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Life Lessons from the Track

Although my first love in sports was always baseball, I was never able to play organized ball. The closest I got was playing cow-pasture baseball, the rural equivalent of sandlot baseball. Cow-pasture baseball has its own unique hazards, but that's a story for another time.

Since baseball was out, and since I was never good enough at basketball and too averse to pain to play football, my only other option was track. I asked Daddy's permission and, surprisingly, he assented. But he added that he wasn't going to go out of his way to pick me up from after-school practices. I'd have to walk the two miles home or hitchhike. (It was still relatively safe to hitchhike at that time and in our little community, where everyone seemed to be my cousin or other relative.) If I happened to be on the road when he came home from work, he'd pick me up. Otherwise, I walked all the way home.

I knew nothing about the sport of track, but I could run. Our first coach, Frank Galbraith, told me the first day that he wanted me to run hurdles. He must have forgotten that, however, because he never mentioned it again, and I became a distance runner instead. He assigned me to the two-mile relay team with an occasional foray into the half mile and the mile.

My short-term goal was to run my "leg" of the race as best I could and try to help the team win. My long-term goal was to earn a letter, which, under Coach Galbraith, required scoring a minimum of 15 points. I earned a mere three points that season. But we were all still learning. In fact, that year might have been the first year our school even had a track team. And a team was just about all we had.

Halls High School didn't even have a track at the time. Some schools in our county had cinder tracks. A few in the more affluent communities had asphalt tracks. One had a synthetic rubber track that was almost as good as the one at the University of Tennessee's Tom Black Track in nearby Knoxville. We had a worn dirt path around the football field. We did wind sprints in the grass along the sidelines.

In practice, Coach Galbraith required us to do what he called "downs." Each down involved running a series of distances at "race pace" and consisted of a mile, a 440, a 220, and a 100. We did several of those downs in each practice. On the last 100, Coach would yell for us to do three more. When we'd finished two, he'd yell, "Four more!" And so it went until he felt like letting us go for the day. By that point, we were all exhausted and second-guessing our decision to run track. And I still had to walk home. But all of us stuck with it.

Coach Galbraith transferred to another school the following year, and he was replaced by Coach Sharp. The new coach immediately introduced several changes. We no longer ran downs. Instead, we ran cross country. Out from the school grounds, along busy four-lane Highway 33, through Bonta Vista subdivision's steep hills, down McCloud Road to Andersonville Pike, and back to the school. Although the journey was grueling, the change of scenery was welcome, and we still had enough breath in us to chat with each other as we ran. The hills made running a level track during meets seem like child's play.

Coach Sharp loved a challenge and challenging us runners. One day early in the season, school was dismissed early due to snowfall on a day we had a three-way meet scheduled. The coach from Karns High pulled his team from the meet. But Central High's coach told Coach Sharp, "My boys are tough. We're going to run whether Halls and Karns show up or not."

The challenge had been thrown down, and Coach Sharp eagerly accepted it. "My boys are tougher!" he trash talked.

Clad in full sweat suits and wearing toboggans and gloves, the two-mile relay team raced. I can't remember who won that day, but I'll never forget running all bundled up and ending my leg of the race covered head to ankles in snow. Needless to say, we set no speed records that day.

Coach Sharp made another change that was disheartening. He raised the bar for earning a letter to 25 points. We despaired of ever winning our much-coveted letters. But we kept at it.

But Coach knew what he was doing. All of our running cross country built up our endurance. Those two- to three-mile runs through the community prepared us for the comparatively short runs each member of the two-mile relay team had to run in meets. That two-lap, half-mile leg seemed almost easy in contrast. And we began to win some races, earning five points, and to place second, earning three points, in others. Rarely did we place third, but even then we earned one point.

As the points accumulated, we began to realize that our letter dreams were approaching reality. Ultimately, we all earned our letters, which also came attached to a letter jacket. And we wore them proudly for the last few weeks of the school year in spite of the increasingly warm spring weather. I still have mine although I can't fit into it.

We set several school records almost every time we ran that year. That's not saying too much because when it's only the second year of having a team, every improvement sets a record. But it was gratifying to hear the principal read over the intercom during the morning announcements, "The two-mile relay team set another school record in yesterday's track meet," and naming each of the members of the team. Today, no one but those team members remembers.

I'll never forget the things I gained from running track those two years. The camaraderie that developed among the team members: Dale Wayland, who ran the first leg; David Hansard and I, who ran the middle legs; and Johnny "Flash" Hammel, who was our anchor.

Neither will I forget the life lessons track taught us. Endurance, patience, perseverance, teamwork, pursuit of a goal. We learned that when everyone did his part, both in practice and in the meets, not only did the whole team win for the school but also every individual benefited. It was a team effort and a team victory, but each member won, too. Individuals won letter jackets.

It's the same way in one's service for God. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3:6-9, "I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one; and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are laborers together with God...."

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