Give me a ticket for an airplane
by Greg Hitchcock 4.20.01

I make mistakes. I can admit it. I'm a big person. I make big mistakes (and small ones). If there is a mistake to be made with regard to running, I probably have made it. I was put on this earth to make mistakes so that others could learn from me. That is one thing Slowtwitch's publisher probably had in mind when he suggested that I write a running column.

One mistake stands out as Homeresque (and I'm talking Simpsons, not Greek tragedy). It is called Taco Monday.

It started like most every winter Monday in Eugene where I attended the University of Oregon. It was my red-shirt year (a year of ineligibility) after transferring from the University of Nevada at Reno. I had been the best Oregon cross country runner on the squad that fall, even if I could only compete in the open events. I had finished 31st at the open nationals (collegiate plus post-collegiate) on the snow covered course in Pocatello, Idaho. This was better than any Oregon runner had done in the NCAA nationals, and was good given that my fitness had suffered at the end of the season because of sinus infections.

Of course, Oregon had just lost Alberto Salazar (who won the New York marathon that fall), Rudy Chapa (NCAA champion and 13:18 for 5k), Don Clary (Olympic team member in 5k), Art Boileau (Canadian Olympic marathoner), all to graduation, as well as Bill McChesney (1980 Olympian and 13:14 5k) to injury. Jim Hill (eventually a 13:19 5k runner) was a sophomore who had not yet become world class. In short, the team had been world beaters one year, and the next they were looking at my backside -- something akin to the Chicago Bulls after Jordan and Pippen left.

I was trying to convince the coach––three-time Olympian Bill Dellinger (and the last American to win an Olympic medal in the 5000 or 10,000, at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics)––to send me to the trials for the 1981 World Cross Country Championships. The trials were taking place in Indiana across the Ohio River from Louisville, and the Worlds were in Spain. Having enjoyed Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, I definitely wanted to go to Spain. I was ready to run with the bulls.

Or so I thought. I still harbored the belief that I was a good cross country runner. I had beaten lots of people at cross country who could beat me on the track. I had won the California Community College championship and set several course records of note. And I was better than anyone on the Oregon team! These accomplishments had all occurred on hard surface cross country courses familiar to Californians. I had yet to learn that the extra 20-30 pounds that my frame carried over the weight of the typical runner my height would have an unhappy convergence with gravity, viscosity and friction on soft and muddy courses.

So back to this Monday in February 1981. I was rounding back into very good form. Every run and workout was sharp. I actually should have been scheduled for the trials. But I was not one to shine in interval workouts, which easily impress coaches. Instead my top fitness always came from hard distance runs (like most slowtwitchers), which are not so easy to monitor and grade. The top 8 or 9 finishers at the trials qualified for the U.S. team back then. The trials field was usually not as deep as the nationals in November because the U.S. cross country season is in the fall, while the rest of the world insensibly does the sport in the winter. An effort 30 seconds better than my sub-peak run at the nationals in Pocatello would give me a very good chance at making the team.

But in an era of regulated airfares, flying most of the way across the country from one podunk airport to another was no cheap matter. It would cost over $800 in 1981 dollars. For a poor college student that was not possible, so I needed to have the program spring for it. And since I was a transfer red shirt, I was not high on the priority list for discretionary expenditures. The trials were five days away on Saturday.

At 6:30 that morning, I ran 8.5 miles under 50 minutes mostly on the wood chip trails named for the great Prefontaine, and felt great. That afternoon I ran another 8 miles hard in the hills (averaging 5:30 miles) and finished with six easy 220 yard repeats in 31-34 seconds. This was a typical day of training and I was really feeling great. So naturally I had a big dinner.

If there is one thing that I can do better than any runner I have ever met it is eat big. In my youth I was world class; most of those stories can wait. But this night I made soft-shelled flour tortilla tacos. A large skillet full of seasoned ground beef, chopped onions, tomatoes and lettuce, and lots of grated cheese and salsa. Eight big tacos washed down with at least a quart and a half of water. It was about 6 p.m. My stomach was satisfied but my desire was not.

Shortly thereafter, as I discussed my situation with one of my roommates, Tom Smith (later to run a 3:54 mile), he already understood my ability to make mistakes. He noted that if I could, after such a hard day of training, go out and run a 9:20 two-mile then it would prove that I was ready to go to the trials. It took him maybe 30 minutes to convince me to go for it. So at 8 p.m. I put my running clothes back on and handed him my spikes.

It was a one mile jog to Hayward Field from our house. I did a little more, and then some strides. It was February and overcast and dark. The track has no stadium light, just ambient university lighting to barely see the surface, and one street lamp facing away from the track past the finish line. A couple of people were jogging. There was no wind and it was quiet.

And then I started. I still felt great and my stomach was holding. I was moving fast and in a great rhythm. Tom called out a split of 70 seconds (9:20 pace for two miles). He was lying. He couldn't see his watch in the dark. It didn't matter. I flew around the track, the shadows creating a sensation of acceleration. I knew by the third lap that my stomach would make it. The tacos were safe (if you thought the grande equivocaciónwas running with a stomach full of tacos you have done too much swimming; that would not even get honorable mention in my pantheon of mistakes).

I pressed hard over the last few laps. Tom ran to meet me in the sliver of light past the finish line. Eight tacos, 8 p.m., two miles, nine minutes, 13 seconds, one airplane ticket, maybe.

I did a quick cool down. We hopped in Tom's car. No exaggeration, the radio was actually playing the Boxtops singing, "Give me a ticket for an airplane." This was meant to be.

Indeed, Dellinger had to admit that I was ready. I had already called a travel agency whose price beat the official university agency by $200, in a regulated era. You figure that out. I was going. This was meant to be.

The problem was I didn't feel great anymore. My muscles were tired. I rested and ran easily. I was still tired on Thursday. I couldn't do the usual prep workout two days before the race. I was still fatigued on the plane and during the course jog. Race day and nothing felt right. Craig Virgin ran away from everyone (on his way to winning his second consecutive world championship) and everyone ran away from me. I ran, I sucked. This was meant to be.

Post Script: experto credito. When you are training hard and your fitness level is high, it is common to feel really good during workouts, and to believe you can go even harder. In most instances, this euphoric feeling is a signal that you are on the edge of overtraining. This is the time to be careful because you are vulnerable to colds and fatigued muscles. After Taco Monday, it took several weeks for my muscles to recover from the extreme fatigue they had suffered, and it was a couple of months before I was back in top form.