It was my own fault, I admit it. I shouldn’t have trifled with one of the holy commandments handed down by the church of perpetual mileage that Sundays are for races or for long runs, and not for track workouts. But I had woken up late, feeling too sluggish and out-of-sorts to drag myself to a race, and too lazy to do a long run with people much faster than me. Steeped in indecision and lethargy, I puttered around the house as the morning slipped away.
Maybe it was the good breakfast or maybe it was the cup of strong coffee, but as noon approached, I was feeling much better, and I began to think about salvaging the training possibilities of the day. I considered going out on one of my normal routes, but I felt it would be tedious. If I was going to run at all, I wanted to do something that would make me feel like I had trained, not just that I had logged another token run. And then inspiration struck: I would head down to the local track and run an interval workout. After all, for the last two weeks I had been missing Tuesday workouts with my club, and I would miss the coming Tuesday as well. This would be a chance to remind my body what it felt like to run at a faster pace, and I would be expressing solidarity with my teammates even if I couldn’t join them in person.
With a sense of purpose and determination, I threw a pair of racing flats and a water bottle into my backpack, and set out on the two-mile jog to the Newton North track, assuming that the only thing standing between me and a good workout was my own will-power.
But as I approached the track from Lowell Street, I sensed something was not as it ought to be. Before I could see the track, I became aware of an ominous sound that I recognized as coming from a crowd of spectators. There were cars parked everywhere, and as I turned into the driveway that led to the track and jogged up to the North entrance, I could see that there was a football game in progress.
Or rather, not in progress. While I could see two groups of players on the field, they were just standing around, allowing me to take in the entire scene at my leisure. The players were outfitted in uniforms that would have made an NFL franchise proud, but the average height of the athletes was perhaps four-and-a-half feet. I guess I had arrived in between quarters or something, but the two groups of players on the field were just standing there, while a bunch more players on the sideline were also standing around. But the truly horrifying thing was the presence on either side of the field of large squads of pre-teen cheerleaders, occupying lanes 1-4 of the track, doing cheers and stunts, while a surprising number of adults in the stands looked on.
There was one of me, a lone wolf who wanted to use that track for its original purpose. There were hundreds of them, for whom the track was merely the virtual moat that surrounded their sacred gridiron. I knew immediately that there was no way for me to jog, let alone do a workout. I was bitterly resentful.
And that might have been that, but gazing out on that football field, I remembered when I used to coach at the old Newton North High School, before they tore it down to build the most expensive high school in Massachusetts history. I remembered a workout that I used to have the kids do in the winter or early spring, when the snow hadn’t melted from the track. It was repeat half miles on a hilly course that wound its way through a quiet neighborhood nearby. I had wheel-measured that loop, and I thought I could still remember the location of the start, finish, 200m, and 400m.
Putting my bitterness at having been preempted by Sunday afternoon Pop Warner football, I jogged the half mile to my old course, and went through my well-rehearsed pre-speed warmup. I did my drills, I changed my shoes, I did my strides… I ignored the occasional questioning look from the neighbors, and stripped down to my skin. And then I started…
The course I had measured so many years ago began with a gradual rise for the first 250m, flattened and dipped slightly, and then took a sharp right turn up a short, steep hill. I had never done a workout on this course, but had seen many high school athletes struggle with it. Now I was paying for having never had any sympathy with my runners, who had to negotiate that hill in the middle of a demanding interval. After cresting the hill, there was a short drop, and then a hard right turn to a gradual downhill finish.
I completed the first one, breathing harder than I expected, looked at my watch, and wondered whether I’d be able to hit that time again. I took exactly 2:30 to jog/walk back to the start, and then did it again. The second one hurt more; it was also five seconds faster.
And so it went. I completed six, and that steep hill got steeper every rep. The last one hurt plenty, but it was also my fastest. I had long since stopped caring what the neighbors might think as they saw me passing their front yards again and again.
When I was done, I changed back into my trainers, and jogged very slowly home. But instead of going past the school, I chose a different route so I wouldn’t have to pass the football game. Maybe some other day — a Tuesday evening, perhaps — but on Sunday afternoon, the track was no place for me.