Karl Lindholm: A festival of athletics

Our sports are formalized rituals of natural impulses, however much we complicate them. They are ur-games — original, primal.

There is no sport more compatible with our primitive roots than track and field. As kids, we are all track stars: “Bet I can beatcha to that tree. Ready, set, GO!”

In the Olympics, the track and field events are simply called “athletics.”

Is there a better story than Pheidippides, 2,500 years ago, running from Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians? Voila, the marathon.

As a kid in Lewiston, Maine, I loved to go to track meets at Bates College, both indoors in the winter, in a building called the “Cage,” and outdoors in the spring on the track around the football field, in the center of campus.

A track meet is a carnival, a festival, a gala, a three-ringed circus, a swirl of intense physical activity, energy itself, with runners and jumpers and throwers in harlequin attire, competing fiercely.

And there was my dad at Bates track meets, years ago, down there on the infield, in his sport coat, with a stopwatch, one of the judges and timers, so crucial in the era before electronic timing.

I have no more pleasant and exciting sports memories than watching a track meet at Bates on a Saturday afternoon in winter or spring. Such fun.

My parents spent one winter in Florida in retirement and never went back. My dad’s explanation was: “Who will pick second place in the dashes if I’m not there?”

Bates had two spectacular African-American athletes in the late 1950s, runner Rudy Smith and jumper John Douglas, both class of 1960, whose records (200 and 400 meters; long jump and triple jump) still stand nearly 60 years later.

My dad and I went to Boston in the winter to watch them compete, successfully, against the nation’s elite at the big indoor track meets in the Boston Garden.

We stayed at the Hotel Madison and walked through North Station to the adjacent Gahden for a day of non-stop, thrilling athletic competition.

Rudy Smith “seemed to set a record practically every week,” according to the Bates yearbook, the Garnet, running in events from the 40-yard dash to the 1,000-yard run. At the Knights of Columbus Meet in Boston in 1958, we watched him set a KofC record in the 500, defeating two-time Olympic champion Charlie Jenkins.

What a thrill for a kid like me, watching athletes whom I actually knew, competing against others I had read about, before thousands in the smoky Boston Garden, with my dad.  

Here in Middlebury, we have a beautiful outdoor track facility, an all-weather track, a 400-meter oval that encircles the former football field, now the women’s soccer pitch.

This year, it was the setting for a single intercollegiate contest, just one, in early April. I wish the Middlebury College school year were longer and teams more willing to travel to Vermont.

Most days of the year, the Middlebury track doesn’t have lithe lasses and lads competing or training for athletics glory. Now it’s often just lumpy figures like me, walking in circles.

For a couple of years, Middlebury College hosted an event called The Meet of Champions, a daylong competition for all the best track and field high school athletes. Hundreds of Vermont athletes and their families descended on Middlebury in early June.

In 1998, the great attraction was watching Erin Sullivan from Mt. Mansfield High, the national cross-country girls champion in 1997 and ’98. She won both the 1,500 and the 3,000-meter runs on the Middlebury track on a beautiful sunny day.

In the 3,000, she defeated her rival Tara Chaplin from U-32, as she so often did. Chaplin set a blistering pace to take the kick out of Sullivan, but the Mt. Mansfield champion ran her down in the last lap to win the race.

In college, Chaplin turned the tables. While Sullivan enjoyed a fine career at Stanford, Chaplin was a six-time All-American and herself a national Cross Country Champion in 2001, running for the University of Arizona, where she is now a member of their sports Hall of Fame.

I was a track athlete myself. Well, not exactly.

When I was in high school, Lewiston was just establishing a track program in the spring. Many of the best athletes in the school played baseball with me, but donned the Blue Devil singlet on Saturdays when we didn’t have a game.

I went with my baseball friends who were talented in track and entered the two-mile run. I don’t think I ever won any points for my team, but I was glad to be there, competing with my friends and hanging out in the infield with the other athletes.

At the conference track meet in June, the track coach asked if I would run in the 880, as we had no one in that meet.

I happily complied. From my perspective, it was a good — that much shorter than the two-mile.

The half-mile was two laps around the track and, miraculously, I found myself in first place after lap one. Holy smokes! Piece-a-cake. Why didn’t I do this all along? I’m gonna win. This is my event! I’m a track hero.

Half way through the second lap ...

Quicksand!

I was gassed. Running in place. Rubber legs. Lungs gasping for breathe. I hit the proverbial wall.

I finished last.

My best friend Butch could hardly contain himself.  He and my teammates laughed and laughed: “They passed you so fast, it looked like you were running backwards!”

And I loved them back, amidst my humiliation.

Sports.

Friends.

Joy.

Humility. 


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