Tom West: Grandma's runners don't have to worry about the distance

With Grandma's Marathon coming up next week, running is on the minds of many Duluthians, as well it should be. Grandma's is a world-class operation, and no details are left undone as they put together the logistics that transport 9,300 runners to...

With Grandma's Marathon coming up next week, running is on the minds of many Duluthians, as well it should be. Grandma's is a world-class operation, and no details are left undone as they put together the logistics that transport 9,300 runners to Two Harbors, allow them to run down the North Shore en masse and finish exhausted but happy in Canal Park.

It all comes off like clockwork and has for so many years that many people take it for granted.

I'm not one of them, and last week there was a note in the news that re-enforces my view that nothing should be taken for granted in running a race. On Memorial Day, 500 runners completed the Lakeshore Marathon in Chicago. Unfortunately, the organizers had made the race course a mile too long. Instead of running 26.2 miles, the runners all ran 27.2 miles.

Reading that article brought back the memory of my own short-lived running career.

When I was in ninth and 10th grades, I went out for tennis. I wasn't all that good at it, but I was better at it than baseball (it's easier to hit a ball with a racquet than a bat) or golf (it's easier to hit a tennis ball straight than a golf ball).


Then came my junior year, and I did OK on the basketball court. And that created a dilemma. The basketball coach was also the track coach, and he wanted me to go out for track so that he could build up my stamina. I had a tendency to run out of gas on the basketball court.

I really wanted to play tennis, but I wanted to play basketball more, so I went out for track. The truth is, I stunk.

I tried the high jump, and I worked at it and worked at it, jumping 50 times a day for the first month of the season. I finally cleared 4 feet 10 inches. For those less knowledgeable about track, let me put that in perspective: 4 feet 10 inches will leave you a foot out of first place.

More importantly, the coach had me running like I had never run before. Each day in March and early April, all of the distance runners, about 15 of us, went out as a pack and ran a couple of miles around the school, leaping over the potholes and the puddles as we went. The best distance runners are smaller guys who are all legs and lungs. I struggled to keep up with them.

Finally, it came time for the first indoor meet at what was then called Mankato State University. The coach came up to me and told me he thought I should run the 440-yard dash. (This was before the conversion to the metric system.) I knew where I would finish in a dash -- eating the cinders of all the other runners. So I said, "I'd rather run the 880."

The coach got something of a smirk on his face, as if he were trying to avoid laughing, but he said, "OK."

So many runners had entered the 880 that they decided to have two heats, one for the best distance runners and the second for the rest of us. In particular, the Mankato State track coach, Bud Myers, had a half-mile recruit from Canada visiting campus, and he wanted to check him out. About five schools participated, so the competition was fairly stiff, but the Canadian blew them away.

Then, it was time for the rest of us to run. We were a motley assortment of promising freshmen and sophomores and hopeless juniors and seniors.


In the Mankato State fieldhouse at that time, the track was a tenth of a mile around. That meant that we had to run five laps. The half mile is thought to be the thinking person's race, because it's not a mad dash nor is it all about endurance. Runners have to worry about getting boxed in and need to position themselves for the stretch run.

My strategy was a little simpler than that. It was: Don't finish last.

The gun went off, and off we went. After one lap I was feeling OK and was in the middle of the pack. After two laps, the leaders were starting to pull away, and I was starting to drift back. After three laps, I was still ahead of five runners, and after four laps, I was still ahead of three runners.

And I was out of gas.

But I was determined not to finish last, so I gave it everything I had on the last lap. Another runner passed me in the back stretch, and a second runner passed me on the final curve.

And then an odd thing happened. I didn't know if I was hallucinating or was suffering from oxygen deprivation, but as I neared the finish line I realized that none of the other runners had quit. For a split second, I wondered if I had mistakenly entered the mile.

I wondered if I had miscounted. I wondered if I should stop. I even wondered if I had somehow won. I quickly realized, however, that the winners of races don't get passed by two or three runners on every lap.

So I kept going. The only runner behind me was a lowly freshman from my school. I could hear him coming, but I was literally starting to stagger. Finally, we came down the stretch -- again -- and 20 yards from the finish line he caught me. I finished dead last.


I suppose I should have been proud to note that I had the 15th fastest time in six-tenths of a mile in Minnesota state track history. But I wasn't. I was upset that I didn't achieve my goal, and I figured I must have miscounted the laps, particularly when nobody else said anything about it.

Nobody else noticed, of course, because our heat was only for the scrubinis.

The following day at practice, however, the coach finally said something. He went over all the results of the meet with the team, and when he got to the 880, he complimented the runners in the first heat for their times. Then he said, "And you runners in the second heat didn't do all that bad either, considering that you ran an extra lap."

The next day, I went out for tennis. The track team didn't miss me, and the tennis team was welcoming.

In all the time since, I never forgot that extra lap, and I know firsthand how agonizing it is to plan for one distance and then have some idiot tack an extra lap or an extra mile onto it. Luckily, next Saturday, 9,300 marathoners and 4,500 half-marathoners -- all of whom have more running ability than I do -- will not have to worry about running a step too far.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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