And It Went Poof!

Chapter 40, Blog 1

By Chuck Wells As Told To Ray Hochgesang

chuckwells2008@gmail.com

 

I got up and jogged the last 30, surreal meters as the crowd sat in stunned, nightmarish silence, just like at Terre Haute.

Franz followed. He cussed at me like he invented it.

“You old, f*%#+&’ sonuvabitch!”

“You’re nuthin’ but a f*%#+&’ asshole!”

“What the f*%#+&’ hell were ya f*%#+&’ thinkin’?”

I should have decked him. What did I have to lose?

Locked in shock, my brain bumped its way through swirling images. The endless visualization sessions, the early morning fights with Harry, the bitching from provincial legs too sore to see beyond the next workout.

The Olympics?

… now you see Beijing, now you don’t .. .

I didn’t think I hit my head in the fall, but I had all the symptoms of a concussion. Maybe I did hit it. My thinking felt cockeyed. As an afterthought, I waved at the west grandstands as I walked circles to cool down and waited for Harry to wheel up.

… the old guy must be heartbroken …

… or ready to kick your stupid ass …

Maybe it was post-traumatic shock. I didn’t feel any pain – but my legs felt wet. I looked down to see seeping streams of blood. I didn’t feel the multiple bruises, cuts and scrapes – not yet.

Harry was nowhere to be seen, too ashamed, I thought. Franz was still in my face, begging to be beheaded. I ignored him.

A white-bearded official in a green polo shirt, khaki shorts and University of Oregon baseball cap led me away. The crowd grumbled. Was it disbelief or disgust? A smattering of “boos” serenaded me as I wandered up the front stretch on the way to the Bowerman Building. Off in the distance, I could hear Franz whining, pleading his case. Back in Bowerman, I was led behind the press area to a dank cubicle near a locker room. My guide said I needed to make a statement.

… a statement? For finishing second last…

I didn’t know what to say. I could barely comprehend what had happened. I knew my dream was over, but I couldn’t wake up. I felt something on my left temple. I touched it. More blood.

“I did hit my head.”

My patient host assured me it was a superficial cut and pointed to a chair. Seated, I gazed at the TV monitor while one of the 800-meter finalists taking questions in the press area droned on. I watched the replay of the first heat. It was obvious. Franz had tackled me. I jumped to my feet and knocked over the chair.

“I’m gonna kill him!”

Copyright © 2013 by Chuck H. Wells/Ray Hochgesang

I Forgot To Duck

Chapter 39, Blog 3

By Chuck Wells As Told To Ray Hochgesang

chuckwells2008@gmail.com

 

I was in the first heat, so I didn’t have to wait. The personable starter told us to take it easy, “don’t jump the gun” and added some off-color joke about ducks to relax us. Nobody laughed, except me. Maybe the others had heard the joke before. Or maybe they liked ducks. I don’t know. The starter checked his pistol. His hands quivered.

… he’s not only younger than you but twice as nervous …

“Just shut up!”

Thanks to my pre-race prep, I was in assertive mode. After I said it, I realized others were listening, including the starter. I smiled at him. He frowned.

… great, he heard you, hope there’s blanks in that gun …

Still frowning, the starter glanced at his wristwatch and had us take our marks.

BANG!

They left me at the starting line.

Mantra time.

… run tall, run fast …

… run tall, run fast …

… run tall …

I was dead last and fading.

“Just shut up – AND GO!”

I shifted up a gear and scampered after the pack. But the clutch stuck, and my track life flashed through my head: Old man throws rod, dies during semifinals.

… C’MON! GET MAD …

I did.

I passed a guy. He pulled up lame.

… well, you won’t be last …

Down the front stretch, I could smell the pack. Or was it Franz?

CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!

Bell lap. And I wasn’t even at the line yet.

I knew it would take a small miracle.

…. uggggh …

“RUFF, RUFF, RUFF … “

Inside the turn, a pack of barking athletes hunched within centimeters of the track and scared the dog doo out of me. They chased me through the curve. And no doubt cost Harry plenty of twenties. The crowd murmured. A few in the stands barked, too.

It didn’t take much.

My adrenal glands surged. My heart kicked into overdrive.

And my abused legs shifted into high.

Sweeping wide out of the turn, I ran downhill.

I caught the next two and passed.

And set up for the last turn.

Up ahead, Franz clung to fourth place.

To have a chance, I would have to steal it from him.

… DON’T pass on the curve …

“I know. I know.”

I settled in behind Franz.

… draft him, draft him …

Exiting the turn, I ran wide.

He came with me.

“Get out of the way!” I screamed.

I darted inside.

Franz veered inside.

I zigged.

Franz zigged.

I zagged.

Franz zagged.

I faked outside.

And swerved inside.

As I passed, I snagged his foot.

We tumbled in a heap.

I struggled to get up.

It was too late.

Two flew by.

And it was over.

Copyright © 2013 by Chuck H. Wells/Ray Hochgesang

Stinkin’ Thinkin’

Chapter 39, Blog 1

By Chuck Wells As Told To Ray Hochgesang

chuckwells2008@gmail.com

 

Back-to-back races? Not since Des Moines. After that party, I couldn’t walk without pain for a week. Now it was worse. My overworked legs were so tired, they didn’t have the energy to hurt.  Add to that, my lucky charms Melinda and the kids couldn’t make it until the finals – if I got there. I peeked at Harry. Not a care in the world, he snored in peaceful, little bursts of gunfire. Angry, anxious and alone, I stood in a quicksand of doubt up to my knees and sank deeper with each new thought.

Why didn’t my coach prepare me better?

… he tried …

Why didn’t I do more interval training?

… maybe because YOU hated it  …

Why won’t Harry tell me what happened the last time?

… ’cause you can’t handle the truth …

I had worked harder than a street sweeper after a parade of horses with diarrhea to get here.  But thanks to Harry’s warning, I realized the semifinals waited up the road, ready to ambush me. I felt like an eighth-grader again, sitting outside Principal James’ door, hearing a kid wailing from the impact of James’ paddle – and knowing I was next.

Yes, I also saw the Olympics poking over the horizon, but annoying little facts made my windmill stomach spin overtime.

I should have peaked by now.

I should have concentrated more on race strategy.

I should be ASLEEP.

… shoulda, coulda, woulda … freakin’ barracuda, shuddup, you’re giving me a migraine …

Before the quarterfinals, I didn’t have the time or the sobriety to obsess. Except for the last 20 meters today, that had worked just fine.

… hit the reset button, click, click … good God, it’s stuck …

I held an ice bag on my back and lied down.

“Hey, Sonny Boy, what seems to be the trouble?”

… who IS that…

“I think it’s time we had that heart-to-heart chat.”

… I tried. He’s the Tin Man …

I looked around. Nobody. Just the old lady’s voice hanging above me.

“What?” I asked. “Are you the Ghost of Christmas Past?”

“No, worse, Bobo …”

“Mom?”

“Yes, Honey, what are you so uptight about?”

“Go away. I already hear enough voices.”

“But I want to help. What’s this mess you got yourself in?”

“No, Mom, it’s all right. I don’t need your help. Really.”

.. that’s what he thinks …

“No, really,” I said.

“You know, mother knows best.”

“OK, wake me out of this nightmare and go away.”

“That little man is right. You are so rude.”

“Hey, stop right there. I don’t need any more lectures.”

I looked at Harry. He snored on.

“Good night, Mom. I need some sleep.”

“OK, Honey, but remember what I used to tell you.”

“That I’ll go blind  if I … ”

“No, Silly, just do your best. That’s all they can ask.”

How I wish I could.

Copyright © 2013 by Chuck H. Wells/Ray Hochgesang

Semifinal Madness

Chapter 38, Blog 3

By Chuck Wells As Told To Ray Hochgesang

chuckwells2008@gmail.com

 

“Harry, you know, Franz has been telling people that I’m too old to be here, too,” I said. “And guess what. I’m not going anywhere until the bastards tell me to go home.”

My coach blinked.

“What if Franz is right?”

Harry ducked as the ice bag flew over his head and crashed into the wall. I didn’t throw it hard, just hard enough to make the point.

“If you didn’t yell at me all the time, it would be better.” I said. “All that verbal abuse doesn’t help – not one damn bit.”

“That is how I coach. That is who I am. You really think someone my age wants to change the way he operates?” my coach asked. “Can I help if you Boomers are thin-skinned?”

“Thin-skinned? Whose fault is that?”

Harry looked away.

“You know how old I am,” he said.

“103?”

“Very funny. I’m 84 years old. And believe it or not, at 84 one still has hopes and dreams. And to have your hopes and dreams personified in a 49-year-old who thinks he’s 15, well, that is complete …”

“Lunacy?”

“Exactly. Off your rocker, out of your mind, wrong side of the road …”

“Enough, I get the picture.” I said. ‘We’re both tired and screwed-up. You know it. I know it. Take it easy, OK? I know I didn’t do my best. Can we put it behind us and move on?”

Harry stared at me.

“All right, I guess this is what has me all tied up – the semifinals. It is the toughest race of the three.”

I suppose this was not a good time to tell my coach I had wrenched my back by swerving out of the lane on the curve to pass.

… yeah, moron, let it go …

“How in the hell can that be? I thought the first one. Or the finals. Or, or …”

Harry shook his head.

“Nope, this will be it,” he said in his earnest baritone. “You are already through the first one. How? Search me … ”

“Can we PLEASE move on?”

“The final, well, anything can happen in the final if you get there,” my coach said, laying his head on his pillow. “There, you have an extra day of rest.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s this one that has broken some of my very best thoroughbreds. In fact, my last one,” he said. “Why? I do not know. I have dwelt on it for the last 20 years.”

“And no doubt, dreamt about it last night,” I said. “You must have some clue.”

“Sure, I do,” said Harry. “But I am not about to tell you the night before.”

He yawned and turned over.

“Some freakin’ coach I’ve got.”

Instead of responding, Harry began to snore.

Copyright © 2013 by Chuck H. Wells/Ray Hochgesang

Just Sayin’ II

Chapter 38, Blog 2

By Chuck Wells As Told To Ray Hochgesang

chuckwells2008@gmail.com

 

Harry needed to say it. He puffed up like a blow toad and let it fly.

“Just who do you think you are? Listen, here! If you think you can walk in the Olympic Trials and play that over-the-hill, feel-sorry-for-me card, you are sadly …”

“What?” I asked. “We’re playing Mad-Libs?”

“You are such a spoiled child,” said Harry. “You think you know it all. Let me tell you. You ran the most ass-backward race I have ever seen. You are lucky they did not laugh you off the track.”

Squeak, squeak, squeak …

“If you’re trying to build my confidence, Coach, you’re doing one helluva job,” I said, struggling to sit up. An ice bag slid off the pile. “Did I embarrass you or what?”

“You embarrassed yourself. That’s what.”

With one hand on his walker, Harry scooped up the ice bag and tossed it back on the pile.

“I told you to run in California,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “One, maybe two races could have made the difference. Obviously, you are not ready for this, this level.”

Squeak, squeak, squeak …

“That’s one freakin’ news bulletin,” I screamed. I was certain they heard me in downtown Eugene. “NO FREAKIN’ KIDDING!”

Harry’s tirades? HA! They didn’t bother me anymore. They were designed to intimidate children, not 49-year-olds. Coupled with what I had suffered over the past two days, however, it was too much.  If I could have grabbed Harry, I would have strangled him.

And he knew it.

“Hey, settle down …”

“You go to hell! You pompous sonuvabitch!”

“Typical,” said Harry. “No respect for your elders.”

“You said my legs couldn’t take it. And you know I didn’t have the money,” I shouted like an idiot. “We could have run more back home, but that wasn’t good enough for you, was it?”

“They run differently out here,” Harry bellowed back. “Any moron can see that.”

“I’m not just any moron,” I said.

… congrats, you win that point …

Harry cracked the goofiest smile I saw since I punched out Ralphie.

“No, Charlie baby,” he said. “You are one SPECIAL moron.”

Deflated and exhausted, Harry flopped on his bed and motioned for me to take off the ice. He sighed and rubbed his eyes.

“I just needed to say it. I do not mean any of it.” He sighed again. “I never thought I would get here one more time. I guess I’m losing it. It’s truly a nightmare.”

“You sure were rockin’ and rollin’ last night.”

“It’s all a purge mechanism, Princess,” he said.

“I know it is.”

“Anyway, I now realize it was a mistake coming out here,” Harry said. “I cannot handle it as I should. I am too old. I should not be here.”

Copyright © 2012 by Chuck H. Wells/Ray Hochgesang

No Picnic

Chapter 38, Blog 1

By Chuck Wells As Told To Ray Hochgesang

chuckwells2008@gmail.com

 

Some way, somehow, I made it through to the semifinals with the 15th best time out of the 16 to advance. I did it with the worst race I had run in months.  As I plodded in tight, oxygen-debted circles through the Hayward grass, my coach answered questions from an impromptu gathering of reporters. Harry loved being the center of attention, and I happily obliged him.

Whenever the questioning veered toward my age, though, I spoke up and gave my standard reply.

“I’m not that old.”

… yes, yes you are …

“I’m NOT that old.”

… in your dreams …

“I’m not that OLD.”

… they’ve got moon rocks younger than you …

Drained silly by my 25-hour, emotional roller coaster, well into hour No. 26, I inventoried the post-race damage. My calves and thighs burned with charcoal-like fire, my lungs were twisted inside out, and my heart hung somewhere outside my chest cavity. Best guess, I needed about a month to recover.

I had less than 20 hours.

… tick … tock … tick ….

From circles, I switched to tramping figure eights to cool down in spite of the 85-degree Eugene heat and the smoky air irritating my lungs. We were down to the last news jackal from the local paper, the Oregonian.

“And what can you tell me that the other stories won’t have?” she asked Harry.

“Well, Honey, for the next round, we plan to have a pack of wild dogs here to chase him around the track,” said my coach in mock seriousness. “He responds well to fear.”

She took the hint, laughed and left.

As my race replayed on the video board, I was horrified. The kids moved free and easy, but it was obvious I was running through water. When we got back to the motel, Harry insisted on burying me under a mountain of motel ice while I lied flat on my back on the rock that was my mattress. A snowman stuffed up my ass would have hurt less.

GGGGRRRRR! BBBBBBRRRRRRRR!

Harry called the icing precautionary. From his furrowed countenance, I could see it was anything but precautionary. Squeaking his walker around my bed, he launched his version of a pep rally.

“You are one lucky bastard,” he said without blinking.

Squeak, squeak, squeak …

Sleep-deprived and now trapped, I studied the cracked, paint-peeling ceiling. I knew I had made two tactical blunders. I knew I was fortunate to advance to the next round. I knew my legs were barbecued chicken.

I just didn’t need to hear it.

Copyright © 2012 by Chuck H. Wells/Ray Hochgesang

GO!

Chapter 37, Blog 3

By Chuck Wells As Told To Ray Hochgesang

chuckwells2008@gmail.com

 

Thanks to “grandpa” stating the obvious, nervous laughter bounced on the track. The starter, who also looked younger and unimpressed, harrumphed in my direction and sent the first heat flying. Friendly Franz took third in 1:47.35, no doubt good enough for a semifinal berth. Out of three heats, the top 16 would advance.

In the second heat, I toed the line. These 20-somethings appeared older, more mature than the others I had raced. And they had huge, muscular calves and biceps.

… steroids …

“Runners, take your mark,” the starter called.

We crowded the line like Walmart shoppers on Black Friday.

BANG!

Away we darted. My first three, nerve-tickling strides were perfect.

I could not have visualized them any better.

… you’re third! DAMNIT RUN…

At the blend line, I fell in behind the first two.

I could feel hot breath on my neck. I should have run diagonally toward the next turn.

… Harry’s not going to like that …

… HEY, YOU’RE THINKING …

…. relax, react …

… don’t think …

A grunting Bigfoot pulled even and matched me stomp for stride. I couldn’t shake him.

… enough! Think already …

I inched away.

… think …

… think …

… think …

And I trained how long?

… focus on the pace, no one wins on the first lap …

That did it. My stride flowed. I loosened my shoulders. Deeper I breathed. The quick pace suited me. I guarded third. We crossed the line. The bell clanged.

… easy, easy …

They clipped my heels down the back stretch. But I kept the door shut. With 200 yards to go, I swerved into the passing lane – on the curve. I had to.

… now or never, hit it, Seabiscuit …

My legs lurched into high. I wrested second near the turn’s end. Down the front stretch I chased the lead. But I spent too much in the turn. I couldn’t get him. Another passed me at the finish. I was lucky. I got third in 1:49.29.

Harry was understanding.

“Walk it off!” he hollered. “You got dementia or something? If I told you once, I have told you a zillion times: DO NOT PASS ON THE DAMN CURVE!”

“Yes … boss …” I gasped, sucking air.

“I knew it,” said Harry. “We should have run more races.”

“So … tell me … again … that was … the easy one?”

Copyright © 2012 by Chuck H. Wells/Ray Hochgesang

Get Set …

Chapter 37, Blog 2

By Chuck Wells As Told To Ray Hochgesang

chuckwells2008@gmail.com

 

“First call for the men’s 800 quarterfinals,” blared the public address system.

“See, plenty of time,” I said. “Hey, Coach, are you nervous or something?”

Recalling months ago when Harry claimed I was an answer to his prayers, I hoped he was praying now.

“I see you do not have enough sense to be nervous,” he said. “That is what I see.”

“Well, I see it was that jackass from the Drake Relays, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, did you run into him? OK, stupid question,” said Harry. “Yes, he was blocking you somehow. Nine times out of 10, when it makes no sense on first glance, it’s politics.”

“He was blocking me because I’m old?”

Harry shook his head no and smiled.

“Because you can beat him.”

“And …”

“And you will. But save it. He is not in your heat.”

I closed my eyes one last time. I saw myself go to my mark, BANG! This time I grabbed the lead like I grabbed my first beer the night before and killed the race off in seconds. Then I cleared my mind and focused on breathing easily, slowly, deeply. My pulse dropped another notch. All those early mornings of training was either going to pay off now or …

“Second call for the men’s 800 meters.”

I felt a presence kneel beside me.

“Young Man,” Harry said. “You are missing a bib.”

Harry pinned it on my back.

“You got that right side up, Mister?”

“Yes. It is NOT the first time I did this. In fact, that is the only superstition I have. I always pin them on.”

“Last call for the 800.”

I hopped up, grabbed my right heel and tugged it to my back. My nerves popped to life, but I tried to act as if I had been here before.

“Pace and race, Princess,” my coach said. “This is the easy one. Just follow the rabbits.”

So much for acting … my eyes popped wide.

“That’s it? No last-minute strategy?”

“Just run as you have in your mind’s eye. Don’t even think. Let your muscles take over. You know, just like back home.”

“No big-speech moment?”

“Son, this ain’t no movie.”

“I wish I had my Russian CD …”

“And stay out of those damned boxes,” he added.

Harry swatted me on the behind and wheeled away.

“See you at the finish,” he yelled over his shoulder. “Make me proud.”

Out of my mind and body, I floated into Hayward and over to the starting line in the near corner. Needles of adrenaline pricked my arms and legs. I stripped down only to notice everyone was staring at me.

… must be that ugly Depends T-shirt you’re wearing …

No, it wasn’t the T-shirt. I grinned like Howdy Doody.

“Never raced your grandpa before, did ya?”

Copyright © 2012 by Chuck H. Wells/Ray Hochgesang

Keepin’ It Real

Chapter 36, Blog 2

By Chuck Wells As Told To Ray Hochgesang

chuckwells2008@gmail.com

 

Finally, Coach Rip Van Winkle awoke. I gathered my good shoes, safety pins and lucky jock. There would be no more pretending. The real thing – Hayward Field – beckoned. I would see the real thing, real soon.

… perhaps, too soon …

“Let’s get one thing straight. I’m instituting a moratorium on negative thinking, starting in 3 seconds … 2 … 1… NOW!”

… that’s what you think, loser …

“GET OUT OF HERE!”

“All right, all right,” said a groggy Harry. “A person simply cannot sleep … with you and your demons slugging it out.”

We ate at McDonald’s in spite of Harry threatening a supersized hissy fit. I had already broken training, so why not go all the way, I thought. We squeezed inside our rented VW Beetle, which I pointed up I-5 toward Eugene. On the way, Harry tried to distract me with a few tall tales from his glory years, but I listened with only one ear and don’t recall a single word he said.

Twenty-five minutes later, I could see the giant, yellow “O” for the University of Oregon on the south side of Hayward Field. Problem was we could get no closer. The traffic was as bad as race day at the Indianapolis 500. Thousands had made the pilgrimage for the Olympic Trials and its respective festival encircling Hayward Field.

They don’t call Eugene “TrackTown USA” for nothing. The whole city bought in and celebrated the 2008 Trials. For the next 10 days, it was Woodstock for track and field fans. Just name it: running clinics and events everywhere, a myriad of concerts, entertainment and great food plus wine and microbrew gardens. For those left without Trials tickets – it was sold out long ago – a pair of Jumbotrons offered spectacular viewing of all the drama inside Hayward for those camped outside.

Normally, I would circle the venue three times to cast my own spell. Today, I would have to do it on foot, if at all. Harry and I hiked the last mile into the Bowerman Building at the northwest corner of Hayward. My coach then rolled off to see exactly what time I would run. It wasn’t 5:30 as I originally thought, more like 8:20. But that was all right. It would give me time to flush out more poison, acclimate to the circus – and see some of the other events.

I was a track fan, too.

One prominent sign in Bowerman puzzled me, though, advertising the “International Institute for Sport and Human Performance.” I figured it was just another part of the University of Oregon’s infatuation with track and field.

… bet they’d like those goofy legs of yours …

Copyright © 2012 by Chuck H. Wells/Ray Hochgesang

So Easily Said

Chapter 36, Blog 1

By Chuck Wells As Told To Ray Hochgesang

chuckwells2008@gmail.com

 

Harry woke me at least twice with night-terror bellows. I swear I never knew. When my natural alarm clock failed hours later, screams from our next-door neighbor rousted me at 8 local time. It was a relief it wasn’t Harry again, who still snored in machine-gun bursts. But as soon as my fog dissipated, and I realized where I was, my heart beat madly.

… WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE …

I needed a beer. Instead, I sucked in all the Chi my being could hold via three of my favorite postures until my nerves calmed. My heartbeat slowed. My breathing improved. The sneaky, morning sun slipped through the cheesecloth-thin curtains, sparkling on my wedding band.

… SHIT! You need to call home …

And that’s probably where I left my cellphone.

… don’t panic, you just had it …

I happened to glance near the bottom of the door and saw the sun peeping in there, too. Recalling what I had done in my drunken stupor caused my heart to skip another beat.

… oh, Methuselah, there’s still time to escape …

I tried rationalization.

… you have nothing to lose, nothing to lose, nothing … but your mortgage, your job, your self-esteem …

“Why don’t you just shut up?”

… my advice – forget the drama and get the hell out of here …

“WHO ASKED YOU?”

That disturbed Harry, who stirred.

If my hung-over brain didn’t care to function properly, my dimwitted legs sure didn’t stand a chance. Luckily, my coach started to snore again. I chugged some motel-made coffee, knowing caffeine and anxiety didn’t mix, but I needed a jump start.

.. brain cells, engage, please …

I called Melinda and begged her to come to Eugene. Twenty minutes later, she gave in. If I made it through to the semifinals, she and the kids would be on the next plane.

… now all you have to do …

Copyright © 2012 by Chuck H. Wells/Ray Hochgesang