hillbilly music. I took a warm bath and toweled off before diving into a creaky bed and I hunkered down with my books and a kind of euphoria enveloped me.
Billy had invited me to stay with him and his family outside DC. He was around fifty years old and had run a two thirty-four marathon and run in the 1968 Olympic Marathon Trial in Alamosa CO. He was one of those characters in our sport who dedicated his life to it, starting the DC Roadrunners Club and hosting many races in the area.
Billy encouraged anyone who wanted to compete and many who ran only for fitness but his heart was with the racers and he helped many runners with coaching and life support, finding jobs that would allow athletes time to train and other financial support. I had found that there were some in our sport, and I know this sounds ridiculous but there are some that believe that working hard at it, devoting your life to it as Billy had done and as I was doing was like cheating. They believed that you should have a full-time job and train the bare minimum amount.
I always thought that this line of thinking is incongruous with sport itself. How will the USA compete at a high level with other nations with backward thinking as these people had?
I arrived at Billy’s in the late afternoon and he was heading out to the course to put some signage up and make sure the route was ready. The sky was already dark and ominous. It was a loop course that started and finished, at a Pub. We dressed in running gear and ran parts of the course as we went. Back at the Pub I met some of the DC Runners and had a pint or two of Guinness. We all agreed to help each other to maintain the sub two fifty pace we needed.
Tomorrow never knows.
I awoke at seven a.m. and peaked out the window. It was snowing and covering the ground. The race started at nine, so I had some time to try and figure out what to wear to try and stay warm enough. Billy and his wife and kids had already left the house by the time I got downstairs to the kitchen where I found a note from Billy.
“Willy, help yourself to whatever you need, there is some coffee on the stove. The guys will be there to pick you up at 8:00” I had some coffee and toast and juice and then drank a couple of glasses of water, good enough. I laid out my stuff and filled my rucksack with dry clothing for afterwards. I was a bit nervous because anything could happen in this weather, and I had to get that time to run Boston.
On a decent weather day running sub two fifty would be no problem, a longish training run. I was planning to aim for a time over thirty minutes faster in Boston three weeks from now. I decided to run in shorts as I thought my track pants would just get soaked anyway. But I had to protect my penis, so I went through my socks until I found one suitable to drop my package into.
The guys picked me up and they were all quite jovial considering what we were about to go through. I hoped we would have a large pack so we could take turns at the front of the group. Billy tried to have people at every mile marker because we would not be able to see them on the road with the snow.
Twenty minutes before the race was set to begin, most of the competitors were huddled in the pub. When it was time Billy came in and shouted, “all competitors in the frostbite marathon to the start line.” Five minutes later we were off, only fifty-four runners.
The conditions were atrocious with blowing snow and we could barely see a few yards in front of ourselves. I spent the first few miles trying to get warm, my bare legs were just numb. At five miles there were ten of us in a group, I think, and we traded off the two at the front every mile.
We were sixty-five minutes for the first ten miles, and we were trying to hold a six-and-a-half-minute pace approximately. There were some good Samaritans along the way offering us drinks and dry hats, gloves, shirts etc. We would pass the Pub finish line just after the hallway point and as we did, we lost three of our group.
I was feeling okay but developing blisters and I knew my feet would be a mess. I had worn racing flats that I usually went barefoot in but had decided to wear sox due to the extreme cold. A big mistake that was. At fifteen miles it was down to four of us and we were all doing reasonably well. The snowplows and road salters were our biggest problem as they could not see us or us them, but we could hear them coming and would guess where we needed to be on the road to avoid them.
At one point just before twenty miles we were pelted with road salt that stung the frozen skin on my legs. At twenty-three miles approximately, I turned to the other three, “guys, I’m going to pick it up and just get this thing done.” “Go for it Willy.”
I steadily pulled away, but I could feel my calf muscles threatening to cramp. As I approached the finish, I spotted the lead truck ahead of me which I had not seen the entire race. I finished the race in front of about twelve people most of whom were loved ones and family members and a few reporters and photographers.
Billy hustled me inside the Pub with a reporter following and asking questions like “What was it like out there?” Duh.
I was escorted into a back room and pulled my dry clothing out of my bag. The front half of my right shoe was red with blood. As I pulled my shoes off my socks were completely covered with blood. “Willy, you are a mess. I am going to find our friend Dr. Robert; he has an office just up the street.”
When the doctor came, I hobbled a block or so up to his office where he soaked my feet and treated them with antibacterial and it hurt like hell. As he bandaged them, he said “Willy, how the fuck did you run with your feet like that?” “I did it for an old friend.”
The Doc pulled a couple of beers from the fridge, and we chatted for a bit, “hey Willy, let’s get back to the Pub for some chicken soup and some pasta. Billy is laying out a nice spread.” It turned out there were only eleven finishers from the fifty-four starters. We sat around telling stories and I told the reporter that Boston would be easy after this one.
The deadline for entering Boston was a few days away. I had my entry blank all filled out even before I got to DC all except for the time. Originally, I had planned to drive straight back to Boston after the race and hand deliver my entry to the BAA offices. Billy said he could FAX it for me, but the BAA would not accept a FAX!
“Willy, we will go to the post office tomorrow and overnight mail it and get a receipt.”
We were at the Pub until early evening and when we returned to Billy’s I went to my room and crawled into to bed even though it was only seven at night. The next morning, I was on the front page of the local paper, icicles and what have you hanging from my beard, with the caption “Polar Beard.” The race got a lot of play even in the national press, more coverage than I received for any of my best races. I thought “man, I ran a 3:55 mile and no one even noticed.”
I managed a painful twenty-minute run before leaving, the temperature had risen over night and most of the previous days snow had already melted. It was in the sixties, warm and sunny later that day. I drove barefoot all the way back home stopping just once for gas and a stretch.
I arrived back in Scituate Harbor on Monday early evening and went out for another painful twenty minutes run. When I returned my roomie, Chuck was home and we got caught up out on the deck where I soaked my feet in the icy harborside waters.
“Hey Willy, I could use some help in the store on Saturday, can you fill in for the day?” “Sure thing, I just have one meeting later this week with my shoe company guys.” “Willy that beard really suits you, you look like Robinson Crusoe, ha ha.” “Yah I’m going to shave it off this week.”
Over the next few days I began to get back into my routine and feeling recovered from my marathon and my journey. Living by the ocean helped to settle me down and calm me so that I could focus on the tasks at hand. On my runs by the water I fell into a meditative state and visualized running Boston in a few weeks which always snapped me to full attention of my body in motion, relaxed and powerful.
I received some terrible news that week about an old high school friend who had committed suicide. Robbie had long white hair and laser blue eyes and wore bell bottom pants that were super wide and fringed from dragging on the ground. He spoke in a long slow drawl with a Polish accent.
He was made fun of and ridiculed by many including some of us in our group of friends. I suppose I didn’t consider it cruel at the time because we all made fun of each other and usually knew when we were overstepping. Just dumb cruel kids.
I had only seen Robbie a few times since high school and when I left Galway four years ago I lost touch with many of my old friends. Robbie went home one night, found his grandfather’s shotgun and blew himself away. His death hit me hard I suppose because of the circumstances. Robbie was just looking for a place to fit in and at least for a time he had us his goofball friends, but the world can be a cruel place even worse than high school.
I was raised a Catholic so I suppose that’s what I am, but I could never abide the teachings and the hypocrisy and so it was never much comfort to me. There were too many drugs in Galway, too many in the world. My obsession was running. God help me and I would dedicate my race at Boston to Robbie. Not that anyone else would know because I kept it to myself and had made a habit of this type of dedication as a kind of silent prayer that I thought made me stronger in my mind. The more people I mentioned the dedication to, the more strength the dedication lost. I built a strong mind in a strong body, one person at a time. Suicide prevention via the single most universal activity, one step beyond walking.
I met with the shoe company muckety mucks and everything seemed to be hunky dory and all nice and friendly but the expectation was high for Boston. After the meeting I did a track workout at Boston State with Coach Gerry and my knee bothered me quite a bit. “Willy, you need to back off, it’s probably running the turns irritating them, so you need to get out there on the hills next week, Heartbreak.”
The next week I did two workouts where I ran from the fire station at 17.75 to Cleveland Circle at 21. I was moving close to race pace and the knees were fine.
Just get me to the church on time feeling fine.
The hype was beginning to mount around Boston that the marathon race rite of Spring had sprung. I was tapering down some this week and beginning to feel antsy. There was a pre-race presser on Thursday that I had no part in, as far as most knew I was a 2:47 marathoner a back of the packer barely qualified. I figured that might work in my favor.
The main players were my teammates Alby and Neil, Hashizume from Japan, Hussein from Kenya and about a dozen others under 2:12, the most ever to be entered in Boston. Alby was the man, number one in the world and a three-time winner and the course record holder with a 2:08:47.
Alby won last year’s race in the hills, those same hills I had been hammering recently and when he made his move this year where I knew he would, I would be there with him. As usual Neil talked a lot and at one little dinner gathering casually mentioned “Yah, you know I wouldn’t even mind if Alby and I tied.” I whispered to a dining companion at the table with us, “over my dead body.”
The last few days before the race I spent at home on the harbor and only went out for easy runs. I re-read Clarence DeMar’s book “Marathon” , a classic.
Race day dawned. I was up at seven—perfect conditions—fifty degrees and cloudy even a little drizzle and fog by the water. “Hey blow hole, what time do you want to leave for Hopkinton.” Chuck had little nicknames for people which always cracked me up. Nine O’clock Chuckles, on the road to perdition. Chuck knew a family that lived in Hopkinton where I could relax until the start. I was a bit concerned about getting up front with the top competitors as I had been given a high number due to my slow qualifier.
At 11:30 I used the facilities for the last time and headed out to make my way to the start. It was a bit of mayhem I strode into. I saw Hashizume in some woods relieving himself and that helped to humanize him from the running machine. I knew him from reading about him and his enigmatic coach.
We were packed in like sardines for the last ten minutes and I got a few stares from people looking at my number. The gun sounded and I was nearly knocked to the ground in the chaos that followed. After things settled a bit I looked ahead for Alby but I could not see him. I then realized he was just in front of me and I relaxed. Hashizume was out in front and ran the first mile in 4:38. The rest of us, maybe thirty runners, were 4:50.
I wondered how far Hashizume would need to be ahead before Alby or someone else would go after him. At five miles we were 23:50 a pack of about twenty-five. Hashizume was thirty seconds ahead, no big deal. I figured if we maintained this fast pace through ten miles we would drop at least half of this large pack and then I might be more comfortable and know what I was dealing with. I felt fine but it was still way early.
At ten miles there were twelve of us with Hashizume still thirty seconds ahead and by halfway which we hit in 1:03:50, we had caught the leader and dropped a couple of more guys. Things were getting interesting. At fifteen miles that long downhill into Newton Lower Falls, Hussein took off and Alby went with him Neil looked constipated and troubled. I held back knowing no one could keep pace with Alby on the downhill and for the moment I just admired my teammate, the fluidity floating smoothest runner I ever saw.
As we made our way up over the highway Neil and I worked together to catch the two leaders who were about ten seconds ahead. We caught them at the fire station 17.5, and we rounded the corner with a quartet, firing up Beethoven’s “Serioso” the band played on. The crowds were thick and as we ascended a bit unruly closing in on us. Alby was pushing the pace and Neil dropped off a bit only to come back on us on Heartbreak. There were four for Boston.
At Cleveland Circle my body began to feel the blows and I began to feel rope a doped by master Alby but just as suddenly Hussein began clutching his right hamstring muscle and crying out mercy, mercy!! It was me and Alby with the crowd screaming for their hero we ran mostly side by side into Kenmore Square. I thought about Neil and his mention of a tie with Alby and suddenly Alby was down on the ground hard thwap! He had tripped on a water bottle that a spectator had dropped.
I stopped to help him up but he was hurt badly and could not run. “Willy, go man I am hurt, just go.” I refused to leave him until with all his strength he pushed me. “Go ahead, I’ll live.” and with that I was off. I ran the final stretch and the announcement came to the crowd “Willy Desmarais wins in new course record, Alby is injured on course.”
My life would never be the same.
For Good or Ill, for Better or Worse, “Willy fly high like a bird up in the sky”
I had achieved a lifetime goal at the tender age of 21, beating a beloved athlete a multiple Boston Champion and my teammate, Alby who had a great fall and all the joy I felt having this accomplishment was muted some by the plastic water bottle that rolled out just in time to meet Alby’s footfall and take him down and out in Kenmore Square to the horror of the thousands watching.
And then I rolled to the win. Hand of fate. Unavoidable. Mayhem and the void.
The media jumped on it with no regard for facts or judiciousness but an all-out frenzy. Alby and I appeared on numerous television shows but nothing in the way of elucidation was happening so I called it quits and determined to write my own story and offer it to one of the running rags.
The only exception was an interview I did with Kenny Moore from “Sports Illustrated.” Kenny had actually followed my career ever since my Broken Arrow flame out at the Cross Country National two years before at age 19.
We covered a wide range of ideas but mainly the question was, “what now?” and all I could do was carry on if I could get my heart back in it, get my mojo if there ain’t no meltdown.
Olympics was still the big game in town but now there was talk of a boycott. Kenny did a story that I could be proud of and one that summed everything up perfectly and that gave me some closure.
A week after Boston as things were calming down a bit I took stalk of my situation. I had been doing just thirty minutes a day running with icy cold swims in Scituate Harbor afterward. I had received a mountain of mail and so I finished up a morning run and swim and grabbed a lawn chair and a couple of boxes and truth be told a couple of cold beers, and then I proceeded to open and read.
Most of the letters went to the store and Chuck brought them to the house.
Chuck was planning an event at the store where I would give a little talk about my Boston win.
Most of the correspondence was from people I didn’t even know and very heart felt and I really enjoyed reading them but there was one letter in particular from a girlie I did know if only briefly late last summer on a California highway where one Bubblz had picked me up hitch hiking and delivered me to nirvana.
Bub’s was doing great and read about my marathon win. “Willy, you need some down time I assume and I need a vacation, so why don’t we run off together and get on down.”
“Yes, Willy fly high like a bird up in the sky.”
I called Bub’s and we talked for hours, she was just the person I needed at that time all fun and energy and positive outlook on the world. Bub’s wanted to come East and see New England for the first time in her young life and so two weeks later I picked her up at the airport and we headed back to Scituate to enjoy our winter rental until we needed to move out again at the end of May.
I had told Chuck my friend, employer and roomie all about Bub’s but he just wasn’t prepared for that little ball of energy when he met her. He asked me later that night how serious I was about her because he thought he must be in love!
For the next three weeks me and that girl were inseparable. She even came along on my runs riding a bike alongside. We did Boston for a few days and then we headed to Vermont where I had a speaking engagement and we rented a little cabin in the woods for a week. We hiked and swam and sat late afternoons and evenings reading our books and Bub’s doing her crosswords.
At night we cuddled up tight and whispered sweet nothings.
Bubblz was a rarest of people one who did not feel the need for any of the trappings very happy and wise a Youth Services Librarian in a small town. We never talked about marriage or settling down just if it happened that way, well, that’d be all right. And if it didn’t we still had our time together.
I was at a loss when I dropped her at the airport for her flight home. “Willy, come stay with me and Suzy anytime.” I was back to my cruel mistress running and my hobo life as I packed up to leave our Scituate digs and live temporarily in the basement of the store.
The best and perhaps only way for me to make money was to travel around the country running road races I was getting invited to left, right and center. My shoe deal was solid for now but still I needed to make hay to some extent so off I went.
“Willy, might as well put a postage stamp on you and you’re off.”
Beyond the Pinnacle
The great American road racing sublime.
I was the Boston Marathon Champion and I was riding on “Chariots of Fire” the theme being played at nearly every race, barnstorming the country almost on a par with known professional athletes if only I had a “profession.”
If the Olympics were not going to happen then what other goals would I strive toward another Boston win?
I was overwhelmed with the invitations and needed some kind of secretarial help but I ended up just winging it and eventually it became kind of a chore now the bloom was off thee rose. I missed the Bub’s who helped keep me above it all and not involve myself in all the petty squabbles.
In a fifteen-week period I ran twenty races. The competition was not top level but there was usually the local gun slinger coming out to take me down, and every now and then they did, though I won seventeen of those races. Almost everything was off the books and I sometimes had thousands of dollars cash money stuffed in my bag, in my shoes and shaving kit or what have you.
I decided not to run track nationals mainly just to take advantage of the money I could make elsewhere. I wasn’t sure if I would ever race on the track again because I felt like a man of the people out on the road and the track circuit was more like the plantation.
“Road racing is rock ‘n roll; track is Carnegie Hall.” Liquori
Track nationals might be more prestigious than the Cornhusker ten k but I was beginning to think maybe I didn’t care so much anymore. I knew I could be a threat on the track and if I had the proper guidance maybe an office with a secretary and a full-time coach and a governing body that worked for the athlete’s betterment and for the sports benefit maybe I would feel differently.
I went where I was wanted the most and though I began to feel wasted and washed out by the fall I also had a hell of a summer including a trip to Australia but just for a weekend.
I had plans to run a marathon in the fall but not in NYC or Chi-cago but in Memphis TN, the first annual Graceland Marathon where I would be paid $25 thou!
I had only run two marathons and even though I set a course record in winning Boston I only had thee 10th best time in the world and would be lucky to get a world ranking but that didn’t real play into my decision much.
On Labor Day weekend me and Chuck moved back into our winter rental in Scituate and celebrated with a big party.
I was only 22 then but I was feeling older, so much had changed. There were times when I almost wished that I had finished second at Boston and Alby had won and then I could get that hunger back but there was no putting the genie back in the bottle.
I had Graceland coming up and after that I would be going to visit Bub’s in California with nothing at all planned beyond that.
“The Marathon can Humble YOU”
I never was so entranced by Elvis Presley and all the myth and the hype around him though I always understood his place in the pop culture. One episodic memory I have is driving in a van and being at a stop light looking down inside the car beside me and seeing the headline in the newspaper “Elvis Presley Dies.”
I only had a matter of weeks before the marathon after my summer racing every week, but I felt I was in shape for a good effort and I didn’t think the competitive level of the race would be that high. It was rumored that Frank Shorter former Olympic Gold Medalist would run and though he was long in the tooth he could still be a force. I was hoping he would run, just to have a chance to compete with him would be an honor.
I had raced Alby a few times over the summer but he was mostly just doing a cameo and recovering from his fall at Boston. It was a pain for both of us to have to revisit that unfortunate event over and over.
I figured he would run New York and defend his title but if he showed up at Graceland it would not surprise me too much.
Memphis, even in late September could be hot but I should be prepared for that too having raced in the heat and trained twice a day in the heat I should be adapted.
For me consistency was the main thing and I rarely took a rest day and if I did I would run only once, five miles and I considered that a rest.
I didn’t do much interval training on the track because I was racing so often— what could be considered “tempo” runs. I planned to do only one 20 plus miler about 10 days before the race at an easy pace with a few pick ups to break the monotony.
A typical day would be sleeping in until 9 then leisurely cup of coffee or two or three and a slice of toast with some juice and water thrown in and read the newspaper Track & Field News, Runner’s World, the Boston Globe, a novel maybe “A Fan’s Notes” then change into running gear go for run and a dip in the harbor when the tide was right. Quick lunch maybe soup or a sandwich or some leftover. Around 1 head to the store, help out Chuck whatever needed doing and late afternoon group run from store then pizza and beer. Return home around 6 or 7 take shower, read, watch sports on TV hit the feathers around 10 lights out, perfect day, dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair.
I headed out to Memphis two days before the race and already planned to leave Memphis the day after the race for my LA Woman. Besides big Frank and I there were a half dozen runners between 2:12 and 2:20. I had no race plan just ease on down the road and make my moves when the time was ripe.
The night before the race Frank and I spoke during the pre-race pasta dinner attended by a few hundred people. Frank’s Olympic victory made him the godfather of road racing in America and I for one was still in awe. When we spoke privately he asked me why I wasn’t running in New York. “Well Frank I probably should have to establish myself or make my mark and though money isn’t everything sometimes you just gotta rake the dough—though it ain’t much it ain’t too shabby for an “amateur.”
“Well Willy, remember why you getting that big check to begin with and I know you will.”
It was overcast and foggy and humid for the 8 A.M. start. At 10 miles there were 6 of us at 49:00 and I felt great. Frank looked okay but had a slight hitch in his stride. After that the pace being mainly carried by a British runner Ian Drury, slowed dramatically as the sun broke though and the heat intensified.
At the half we were 1:06:30 and I was losing the easy rhythm I had a few miles earlier. It was early for me to make my move but it was hurting my motor to go so slow—so—hit me with your rhythm stick—hit me, hit…….ME.
I struck out to a commanding lead but at 20 miles my wheels were coming off. I had a headache, side stitches, plantar fascia was aching in the new Reebok racing shoes I was trying out. The guys on the lead truck which was driving way too close to me so I was having to suck exhaust fumes, kept giving me details of my dwindling lead. I ignored them and tried to run off to the side but as we were approaching the finish with 4 miles to go the crowds began to press in leaving little room.
At some point I hear, “here comes Frank.” “I thought shit almighty it’s king Frank comin’ to getcha.”
He caught me at 25 miles patted me on the ass and dropped me like a bad habit.
Frank ran a 2:14 I was 30 seconds back. We had good fun at the post race, Frank offered some words of wisdom which I sincerely appreciated and quickly forgot.
Willy got to do it his way no calculating every move I need my whimsicality. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
But right now, I needed some R&R and I knew Bubbles would know what to do.
In California with my best gal Bubblz, life was a bed of roses. Bub’s went off to her job at the library and one day I went with her and observed her at her vocation.
I was in awe of the young children’s wonderment and the way that Bub’s was able to dazzle and amaze them with her sheer force of personality and great storytelling skills. It brought me great joy and wonder as well and hope for a better world out of all the inanity the silliness and low class, low brow of America.
My summer whistleblower tour culminating with the Graceland Marathon had left me flush but unfulfilled. Bub’s suggested I take some time off so I cut back to about seventy miles a week and finished my one run each day at the beach where I did some strides, a bit in the water, on the hard-packed sand.
I had worked with three of the best coaches in the land and they had contributed a lot to my development as a person and an athlete.
At this point I began to think that I was not “coachable” but it was daunting to be on my own even though I had a good sense of my own body, going by feel, it was nice to have some feedback from experienced coaches to support that.
I stayed with Bub’s for six weeks and we had some very serious talks about life. Bub’s did not want to get married and have children and she felt no pressure from anyone to do so. I had never met anyone else in my life who was so sure of themselves. I was confident in my athletic ability but I didn’t feel I measured up elsewhere and I didn’t know if I could be fulfilled with only athletics which at the top level is such an all-encompassing endeavor.
“Willy, you are only 24 years old and I know you well enough now to say that if you don’t pursue this thing you love while you are young, it will gnaw at you for the rest of your life.”
Reluctantly I headed back to the “Harbor” in mid-October and looked for some cross-country races and to get back to what I loved about running and competing. My more immediate goal would be to make the World Cross Country Team, the trials for which would be in February. I wasn’t sure if I would defend my Boston Marathon title but the pressure to do so would be enormous.
I hoped that I might adopt Bubblz Zen aura and avoid the noise and the hoopla.
Late summer early fall is magical in Scituate Harbor in particular and New England in general. I worked at the store with my roomie Chuck on an as needed basis .
One day Chuck said “C’mon Willy, let’s go for a ride.”
We hopped in the vintage 1966 Mercedes 280 SL a honey of a car and I figured maybe we were going out for lunch. I think it was a weekday at the store and Chuck told the others that we would not be back today when we left. I didn’t ask any questions, just figured we were going out for a long lunch and maybe Chuck had something on his mind that he wanted to talk about. I grabbed some running gear as we headed out the door.
We headed south for the Cape and crossed the Bourne Bridge, it was a beauteous day boats in the canal, sun shimmering on the water. A deep relaxation a washing away of anxiety almost always hit me as we crossed over and hit the Cape. We headed to the Hyannis store where I went for a run with the store manager while Chuck minded the store. Afterwards we ordered up some lunch and sat down to talk a little business.
Later we got dropped down at the ferry dock and boarded for Nantucket Island where we would visit with a friend an island resident who was interested in opening a seasonal running store there. Billy was Nantucket institution, a carpenter and a poet with a young family.
Billy had a fiery red beard and wild blondish red hair and very mild mannered but excitable boy at the same time. Chuck and I arrived at the docks and there was Billy to greet us and escort us around to about ten different bars ending at the Muse listening to some live music and checking out the local talent.
We were having fun and nothing but fun and I know at some point Billy left us to get home to his family and we were to take a cab but eventually the band stopped playing and it was last call for alcohol and you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.
We took a cab but couldn’t remember where Billy lived so drove around aimlessly and had him drop us at the Anchor Inn at 1:30 or so in the morning and there we sat on a park bench trying to decide if we should knock on the door of the Inn when a car drove up and a person shouted “Hey Willy, is that Willy Desmarais?”
It was a woman who seemed to know me well but I could not remember but Kat took us to her home and out onto her deck overlooking a marsh and a big dark beautiful sky with the moon shining through thin clouds. “I saw you at the Muse tonight Willy and I was gonna come over and say hi but…”
Kat brought out some wine and cheese and we had a nightcap she also explained that we had never met but that her brother was a runner and she knew me because I had won Boston and her brother was a big fan. “Wait until I tell him I rescued you from a park bench in the middle of the night.”
I was feeling just then the world was my oyster only the inscrutability was impossible to shake but why worry dude, tomorrows another day.
Don’t you worry
The further adventures of Willy Desmarais.
New Beginnings Continued…
Around the World in a Day
I awoke early in the morning, Kat laying beside me I thought “Oh yes! Then quickly Oh no!” Kat was on a leave from her Nursing studies and waitressing at a local restaurant. The house belonged to her parents but they only came down occasionally from their home in Boston. I got up to use the bathroom and drink some water and then I went back to bed, Kat pulling me close beside her.
Next thing I hear knocking at the door and Billy walks in, “Willy I see you have met Kat. You should probably get up since her boyfriend is on his way over here. Tee he he.” I sat up alone in Kat’s bed. Turns out Billy worked with Kat’s boyfriend and Billy had tracked us down though I’m not sure how.
I had a quick cup of coffee and went out for a run. I had a real bounce in my step after my good nights sleep– liaison with Kat I was positively jaunty running down that road wherever it leads me today by the side of the river to the sea –sunshine, a beach and what comes next.
Billy knocked off work at noon and we met him at the dock to go for a sailing adventure on board his catamaran. We packed up a cooler with some goodies and sailed around to Great Point Beach. Billy had shown us a small store front that he planned to use for the seasonal running shop and it seemed that maybe he could make it work.
We lay on the beach went for swims in the surf and enjoyed our sandwiches and drinks and we talked about everything all our plans and dreams. The National Cross Country would be in Boston this November at famed Franklin Park where I had been leading the state meet while in high school and gone off course.
That seemed like a distant memory now just about seven years later but I had not raced there since so it would be a homecoming of sorts.
I was trying to strike the proper balance in my life while also making the best of the opportunities that had been handed to me because of my Boston win. I had trusted someone once to look after my career such as it was, but that didn’t turn out too well and now I was very hesitant to seek help.
I had been keeping a journal for a few years now and I was thinking I would like to be a writer or not really like to be but I just would be and that was it regardless of athletics or occupation I needed to write.
I had a conflicted mind, did I want to be a monk, a hermit just sits and read books and run twenty a day or did I need that sociability too much a beautiful smile or is it nothing but teeth? Maybe just take things as they come let whimsy decide.
Chuck and I got the ferry back to Hyannis and I wrote in my journal and picked up my copy of “Shogun” by James Clavell. I would be likely going to Japan for a thirty kilo race in February and I wanted to immerse myself in this historical tale.
Back at the store I went out for a run as the sun was setting, it was a very hot night and I ran shirtless through the streets the peckerwoods in muscle cars jeering me on. When I returned to the store they were closing up and I grabbed a tiny bar of soap and a tiny container of shampoo, went out back and grabbed the garden hose and washed my body down and cleaned up in an icy cold water.
It felt great, I felt great and I was thankful that regardless of the important work to be done in life it is most important to count our blessings. Chuck and I hopped in the Mercedes, me chauffeuring and headed back off the Cape over the bridge of opportunity to all things that awaited us.
Author’s note: For those who have been following along reading some parts or all of parts one & two of my rough draft this will be the last installment and part three the finale will require some research and thought, I hope it will happen and I can follow through with it at some stage.