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

Sat, 28 Jul 2007 05:45:04 -0400

Thanks, Coach


My college coach, Bob Karnes, died this summer. I'm glad I had the chance to apologize to him in print for the grief I gave him at Drake University, and to thank him for not writing me off early as a recruiting mistake and a lost cause. "Coach" (which I called him to the end, never "Mr. Karnes" or "Bob") let me stumble around to find a way that differed from his.

I could write a month's worth of tribute columns to Coach Karnes. But here I'll limit his praises to a few brief tales that tell the type of man and mentor he was.

NOVEMBER 1960. Before my name had popped up on any other college coach's recruiting radar, Bob Karnes from Drake University spotted me. He was the first -- and only -- coach to visit my hometown in a remote corner of Iowa.

This scored big points in MY recruiting game, as I looked for a college that both wanted me and I, it. After that there was little doubt where I'd go -- and not just because his would be my only full-ride scholarship offer.

MAY 1962. A scholarship isn't a FREE ride. Athletes work hard and long for it. The school expects a payback for its investment, and a runner can feel pressure to perform.

I failed to perform. From one May to the next my mile time slumped by almost half a minute. I hit the low point of my still-brief running life and wanted to quit the school, quit the team, even quit the sport.

As soon as Coach Karnes's team training ended for the summer, I stopped running for the first time in almost four years. For all I knew or cared at the time, this was an early and permanent retirement.

For a full month I didn't run a step. My only exercise was recreational swimming. I spent the early part of that summer wasting time with friends and trying not to think about what might come next.

JULY 1962. Stranded at the pool without a ride home, I started walking those two or three miles. The walk broke into a slow run, then a faster run, which led to a plan that would echo through my running (and writing) for a long time.

I would start a "second career," with a whole new set of records. I would never again let running be the job it had been the past year. I would run for myself, by myself and compete against myself.

The problem was working up the nerve to present this plan to Coach Karnes. He could appear intimidating with his gray crewcut, hawklike nose and the stern bearing of the Navy Reserve officer that he was. Now I had to tell him about my plan to reject his training system and give up the scholarship he'd bestowed, then beg to remain with the team on racedays.

"Can I talk to you?" I quaked from the open door of his cramped office. He waved me toward the only available visitor's chair and said, "What's on your mind?"

Out rushed my ideas. I wanted to lay them all on the table before he could mount an argument. To his everlasting credit, he heard me out.

Coach Karnes could have shouted, "Out! I never want to see you again." Instead he said, "Here's my offer. You can try it your way, though I don't give it much chance of succeeding.

"The deal is, you must run every one of our time trials. If you do well enough, you're on the team for the next meet. If not, you stay home."

JUNE 1965. Over the next three years I qualified for almost every trip. My times were good enough to contribute to the Drake team's results and to repay Coach Karnes for his kindness.

At graduation time he said to me, "Do you know what your problem is? You like to run too much. Losing doesn't bother you enough.

"Your attitude will keep you running for a long time. But you will never compete up to your potential."

He was right on both counts. I'll always thank him for giving me the chance to find that out.
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