Joe Henderson recently posted an article on his website in which he described a landmark day in his running career. In his first high school mile race, he naively sped to the front, but then ran out of gas after the first lap and limped off the track.
I plopped onto the grass, staring at the barely used red shoes, gulping air, fighting tears. Right then I’d not only dropped out of this race but had made an early exit from this sport.
A hand touched my shoulder. The words that followed would set my future course in ways I couldn’t have guessed just then.
“What’s wrong?” asked coach Dean Roe. I couldn’t look him in the face, so I kept studying the red shoes as I shook my head slowly and mumbled, “Guess I’m not much of a runner.”
Mr. Roe knew when to kick butts and when to pat backs. I couldn’t have stood a kick just then.
I’d been too light for football and too short for basketball. Track, where size didn’t matter, was my best and last hope for athletic glory in a school that perhaps overvalued it.
“How can you say you aren’t a runner?” the coach said quietly. “You haven’t yet finished your first race.
“You only found out today that you can’t start like a sprinter and try to fight an elbow war with everyone in the race. Let’s see what happens when you run smarter.”
Joe’s article inspired me. Joe would go on to a career as a successful college miler, a sub-3:00 marathoner, and the founding editor of Runner’s World. His story had a happier ending than my first, and only, high school mile.
Our coach was a football assistant who coached track as a secondary assignment of his job. I use the term “coached” loosely – we received not one minute of instruction, encouragement, or advice. We simply ran around the baseball field, at whatever pace we chose, while the coach worked with the “real” track athletes – the shot putters, discus throwers, and sprinters. I’d signed up for football, and we were required to run track to get in shape for the upcoming season. We didn’t take track seriously – we ran when coach was watching, and walked and yakked when his back was turned.
In my first competitive mile, I was quickly in last place. As I passed our coach, I heard him remark to another coach, an apologetic smirk in his voice, “Yeah, we just have these guys run track to get them in shape for football.” After two laps, my tank was empty and I staggered off the track. Coach ran up and screamed, in full hearing of the spectators, “You’re the first person at San Manuel High School who ever quit! No…you’re the second!” And he walked away. I never forgot that shaming.
For years, I felt that that race defined me – that I could never be an athlete, and that my character was subtly flawed. Yet, at the same time, the universe seemed to be conspiring to teach me exactly the opposite lesson. In college, my roommates were an all-American water polo player and wrestler and his cousin, the university intramural heavyweight wrestling champion. Another roommate had a brief career as a professional boxer, and another was on the football team. It was as if a higher power wanted me to find that part of me that could be a strong, healthy, noble person. I identified being a jock with being a really good guy – which all of my roommates were.
As a high school sophomore, I played guard and scrimmaged daily against the varsity linemen. I weighed 145, they weighed 220+. One of our tackles, Rex Mirich, would have a successful career in the NFL, playing for the Raiders, Patriots, and Broncos. Fortunately for me, Rex was a good-natured guy. He didn’t need to prove himself by destroying a player who was roughly the size of his knee. My main memory of Rex is of suddenly – who knew how? — finding myself flat on my back and watching the blur of his jersey as he flashed past.
In JV games, I was a starter. I remember a game where the opposing team had the usual tiny JV halfbacks — they couldn’t have weighed more than 135 lbs. The backs on this team were so minuscule that I couldn’t get low enough to tackle them, so I simply stood up with my hands on my hips and let them bounce off my tummy and fall down. On the sidelines, the varsity players were cracking up, but the opposing team’s tiny halfbacks were distinctly not pleased.
My family had moved to Arizona from Chile, where my dad was a mining engineer. Our last year in South America, my folks put me in an English boarding school. Life at the Grange School was remarkably civilized. We wore uniforms with coats and ties, and our days were highly regimented – exercise, breakfast, assembly, class, break, class, lunch, class, sports, dinner, study, bed. At the end of the year, the whole school, including the teachers, ran a 5K cross-country race on a course through Santiago’s beautiful parks and tree-lined lanes. It was enormous fun. The teachers assigned another kid and me to finish behind the headmaster, so that he wouldn’t be last. We ended up running quite a bit to keep up with 70-year-old Mr. Jackson, who was surprisingly fit for his age.
When we moved to Arizona, I signed up for football essentially because I thought it was what the good guys did, and because I thought it would please my Dad – the worst possible reason. I hated football. I could never understand why we were expected to try to beat the crap out of the players on our own team. Our practices seemed stupid, brain-dead, emphasizing brawn over brains. We had the worst record in our conference, even though there were four all-state players on the team. But I stuck it out, and when the season ended I turned to other, less-wholesome pursuits.
In Fitness Intuition, I wrote:
Joe Ehrmann is a former Baltimore Colts All-Pro defensive tackle who now coaches high school football at the Gilman School in Baltimore. Ehrmann believes young athletes today are encouraged to grow up believing in three wrong values: athletic ability, sexual conquest, and economic success. He calls these “false masculinity.”
“Masculinity, first and foremost, ought to be defined in terms of relationships,” Joe said. “It ought to be taught in terms of the capacity to love and to be loved…. And I think the second criterion – the only other criterion for masculinity – is that all of us ought to have some kind of cause, some kind of purpose in our lives that’s bigger than our own individual hopes, dreams, wants, and desires.”1
Ehrmann teaches his players a code of conduct that’s starkly different from the values most young athletes absorb. It includes accepting responsibility, leading courageously, and “enacting justice on behalf of others.” Ehrmann’s “Building Men for Others” program is based on empathy: “Not feeling for someone, but with someone.”
Biff Poggi, Ehrman’s fellow coach at Gilman, read a newspaper article that quoted the football coach of another school: “You have to push them [high school football players] to the brink and either they are going to break or they are going to stand up and be a man.” Poggi brought the article to a team meeting, where he read it aloud to the players and chortled:
“We ought to get a lifetime contract to play against this guy. We’d beat them every time we’d play, because he has no idea what he’s talking about. You understand? Fifty boys together, fifty boys that love each other and that are well affirmed and well loved by their coaches, will smack those guys anytime, in anything. Being a father. Being a son. Being a football player. Being a doctor. Being an astronaut. Being a human being. Being anything.
“That’s not how you become a man. Do you understand me? Because that means to be a man, you gotta somehow be some big, strong, physical person. And that’s got nothing to do with it. Trust me.”2
When Season of Life was written, Gilman School had been state champion two years in a row, winning all their games and being ranked among the nation’s top ten high school football teams.
I started running when I was 26. I’d been paralyzed from the chest down for 2½ years (a tumor was compressing my spinal cord), and I was in poor physical condition. A spiritual counselor said in a letter, “The thought occurs that you might not be getting enough exercise.” In 1968, hardly anyone ran. What could I do?
I asked for guidance in meditation, and at work the next day, my supervisor walked up, his eyes gleaming, and pressed a book in my hands. “George,” he said, “you’ve got to read this book! I’ve been on this program for six months and it’s done wonders for me.” It was the first edition of Kenneth Cooper’s Aerobics.
Getting fit was a wonderful awakening. As my body grew strong and healthy, it felt as if I was entering a new world. It was wonderful to discover that I could be an athlete. My view of sports dramatically changed – I realized that sports is about growing as individuals by nudging our own edges, which always brings an influx of joy. I was determined to keep my focus on the wholesome, positive aspects of running, and let it scrub away my memories of sports failure.
In 1972, I got a job at Runner’s World. In those days, the magazine was tiny – it occupied three small rooms in an industrial building on the San Francisco peninsula. There were just three full-time staff: Joe Henderson, Bob Anderson (the founder/publisher), and I. A teenager came in after school to handle shipping, and Bob’s wife occasionally helped out. Bob, Joe, and I pitched in to typeset and paste up the magazine (it was years before desktop publishing), and I did photography and managed the photo files. I remember Bob saying how great it was that each of us was able to do the work of three people, because we were so fit and had so much energy.
At a marathon several years ago, I ran 10 miles with Joe and we caught up on old times. It was delightful. Joe is the quintessential Joyful Runner – when he’s running he’s completely in his element, and he’s one of the most cheerful and friendly people in the world. Reading about his first mile race, I realized how differently his life might have turned out, if Coach Roe hadn’t said those well-timed words. Joe’s books and articles shaped my thoughts on sports as a vehicle for individual growth. Joe embodies the true spirit of running. I highly recommend that all runners visit his website and sign up to be notified by email when fresh articles appear on “Joe Henderson’s Running Journal.”
After my first 50-mile race, in April 1994, I grabbed a soft drink and lingered at the finish line. It was blissful, after running for 10 hours, to stand still and enjoy the satisfaction that follows a hard effort. I remembered my first mile race, nearly 40 years earlier, and I thought, “Okay, Coach, how ’bout that?”
When I hear stories of kids who endure shaming in sports, it makes my blood boil. I’m inspired when I hear of organizations like the Positive Coaching Alliance that promote positive sports experiences for all kids.
I harbor little resentment toward my high school track coach. I’m sure he was doing his best according to his lights. He’d been a football lineman in college, and he viewed life as a struggle demanding toughness of body and mind. Which, of course, it is. But what I believe he didn’t take into account, when he publicly humiliated a 14-year-old fledgling runner, is that healthy, positive attitudes grow most naturally from within, and that the best “fertilizer” is encouragement and love.
I emailed this article to Joe Henderson. Joe replied:
Love your story! I’m sorry to took so long to say so, but this was for the best of reasons: carrying on what Mr. Roe taught me about coaching positively. Twenty-seven of “my” marathoners ran in Eugene yesterday, and 27 finished. What more could we ask? (Joe teaches a popular running class at the University of Oregon.)
1 Jeffrey Marx. Season of Life: A Football Star, A Boy, A Journey to Manhood. Simon & Schuster, 2003.