Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 14 Jul 2002 20:07:52 -0400

Happy Returns


You can't live in the past, but you can visit there sometimes. Wherever you have gone, you've left little pieces of yourself that mark a spot to come back to someday.

I'm a collector of such places. My diary lists almost every town I've stayed in long enough to leave footprints.

I enjoy visiting the old places again. Touching the same ground reminds me of who I once was and how far I've traveled before returning there.

The places that mean the most to me are in Iowa, where my footprints are the oldest. This summer I had the chance to refresh those steps during a visit to Des Moines. I'll limit this memory-trip to two stories.

I COMPETED as a professional before my voice lowered and my whiskers sprouted. I stood atop the victory stand, won cash and other prizes, read my name and saw my (smooth) face in newspapers, and heard my (high) voice on the radio.

Technically I didn't win. The family's Yorkshire hogs did, but we showmen collected the rewards.

Our biggest winner was a boar named Cosmo. He won the grand championship at the Iowa State Fair three years in a row, the longest streak possible.

On the recent trip I visited those fairgrounds, passing the brick building labeled "Swine." It held the show-ring where Henderson Farm's animals had won top money, and where I'd collected scars on a hand while breaking up a boar fight.

Here I learned the price of victory. Winning at the state fair cost me ripped flesh, an angry belly from tainted food, and heavy fatigue from sleep grabbed whenever and wherever possible.

Near the swine barn sat the Youth Dorm, available to young exhibitors so they could sleep safely. During one of my nights there, rowdies had tied me in bed, carried it plus its occupant across the room, and dripped candle wax on my arms.

Always a champion sleeper, I'd slept through it all. After that, I took my chances in an empty hog pen, snoozing as the animals did on a bed of straw or sawdust.

Following my dad and brother around the state-fair circuit taught me before I had run my first race that the trip to the victory stand is long and tough, and the stay at the top is brief. I sensed already, long before putting words to the lesson, that going for the glorious gold involves digging a lot of unglamorous dirt.

MUCH LATER I came to live in Des Moines. For most of my years there, I ran on or around the Drake University campus. That's what runners did then, never wandering far from the track.

One summer I fled to California and learned a different way to train. That was by the Arthur Lydiard system, which featured longer runs.

As my distances more than doubled, I needed a better home course in Des Moines. The search led me to Waterworks Park.

Its almost-empty, tree-lined roads paralleled the Raccoon River for miles. This is where I first learned to go long, and where I had my first brush with the law.

On the streets I dressed conservatively, always in a shirt and often in knee-length "walking shorts" to be less a target of hecklers. But car sightings were rare at Waterworks, and pedestrian sightings even rarer. So on summer days there I stripped down to nothing but short-shorts and shoes.

Back home from a run one day, I heard on the radio, "Des Moines police are seeking a suspect seen nearly naked in Waterworks Park. Several women have reported being startled by the man wearing only shorts and shoes. He is described as being in his late teens or early 20s..."

I called the police to turn myself in. They took my phone number, said they'd contact me if needed but never did.

Nearly 40 years later I ran in Waterworks on a summer morning. I wore nothing but shorts and shoes, and didn't rate a second glance.

All I got were waves and "hi's" from other runners likewise undressed. We've all come a long way since I left my first footprints at this place.

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