1971: Your Move

It’s a story that’s been handied down through my mother’s family for generations – two Cornish coal-miners filing a lawsuit against the public works administration for building the sidewalks too close to their butts. It’s tempting to dismiss the tale as urban legend but when you consider how the family physique combines a long torso with stubby legs it’s easy to believe the legend as fact. It also explains why running – especially long distance running – was always such a challenge for me as I have to cover twice as much distance as my longer-limbed buddies.

It was a condition that would be the bane of my entire running life but even though I’ve never been much of a long-distance runner I never stopped trying to do better and by the time I was seventeen I could turn a decent time for a mile run. It was enough to get me through football season and as a teacher’s aide for physical education class when I was counting laps for my students more often than running them myself, but the situation jumped up and bit me in my own low-slung Cornish miner’s butt when a lapse of judgement saw me signing up for a 200 level physical fitness class during my first semester at the University of Alaska.

The class first met on one of those grey drizzly days common to Alaska but the classroom was comfortable enough and before long I was joking with my classmates and looking forward to fifteen weeks of casual activity. Then our instructor walked in and reality scratched the tone arm across the 33 1/3 LP record of my life. His name was Coach Svenningson and he was built like the Bizarro version of me:

  • His legs were as abnormally long as mine were short.
  • Where I was stocky he was rail-thin.
  • Where I was endomorphic his body fat percentage easily went into negative.

At least he didn’t have that frustrated drill instructor mindset found in some coaches and was soft-spoken and occasionally smiling as he passed out copies of the syllabus and highlighted some of the fitness activities we’d be doing. At first we’d be doing a lot of stretching and warm-up work and the last part of the term would involve a lot of handball but most of the semester would involve running.

It was definitely not what I wanted to hear.

Up until this time I had been somewhat of a dilettante when it came to athletics – or anything for that matter. Whether it was drawing, football, judo or shooting I was good for at best two months before I’d get distracted into something more interesting, which worked in quite nicely with the nine-week grading periods that broke up the school year but college was a whole new animal and I’d have to stick with this class for twice as long as usual.

Fortunately this particular set of concerns fell by the wayside as all my studies commenced in earnest and for the first few weeks the physical fitness class was just one academic blur among others as we sedately worked our way thorough Coach’s preparatory program of calisthenics and stretching.

…and then there came D-Day, or rather R-Day: the dreaded day we were to start running, which wasn’t all that dreadful because it entailed some easy laps around the gym (which I could handle) followed with laps around the Beluga1 annex which I assumed that I could learn to handle…but looking forward I could see that when we started running outside any measure of “handling” on my part was theoretical at best.

Given the university’s geographical location less than two degrees south of the Arctic Circle running outside meant dealing with conditions cooler, wetter and a bit less sunny that I was used to for autumn. I was granted a very minor respite when we were given a choice of several trails to run but the shortest was two and half miles long so I’d have to more than double my heretofore best effort. In the hyperlogical mindset of an eighteen-year old male all I could was cling to hope that the support and traction provided by my brand new blue Puma® running shoes would carry me through the course.

…then we were given a sketch map of the course and I knew I was screwed. The run would start at the Beluga but then almost immediately went straight up the slope that separated the upper and lower campuses before crossing Yukon Road and making a loop over a rolling forest track2.

Even though we were still inside I shivered. I was going to be engaged in my least favorite form of exercise while

  • Covering twice as far as my best distance
  • Negotiating one big slope followed by several smaller ones
  • Wet, sloppy weather that could turn into snow at anytime

I decided that no running shoe (no matter how cool the logo) would get me through that distance so immediately after class I went to the administration building to drop the class, but as I was picking up a drop card I ran into a friend from high school who was in the process of dropping out of all his classes and going home. It startled me – he’d been a stellar student athlete all through high school and was the last person I’d expect to quit, but as I looked at him filling out forms I had an epiphany: no matter how hard my classes were or how homesick I became there was no way I was going to spend four more years taking the easy path in life.

…which is why – despite all my doubts – I tore up the drop card and showed up at the next physical fitness class and lined up at the start point of the 2 ½ mile trail.

I started up the hill, thinking that if I could get through wind sprints in football practice I could make it up the hill, a thought my body stoutly rejected as I barfed at the top of the slope. As I crossed the road my legs wobbling and feeling more like Jell-O than flesh and bone and for a moment I considered hiding in the trees until I could fall with the pack on the return trip down the slope but all I could think of was my former classmate dropping of school so I kept going, albeit at a brisk walk rather than a run.

It was more of a barely-controlled forward fall than a brisk walk and I found myself wheeze-singing3 a song I’d heard just before I left for class that morning: “Your Move” by the British progressive rock bank Yes:

Take a straight and stronger course to the corner of your life.
Make the white queen run so fast she hasn’t got time to make you a wife.
‘Cause it’s time, it’s time in time with your time and its news is captured
For the queen to use.

 Diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit didda.
Diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit didda.


My run during the next class wasn’t much better, though I did manage to avoid throwing up and during my third time around the trail I was able to manage a slow jog for part of the course. As I’d go through the lyrics my mind would fill in the bass drum that slowly marked time along with the flawlessly blended harmony.

Don’t surround yourself with yourself,
Move on back two squares,
Send an Instant Karma to me,
and Initial it with loving care

Diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit didda.
Diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit didda.

After the third or fourth circuit around the trail I began to think about the message of the song – the game of chess as an allusion to a romantic relationship, something that was extremely interesting to me now that the Petite Blonde at church was becoming my Best Friend

‘Cause it’s time, it’s time in time with your time and its news is captured
For the queen to use.
Diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit didda.
Diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit diddit didda.

Before long I was jogging for the entire course and then one day I found myself running for the entire two and half miles….and once I was able to painlessly4 run the trail I found myself appreciating the golden explosion that is autumn in Alaska:

  • the brilliant golden fall colors
  • the sounds of birds calling to each other
  • the slightly sour smell of unpicked cranberries after a frost

…and then it came time to switch to other fitness activities and while I thoroughly enjoyed learning to play handball I felt a vague sense of loss. Running remained my least favorite form of exercise but I’d finally been able to figure out why cross-country running was so popular among some of my friends in high school…and mulling the lyrics to Your Move helped me figure out the direction a budding romance was headed

Most importantly it was the first time I took on a very difficult/almost insurmountable task and stuck with it all the way through to a successful completion, and while my future still held instances of me “getting out while the getting was good” I’ve been able to look back at the two-and-a-half mile trail and draw strength in hard times. As a later mentor would say I’d taken the first step into adulthood by making myself do something difficult even though I didn’t want to.

 


 

Notes:

  1. The Beluga was a large white inflatable building nicknamed for the white whales that inhabited Alaskan waters and was situated just to the west of the Patty athletic complex. It housed the university’s hockey rink but during the off-season it provided shelter for tennis and jogging during inclement weather.
  2. An area now taken up by the Reichardt building, Troth Yedda Park and assorted student housing cabins.
  3. “Wheeze-singing” entails quietly singing through the gasps and wheezes of the belabored breathing brought on by heavy exercise. It was a sort of a Zen exercise I developed to focus my attention away from the pain and discomfort of running in high school long before portable stereos had been invented.
  4. …well, less painfully maybe.

 

 

This is an extended version – the one I listened/sang to lacked the more electric & energetic section that starts up after the fade-out.

 

Two And A Haldf Mile Trail (2)

The  closest I could get to finding a picture of the 2 1/2 mile trail at the time I was running on it. While this is definitely a photo taken in Alaska the trees look a little tall for Fairbanks. It was a share of a share of a share on Facebook so I don’t have a proper credit but please contact me if you know the photographer