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

Sat, 17 Mar 2007 07:07:10 -0400

My Lucky Day


I owe my life, or at least the one I've been lucky enough to lead, to the U.S. Army. It set me on the path I've followed ever since. My good fortune came because someone else wasn't so lucky.

Military service wasn't often voluntary in 1967. Two years earlier I'd joined the Army Reserve only to avoid being drafted. I'd exchanged a long stretch of part-time soldiering for the freedom to live and work wherever I wanted.

Forty years ago this month I lived in Des Moines and worked for the city's newspaper. Lowly staffers like me answered the phones. We heard from coaches and parents demanding more coverage for their kids, from readers complaining about our errors, from drunks begging us to rule on their bar bets.

So when the phone rang one March night, I wondered which type of hell it would bring. It brought the opposite.

"This is Dick Drake." The managing editor of Track & Field News said, "My chief assistant has just been drafted into the Army. I need someone here right away to replace him. Are you interested and available?"

The next morning I quit my first and last non-running job. The next week I packed up (with all I owned not even filling a Volkswagen Bug) and drove toward a career that would never feel quite like work.

Thanks to the 1967 draftee, recalled now only as Craig-something, for making this all possible. I hope his Army time went safely, and that the years have been as fulfilling as those he opened up for me.

A ST. PATRICK'S DAY 40 years ago today was my first at T&FN. The anniversary has me thinking about how much that one phone call steered my life's course.

The move changed me in other, more immediate ways. I thought about those recently while answering an author's questions.

These came from DeBarra Shaw. She's writing a biography of Bob Anderson, the founder of Runner's World. My writing for his magazine (then called Distance Running News) also began in 1967.

DeBarra asked me to describe myself at the time. The answers reveal that the move changed much more than my workplace.

The Midwest was more "Midwestern" then than now. The popular culture that now spreads instantly to every corner of the country wasn't nearly as pervasive.

At the Des Moines newspaper the standard uniform was white shirts, dress slacks and wing-tip shoes. I dressed the part, but drew the line at wearing a tie.

My hair was buzz-cut and face clean-shaven, a requirement for my service as an Army Reservist but a style that fit right in at that place and time. By then I'd ditched glasses in favor of contacts, which made me look even younger than my 23 years. If I'd been a drinker, I would have been carded every time and still not believed.

I ate badly, and boringly. After working nights, I'd wake up late, go for a run, then almost without fail eat a combined breakfast/lunch of two McDonald's double-cheeseburgers, a large order of fries and a big root beer. (I had the misfortune of living a half-block from a McD's.) Dinner at work came from a vending machine.

With the move to the Bay Area of California everything changed except my lack-of-hairstyle, which couldn't because Reserve service would continue for another four years to look out of place at this epicenter of hippiedom. (My white-Afro, droopy mustache and bushy sideburns would come later.)

The benign climate and casual attitudes of the Bay Area instantly altered my wardrobe. It now leaned heavily toward Levi's cords, T-shirts and sports shoes.

After the move, my diet improved dramatically. I happened to work with Ed Fox, who moonlighted as a restaurant critic. He introduced me to all types of eating, especially the ethnic varieties that were almost unknown in Iowa at the time. I fell in love with Chinese food, which remains my co-favorite along with Thai.

I couldn't have known this at the time, but I was entering my best running years. Though I'd switched to longer, slower training, I still retained some of the light stride and latent speed of the miler I'd been as recently as the year before.

This legacy -- combined with the marathon training I'd done in recent months, the chance to race almost weekly out West, and co-workers who encouraged my efforts instead of dismissing them as temporary insanity -- would lead to a memorable Boston. It had to go well, as everything else was going in that year of big surprises.

(This is the second of three anniversary columns about my life-course-changing year of 1967. The first, "New Year's Revolutions," appeared in January. The final piece, coming up in April, will cover that year's Boston Marathon.)
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