Even though my most loved sports are baseball and basketball, I was never quite good enough and strong enough to play for my high school’s varsity teams. I went to a highly integrated public high school in the city, and it was rare for boys of my complexion to make the basketball team. There was one starting player, a point guard better than I was, who was one of two white guys on the team, the other being a tall, gangly three point shooter who we would chant for to come into the game near the end if there was a big lead or deficit. He rarely played when the game was on the line.
I may have been good enough to pitch for the varsity baseball team, but definitely could not earn my way onto that squad by my hitting. Eventually I learned how to crush a hanging curve ball or slap a decent curve ball to the opposite field, but not until my twenties, about ten years too late to play varsity baseball.
What I did was run on my high school cross country team in the fall and track team during the winter and spring seasons. I was one of the two varsity mile runners for my school and often also ran a half mile as third leg for our two mile relay team.
In our city, there was and still is a hill that had once been the municipal garbage dump many decades ago. It is appropriately called Mount Trashmore, and both our cross country and track coaches had us distance runners run that hill many times. Many of the times, they timed us and had us race one another to ensure that we were not slacking off.
Cross country is a grueling sport. Pretty girls, besides some that run for the girl’s team, do not cheer for skinny long distance runners. Nobody besides parents of runners ever come to watch the meets and when your parents do come to watch, they would have to go from place to place to catch the runners going by. It is not like a track meet, where the runners go in circles around a track.
Although I spent years running long distance, my heart was not fully into it. It was just something that I was good at and that I did. My mother insisted that I join a fall sport my freshman year and I was far too skinny to play football, plus I had not played it much throughout grade school like many of my friends did.
I was a damned good soccer goalie, but there was a better one who went on to become an All-State goalie, and I did not like soccer enough to spend years as a backup or JV goalie. Thus, because I had been the best long-distance runner in eighth grade at my junior high school, I figured that I would run.
I do not know if it was because my heart was not fully into it or because I simply did not work hard enough in practice, but I would often get caught by five or six guys in the last two hundred yards of our cross country races during my junior year when I was elevated to the varsity team. As a freshman, I was talented enough to win several races just by being a faster runner than others and through my refusal to let them catch me. I thought myself something of a natural when it came to running, and my coach and teammates said the same.
I did not work on improving much throughout the offseason and summer, so to my surprise the next year many of the runners who I refused to let pass me as a freshman caught and surpassed me as a sophomore. Same thing as a junior.
At some point over the summer before my senior year of high school, my father pointed out that he had noticed that I may have been running around twentieth out of a field of a hundred-plus runners in several races that he had observed, only to have five or more guys pass me in the final stretch so I ended up coming in twenty-fifth or thirtieth most races. By the way, these are three mile races.
While spending an entire month in the U.P. every summer while growing up, I basically wanted to eat, sleep, read, go to a pool or beach and just chill. There were two girls that I liked in the vicinity, one of whom could be considered my first girlfriend.
It was not until around my later high school years that we even rented a house with a television set, and that was before the days of cell phones. Believe it or not, I spent most of my Augusts while growing up without watching a TV or using a phone. I did read a hell of a lot, much like I do now.
My dear late father decided that August of 1987, thirty long years ago, to not only suggest that I run the mountain, as he had the previous summers after the decline from my freshman and sophomore years became more apparent to him; he insisted. As a matter of fact, he would insist that I run that hill and would stand there with his watch timing how long it took me going down and then up again to where he stood. A few times, I flat out refused doing it, but most days of that month, I did it to appease him. I knew that I should, but that does not mean that I wanted to.
Following that August, when I returned to school for senior year along with returning to cross country, I no longer did not give a shit who won the races up Mount Trashmore or the fact that our coach would lie to us and tell us that it would be the last time that we would have to run it if we could attain a certain time, and then make us do it again anyway. I thought of my father pointing out that I had been letting other runners pass me at the end of the race after I had hit the wall.
I ran my freakin’ hardest up Mount Trashmore no matter how many times our coach made us run it and, although I did not win many of the races with my teammates, they had to run as hard as they could to beat me. Also, the more times we ran the hill, the more likely I was to win. I would never win one of the first few races, but I did win most of them after eight or ten times, especially those “extra” races that our coach made us do after he had told us it was the last one. I admit that sometimes we colluded because we knew that he would do that. There are only so many times that you can lie to your runners before they catch on.
The following is the inspirational part.
Early on in our season, we caught the usual 7:00 a.m. bus at our high school for a cross country meet far from the city with dozens of other schools and hundreds of runners. I think that it was called the Hilltop Invitational.
Partly because I was now a senior and quite a bit taller and stronger than I had been as a sophomore and junior, partly because the seniors who were better than I was the previous year were now in college, but mostly because of the hills that my father made me run in the U.P. and that our coach prodded, insulted and lied his way to make us run many times, I kicked some major ass.
Again, I was not the fastest runner in the conference or even our school, but instead of dropping from twentieth to thirtieth in the back stretch, I turned up my burner a bit, felt a major surge of power and determination, and sprinted past five or more guys in the last hundred yards of the race.
Not just a one-time phenomenon, I repeated this race after race and especially liked it when the end of the race had the runners go up an incline. I was not going to let some other skinny, pimply and gangly cross-country guy pass me up at the end! That would be tantamount to letting someone spit in my face.
No matter how hard I ran, there were always two teammates who finished ahead of me. There was another teammate about my equal, so a good race for me was when I beat him and even better was when I could finish the three mile course in under sixteen minutes, which I only accomplished a few times. I finished within fifteen seconds of sixteen minutes numerous times. We had someone on our team who could run the three miles a full minute faster than that, and another guy who would finish in about fifteen-and-a-half minutes.
So here I am in the fall of 2017, reflecting back upon my cross country and track days. Due to a chronic ankle injury and many years of not running, it would be difficult for me to run a mile in under ten minutes now.
But I still plan on powering up the mountain.
Only now my mountain is harder to power up than the one in the U.P. that my father used to make me run or Mount Trashmore in my old stomping grounds.
The mountain that I look to power up in 2018 includes trying to re-learn how to have fun and find pleasure and happiness in life. It is to sleep better, curtail my eating and drinking habits and exercise more than once in a blue moon. It is to not let my anxiety and worrisome nature get in the way of my interactions with my family and few remaining friends. It is to be a better son, sibling, husband, parent, cousin and nephew. It is to regain the mental peace, self-confidence and self-worth that I had back in my senior year of high school.
Thirty years is a long time to have been out of high school. There is not even a chance that I could have foreseen what a nose-to-the-grindstone middle class Grabowski type of guy I would become in the following decades.
As I continue learning how to overcome my anxiety, become grittier, less worrisome and create more while consuming less, I do anticipate becoming happier, more social and more outgoing next year. I do not expect a magic switch to appear that I can flip on, but in my writing, I am finding more and more that when I think about these topics and share them, I better embrace them in my own life.
My wife and children know that I read, think and write about self-improvement a lot, and they have been generally supportive. It is not easy to admit, even to those who we are closest with, that we have things about ourselves that we would like to improve.
I admit it here frequently, and admit it to members of my family as often as they will listen to me say it. Not that they have a long list of complaints about me, but when you are suffering from anxiety about work, money and trying to better yourself, it shows through in one way or another constantly.
I am admittedly not a guru, standing high upon the hilltop speaking down to my readers urging you to get over your hang-ups and become a highly successful, confident, productive and happy person like I am. I have shared several ways in which I am currently trying to become more of the above, but for the time being, I am striving to become that better person. I am ready to embrace the promise of a New Year and continue my struggle to help lead me to any or all of the positive outcomes that I desire for myself and those who I love.
Keep reading and together I think that we will succeed in powering up that mountain a little more strongly than we have in the past. With persistence and determination, I think that we can even pass others in this rat race with us as opposed to getting passed by them, much like I did those decades ago.