A Snowbird in the Catbird Seat

SNOWBIRD

A steady frigid wind and a blistering chill from the East had settled into a steady rhythm one late February day in 1971. Gust… then relief… more gust… less relief. The sky was painted pewter gray… a dreary, solid, unwavering, uncaring gray.

I stepped carefully onto the cracked Southern Louisville sidewalk, trying to miss the patches of ice that had formed to even out the middle, where the concrete slabs met and slanted in either direction. I pulled my tobagon down over my ears and flipped it up so my eyes were barely visible. I tugged my gloves tight as I lit out down the cruddy block of residential and commercial properties lining the four lane Street called Taylor Boulevard in Louisville’s South End.

Optimistically, Tolly said smiling, “let’s roll”.

Six teenage disheveled runners took off; shivering, sighing, and determined to finish their six mile run before dark. Southern Louisville is not a pretty place now, nor was it then, in the early 70‘s. Mostly blue collar houses built after World War II lined grimy streets, sometimes built seemingly only inches apart. The people living there had a hard life and it showed… on their faces, in their homes and cars, in their yards.It’s no place to be after dark.

Tolly was our coach, or our Graduate Assistant Coach during the Winter off-season when real Coaches went home before the 4:30 Midwestern darkness, to settle in warm and cozy with their families. An ex-runner himself, Tolly was Interning from the University of Louisville.

We were Iroquois High School distance runners, seeking future fame, fortune, or perhaps a just a letter jacket, by running on late afternoon school days during off-season; which we hoped would help make us much better runners by the time Spring Track season rolled around in Mid-March. Or, that was our hope at least.

In 1971, distance running was not a household word with the MOJO it now assumes. The name “NIKE” didn’t exist. Nor did their shoes. We wore white Addidas (with blue and red stripes), the only running shoe maker we’d ever heard of.

Runners, by-and-large were considered crazy, or just plain fools. Cans of beer or Pop were hurled at us as a matter of course, and we laughed and catalogued their near-misses. It broke the boredom when a car load of flannel shirted South End redenecks spit nasty epitaths and cursed us as we sped by in the opposite direction.

After having finished 30th in the Regional Finals as a Sophomore at the end of the last Cross-Country season, my future running prospects weren’t exactly on-fire. I didn’t return home to find letters from colleges stuffed in my mailbox, inquiring about my desire to take a look at their campus, or even their class schedule for that matter.

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But, I needed a scholarship to be able to afford College, having come from a blue collar family of five where no one had ever attended school beyond High School. Though my parents insisted they would try to help out, I knew my slim chances were better by slipping and sliding down those icy streets. And, slim they were.

I took the tongue depresser (a stick which told me what place I had finished) from that Regional Meet. Faded blue numbers from sweat that read “30th”. I sat it on my bedstand so evry day I could see my goal of running better next year. Thirthieth in the Region is far from accomplished in High School Cross-Country. Actually, it’s not even on the map.

That Sophomore season I had been the only Varsity runner to wear the “snowbirds” as my teamates laughingly referred to my meet warmups. On our team of seven Varsity runners, six had nylon and mesh, zippered and fitted dark blue warmups with an incredible “Iroquois” splashed across their back in the most beautiful embroidered Script… with double shadows. Outrageous as they were, I wore the “snowbirds”.

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Snowbirds were all-white cotton sweatpants and a sweatshirt with a small blue “Iroquois High School” in all-caps facetiously screen-printed and stuck in the upper-right corner of the front pocket area. Why? Had each letter cost us a fortune? Charged by font sizes too? Why else the disparity, which made me look and feel embarrassingly ridiculous? Snowbirds made me both ashamed and angry. Snowbirds were what got me out of my warm home onto those dirty, gray, icy roads on many cold Southern Louisville Winter days.

Even competitors from other schools noticed me while we warmed up doing wind sprints before some events; while I pretended not to notice their chuckles and the “Hey, come look at this” smirks; their common theme my pure white snowbirds, as I learned to read my opponents lips from 100 yards. Soon they would realize I was actually on the Varsity team, and not the team manager wearing goofy sweats.sciamachy

Once, I recognized a guy from another school that I’d met at a local Turkey Trot back on Thanksgiving in November. “Hey Rick” I waved to the handsome leader of their pack, each one all decked out in meshy red, white, black warmups. Our two schools were racing one another that day, and he was something of a prima-dona. It felt good to let my teammates see that I actually knew Rick Akam. When he saw my sweats, and then my teammates cool-bean outfits, he just nodded, unknowingly… and then trotted away.

My easy-going Coach laughed with everybody else on the team each time he handed out my clean sno-white warmups before each meet.

“Next year Adams”, he would lament with a grin, knowing how stupid I was about to look, running along with his SuperHeroes in a set of white cotton almost blank sweats. Embarassed, I’d grab them in good cheer and slide them on.

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Actually the Coach, Mr. Lerding, had seen something special in me the first day I tried out for the team back in late August. A friend in my accounting class had suggested I go out for the cross-country team because, “it’s an easy letter” as he put it. I could imagine pretty girls eyeing my dark blue school letter jacket with the “I” embroidered smartly on the front, wondering just who this new kid was?

I had transferred from Catholic School that year because my parents could no longer afford the tuition. I knew most of the kids anyway, since I grew up only a few blocks from Iroquois (the public high school), but the classes were very different. Since I had gone to Catholic School since First grade, I already knew most of what was being taught to the Juniors and Seniors at Iroquois, and had enough credits to take easy elective classes and such. Running might take away some of the boredom I figured, so I talked a couple of other friends into trying out with me that day.

That first day in late August we gathered around the horse trough at the entrance into Iroquois Park, an 800 acre park/hill carved into the city, with only one road which circled the bottom, and one road that went to the top. There were lookouts along the way and at the top one could see all the way to Indiana. Playgrounds and picnic tables, tennis courts and and an Ampitheatre dotted the beautiful park. There was also a bike path made of asphault which looped two miles along the front of the lush green forested park.

We ran the bridle path, a four and a half mile dirt loop around the bottom of the park. It was dirt/mud/horseshit, about ten feet wide with puddles of mud here and there as large as my bedroom. It had banked tight curves, up-and-down bumps or small hills, long narrow up hills drifts through the forest, but very little flat land the entire run. It was mostly through the thick forest, though in places it came out into sunny areas where there were activities like softball, picnic areas, frisbee golf and such. The sun lasted only minutes… then diving back into a wood where sunlight only flickered through the tops of trees.

On the North side there was a public golf course flanking the entire park and horse path. There the hills became steeper, longer, twisting, then finally diving straight down to the bottom, onlt to begin the next incline even steeper and more harrowing. It was like a roller-coaster of sorts without the tracks and trains. The uphill parts punished even the strongest runners. I started to become delirious that first day, but I kept running.

Since it was my first day I had no idea how fast to run, or even if I could run that far. Mainly, I tried to stay connected to others who were suffering as much as me. I trudged through the mud jumping back and forth across the puddles left over from a recent rain. I couldn’t think of anything but finishing the run, even after seeing quitters and walkers, I kept on going.

The golf course part was brutal mentally and physically, and there I had no one to rely on for encouragement or friendly assistance. Peeking over each new hilltop brought a brand new, discouraging challenge ahead. I just kept going.

Eventually, I came to a small clearing and saw the bottom of the hill where the Coach chatted with three or four other runners as they were stretching, talking and laughing.

Soon enough I was among them, though I didn’t say much. I just laid prone looking up at the leaves in the tops of treees, sun blinking in and out with my conscience Ness.

Other runners struggled to finish as we waited at least another forty minutes for them until it seemed everyone was back. Surprisingly, on my first day I was the first newcomer to finish, and even had beaten some of the Varsity runners. As I walked away to head back to the school across the street, the Coach stopped me. “What did you say your name was?” he queried.

I was jubililant and from then on forever hooked on distance running. What a small piece of “fame” can do for a naive young boy. I replayed his question that night over and over while I lay in bed nursing my aching, sore legs.

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As we crossed street after street of light afternoon traffic, a light snow began to fall on our icy breaths that February day, and I felt a power inside me start to grow. I felt that I was “becoming” a long distance runner.

It seemed that the worse the weather, the more I enjoyed it. I loved running in driving rains, foggy mornings where you couldn’t see your friend next to you, and audaciously blistering cold afternoons, which made me laugh at the irony.

By now, I was also part of the Varsity team, though still a skinny Iroquois sophomore with more hope than ability. But each day I suited up for Tolly’s 6,7,8, or 10 mile runs through Louisville, more determined to shed my “snowbird” image. Running, cold and humbling as it can be, was becoming familiar and fun.

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When Spring Track season began with a few “dual” meets I ran the “two-mile” against our competitors, each time breezing through the two miles in around eleven minutes and thirty seconds. That was exactly my time in the Regional the day I finished 30th. More importantly, I won the races handily, since the other runners had not endured the “Winter of Tolly” like me and some of my teammates. I knew if challenged I might be able to run even faster, but I loved winning races.

I’ll never forget the night I became “someone” on the High School running scene in Kentucky. I was still a Sophomore in late March 1971 and without any real accomplishments, when my track coach (Ed Lerding) told me that I was going to run the two-mile run that night at an “Invitational” track meet.

Eight guys, eight schools, full grandstands, and all under the lights. It sounded scary and exciting. Was I ready? I hadn’t a clue.

The two mile run is near the end of each track meet, one of its last events. That gives one plenty of time to think (or too much time), warmup, and get mentally prepared for the race ahead. Early in the meet my Coach came up to me and asked how I felt.

“Good”, I answered.

fireworks baby!

“Well I have a little job for you tonight”, as he smiled and looked me straight in the eye.

“You know your buddy? Pendelton?” he asked. Terrell Pendelton was one of the top runners in the State of Kentucky, having already posted 9:49 two-mile time that Spring. We happened to have gone to grade school together, but I really didn’t know him at all.

“Yeah”.

“Well, I want you to get on his shoulder on the first lap and stay with him as long as you can”, he said matter of factly.

“Terry Pendelton? Stay with Terry Pendelton?” What?

“Yes, just for as long as you can. Don’t worry about dropping out, just hang on to him for as long as you can,” Lerding said in an optimistic tone. “I think you can stay near him the whole race.”

“Coach, I can’t run with Terrell Pendelton. He’ll run me in the ground.”

“It’s OK. Just stay as long as you can, and stay on his shoulder. You’ll be OK.”

‘He’s nuts I thought, but he’s the coach’.

It is the last thing I remember thinking before the gun sounded to start the race. As everyone jockeyed for position I spotted Pendelton already taking the lead on the first of eight laps. I sprinted to the front and landed a half-step behind him. He looked over his right shoulder but didn’t recognize me or seem to care that I stuck to him lap after lap.

I was shocked when I heard the gun sound again (meaning it’s now the last lap), and Terry Pendelton was just a shoulder ahead of me. The crowd was screaming and all I could think of was how fast I must have been running for the past seven laps, and how I was on TERRY PENDELTON’S shoulder still.

I kept wondering when he was going to take off and leave me behind. He didn’t. I didn’t want to beat him, just stay on his shoulder until the race was over. And that’s what I did, even though another guy (Don Cook) passed us both at the end.

I had finished the two mile in 9:54… the third fastest time in Kentucky that season. More than happy, I was amazed at myself. From 30th in the Region just four months ago, to now one of the fastest two-milers in the State of Kentucky.

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My life hasn’t been the same since that day, that incredible peak moment. Nothing has ever been too hard, or too tough that I didn’t think I could do it.

I went on to finish 3rd in the 2-mile at the Kentucky AAA State track meet as a Sophomore that Spring (behind Cook and Pendelton), but then surprised everyone by beating Pendelton to win the Kentucky AAA State Cross-Country meet that next Fall during my Junior year.

Imagine that, the snowbird less than a year ago… now the 1971 Kentucky AAA State Cross-Country Champion, wearing mesh warm ups too!

Pretty soon my mailbox was full of mail from colleges, and I eventually had a number of full scholarship offers from some great Universities. I graduated college with a BA in 1977, though instead of running I ended up playing three years of Varsity Soccer on Kentucky’s best Soccer team at MSU (Morehead State University). But, I ran until I was 50 years old… who was once again a “snowbird” who had retired and moved to sunny Florida.zemblanity

And although I continued running somewhat competitively through a hectic career of Publishing Sales, and played organized soccer for 11 years after college just to make sure that my youth remained intact for as long as possible, at 5o I became a first time father… altering my perception and priorities in life. A single father (who knew nothing about babies) cuddled his sick almost one year old son until… he caught pneumonia. On my third visit to the emergency room on Christmas Day 2005, my lungs filled with fluid causing my heart to double in size and nearly burst. A long recovery resulted (no running, no walking, no stress whatsoever on my heart was the Doctors instructions). “If you do” he said, “you’ll probably die.DSC00428

In 2007, ironically on Christmas Day, again I was rushed to the hospital within a few breaths of death. days later i awoke and the prognosis; not good. Five years… at best was the word. Here I stand in 2014 feeling better every month, no longer with the reaper no longer standing in my doorway. After all, I’m a father of two great little cross-country runners, aged 7 and 9. I have a job to do with my perfect little Snowbirds. Quitting is not a word I ever understood. Dying is out of the question, for now.

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