One of my (many) sisters-in-law completed her first half-marathon last weekend, running the Indianapolis Mini Marathon in atrocious conditions. Her accomplishment got me reminiscing about my own running milestones over the years. Completing the Chicago Marathon in 2001, a half-marathon in 2000, and my first triathlon in 1999. But my favorite was much further back than that.

In the spring of my first-grade year, my parents separated for the first time. This happened a couple more times and by the time they divorced two years later, I was an old pro at handling parental break ups. But I’ll admit I was a bit messed up in the spring of 1978, mostly because my mom and I abruptly moved and I had to start in a new school in April.

It was a struggle to fit in, especially when I didn’t really understand what was going on with my parents. All the kids knew each other and had forged friendships over the course of the year. I was the new kid at an age when no one is really sure what to do with the new kid.

Fortunately it was spring, though, and that meant gym class was outside and involved running around, playing kickball, etc. The other kids in my class spoke reverently of a kid in my class named Kyle and his super-human speed. They talked about how he ran away from everyone last fall during football games, how he beat everyone in races, and so on. I figured they know the deal, so I too learned to be in awe of Kyle.1

When early May rolled around, our gym teacher lined us up and explained that the school’s field day was coming up, and we would spend the next few weeks practicing for the big day and picking class representatives for the races. 2 I wasn’t really sure what he was talking about, but it sounded fun. I liked competitions, and the lucky winners in our class races would get to compete against the winners from the other first grade classes on the high school football field in front of the entire elementary school.

So we lined up for our first 50 yard dash practice. I remember the day clearly. It was morning, so the grass was still heavy with dew, the sun shining brightly in our eyes as it crested the trees across the field. Kyle was located just a couple lanes to my left. I figured if I kept him in my sights, I’d have a solid shot of making the first grade finals. The teacher put us on our marks, raised his arm, and shouted “Go!” I took off, pumping my arms, raising my knees high, all the stuff that OJ Simpson did when he ran the ball. I focused on the finish line but also monitored my left peripheral vision, waiting for Kyle to appear. I could feel my blood pumping in my ear drums, my throat burned, and I gasped for breaths. I crossed the finish line and pulled to a stop, looking anxiously to the teacher to see where I finished. Turns out, I won.

“This must be a mistake,” I thought.

I found Kyle and asked if he slipped in the wet grass at the start.

“No,” he replied, he ran fine. I just beat him.

I could sense a murmur amongst our classmates. The new kid had just beat Kyle in a race. Was it a fluke? Had the world as they knew it just been shattered into a million pieces?

Over the next couple weeks we continued our practice for Field Day. Kyle won a few races. Most days, though, I beat him. It was obvious we would be the two runners representing Mrs. Alexander’s class.

When the big day rolled around, we filed into the football stadium and sat in the concrete stands, nervously watching the other races as we waited our turn to take the field. When they called for the first grade 50 yard dashers, Kyle and I made our way to the field, our classmates wishing us luck along the way.

We lined up on the field, and as I looked down to the finish line, 50 yards sure seemed a lot longer than it had been in gym class. We took our marks, a teacher raised a real starter pistol, and shot a round to send us on our way.

This was a fairly small school, I think there were four first grade classes, but I had no scouting report on the other classes. I didn’t know if Kyle had been the class of the entire school before my arrival, or if perhaps another class featured a budding Olympian. Fortunately, when you’re not-yet seven, you don’t think of these things. I just knew Kyle was fast, I had beat him a few times, and one of us would win this race. Still, there were a lot of strangers on the field with me.

I ran hard. I pumped my fists and raised my knees high. I felt my blood in my ear drums, felt the burn in my throat, and gasped for breaths. I crossed the finish line and looked around. Had I won? Or did I finish last? I had no idea until the teacher holding the blue ribbon ran over and grabbed me so they could line people up for awards. I finished first, Kyle right behind me. Mrs. Alexander had a future track team in her class!

I’m pretty sure that was the first time I ever won anything official. I remember how sweet the rest of that day was, walking around at the post-race picnic with my blue ribbon pinned to my shirt.3 My speed held until high school, when there were far better sprinters around. I could usually win the mile warm-up runs in gym class, but I dumbly thought that cross country and distance racing in track were for freaks, and never tried out for either one.

Now accomplishment is more about getting off the couch and doing something than being the first one across the finish line. The prize is the t-shirt or finisher’s medal that everyone receives. While those are nice, that blue ribbon in May of 1978 will never be topped.

  1. I will say this, Kyle was a nice kid. He didn’t let all this adulation go to his young head. He and I became fast friends over the next few years before my family moved to Kansas City. 
  2. Remember, this was the 70s. There was no “everybody wins” mentality yet. It was a cold, brutal, efficient contest to determine a winner. 
  3. I’m pretty sure I ran around a little too much after lunch and deposited most of my meal in the grass somewhere.