I was an athlete, not a runner, but the coaches made me run track to keep in shape.
|THE GREAT RACE
Daniel Johnston © 2020
We trotted along together side-by-side on the track in the blazing sun. The Big Horn mountains, ran the length of the horizon, dark blue against a baby blue sky. Sweat rolled off our foreheads, off the end of our noses and burned our eyes, but we plodded on together. We weren’t running fast but kept up a pace. Painful. Step by step.
During high school from 1964 to 1968 I was a wrestler. It was not my best sport, but I loved it. Unfortunately, our coaches insisted that if we were going to wrestle we also had to join the track team. That way, they figured, we would be in better shape when wrestling season rolled around.
However, I despised track. I hated running and I couldn't jump. So, the coaches made me ‘run the mile’. There was room for pretty much anybody for that event. It entailed running four whole laps around a huge boring track. These ‘tracks’ all looked and felt the same and they were tucked behind every high school that ever existed as far as I knew. So, I ran the mile. But, no one could make me try to win or anything like that. I just went through the motions. On a good day, I ran something like an 8-minute mile. It was exhausting.
One weekend the team from the Lodge Grass, Montana came to Sheridan for a track meet. Lodge Grass is located in the heart of the Crow Indian Reservation and accordingly the team consisted mostly of Crow Indians.
I have always respected the Crow Indians. Some of the men easily stand over 6 feet tall with big broad shoulders, they possess the calm dignity that is the hallmark of the American Indian these days. Their dark leathery faces harken back a few hundred years to when they fought for their lives against the Sioux.
While much of the white man culture was of no interest to them they did like sports like basketball and track.
For the one mile event Lodge Grass had about 6 guys and so did we. With one exception, their runners were relatively lean and anxious to run. The exception was a rather chubby kid. He was as short as me but he would not have made my 95-pound weight class. Even prior to the race he appeared to be sweating. And, he was as slow as he was short.
So naturally he and I were dead last in the race before the end of the first of the four long grueling laps. All I had to do was cross the finish line and I didn't care much for anything else. So, he and I pulled up the rear and jogged along together. We didn't speak, but somehow running alongside each other we seemed to communicate. It was like an unspoken understanding that we were both going to lose. And, who the hell cared?
As we were finishing our second lap the other runners began passing us. No problem, it was their race. We had established a comfortable pace. We were certainly on the same wavelength and in step with each other. Our feet pounded out a methodic rhythm. We understood each other. It was a matter of honor. We were going to come in together.
By the time we started our fourth lap the other runners were finished. Now it was only the two of us jogging side-by-side. Left, right, left right. We were exhausted. My friend was sweating profusely and gasping for air. I wondered if I should slow down a bit, but he just kept plodding on so I did my part. I had to admire him. But of course, I was suffering too.
As we started the final lap the crowd started hollering. At first I thought they were cheering some other event like pole vaulting or broad jump. But, no, these people actually thought that my friend and I were racing.
But, how could they know of our secret pact? It was clear to me, but they hadn't been out slogging with us experiencing the kind of bonding that takes place in a situation like this. As we came around the final curve the crowd really got animated. They were cheering! I couldn’t understand that. We were tied for last place! But then, unbelievably, he started to increase the pace.
But he could hardly breathe! What about our deal? I had to catch up with him and once again we were running side-by-side. Again, he trotted ahead and the crowd went crazy. So, I caught up with him again but he stepped up the pace again!
He was trying to beat me! I felt betrayed. Now it was a race! And the crowd seemed to be cheering for him! We had about 80 yards to go and this guy started to sprint – sort of. Fortunately for me, his extra 40 pounds gave me the edge. But, I had to pore on the steam. The crowd was wild now. We were flying toward the finish—relatively speaking. The cheering exploded as we crossed the line. I finished about a foot ahead of him. We both stopped about 10 yards beyond the finish line gasping for air. He looked as though he was going to die and I was desperate for oxygen. I had never run so fast in my whole life.
I don’t remember any other races during my track career. That was the only race I ever won.