Chapter Sixteen – The Mingle and the Mad Dash
As summer eventually capitulated to fall, an interesting thing began to happen—I noticed people edging away from me at cocktail parties.
Many months earlier when I had first announced my walkabout intentions, my friends, family, and colleagues were wildly intrigued. In addition to showing support at every turn, they were always anxious to hear the details of my travels to iconic venues and well publicized events. A pivotal late-season Lakers game against San Antonio. Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. The U.S. Opens of both golf and tennis. March Madness. NASCAR. And being the attention-seeking miscreant that I am, I was more than happy to indulge their curiosity.
As time went by, though, I found myself consistently swinging the conversation around to all of the hidden jewels of the sports world that I had been discovering. My answers to their questions about the Big-Time Sports became perfunctory, as I was in a hurry to turn the discussion to things like pro surfing, water polo, and lacrosse. Some people humored me with much more skill than others, but the telltale glazing of the eyes eventually gave them away. They couldn’t care less. And by the time I got around to sharing the delight I’d found at the Smaller Is Better events, it was astonishing how many people suddenly discovered something else that needed attending to. Right that second, in fact.
Oh, I’d hear the whispers. “No, seriously—he actually likes high school football more than pro.” Or, “I hear he got up at 3:30 in the morning to go watch a triathlon, for God’s sake.” But it was cross-country that finally triggered mass exodus at social gatherings. For it was evident to most that I had finally lost my mind.
In 1959, British writer Alan Sillitoe published a novella titled The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It was made into a movie in 1962 and ultimately received enough acclaim to land it on the British Film Institute’s list of the greatest British films of the 20th century. I never read the story or saw the movie. In fact the only thing I’ve ever known about the plot line is that it revolves around cross-country running. And that one small nugget of knowledge has always framed my perception of the sport: cross-country = lonely.
That thought was lurking in the back of my mind as I arose very early on a Saturday morning in mid-November and began the two-hour drive from Portland to Springfield, Oregon. In the pitch dark. In a steady rain. With a temperature hovering somewhere in the low 40s. So was it any wonder that I expected to be one of, oh, maybe a dozen fans on hand to witness the NCAA’s West Regional Cross Country Championships?
I was prepared to experience the Loneliness of the Long Distance Watcher.
So imagine my surprise when I arrived at Springfield Country Club and was redirected to a separate spectator parking lot at a local elementary school. And then my shock when I pulled into that lot and saw a line of people queuing up to board a luxurious shuttle bus. And then my absolute disbelief when I was dropped off back at the golf course and found hundreds of people already present for an event not scheduled to begin for almost an hour. Lonely? I was beginning to feel downright crowded. And confused. Why in the world would so many people show up on a cold and misty morning at a venue that, if it wasn’t actually in the middle of nowhere, it certainly knew the ZIP code?
Actually, part of the answer did indeed lie within the ZIP code. For in Oregon, if anybody is running anywhere, there will most certainly be people on hand to watch. If you happen to find yourself somewhere in the Web-Foot State and sprinting to catch a bus at some point, it’s more than likely that a small crowd will gather to cheer you on. But even though I knew in advance that I was venturing deep into the land of Nike and Prefontaine, it still didn’t prepare me for the gorgeous build-out and pristine environment that played host to what has to be one of the lowest-profile sports in the NCAA lineup.
As I navigated my way down the 18th fairway toward the event’s hub in the center of the golf course’s back nine, a steady stream of runners going through their warm-up runs began to pass me. And, as if I needed another reason to be transfixed by the spectacle, I was captivated by the colors. A bright kaleidoscope of hues and tints was splashed against the emerald-green backdrop of the golf course. With 31 women’s and 25 men’s teams competing, all of the colors of the rainbow were well represented in the different teams’ warm-up suits and uniforms. “Vivid” and “vibrant” kept elbowing each other out of the way for the lead in the adjective race.
Once I arrived at the Start/Finish complex, it occurred to me that, from the runners’ perspective, it would’ve been impossible to carve out a small moment of privacy, let alone loneliness. I learned that the male competitors would be sharing the course with 178 close associates, while the ladies would start their race side by side with 221 others. Add to that more than 1,000 highly engaged spectators, and you had an atmosphere that was about as supportive and inclusive as could be imagined for a solitary pursuit.