A childhood friend recently posted a black-and-white snapshot on Facebook of our middle school cross-country team, a ragtag collection of 30 boys, some with closely cropped hair and others (like me) with bushy heads of unruly tendrils. For many of us, our T-shirts were too big for our growing bodies.
We were all of 11 or 12, maybe 13 years old. None among us can figure out what year the photo was taken, despite multiple analyses. Maybe 1979, maybe 1981.
It’s the type of picture that freaks you out but makes you smile.
For me, middle school cross-country was the start of an on-again, off-again love affair with running. I will turn 50 in less than a month. Now, I can’t imagine my life without the sport.
I can’t recall a single race as a student at Middle Island Middle School, in Suffolk County. I do remember, however, jogging around the grassy field behind the school in the heat, sweating profusely and breathing hard. We also ran half a mile from the middle school to the pristine Prosser Pines Preserve to play Capture the Flag amid the soaring white pines, on a thick carpet of brown pine needles.
Coach O’Neil had a shaggy mane of dirty-blond hair and an oversized beard. He reminded me of an ultra-fit Grizzly Adams, minus the pet bear. Instead he had a racing bicycle, which he regularly rode to school. Kids waved and cheered from the bus as we passed him on Yaphank-Middle Island Road.
I do remember racing as a Longwood High School student. I struggled up Cardiac Hill at Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park. After meets, our coach, known as Tony the Tiger for his fierce competitiveness, had us run repeats up and down Cardiac, one of the state’s steepest, meanest cross-country hills.
I ran for two seasons before giving it up because my many other activities and studies became a little too much. But I kept jogging on my own, and I bought a French racing bike, which I rode everywhere, including the seven miles to and from my part-time job at a greenhouse in Coram, the next community over from Yaphank, where I grew up. Yes, I was following Coach O’Neil’s lead. By deed alone, he was a mentor.
Then I started riding my bike east, along Long Island’s North Fork, as far and as fast as I could go. I didn’t realize it then, but I was getting into pretty good shape.
At SUNY Geneseo, I walked onto the cross-country team as a freshman. By the time I graduated, I had made the varsity squad and run personal bests of 4 minutes, 31 seconds in the mile; 16:40 in the 5K; and 33 minutes and change in the 10K, which I thought (erroneously) was slow because I was surrounded by runners who were faster than I.
I met Mike Gravelle as a freshman. We were both new to the team, and both English literature/secondary education majors. We became fast friends. Mike was among the top competitors in the state. He ran a 15:21 5K and a 31:11 10K. He had this wonderfully fluid running style, one that’s impossible to teach. His arms and legs just flowed, propelling him forward. I always admired that style.
I continued to run and walk to stay in shape after college, until my kids were born a decade later. When they were young, it was impossible to find time to run, let alone race. I gained 30 pounds, and I was unhappy with myself.
Seven years ago, on Father’s Day, I made a decision: I would start running again. My brother-in-law had died only months earlier of a massive heart attack at age 60. He was on a subway platform, headed to work, when his heart just stopped. I thought I had to do all I could to protect my health. For me, that meant running and biking.
I quickly dropped 25 pounds, and in 2012 I jumped back into racing, taking part in the Robbie’s Run 5K in Merrick and finishing in 23:20. The surge of competitiveness that I’d felt in college rushed back. Two years later, I ran 19:44 at the John Theissen Children’s Foundation Freaky 5K in Wantagh.
Taking on a new job as the Heralds’ executive editor left me with relatively little time for racing over the past nine months, though I’ve continued to run. Then, in March, one of my very good friends from high school, our class valedictorian, Erik Burian, posted on Facebook that he had run a 5K in 19:35, and I thought, “I have to get back to racing.”
I tell my daughter, who now runs cross-country, that faster runners show you what’s possible. So, Erik, thanks for showing me what’s possible. My goal is to run 19:30 in the near future.
And, most important at 50, to stay healthy.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.