I had become a runner by the time I got to Bay View High School. Running somehow brought me joy. I do not remember how I started. In sixth grade I became good at the longer distance races of the President’s Physical Fitness Test.  Later in Junior High, during the occasional free gym period, I would often run outside, encouraged by one of my gym teachers, who himself was an avid runner.  I ran on my own outside of school, my regular path taking me through the seminary near my house and then Bay View Park along the lake. My running got noticed by my friends and others, and by the beginning of my sophomore year I was urged to try out for cross country. I did not try. Into that winter I continued to pursue my solitary runs, treading crunchy snow and ice on the trails in seminary woods and in the park along the bluffs above the lake and under the electric lines reaching out from the lakeside power plant toward Kinnickinnic Avenue.  I learned to pace myself, coordinating breaths with strides, taking with each breath the same number of strides on the inhale and exhale.  A three, or four, to one ratio made for a decent, long distance pace.  To run faster, I reduced the number of strides for each breath until, at one to one, I was on the final dash toward finishing. I never attempted to time my breath-stride ratios, since a breath’s duration will change when running faster or slower. In fact, I rarely wore my watch, because it seemed that time crawled slowly for me whenever I paid too much attention to it.  How did I know how fast I was running? Trees and other things blurred past my vision as I went faster, and I felt the wind pushing against me. Another sign was the greater effort of increasing my speed and then the relief of slowing down. And so through the winter I continued my runs over snow and ice on the bluffs and in seminary woods and under the power lines.  Spring was a month or so away when I was urged to try out for track.  I did not try, and for another year I ran alone.  Again the following year I was urged to try out.  This time I tried. I signed up for the team on February 14, 1977.

Bay View High School was Milwaukee’s first million dollar school. It was built after the Great War, replacing the “barracks” that had housed the school starting in 1914. It was named after the neighborhood that it served[1].  A red brick castle enthroned on a lawn covered hill next to Humbolt Park, the school had a facade that impressed its pedagogic dignity on the students as they approached its main entrance.  This impact was diminished somewhat after an addition was built into the hill in front of the north façade.  The addition was completed in my sophomore year, and provided much needed space for the music, industrial arts and athletic departments.

The first track practice was on February 21. We were divided into track and field according to our abilities. I did not even attempt field, because its projectiles and targets confounded me. Track divided into hurdles and the various unobstructed distances.  The hurdles tripped me up, and so to unobstructed distances I slotted for further sorting.  Although I was a capable sprinter, I did not like the ferocious, chasing nature of that race.  I was better suited for long distance. I had to adjust myself during those first few weeks of practice to running with my teammates. Group running was new to me, and a very different experience it was from alone running. My teammates gave content to my running, and they gave a means of comparing not offered me merely by the pressing wind against my face, or the passing trees. My teammates gave me a reason to run faster: to try to be first, to try to win. The stopwatch provided the impartial standard by which to judge ability. I never had to deal with that kind of stuff when I ran by myself, and it was perhaps the peculiar feeling of carelessness that was the source of the joy that I felt whenever I ran alone.

We run to and away with each stride.  When war forced him to flee his native Knossos[2], Ergoteles ran at the Olympian, Isthmean and Pythian games for Himera, the city that gave him refuge. Pheidippides ran to Sparta[3] from Athens, resting only once, when Pan called out to him at Mount Parthenion[4].  Three times around the walls of Troy, Achilles chased Hector, who stopped only after being abandoned by one God and deceived by another[5].  We run for different reasons. Ergoteles ran for fame and the other rewards that were heaped upon victors of those ancient games.  The Persians had just landed at Marathon when Pheidippedes delivered Athens’ request for help, and then he ran back to Athens with Sparta’s answer. Hector was running away from certain death. Achilles, the wrathful, was running for revenge or for justice or for the immortal fame his deeds would win him in the songs of the poets.

Running with, or against, my teammates during those first few weeks of practice, I had vague, worrying feelings that things would not happen the way I wanted them to happen. I had to learn all over again how to pace myself.  The press of the wind against my face, the trees blurring past my eyes, the sensations of greater or lesser effort – these no longer signified; instead, my position relative to the other runners provided the mark.  I was not concerned about my time, which was important for me only when the goal was to break my own time record.  It is very easy to see your position when you are last, a little more difficult when you are in the middle and almost impossible when you are out in front.  If I started out front, I could sustain my position for only a few minutes before exhaustion forced me to fall back.  Shame, on the other hand, always propelled me forward when I found myself trailing the others.  The strategy that I eventually developed was to keep to the pack until near the end and then dash to the finish as fast as I could run.  The mile, half mile and quarter mile became my races.  The mile was the ideal length for my chosen pacing strategy.  The quarter mile was my favorite length, because it was the longest distance for which I could sustain the effort of running as fast as I could run.  The half mile was my least favorite length, because for me it was like trying to run two quarter miles, and, after a few of strides into the second quarter, I became all gasping breaths and flailing arms.

Running the perimeter of Humbolt Park was a staple of track practice for the long distance runners.  During one cold, rain soaked afternoon in the last week of March, I managed to keep up with one of my teammates, Pete[6], on our second perimeter of the park. Pete was a veteran of the cross country team, and he was the best distance runner on the track team. This was the first time I was able to stay in his vicinity during a practice. He puffed me up with complements after, which I took as a sign of my own improvement.  Running was a religion for Pete. Running books were his bibles.  He could recite the names of every leg and foot muscle.  I learned all about lactic acid from him. He fortified himself for every track meet with the powers he derived from meditation.  Pete made wondrous and amazing claims for meditation, two of which stand out above the rest. One was that he could meditate the essence of his race plan into a glass of water, and, after drinking the water, the essence of his plan would transubstantiate into the race that he would actually run. The other claim was that he could meditate a tan onto his skin. He never demonstrated a meditated tan for us, but I am inclined to believe the race plan in glass of water claim, since he dominated the mile and two-mile

I made the Junior Varsity team, and the vague, worrying feelings waned to the background – except for track meets – as I became familiar with my teammates and with the routine of practice.  My times gradually improved for the mile, half and quarter mile races. I ran in a track meet at the beginning of April.  And then, on the day before spring vacation, the teachers went on strike[7]. The strike lasted through the first week of May[8].   The school officially stayed open throughout the strike, and I was one of a small group of students who still attended every day.  There were maybe two or three hundred students in regular attendance, if memory serves me well.  The school was staffed by the teachers who were willing to cross the picket lines. Every morning the teachers drove in a motorcade toward the school’s parking lot. The striking teachers waited for them there.  As the cars approached under police escort, the strikers crowded the parking lot entrance.  Signs waved in the air and beat at the car windows. Faces grimaced and shouted. Angry gestures were affected.  I often watched this rowdy scene with some other students from a window overlooking the parking lot.  The spectacle left us mixed with amusement and disgust.  Once, a student even ran down to confront some of the striking teachers who seemed excessively rough that morning.  This encounter got captured in a newspaper photograph[9].  We started the school day by assembling in the auditorium for the day’s announcements and taking attendance.  The remainder of the day we spent in classes studying the subjects that were taught by the available teachers.  Another team member, Bill, and I, kept practicing as best we could after school. Another group who did not come to school held practice at Thomas Moore High School’s field. The teachers approved their new contract on May 9, and we had an official practice that afternoon when the track coach showed up in the school. The teachers returned to work the next day.

During the remainder of that strike shortened track season, there is one peculiar day, which seems to me noteworthy and merits a putting to words. We had a track meet June 10. It started late and ended around 9:30, by which time a restless agitation and grumpiness permeated the team.  After, as we gathered to board the bus, a team member shouted out “Turtle Head!” to one of the coaches, Mr. S., who was standing outside the door. He got mad and said that he didn’t want to hear the radio Pete was playing. Pete kept on playing it. Mr. S. then took it away. Nick came on to the bus, got into a tussle with Mr. S. over possession of the radio.  The return bus ride was all sulks, snits and muffled snickers. I went with Bill to the Mc Donald’s nearby after we got back.  As we ate, four guys from school (football team) came in, all of them drunk. Bill and I ignored them, finished eating and then left. We were crossing the parking lot when the drunk guys drove past us. One of them shot an unwrapped hamburger at my head. I responded flipping him the finger. The car then screeched to a stop. Three got out. One of them fired some questions at me in rapid succession, enquiring as to whom I was flipping the finger.  I replied with something to the effect that I just got hit in the head with a hamburger. My interrogator then gave me a powerful shove that sent me rolling. This all happened in the middle of the street. One of them kicked my gym bag, and then they left. Bill and I walked home.

My first year on the track team came to an end.

In the fall, Pete urged me to join the cross country team, but I could not take on another extra-curricular activity.  I was one of the editors of the yearbook, which kept me very busy for the first half of my senior year. I signed up for track though, and we began practice in February. Pete took charge of the practices for the distance runners.  We nicknamed him “the slave driver”.  In addition to perimeter of Humbolt Park, our practices included running up the hill at the park band shell, a run to the lake and back, and the standard race lengths (220, 440, and 880 yards, etc.).  Pete had us alternate between “hard” and “easy” workouts.  An “easy” workout would be a perimeter followed by four or five hills, then the same number of some of the other lengths, and sometimes we finished with a lake run.  A “hard”work out had twice as many of all the lengths and often we ended again with a lake run.  Not everyone always made it through the hard practices.  We always had an easy workout on the day before a track meet.  As the season progressed, my time for the mile gradually improved to within a few seconds of five minutes.  That duration of time, however, became a barrier that I could not seem to get myself past in practice or at meets. I made my goal to beat it. Twenty-four years earlier, Roger Bannister also faced a barrier, the four minute barrier, a length of time that had become significant just because it was there to be beaten. There was some controversy about the methods Bannister used to break the four minute mark[10]: was it an individual achievement, or the result of a team effort?  Teams, individuals, clocks, competitors, rivals, tactics – yet, the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happens to them all.[11] Not that I compare myself to Bannister, but I was finally able to break through my own barrier too.

I have happy memories of everyone on the team that year.  Jeff was one of our best half-milers. He had frizzy hair and often could be moody.  Coach Mierzwa nicknamed him “Mr. Cool”, because he never wore sweat pants, no matter how cold.  Randy ran the quarter mile. He was a big Elvis fan. Bob and Terry were versatile runners.  Coach could not decide whether to put them in the hurdles, the quarter mile or the 220 yards.  John began the season as our best two miler. A guy nicknamed Stork started out as a two miler but switched to the quarter mile as the season progressed.  Jeff, Pete and I often formed a trio, keeping up with and challenging each other during practices. There was often singing on the bus returning from track meets.  Sometimes we sang, or chanted, during practice runs.  On one of our runs to the lake, we sang “100 Bottles of Ergs on the Wall” all the way down to sixteen bottles.

I kept a journal during my time in high school. How else could I remember some of the things I have written here? The journal entries include descriptions of the track practices and meets, and a few even include my time for the mile. But for my most persistent memory, that of the mile race I ran in under five, I can find no written record. The memory is fatter than the remains on the pages. Memory is the mother of History and Poetry.  She is old – maybe as old as Death even.  Sometimes I imagine her sitting in a bower at the foot of the Hill of Kronos, chewing on the pasts of everyone all at once, unable not to know everything that has ever happened.  I approach her suppliant, bearing offerings for her favor in my telling the story of that race.

The meet was on a Saturday afternoon in May.  I stretched my leg muscles and did a couple of short warm-up jogs. I lined up at the starting mark with the other runners. There were maybe fifteen in all.  The lining up ritual had become common for me; nevertheless, I always felt something like stage fright at the beginning of a race, an anticipatory dread of the effort approaching me. We twitched nervous energy as we sized each other up.  The official called us to order to form a more perfect line.  Then the long wait, which actually was not very long at all, which was followed by the false start of those whose twitchiness exploded into running too soon, and we all dumbly followed the false starters, spending the effort we were saving for the real race.  The officials called us to order and we gathered again into a line, forcing ourselves to twitch the nervous energy back into our bodies that was spent in the false start. Then another long wait that actually was not very long was followed by the true start.  It seemed an unusually fast beginning for a mile race as I attempted to find my pace during the first few frantic moments.  I held off setting my strides to breaths ratio until the pack of runners settled down.  By the middle of the first lap I was at three to one, but the breaths were very deep, almost gasps, as I kept myself in the middle of the runners.  One runner was out front, separated by a few lengths from the rest of us.  He fell back by the middle of the second lap, and we were all bunched together. A feeling of windedness crept up on me forcing my ratio to two to one near the end of the second lap, and then, inspired with ambition, I pushed myself toward the front.  Normally, I would not have begun this effort until the last lap of a mile race, but here I found myself dashing at the beginning of the third lap. I was in front, the position from which, without looking back, I could not tell where the other runners were. I was in front but I did not know how far. My teammates were cheering me from the infield.  I maintained the lead going into the fourth and final lap. I was at one to one by then, throwing my feet in front of each other as fast as I could.  I could see the finish line after the final turn.  I was in the lead.  I saw my teammates shouting at me, but I could hear nothing.  I was running as fast as I could.  My legs felt numb.  I was winning. Time seemed to slow, or distance seemed to get longer, or both.  I was first.  I could see the finish line getting closer, only a few more strides, when I saw him pass me just a few steps from the end. Afterwards, I learned what they were shouting at me as I approached the finish line, what I could not hear: “He’s catching up to you! Run faster!” The race is not always to the swift but time and chance happens to them all.   But I was swift that day. I ran the mile in under five minutes, my best time ever.


Photograph from: Korn, Bernard C. (1980). The Story of Bay View (Second Printing), Milwaukee County Historical Society, ISBN 0-938076-05-1.


The 1977 Track Team, Bay View High School. Photograph from the author’s personal collection.


The 1978 Track Team, Bay View High School. Photograph from the 1978 Oracle Yearbook.

[1] See: Korn, Bernard C. (1980). The Story of Bay View (Second Printing), Milwaukee County Historical Society, ISBN 0-938076-05-1.

[2] Pindar. Twelfth Olympian Ode. Retrieved December 17, 2014 from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0162%3Abook%3DO.%3Apoem%3D12

[3] Grogan, R. Run, Pheidippides, Run! The Story of the Battle of Marathon. BRITISH JOURNAL OF SPORTS MEDICINE, Vol. 15, No. 3, September 1981, pp. 186-189, Retrieved December 17, 2014 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1858762/pdf/brjsmed00255-0040.pdf

[4] Herodotus. Histories, VI, 105-106, Retrieved December 17, 2014 from http://www.parstimes.com/history/herodotus/persian_wars/erato.html

[5] Homer. The Iliad, Book XXII, Retrieved December 17, 2014 from http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Texts/Iliad/iliad22.htm

[6] I use their real first names.  I use last names only if and when I get their permission.

[7] “Teachers On Strike; Schools Stay Open”; “Athletics At Mercy of Teachers”. THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL, April 18, 1977. Retrieved December 4, 2014 from http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=jvrRlaHg2sAC&dat=19770418&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

[8] “Strike Settled; Teachers Report back to School”.  THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL, May 10, 1977. Retrieved December 17, 2014 from http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=jvrRlaHg2sAC&dat=19770510&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

[9] See Photographs on page 1 of section 2. “6 Pickets Arrested as Trouble at 2 Schools Mars Teachers Strike”. THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL, April 18, 1977. Retrieved December 17, 2014 from http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=jvrRlaHg2sAC&dat=19770421&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

[10] Beard, Mary. (April 25, 2014). A Point of View: How Running Has Changed Since the Four-minute Mile. BBC NEWS MAGAZINE, Retrieved December 17, 2014 from  http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27111860

[11] Ecclesiastes, 9:11

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