We’re in the heart of South Dakota’s high school track season, and I’m on my couch watching videos of Olympics 4x400 relay finals and dreaming of warm afternoons and crushed cinders with chalk lane markings that glisten in the spring sunlight.
Track is my favorite time on the sports calendar. I didn’t play football, but I’ll watch a few plays now and then if the Bears are on television. I played basketball. I enjoyed it, but I haven’t watched more than a game or two in ages. Track? I love it. I’d rather watch high school kids compete in a triangular meet in Kadoka or Winner than attend the Super Bowl or college basketball’s Final Four.
We aren’t having high school track this spring because of COVID-19. My old track coach, Don Giese, joined me in lamenting that loss a couple of Sundays ago. He stopped by as I sat in the sun on my patio. We stayed a safe distance apart and talked. When he got up to leave, he said, “I had a track meet marked on my calendar for tomorrow.” Me, too, I said. We shook our heads.
I imagine some school kids, and maybe some parents, too, are fine with missing the track season. Not everyone finds the sport enjoyable. Back when I ran for Chamberlain, the coaches sometimes told guys they wouldn’t be allowed to play football in the fall unless they came out for track in the spring. That’s a heavy-handed way to encourage participation, but it introduced some of my classmates to the joys of track and field. In my experience, while a few of those dragooned tracksters griped the whole season, most of them quickly accepted their places on the team and tried to improve their times or distances or heights.
I suppose if someone had told me I couldn’t go run track unless I played football, I would have complied. Reluctantly, but I’d have gone along. I doubt I’d have been much good at it. I didn’t like hitting people. I didn’t like people hitting me. I weighed something like 150 pounds at my heaviest. I’m sure I could have sat on the bench and cheered for the starters, if I’d have been able to figure out how to put on the shoulder pads.
That’s the thing about track. It’s simple. Toss on some shorts and a jersey, lace up a cheap pair of running shoes and there you go. As I heard one coach many years ago tell a kid about to run the 400-meter dash, “When the gun goes off, run as fast as you can, turn left whenever you reach a curve and you’ll end up right back here.”
That’s probably why I found the 400 (it was 440 yards, not meters, when I ran) such a great race. You went around the track once, as fast as you could. If you broke the tape stretched across the finish line, you won. If you didn’t break the tape, you didn’t win. Someone else ran faster. No one could argue who was best, at least on that day. No one in the stands hollered at the officials. In fact, maybe it’s strange, but I don’t remember noticing the people in the bleachers. The only time I heard anyone yell at all was as I neared the tape in a regional 440 and Dale Waysman shouted “The kid from Parkston is coming at you.”
I ran the half-mile my freshman year. That’s twice around the track. I had no idea how to run that race. I qualified for state, but I was so far behind Rich Cutler of Wessington Springs that the fans probably thought I was in the second heat or something.
My junior year I ran nothing but 440s. I won a few, too, but every time we came to Mitchell, I’d find myself trailing Doug Metcalf to the finish line. Man, he could run. Truthfully? If we’d competed 100 times, he’d have won 100 times.
That’s the honest simplicity of track. I miss that. I also miss seeing young men and women run their hearts out, win or not.
Maybe next spring.