Meeting Heroes and Friends

John L. Parker introduced me to Quentin Cassidy and, along the way, set the standard for running fiction. For two generations, Once a Runner has inspired runners seeking the answer to breaking through to the next level and Parker delivered it in Cassidy's story of commitment, sacrifice, and work, and then he delivered the dream in a racing scene that hasn't been equaled since. Now, in Racing the Rain, Parker is back to tell the story of the childhood Cassidy, before the track, when he flew barefoot ahead of the thunderclouds

Jack Welch sits down across from the great runners in history, and with a hint of the beatnik, teases out the real-life tales and puts them into a book so the rest of us can look them in the eyes and get their measure. Not just the immortals like Rodgers and Decker, but the rest of the greats like Patti Catalano and the elusive Gerry Lindgren. He put them all in When Running Was Young and So Were We and won the Track and Field Writers Association honors for best track book in 2014.

The Diamond League meet happens in less than a month at storied Hayward Field at what’s now known as Track Town, USA. The best in the world will step into the arena to measure themselves against each other and their most relentless opponents, the clock and tape.

A group of us will be there to watch, John and Jack among them.  Few other visiting writers, some of whom will be working to build an ambitious new history of Eugene. Hopefully, one will be Kenny Moore. Kenny Moore, author of Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, writes in a beguilingly smooth style that sits you down next to Bill and entertains you as he leads the exploration into America’s most famous track coach.

Don Kardong may make the trip, if organizing another successful Bloomsday didn't wear him out.

And me. I'll be there. Some of these folks are heroes. I can ask almost anyone for anything, but I couldn't bring myself to ask John Parker to read Finishing Kick. When I wrote the novel, I set it deliberately as the women's answer to Once a Runner and tried to make the racing as inspiring, the lessons hidden within story, and the joy of running flow off the page. I finally sent him a copy last month, after I read a review copy of Racing the Rain.

Some of them, like Jack, are becoming friends.

The Pre Classic won't be the only meet that I'll be attending this month that has heroes and friends, though. Tuesday I headed out to watch a junior high meet. I coached some of these kids in cross country and think the world of them. A couple of them came by to say "hi" before their race, and then stood around wondering what else to say. Me, too. It gets easier, I've discovered, as they get older and graduate. In the meantime, I get to be their biggest fan and cheer them on while I add to my happy memories.

The coach of the middle school team is a running buddy. He manages all the kids with a humor that more of us should emulate when life gets screwy. The coach of the high school, Tim Gundy, is also a friend, and a heck of a runner. I haven't seen him all season, but I'll catch up with him and the distance kids at the district meet.

Tim won't have time to chat - that will have to wait until the summer. For now, he's focused on his kids. It says something that the kids universally love him. Tim is much more than a track or cross country coach. I talked to Pat Tyson, the coach at Gonzaga University. The two of them share a lot of character traits, humility and compassion high on that list.

The high school coaching gig doesn't have the cache of coaching the Buffaloes and, with rare exceptions, most of the athletes won't see their names emblazoned on Running Times. It's here that the youngsters learn to dream and begin to believe. Some, a very few, will achieve great heights. All will care, and never more than during these years.

In the glitz of the Prefontaine Classic, it becomes easy to forget that all these athletes started someplace away from the glitz and media attention. It began with a passion, and probably a good coach, and a little luck. Most will have picked out a hero or two to inspire them and dream of reaching the Olympic oval or famous tracks of Europe, the Armory, or Eugene. For those that make it, stories will be told of their exploits, the daring tactics, or the incredible level of commitment. Writers will flock to them. Fans will cheer.

One or two of the high schoolers may make it to Eugene to race someday. Most won't even if they have the burning passion, the work ethic, the guts. Not all of my heroes sit in rarified heights - I'll be cheering for those kids and their coaches, and telling some of their stories, too.