Sunday, August 25, 2013

Star of the North Games
Recap by Pat O'Regan

We haven't posted a blog post in quite some time. Thanks to Pat O'Regan for sharing his Star of the North Games experience from this past June. 

Track and field day of the Star of the North Games was on Saturday, June 29th. This year the event was held on the track and adjacent field of Macalester College in St. Paul. On a fair day, though with a stiff breeze on the home stretch, a good turnout of athletes – youth, adult and master – and appreciative fans came for the meet.

Perhaps my experience of running (the 800 m) in the meet is not unlike what other master athletes go through when they have trained hard and are determined to do well. I wake up at five and can’t fall back sleep. After tossing and turning and two hours, I finally get up. I eat a little breakfast, drink a cup of strong coffee, pack an athletic bag and set off – driving slowly and grumbling about putting myself in these situations.

I’ve done all I can in the way of training, but that “all I can” is less and less as the years march on. I tested myself on the treadmill on Tuesday. I came up a little short of a half mile at 10 mph (three minutes), but think the extra day of rest will make a difference. I want to break three minutes, and determine to leave nothing inside I can put on the track in the attempt.

The meet is in progress when I get to the track. The festive atmosphere lifts my spirits. Can anyone think physical effort is not good for the state of mind? I sit in the crowd for an hour, surrounded by cheering fans. They are running the hurdles; most of the fans seem to know one of the athletes. I spot Carter Holmes and George LaBelle down on the track and yell a greeting. Enlivened, I go down to talk to them. The three hours before the 800 m doesn’t seem so long.

Carter, slowed by a heart attack some years ago, walks with the aid of a walker. He tells me he’ll be doing the 100, 200 and 400 on the track and throwing the shot. The man is an inspiration. No longer able to run, he pushes himself physically all he can. The fire is undiminished. The fans clap and yell encouragement as he pushes along. Between events, other athletes congratulate him on the race.

George is one of the most accomplished athletes on the planet. Last I heard, he had over 8,000 awards of all kinds. I watch him run the 100 m. He looks good – for all his 70-some years. When I catch up to him later, he tells me that he is still in recovery from a stroke three years ago which partially paralyzed the left side of his body. In the first months of his recovery, he says, he ran by hauling his left leg after him in a stiff and awkward running motion. But he ran. “The pain,” he says, “I get so tired of the pain.” It is the left elbow and knee, in particular. But he doesn’t limp and, as I say, he looked good in the 100 m.

I can’t imagine – and don’t care to think about – the meet when someone tells me that George LaBelle is no longer competing. It would be like some inexorable force coming to a stop. No, I can’t see it happening. That evening, George and Tom Langenfelt are driving to Milwaukee for a meet the next day.

I watch the competition as it continues – a well-run meet, the rolling schedule going off without a hitch – and lose himself in the performances. The young women, all legs and little to carry, fly down the track, like gazelles. The young man, lean and muscular, come out of the blocks with startling acceleration. At all ages, the competition is stirring. Some of these athletes, one thinks, will be competing on TV in some major event in a few years.

Tom is a high jumper and one of the best around. Throughout the day, I see him at the pit. A couple years ago, he told me that he had the world best high jump for his age category (70ish) four of the previous five years. Apart from the superlative performances, he certainly looks the part – long, muscular legs that forgot to age. Below the waist, he’s a college kid.

As the 800 m gets nearer, I watch the competition more closely and search out the guys for chatter to escape from the tension. Several times, I engage Jim Schoffman in conversation. He’s another ageless wonder, a runner with the long, thin-legged build of an antelope (and 400 m runner); I feel older and slower just talking to him for a few minutes. He runs the 100, 200 and 400 that day, taking the 800 off for a change. Just short of 60, his time in the 400 is 58.8. He doesn’t seem disappointed, but talks of 57. Watching Jim compete over the years, I get the impression he passes through years as other people do months.

I run into Don Dornfeld – as I always do at meets. An outstanding runner, Don has to be one of the best all-around athletes from the area. Before getting into running, he was a champion powerlifter (ranked 5th in the nation in the bench press). He is running most of the events on the track, including the 800 m. I hope the other races will tire him for the 800 m, near the end of the meet.

We assemble to get our lane assignments. I feel sluggish warming up and turn to the others in my heat for consoling conversation. I always recall at times like this the interview Carter and I did with Carrie Tollefson a couple years ago. At one point, she said of a friend and outstanding middle-distance runner, “She quit. She got tired of the pressure.” We understood her knowing look. Olympians would know something about pressure.

“Hey, Pat,” Jim says to me, as I pass by him, heading for the rest room. “I’ll give you your split time at the lap.” I thank him – thinking, “as if I’m going to adjust my pace.”

I hit the first lap on schedule (about 1:30), but after that the race becomes a matter of survival. I finish in about 3:17, just ahead of Don. So I can tell people that I beat a guy who beat Bill Rodgers in a 10 k race a couple years ago.

Hints of mortality. Some eight years ago, I ran the 800 m in 2:37. At least in terms of effort, my training is the same. It is the ineluctable encroachments of age – a stiffening of the lungs – one cannot get rid of the old air as readily – and, mostly, a growing deficit of testosterone (male and female). Recovery is the name of the game. Following a single, hard workout, I am reduced to a slow jog or easy bike ride for three days. How can one improve when one cannot train enough to get better?

But I love the running. And the Star of the North Games is a terrific meet. I’ll try to age gracefully. But look at these guys – George, Tom, Don, Carter and Jim – do you call that aging gracefully? Aging with a passion, I should say.