The first time I realized I could run was when I did sports at school. Before that, I did a lot of walking, and maybe ran around the backyard with my sister and cousins as we played ‘chasey‘ and ‘hide and seek‘, but it wasn’t until I got older and involved in school sports that I discovered the delight of a ‘real‘ run.
What I loved about running wasn’t that I was able to beat anyone else who ran with me in getting to the finish line first. It was the way the wind whistled in my ears, the way the coolness of it flowed over my face, the way the blood pumped so hard through my body, and the way my whole body exerted itself to the utmost to try to find its very top speed.
Most of all, I think I was fascinated by the way I could create the wind by running, that the whistle in my ears came from me moving at speed through space, rather than me standing still as air moved past me.
My mother was soon impressed by my running. She came to watch my races, and loved to brag about my wins. I did love getting ribbons but they weren’t my reason for running. I just loved the opportunity to do it. You couldn’t go running along the streets in those days like you can do, now, without people thinking you were ‘loony‘.
Not that I was ever that sort of runner, anyway. Once I started running, my mother regaled me with all sorts of stories about my relatives. Apparently, my biological father was quite a runner, especially in cross country events, though I never really knew him. My great-grandfather had also been a marathon runner who won a lot of races. (This only came out after I began to run).
I wasn’t a marathon runner, though. I wasn’t a long distance runner. Later on, after I joined an amateur athletics club, my coach tried to get me to do longer runs, like 400 and 800 meters, but I wasn’t so good at those. I was a sprinter. I ran 100 and 200 meter races.
Now, being a sprinter means that you have to go as fast as you can in a very short time, to cover that actually very short length. When I was in school, I used to stand at the starting line, and I ran in bare feet. I liked that sort of running. It agreed with me. I liked the contact with the earth that my bare feet had.
After I joined the amateur athletics club, my mother bought me ‘spikes‘. I loved the way the soft, thin leather hugged the shape of my foot, but the undersole of spikes was hard plastic, so you could screw the metal spikes into the embedded holes. They were actually hard to walk on, at least on floors or pavement.
It was a fascinating set up, and I loved the little tool that came with them, that allowed me to tighten the spikes up, or remove and replace them. Having a little tool of my own somehow made me feel important.
Spikes did help me run faster, especially on grass or gravel, or tarred lanes, but they weren’t the same as bare feet. There was no sensual contact with the earth. (Even though you tend to run on your toes and the touch is light at speed, it’s still there and registers in your mind when you run in bare feet).
The other tool used to help me run faster were starting blocks. Most athletes running races, then, used starting blocks. My coach insisted that using them was the only sensible and correct way to go. But then, she was trying to get our club to be the top club amongst those competing at the inter-club meets at Royal Park in Melbourne on the weekends.
Starting blocks, to me, were like braces on teeth, or even perhaps those metal gadgets dentists used to use to hold your mouth open so they could work on your teeth.
For me, they were clunky. I never really got the hang of them. While I could position myself well, put my body over my arms, raise my hands on their fingers, arch my bum into the air and look to the lane ahead in anticipation of the starting gun going off, when I jumped my body out of those blocks I was always the last to leave…
My coach tried to train me on exactly how to do it. Apparently, it all happened in the first three steps. If you couldn’t push those first three steps into the ground hard enough to break turf you were never going to be ahead of the crowd.
My Dad got a Navy friend to come give me extra pointers. He had trained recruits at the Naval depot my Dad also taught at, then. Naval recruits had to be very fit and did a lot of exercise. My Dad’s friend had some very good lessons to teach me, but it made no difference when I encountered the starting blocks. And with the ‘lost ground‘ from being last out of them each race, it was a miracle that I won any at all. It was only by sheer determination and from pumping my arms and legs as fast as I could make them go that saw me pass my competitors to actually win some races.
My coach shook her head, though. All she saw was how many more races I could win, if only I could learn to use the starting blocks effectively.
My time in amateur athletics brought me in contact with many great racers. In my own club at Frankston, the future Olympian, Debbie Flintoff King, was my peer, only a year or so younger than me. When I was there, I actually ran faster than she did.
I also met the Olympian, Raelene Boyle, when I went to the weekend meets. She belonged to the Brunswick club, which my cousin also belonged to (though she was a swimmer).
I used to wish I could win the Olympics. I think it was more of an attraction to Raelene, who cut a tall, willowy figure, just like her two afghan hounds that she paraded on a leash around the outskirts of the Royal Park oval. She seemed so self-assured as she stopped to talk to people. I was always a bit shy with people, then, so maybe I thought that being an Olympian meant you could smooth out and be more interactive.
Of course, I know better today. Olympians are as human as the rest of us. They get stressed and break down, too. Plus, the hard work of pushing their bodies so much to be top athletes in their youth often rebounds on them in old age, with arthritis and all sorts of health disorders.
My ideas of being an Olympian were short-lived, however, once my asthma set in. It was undiagnosed at the time, but I got very frightened by the level of ‘no breath’ I had after each race, so in the end I chose to not go any more. Luckily, my future husband came along by the time I was sixteen, anyway, so I had plenty of diversion and didn’t really miss it.
Today, there are many life experiences that I can measure in terms of those starting blocks. At the time, I really thought that athletics was the path for me. It certainly ate up a lot of my energy and focus, then. But not being able to handle the starting blocks, and not being able to figure out how to use them effectively, made me doubt my ability to ever achieve the same levels as the heroes I dreamed of becoming. It got under my skin, that sense that I could not amount to ever fully being a winner because I could not master those starting blocks.
My life took quite a divergence after I met my future husband and not only my athletics but a lot of other things I had been invested in were set aside to follow him. For a long while, people shook their heads and thought I had given up too much, and wasted too many natural gifts.
What actually happened, though, was that I found new directions. The same creative energy and will to enjoy life to the fullest (which was what running actually was for me) just came out in other ways, later on.
I ended up achieving a heck of a lot with my life, after quite a hiatus of bringing up my family (well, it actually began while I was bringing up my family). I just did things my way, and waited till my time was right, though I didn’t know that was happening at the time.
For a while, I let my doubters and naysayers get under my skin, (the starting blocks were happening all over again), and I lost faith in myself and my life. But it didn’t take much to get me back on track, finding other things that were just as fun and fulfilling to do, and that also tested my skills to their limit.
What I learned was that I’m a slow starter. I don’t like forced beginnings. I am never going to be able to do three hard paces to the ground at the beginning of anything. I like to stand and feel the earth beneath my feet, get a sense of my surroundings, and then shoot off when my heart feels ready.
Once I get going, though, watch out! If you’re already on the track, I just may pass you by…
My motto? Never let a poor start stop you from winning, and if you can’t win, at least enjoy the race. It can be quite a breeze.