Old harriers never die
Written by: Dan Empfield
Date: Mon Jul 27 2009
I ran in high school, first at Huntington Beach HS and then South Tahoe HS. The group about which I'll write below consists of men who ran competitively in high school during the 60s and 70s (a few from the 80s), and who attended school mostly in and around Orange County (Southern California). I graduated in 1974.
Two years ago I contacted Ralph Serna, ex of Loara HS in Anaheim. Ralph sprung from the class of '75, holding for 30-plus years a dubious national record: the fastest ever non-winning 2-mile in high school history (how'd you like to run an 8:45 in high school and not win?). Ralph had rare speed and talent, with a mile PR in high school of 4:07. Ralph and I got to work turning over rocks, ferreting out our ancient compatriots and combatants, and 16 old farts showed up at the first reunion. Two weeks ago was year-2—the reunion of the reunion—and this time 69 showed up.
Attending was an august group of high school runners. To give you a sense of perspective, I ran the mile in 4:19.4 in high school (4:17.6 in today's 1600 meter parlance). This PR places me two-thirds of the way down on the list of attendees (in other words, I was a slow poke).
The first thing you have to understand about running in what was a golden era, in a prime enclave, is the power of enclave. During the summer after my sophomore year, several of us arranged to compete in a 24-hour relay. This is held around a track, 10 on a team, each person runs a mile, the 10th man hands off to the 1st man, and the relay continues nonstop for a full day. We were all underclassmen, we ran 255 miles, so, everybody ran a marathon, more or less, one fast mile at a time.
Besides being on a par with the hardest things I've ever done (Ironman included), notable about this 24-hour relay was its organic serendipity (we 15 and 16 year-olds, no coach or adult, conceived of the entry); and that these 10 kids were from 6 or 7 different schools. We all knew, ran with, befriended, honored, kids from "competing" schools, and somehow found ways to train and race together during the summer even though none of us had our drivers licenses (let alone cars). We were motivated to seek each other out, notwithstanding travel restrictions, and I don't know how much that paradigm exists among high schoolers today.
In the early 70s, Santa Ana High School featured Clancy Edwards, who would become World's fastest man. He was the fulcrum around one of the great teams in high school track history. At the Arcadia Invitational Clancy's teammate, Robert Harrell, doubled to win the 440yd and 880yd in 47.5 and 1:51.4 respectively, and anchored the winning 3:16.8 mile relay squad with a 46.4 leg. He was a California State Meet winner in both the 440 and the half-mile.
Now, imagine it's 1972, you're in Santa Ana for a dual meet. To an adult spectator, Robert Harrell appeared, I'm sure, a very fast and talented kid. To me, the skinny sophomore, he appeared a cross between a gazelle and a goliath, and certainly in no way a "kid." I was a kid. That was a man; a tall, powerful one running around the track faster than anything I'd yet seen in my short, sheltered life. I'm a weak, very pale, sophomore. Do I go up and introduce myself? Realizing that a 14 year-old hairless white kid has no poise, and is barely able to put subject and verb together in the best of circumstances, there was absolutely zero chance of that happening.
Now, let's say you mature to become an upperclassman runner on par, or even faster, than Robert Harrell while still in high school. Maybe you excel in college, make an Olympic Team, set records. Maybe you become a leader in industry, make fortunes for yourself and others, became famous. True all this might be, Robert Harrell will always be, to some small degree, in your mind, what he was to you when you were a sophomore in high school.
This is true of every class, and of every runner. So, let's say you're Gary Blume, of Marina High School in Huntington Beach (our crosstown rival). Gary ran 9-flat for two miles in high school (8:57 for 3200 meters). He would be among the top runners in the State of California today, were his high school abilities in the 1970s translated forward. He ran an 8:36 steeple while at Cal (8:26 leads all Americans in 2009). Gary was fast.
I doubt Dale Fleet knew, at this reunion, who Gary Blume was prior to Gary walking up and introducing himself. But Dale Fleet knew with precision who Ruben Chappins was, and I saw Dale seeking him out. Ruben, of Excelsior High School, class of 69, ran a HS PR of 8:56 for 2 miles. When Dale Fleet was a sophomore, Ruben Chappins was a Distance God. Did Ruben Chappins hold Dale Fleet in any higher regard, in high school, than as an upstart sophomore? I don't know, but I doubt it.
But Ruben did greatly admire Pete Romero. Pete (Reedley HS class of 67), also present at our reunion, ran HS PRs of 4:06 and 8:54 for the mile and 2-mile respectively. When Ruben was a sophomore, Pete Romero was a Distance God. And when Pete was a junior, the Distance God was Ralph Gamez, Berkeley High class of 66, the winner of the first-ever 2-mile contested at the California State Track & Field Meet.
Nobody acknowledged this, but I guarantee that many in that room who walked up to his Distance God—assuming he had not previously met him—did so with just a bit of trepidation. Regardless of your station in life; and of his; when you walk up to your Distance God you do so with a vestige of high school sophomore in you.
Many among our reunion's middle aged men were Distance Gods in high school, and if a little bit of that Distance God was still in there, a little bit of the pimply-faced sophomore was in there too.
Here's what surprised me. I don't think there was a happier, over-the-moon, man in that room than Robert Harrell, because of all the men with whom he was united and reunited. Maybe, in high school, he wanted to meet all of us too, but was equally inhibited. For some reason I don't yet understand, the very thought of that slays me.
It's true Robert Harrell is black and I went to an all-white high school and, yes, maybe that was an added impediment keeping me from meeting him while a high school sophomore. But Robert's teammate was Marc Genet, white, the nation's leading 2-miler that year (8:53) and, as a sophomore I was scared spitless of meeting him too.
As the evening wore on I noted Robert Harrell and Marc Genet, the former Santa Ana High teammates, talking a lot with each other. I asked them when they'd last spoken. They calculated, and reckoned it to have been more than 30 years ago. The heavy lifting of this year's Runner's Reunited was done by Ralph Serna and (ex U of Oregon's) Dan Martinez. I didn't ask them, but I'd bet reuniting Messers Harrell and Genet was alone worth their trouble.
I don't want to wax too psychologic here; but; I've been to reunions, and get-togethers of long-lost friends. That's always nice, but this... There was a lot of what (in physics terms) feels like stored power—potential energy—in this runner's reunion. I've tried to wrest the true lesson behind our evening and after much reflection can tell you: Danged if I know what it is. But I'm looking forward to next year's reunion.
(Top photo: Rebecca Smith-Serna; bottom photo: Coach Darryl Taylor)
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Reviewed by: sam simakis, Jul 26 2010 8:52AM
Boy we're getting old!
Reviewed by: Jeff, Jul 31 2009 10:35AM