FROM CIGARETTE DELIVERY BOY TO RUNNING ADDICT
by Dave Milner
Like most things in life that come to consume you, define you even, it started with a challenge. "I'll time you," he'd say. My dad would thrust a couple of pound notes in my hand and sent me off to the corner shop to get him a packet of twenty Benson & Hedges. They came in gold packets and looked fancy. Sometimes, depending on his mood, or level of nicotine withdrawal, I would get to keep the change, but he would always offer to time me. It was approximately three quarters of a mile to the store. On a good day, I could make it to the store, complete the transaction, and make it back home with the fags (yes, we really call them that over there!) in a bout 11 minutes or so.
It was Southern England. 1981. Sebastian Coe had just set the world mile record, eclipsing the previous mark by fellow Englishman, Steve Ovett. At the Moscow Olympics the previous year, this duo had swept the middle distance events, each winning what was considered the other's specialty event.
I was ten years of age, skinny as a rake, with tremendous stamina. I never really got tired at the end of soccer games. I didn't score many goals, but I was always ready for another 90 minutes, and never understood why everyone else was so exhausted.
Cove and Ovett had certainly piqued my interest in running, but I still firmly believed I would be a professional soccer player if I applied myself and grew about four to six inches. My new role as cigarette delivery boy was now putting my boundless energy to a practical use. As a by-product, it also provided, for the first time, some structure and tangible results to my running, which had previously been confined to soccer, self-transportation, and evading beatings - either from my brother, five years my senior, or at the hands of older or bigger schoolboys to whom I had mouthed off.
Shortly before my eleventh birthday I saw a BBC documentary on lung cancer. I supose you could say it really hit home, since, when my birhday approached, and my father asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I told him I wanted him to stop smoking. I could have asked for the new Atari video game system, or a new Sony Walkman, or perhaps a new Leeds United soccer shirt, but I didn't. I didn't want my dad to die of lung cancer.
As far as I know, he hasn't lit up a cigarette since. He quit smoking, but I never quit running. He curbed his addiction with nicotine chewing gum. I fueled mine by joining the local Athletics (track) club.
At my school, I was still at the age where the girls were more developed than the boys. This would have been great if I were actually interested in girls at that age, but my world still revolved around the twin axes of soccer - mine (both ath the school and club levels), and that of Leeds United and whoever had a nice looking strip that season.
The fastest sprinter in my elementary school was my best friend, Robin Elstone. I had been finishing second to him at everything for years. He was the kind of kid to whom everything seemed to come effortlessly. The kind you loved to hate, but hung around with anyway, hoping his excellence would rub off on you. The second fastest sprinter was a girl, Elaine Quinn. My ego could handle being dusted by Robin, but I wasn't sure it could withstand a whooping at the hand of the fairer sex. So I gravitated toward the 800 meters, at that time the longest track race on offer at school, and then, the following winter, cross-country (usually aorund 2 miles).
I remember my first ever cross-country race. It was the county championships - kind of a big stage for my first competitive outing. It took place across a series of muddy fields whose mud twice sucked off my shoes. I was so far behind the pack that I was convinced I was lost. When I finally finished, my heels were badly bruised from the lack of padding in what I later discovered were sprinting spikes. But I was relieved to see a couple of boys trail in after me.
It wouldn't be the last time I would finish near the back, but gradually, with hard work and guidance, my finishes in the top half of races began to outnumber my finishes in the bottom half, and I even started to win a few races.
I continued to play soccer and compete in track and cross-country concurrently, but gradually the running began to displace the soccer. Why? Because in soccer I didn't seem to be rewared fairly for my hard work. It's not like in stats-obsessed America, Nobody pays attention to 'assists' across the pond. Often, only the goal scorers are remembered, and we had, on both my school and club teams, a kid called Luke Coleman. Luke had an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. He was a cherry picker of sorts, but timed his goalward advances so as not to be tripped by the opposing defense's offside trap (for a great explanation of the offside rule, rent the movie 'Bend It Like Beckham').
The great thing about running, though, is that it is so objective. The results can't be disputed. If you cross the line first, you're the best runner that day. In running, there is no cherry picking.
Your results are pretty much a direct result of the work you put in. If you train intelligently, diligently, and consistently, you are usually rewarded with good results. If you train inconsistently, or don't listen to your body, you race results usually go south. You won't just happen to find yourself at the 2-mile marker of a 5K at your goal pace, just as a nice tailwind comes along and the two guys in front of you trip over each other. Things just don't shake out like that in distance running.
Predictable? Yep. Boring? Perhaps. But I like the fact that there is a direct correlation between my preparation - good or bad - and my competitive performance. I am accountable for my successes or failures, and I like that. Luke Coleman probably wouldn't like it so much, but I do.
DAVE MILNER is the editor and publisher of TR. Luke Coleman went on to play professional soccer for Bristol Rovers. Dave's father completed his first half-marathon in 2003 at the age of 69.