School sports can really mess things up for you

So this running thing seems to be becoming a habit and the training seems to be having an effect on my general fitness levels. The Dog Whisperer invited me to join his dog walking group on a pack walk in Chapman’s Peak on Saturday and I don’t think I even broke a sweat on the almost two-hour walk. Okay, it wasn’t very fast, but still … a few runs, some hill training, a few steep sets of stairs and a bunch of laps through the soft sand of Clifton beach seem to have toughened me up a little.

 And so I was thinking how different life could have been, had I cottoned on to this running lark years ago, when I had young legs and young lungs. And no fear. But my experience with running had not been encouraging.

I remember trying ‘cross country’ in high school. The name sounded quite romantic, I thought, and I had visions of myself gracefully cantering across soft, grassy fields, becoming almost airborne as I lifted myself over puddles and rocks, my long hair – flaxen, of course – flowing behind me, my cheeks gently and attractively flushed.

Instead, high school cross country consisted of jogging heavily and breathlessly round and round and round the rugby field, trailing further and further behind as the pace was adjusted to suit the star of the field – a skinny, long-legged blonde girl whose name I have long forgotten.

The only memory I have of my cross-country phase is catching a glimpse of our star athlete through the sweaty, bobbing heads of the heavy-breathing pack I was desperately trying to keep up with. She had put so much distance between herself and us that she was already on the opposite side of the field, working her way towards lapping us. Her long legs were like a giant pair of snipping scissors, stretching into a V-shape, her arms were like well-oiled pistons, pumping up and down to drive her forward. Her movement was effortless and with her massive strides she looked almost like a cartoon character leaping over obstacles.

Of course, all attention was focused on her. The coach couldn’t be asked to waste his time on us treacle treaders. Where would be the fame and fortune in that? So he spent his time coaching her while sending the rest of us off on yet another lap around the rugby field.

 I hated it. I gave up.

The annual school athletics event is another killer of any kid’s future fitness. It is always held at the beginning of the year, at the height of summer, after the kids have been on holiday for weeks. In those days it was six weeks of summer holidays. Six weeks of beach and ice cream and not very much else.

The teachers, who themselves did little more than sip tea and wield a cane across the backs of legs – kids’ legs, not their own – would stand on the field, each clutching a pen and a clipboard, and instruct kids to do all sorts of stuff they had never done before. Like run up to a patch of sand, leap into the air, and see how far you can fly before you land. Or run up to a steel rod balanced on two other steel rods and scissor-kick your way over it. Or run as fast as you can from one end of the field to the other. Sometimes you had to jump over hurdles as you ran. Demonstrations or coaching were not deemed necessary. If you were not born with the skill, or if you had not acquired the talent through osmosis, your name was scratched off the clipboarded list. You would, instead, take your place in the stands, cheering those who were genetically superior you.

The try-outs were the stuff of my nightmares. I remember the smell of the parched grass as the sun baked down on it. It was dry and prickly, like wheat, and the sharp pieces would stick to our sweaty legs and make their way into our underwear and socks. I remember screwing my eyes up against the sharp light, feeling the world spin round as the hot sun boiled my brain inside my skull. Those were the days before peak caps, sunscreen and rehydration. If you wanted water, you had to wait until the teacher gave permission. And, since the teacher had free access to water, she didn’t feel thirsty and so didn’t often give permission. Not for us the luxury of a water bottle at hand and being able to take sips whenever we felt a bit dry. We were tough. The weaker ones fainted and were given water and carried off to some shade. I often wondered how they made themselves faint, and why I couldn’t manage to do it. It seemed like such a great way out of this hole.

Sometimes I would slip through the cracks. My name would make it onto the clipboard and I would have to make an appearance on the track. Each time, pretty much, was a humiliation in front of the whole school. Often it would hurt as well, like when the high-jump bar connected with various body parts.

The first time was in Sub A – Grade 1. I was six years old. They had put me down for the relay and I was the one to sprint to the finish, carrying the baton to victory. I stood at the ready, my bare toes behind the chalk line, ready for my big task. I glanced across the field to where the first set of runners waited.

A wisp of white smoke puffed against the blue sky and the sharp snap of the starting gun set the runners in motion. Like little clockwork dolls they raced to the next set of runners. It was looking good. Our first runner beat all the others, as did our second runner. She handed the baton to the third runner … an overweight girl whose dark ponytails clung to her red face is wet strands, and whose expression of pain and desperation I will probably never forget. She laboured her way towards me and by the time she handed me the baton the other runners had already crossed the finish line. I had to run home on my own, stone last, in front of the whole school.

Afterwards my mother told me that I didn’t even try. My humiliation was complete.

And then there was the time in matric (Grade 12), when my name again made it onto the clipboard. For hurdles this time. I had never run hurdles. Ever. I was a cheerleader that year and having a most fabulous time, dancing about in my little yellow cheerleader skirt and whipping up the crowds. Then came the hurdles event and I had to line up on the track – in front of the whole school and in front of my team.

I stood there, again on dry, prickly grass that smelled of wheat, the sun baking on my head, and looked at the black and white hurdles looming up ahead – like ghoulish gap-toothed smiles. I felt sick with fear. The start gun seemed to split a crack the air. The athletes (I was never an athlete, so not I) shot off and glided over the hurdles in a beautiful, rhythmic dance.

I darted off behind them, trying to catch up. I smacked the first hurdle with my knee. It toppled. I carried on going. I smacked the second one, and the third. By then everyone had crossed the finish line. I looked that the remaining hurdles sneering back at me and took a right turn. I was not running past the whole school, stone last, again. Not a chance. The teachers were calling me, clutching their clipboards, telling me to just finish, that I would still score a point for my team. They couldn’t have dragged me back onto the field if they tried.

I was done. I was not a runner. I would never be a runner.

Never say never.


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