Now, I mentioned I wasn’t really that fast.  There is an old adage in track that goes, “Sprinters are born, hurdlers are made.”  I figured if I got good at going over the hurdles I had a chance to make up for my lack of natural speed.  I did that by stretching.  Dancers or students of martial arts will understand the lure and addiction of the stretch.  One of my favorites involved placing my heel on the top cross bar of a three foot high hurdle. Gradually I’d lean forward until my head rested against my knee and I‘d just relax there, keeping both legs straight.  Another involved raising my leg perpendicular to my body, placing my knee and ankle along the top of the hurdle, then bending to touch the ground.  I got pretty good at that one, good enough that I could place both hands flat on the ground and would just rest there comfortably.  I would stretch on the ground too, but I liked working with the hurdles more.  In one way I guess I became friends with the barriers that would confront of me on race day.

After two weeks of running and calisthenics and stretching, race day would come.  Preparation on the day of a meet was essential and routine.  Every athlete has their own routine; it’s quite similar to an actor’s preparation prior going on stage.  The challenge is to keep your body free of tension and to maintain your focus in the midst of distraction.

First I’d run a lap or two then stretch.  After that the mission was to cheer on your fellow athletes and wait till they began setting up the hurdles.  Then it was time to go to work.  Tracks then were different from the composite materials used today.  They were cinder, two inches of black cinder on hard packed dirt.  White lines defined six lanes.  As the hurdles were set up they began to resemble ten three foot walls stretching across the one hundred twenty yard black straight away.  I would pound my starting blocks into the ground about a foot behind the starting line.   Blocks consisted of a two foot long flat steel bar with a spike on each end.  Along the bar were clamped two adjustable wooden blocks with one beveled edge which faced forward. 

It was fifteen yards to the first hurdle.  I’d adjust my blocks setting the left one forward and the right to the rear.  I’d place my hands on the ground in front of the starting line and place the balls of my feet against the front beveled edge of each block, left first then right.  As I ease back into the blocks I brush away the sharp cinder pieces with my fingertips.  With thumb stretched perpendicular to my fingers, I place my thumb and index finger tip along the starting line, raise my hips, transfer and balance my weight onto my fingertips then bolt out of the blocks.

I would pull myself up after only two or three steps, turn back, eyeing the spot where my right toe dug into the ground in front of the starting line.  I could tell by the distance in front of the line whether my blocks were set correctly and if my steps would be correct to the first hurdle.  Getting your steps correct to the first hurdle is important; you see clearing the first hurdle well has great bearing on the race. It’s all about where you begin.  If your steps aren’t right, you’ll go over the first hurdle badly off balance and it’ll throw off your rhythm over the other nine to follow. 

Now as hurdles go you can knock over every hurdle on the 120 yard course and it doesn’t matter, but it’ll slow you down and your time at the end is what counts.  I once saw a guy shatter the pine top bar of the first hurdle, knock down five others and still win. Maybe that’s ‘cause it’s spring and in spring, anything can happen.  The only thing you can’t do once a race in under way is leave your lane, they disqualify you for that. 

When the starter appears you remove your sweats and stand in your lane behind your blocks, you recheck your blocks to be sure they’re tight.  Most runners and hurdlers stretch and jump up and down to stay loose and let go of tension. 

“Take your marks,” the starter’s voice is loud, commanding. I coil myself into the blocks making sure my feet are positioned correctly, solid.  Fingers confidently placed along the starting line, leaning forward checking balance, then settle, relax, breathe.  

When a runner is ready, you raise your head.  In front of you the white lines of your lane angle in perfect perspective view to the first hurdle. The first hurdle is a frame within which you see each of the other hurdles, each framed smaller within the other.  It is both daunting and alluring in the same moment; the fear of the wall before you and the excitement the pounding heart stirs within you.  

When the hurdlers all have raised their heads the starter barks, “Set.”

That command raises your hips, weight shifts, fingertips press into the cinder.  The pause is brief, two beats in actor terms.  The crack of the pistol propels six hurdlers out of their blocks. Piston legs drive, attaining full speed in fifteen yards then the right leg rises, head tucked leaning forward, left arm stretched, hand momentarily brushes the toe pointing right foot as it passes over the hurdle with less than an inch clearance. Left leg and foot trails parallel to the ground. The right toe drives down digging into the black cinder track, three steps and the right leg snaps up again and the second hurdle is cleared.  Only eight more, but you dare not think of that.  You must remain in the moment focused only on the next white hurdle bar.  When the last bar is cleared you sprint the final fifteen yards to the finish line.  Actually my uncle Jim always told me, “Run ten yards past the finish line.”


“So you won’t stop five yards before the finish.  The worst mistake you can make is so give up before the end.  It’s a sin against yourself, your own dignity and respect.”

After Practice

Hurdling under the guidance of Jim Region taught me lessons that have guided me throughout my life. Clarity, keeping focus amidst distraction, always giving your best and tenacity are things that truly matter, or in the words of Winston Churchill, “Never give up.”

When it rained the day prior to a track meet I knew it would be windy on meet day, it’s tough running high hurdles into the wind.  Although it won’t, you feel that when you become airborne the wind will blow you backward over the hurdle. I found the wind angered me in my youth, guess I thought it was conspiring against my desire to run a good time, to turn in a good performance. I was trying to control something I could not. 

One March day many years later, I found myself standing beside a plowed field the day after rain.  My perspective, honed by time’s wisdom, left me clear with regards to my limitations; I was quite incapable of controlling the wind.  I stood there finding affection and delight as the wind toyed with my hair.  I watched the fluttering surface of tiny puddles of water standing among mounds of turned black dirt. I noticed the edges of the plowed earth were drier than within the crevices and in that moment, I realized the beauty and simple practicality of nature’s balance; wash the land then dry it.  I wanted in that moment, to run hurdles again to dance anew with the wind, to savor spring, the time when all life is purged and resurrected.


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