Ward Nicholson

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Picnic of champions: A reunion of out-of-shape athletic has-beens

An opportunity to connect with former university track and cross-country teammates from long ago does not go quite as hoped.
Names and a few identifying details have been changed out of respect for anonymity and personal privacy.

A white envelope

The envelope arrived in the mail unexpectedly one day this past summer. White and of regular correspondence size, with a computer-printed appearance of the type that suggested a mass-mailing, it appeared at first to be just another piece of junk mail.

With the flick of an eye, I glanced cursorily at the return name and address, which in part bore the acronym of my university alma mater. Probably another request to donate funds I did not have, I supposed. A plea from university boosters appealing to fellow former attendees now presumed to be economically prosperous.

A further glance, however, showed this normally on-target snap-judgment to be in error. I saw that the return address held the name of the man who had been coach of the university cross-country team for which I had competed my freshman year. On the line directly underneath his name were the words “XYU Track and Field Reunion.” And on the line beneath that, “Such-and-Such Place Assisted Living.”

This suggested something more worthy. While I had not cared that much for the coach, the lines on the envelope provided the telltale synopsis: An accomplished man now more frail, winding down his final years of life. Many former athletes whom he had coached, also aging, who had not seen him, or each other, for decades. A chance to get together, pay tribute, and catch up and relive old times with former teammates. And, perhaps, an opportunity to rekindle previous acquaintances, and see where things might lead.

The letter inside the envelope gave the particulars. Put on by a few of the former athletes and held in honor of the coach, the reunion was to cover three events on a Saturday about a month hence: Spectating at the university’s “home” cross-country meet in the morning, gathering at an informal picnic lunch for a couple of hours in the early afternoon, then a two-hour banquet that evening.

Unlike most alumni mailers I received from the university, the occasion was not a pretext for extracting outsize donations. The first two events were free, with the banquet requiring only a very reasonable fee affordable even to someone of modest means such as myself. You could attend any of the events as you liked. The only dress requirement was “business casual” for those at the evening banquet.

Any hassle involved in attending would be minimal. Or at least that would be the case if you overlooked the ever-present social anxiety and awkwardness I felt at any public gathering, should other human beings be present. (Unlike the heaven of perfect ease when hanging out with, say, cats or dogs.)

I was ambivalent about whether to attend, though not so much because of the unavoidable social unease. Instead, I hesitated because of the way social events usually go.

Potential attendees at the reunion had matriculated at the university during a wide span of track and cross-country seasons covering the time period of the coach’s reign. At the reunion, I would likely only know athletes on a personal basis who had competed on the university team the same single season I had, or others who had been fellow competitors during my high school years and later attended the university in the year or two immediately preceding or following my stint on the team.

Who knew how many of those athletes might attend? Probably a small fraction. The others I would have little real connection with except through our common link to the coach, which, as noted, wasn’t the important thing to me. It was, instead, the other athletes I had known. There was a good chance that, for me, most of what might be on tap at the reunion would end up being a waste of time.

Distance running, though, had become increasingly important to me in recent years. It was one of the few constants in my life that provided an anchor to the physical world and natural environment around me, and that conferred dynamic health and fitness, along with purpose and meaningful challenge in an increasingly insane world spinning ever faster and out of control. I was a natural at running. It was one of the few things in the kind of Orwellian life that living in today’s world had become with which I could wholeheartedly identify — that truly felt like “me.”

Maybe traveling to this reunion and reconnecting with other formerly competitive runners, people who had once known the discipline and commitment required to be a honed athlete — perhaps some of whom might still be engaged with it today — could “close the circle” of my older self with my younger self across the years in some small but meaningful way.

Or perhaps it was just the yearning for some kind of in-the-flesh connection with others of like kind in today’s isolating, fractionated, and alienating world. The type of bond that had been easier to form in the slower, more physical world of yesteryear that had become harder to find today. Or something like that. It was hard to verbalize.

Finding myself more persuaded, I filled out and mailed back the reservation form. After all, if I elected not to, it wasn’t like I could change my mind after the reunion and choose to attend later. So why not? No biggie, I decided.

Two who declined

Afew days before the reunion, another piece of correspondence arrived. An email this time, it provided further details of the day’s events, plus a list of the athletes who would be attending. I learned from the list that only two runners I knew at all well personally had signed up to attend.

I had hoped there might be at least a couple more than that, and so, to see if perhaps I might provide myself with more known company at the reunion, I decide to bring up the event with Carlos, an occasional running partner. He also had attended the university, a few years after me, and competed on the cross-country team for a season as I did.

Yes, he says, he had received the invitation too, but like me, he was not especially fond of the coach. I mention to Carlos I’ve decided to go, and that two of the guys I had been interested in talking with are on the list of attendees. I had hoped if some names familiar to him had surfaced, some enthusiasm might yet bubble up, but he says he did not see anyone on the list he knows. I can tell he does not seem that interested in attending, so I do not push things.

There is one other distance runner I knew better than most whom I had competed with on the team, and had expected might attend, but his name does not appear on the attendance list. I wonder why, since he is now a prominent official in the athletic community in the city where the reunion is being held, and could have been expected to attend such an event.

I inquire about him with the former cross-country athlete who is spearheading the gathering. He says the other athlete has not so far responded to any letters or emails, and suggests I email him myself to check. I do this, but am unsure how well he might remember me because of all the years that have passed, though in replying he is quick to say that of course he does. He cannot attend, however, he says, due to a family obligation with his wife, and also an athletic event where a grandson is competing. I think to myself — hmm, a reunion that’s a one-time occasion for which there will likely never be the opportunity again…

Later, after the reunion, I will wonder whether the lack of interest by both Carlos and this other athlete were harbingers I should have heeded — and whose idea was it that I attend, anyway?

Patrick – I

The day of the reunion comes, and when I first arrive at the picnic, if it were not for the school colors worn by a number of people there, I would not have known if I had arrived at the right shelter house in the park where the event is being held. The get-together does not look like a group of athletes, ex- or current, but like any other gathering of late-middle-aged Americans in various stages of physical deterioration and weight gain, save that no one is grossly obese.

One-quarter to one-third appear to have taken reasonable care of themselves. A strapping ex-high-jumper, now a rancher, is tanned and looks toned and fit. An ex-sprinter-hurdler is still trim. On the other hand, several of the former distance runners I see are sporting paunches. One who looks better had unfortunately experienced a heart attack a couple of decades ago, I knew, but I do not get to talk with him and hear his story.

A man I do not know steps toward me to introduce himself, and we exchange names and pleasantries, further identifying ourselves by the years we competed and our track or athletic event. Another man I am not acquainted with, who was a distance runner for the team, also comes up and greets me, and invites me to sit at the picnic table where he has taken a place with a few other ex-athletes and their wives.

We talk for a while and then someone points to another individual now arriving. It is Patrick, one of the most talented and storied distance runners ever to compete for the university — and, as it happens, one of the two individuals attending the reunion with whom I am directly acquainted and know best.

A few years older than me, Patrick had for a time worked for the same company I did for a few summers, where we got to know one another when he and I were of high school and college age. Athletically, our paths never crossed directly, though we watched each other compete now and then. In high school, he competed for a larger team in a different athletic league than mine, and he graduated from the university a year before I joined the team.

While our acquaintance was casual and low-key, he had nonetheless been a source of inspiration and encouragement to me, even freely loaning his running log to me at one point so that I could glean from it whatever I pleased.

At his peak, after his years competing for the university team, he won championship races on the national stage as well as a few international races at meets on the elite summer circuit in Europe. But for an untimely injury before the Olympic Trials at the apex of his career, he most likely would have landed a spot on the Olympic team.

I had bumped into Patrick a few times in the decade or two after college, but had not seen him since for perhaps 20 years. Now, at the picnic, even after he has been pointed out, I barely recognize him. He almost does not seem to be the same man. His body has changed — his face has changed. Formerly naturally muscled, though with a very trim distance runner’s physique, he is now significantly overweight. Not just his body, but his face has filled out to the point its contours disguise the man he used to be.

It is good to see him again, though, and we begin talking and enjoy catching up, but I also feel badly for him. When I tell Patrick I am running XX miles a week now and enjoying beginning to compete again, he seems surprised somehow. He does not inquire further or seem particularly interested, as one might expect of someone who was one of the most gifted of athletes. Instead, after bringing me up to date on his current life, the conversation returns to the past as he talks with me and the distance runner at the table who had first invited me over.

I hope to hear things from Patrick I had not heard before to gain more insight into his life and running career that I did not previously know, but little new is forthcoming, mostly repetitions of things I had heard before. I begin to realize there probably is not anything more of note, in all likelihood. I guess that I should not have expected much more than this. I would enjoy making more of a connection but there is not one to be made.

By and by, I politely excuse myself to go mingle with the other athletes for a while.

Alter ego

I move around a bit to talk with and listen in for a while on the discussions the guys in a couple of other groups are having. To a man, the conversation is about past exploits and the telling of entertaining vignettes, filling the others in on events and antics they may not have known or heard about at the time. It is all amusing enough, but I begin to wonder if this will be it, and whether there might not be other things to talk about.

Other than brief capsule synopses of their current life situations (wife, kids, house, job), rarely does anyone mention what they might be pursuing now, or looking forward to for the future. Of course, the past is what people mostly talk about at reunions. It is what they most have in common. But no one says anything about running or working out in their lives now. It is as if they have put that behind them — athleticism is not something relevant to their daily lives today.

And then something rather comical and unexpected — at least to me — occurs. Each time I introduce myself to another athlete I do not know and tell them my name, they invariably ask if I am related to another, much more accomplished and well-known distance runner for the university, a man about a decade before my time there, who shares the same last name as mine, an athlete now deceased. The query proves to be a helpful ice-breaker for me, ill at ease as I tend to be making small talk.

Yes, I would reply, I certainly knew of him, and I definitely would like to have been related so I could have shared some of the superior genes he possessed, because that would have made me a faster athlete than I was. But regrettably, no, we are from two different clans of Nicholsons, and I cannot claim him as kin. And then we would talk about this unintentional alter ego of mine and his various feats, unusual for someone of his era.

This unintentional misdirection of attention to such an indisputably superior alter ego has the useful effect of deflecting attention from my socially uncomfortable self. And so after the others have reminisced about my unrelated and much more memorable namesake, the focus of conversation moves on to another topic, or to another individual, skipping right over me. Which enables me to disappear relatively unnoticed and move on to the next group of unsuspecting others to rinse and repeat the act with.

It’s entertaining to ponder whether after the reunion these ex-athletes might remember only having been pleasantly reminded of the renowned, albeit dead, so-and-so Nicholson, but be hard-pressed to remember the one still living — his first name or face either one. That is, if they remember even talking with the living Nicholson in the first place. Something worthy almost of a comedy skit.

More seriously, while this does enable me to fly under the radar, so to speak, it’s also interesting that a name like this from the past is more of a conversational magnet to everyone than the mention of someone like me who is still running at age 60, and has recently begun to compete again on his local road race circuit. Despite the reunion’s organizer telling me in passing that many attendees have referenced various infirmities, bad joints, etc., no one inquires if there is some secret I know about. Apparently it is just luck and thus not worthy of further inquiry.

More likely, though, is that since actually running is no longer a part of the others’ lives, the fact someone else is doing so does not fit particularly well into their worldview of what is normal. Rather amazingly, even for ex-athletes such as these who formerly were among the cream of the crop, it does not seem to compute particularly well.

And so, despite my counterexample, perhaps because I politely do not push it, the conversation moves right on to other things without missing a beat: Wives, bad knees, or their impending or postponed retirement, if the present day is discussed much at all — the conversation otherwise boomeranging back to past deeds or humorous misdeeds on the university team.

When it comes to the jocks among us, it seems that the glory days of the past are what matter most, not how one might be continuing to perform in such pursuits today, or whether they might even be worth pursuing at all.

Blake

At the banquet that evening, I seek out the remaining athlete on the list of attendees whom I know — Blake — who had not been present at the picnic earlier. We sit together at a table with another athlete, along with a booster of the team and his wife who have contributed financially over the years.

Blake and I had competed against each other in high school several times, but since he had been a sophomore when I was a senior, and I ran mostly the two-mile while he was primarily a miler/half-miler, our paths had not crossed often. At a meet, he might walk right up and start chatting on occasion, and by the same token was easily approachable as well. So it had been a bit of a shame that the logistics of meets and various team dynamics had limited the opportunities to talk or hang out. Later, by the time he attended college, I had moved on from the university team, so our paths did not cross at all there.

Then, completely by chance, we happened to run into each other after a road race held in his hometown in our mid-thirties, when I became active in local age-group competition for a few years. It turned out that he was still training and racing too, and had managed to maintain his competitive racing times at a high level, much higher than mine, at which I marveled.

Then much later, just a year prior to the reunion, our paths crossed again, without my even knowing it at the time. Back into age-group competition once again at age 59, I had run a low-key 5K race just for fun with a training buddy of mine, so we were some way back in the pack. Off like a shot at the start of the race, however, and soon out of sight, were a middle-aged man and a younger woman, but I never saw anything but their backsides, and then only for a few minutes.

Paging through the finish-line photos of the race afterward that had been posted online, I noticed that this man and young woman — who finished first and second with ease — were none other than Blake and his teenage daughter Maria. I had never even realized it or gotten the chance to say hi again, after all the years that had gone by, but now I would be able to do so at the university athletes’ reunion.

At our banquet table I ask Blake about that previous year’s 5K race, and mention the race photos I had seen. I could tell from just a few rapid-fire shots of his daughter at the finish line that she must have a beautiful stride, and say so to Blake. In response, he pulls out his smartphone to show me a video of her running a middle-school 1600m track race, leaving everyone else far behind, obviously proud of her.

But then this moment of shared appreciation for natural talent in a pursuit that we both still loved and practiced is cut short as the schedule of banquet events commences.

Patrick – II

After proceeding through the line of catered food and filling our plates, everyone returns to enjoy the meal and talk with the others at their tables. At ours, the other individuals begin engaging Blake and me in conversation as well, so he and I do not find another opportunity to continue where we left off.

Once the catering team has cleared the tables of empty plates and dessert dishes, a series of three or four featured speakers begins offering their remembrances and perspectives on team events during their heyday. The speakers, all former athletes, also pay acknowledgment to the coach along with stories of his guidance and influence.

Capping this off is a talk by the coach himself. Though now requiring a walker to get around at an advanced age, he is still a natural impromptu speaker, and magnanimous in his reflections about his athletes and contemporaries.

Most memorable and apropos, though, is the comic gag that Patrick, who is one of the featured speakers, carries out to conclude his talk. Stepping behind the projector screen next to the podium at the head of the conference room as if it were Superman’s phone booth, he performs an out-of-sight quick-change, removing his button-down shirt, which flies out from behind the screen, and then he reappears wearing his own emblazoned, two-sizes-smaller team T-shirt he had saved from back in the day.

His torso barely fits into the shirt, the appearance reminiscent of the Michelin Man or Pillsbury Doughboy, abdominal muffin-top and doughy arms spilling out from around the edges, the shirt almost bursting at the seams. It is indeed a funny sight, exactly as intended, admirable too in its clever self-deprecation — but also, I think, sad.

It exemplifies the attitude of almost all present: being fit and athletic is not the province of people our age. Not even for those who had loved sport and themselves excelled. Their athletic spirit defeated almost to a man, nearly all have seemingly given up and given in to the prevailing attitude that there are many more important things in life than physical fitness. That there is little time in today’s world for it. That it is okay in these times for it to be sacrificed on the altar of career, hearth, and home.

Despite the humorous depiction, this is not the message I had hoped to hear or, in this case, see demonstrated.

Up on the projector screen throughout most of the banquet had been a rotating series of photos from the team’s glory days. All the while, projected right behind it lay Jung’s unconscious shadow, acknowledged only for a brief moment by Patrick’s gag.

The roving microphone

To conclude the banquet, a roving microphone is made available for anyone to stand up and share memories or anecdotes about the coach during their time on the team. The first person who takes the mike seems to fancy himself a stand-up comedian and manages to strike a funny bone with the audience. Some of his stories are humorous but others sophomoric. Predictably, this creates a domino effect of other would-be jesters clamoring to stand up, stringing out the rest of the evening with confessionals and other anecdotes that often degenerate into stories of antics that took place behind the coach’s back.

Many people are laughing, and some of the stories are indeed funny, but for me the accounts of such antics soon wear thin. I cannot tell how many people are laughing because they truly think the stories are funny, or just to go along with everyone else.

One tale is told of a prank played at a hotel where the team was staying for a track meet. An unsuspecting athlete was stuffed inside a portable, fold-up rollaway bed, then wheeled into an elevator. All the buttons for each floor were pushed multiple times, and the hapless athlete left to be whisked first to one floor, and then another and still others in random order, all the while yelling and flailing about, unable to extricate himself.

The audience of ex-jocks finds this hilarious, but to me it seems mostly cruel. Everyone laughs uproariously, but I groan inwardly if this is what they think qualifies as entertainment worth hearing about. Granted, it’s to be expected that there will be funny stories told about the past, but to me tales like this, and a number of others like it, border on the idiotic.

I begin to wonder what the point of all this is. Has anyone been inspired by the coach or their time on the team with a lifelong love for participation in the sport, or the pursuit of fitness, that had followed them to the present day? And if so, what might they be doing with that now? Of that, no one speaks.

Any paeans offered are homages to the past, with no reference to where the individual’s love of sport is taking them now, or might. Their aspirations now belonged to the past when it came to athletic activity. And while the past should certainly be celebrated as we were doing, so should the present, as well as the future.

But any voices for the latter two are mute. Where are the words for them? About the value of continuing to strive physically and take joy in movement and trained endeavor as we age, which can remain a source of joy and satisfaction, and mean just as much to us now? Not to mention the very large contribution that fitness makes toward a healthy life of functionality and mobility in the years ahead that all of us are facing even as those with the microphone speak?

It appeared that spirit had left these men.

As the roving mike continues droning on, my eyes begin to glaze over. Making matters worse, the microphone is either cheap or has been poorly adjusted, distorting the voices of those speaking into a blaring, overamplified sonic assault of blurps and blaps and splonks and syncopated, sibilant buzzes.

Exacerbating things further is the odd hearing malady I seemingly inherited — one that my grandmother suffered from as she aged — where sounds beyond a certain level that would not overly bother or affront most people often cause pain. Shrilly barking dogs, crying babies, hammers pounding nails, the wind whooshing past an open car window on the freeway, or, in this case, a blaring microphone can literally make me flinch or wince, and my ears ache.

Normally I would have had flesh-colored earplugs packed in a pocket, available for discreet protection in any situation where I might be subjected to such torment, but had forgotten them for the banquet. So, improvising, I shift position in my chair, prop an elbow over the back, and lean my head into my hand while attempting to inconspicuously stick a finger into the ear closest to the person with the mike. It helps, but only marginally, while I still involuntarily flinch at every syllabic peak.

The room begins to close in and I want out. Perhaps this next comedic tryout will be the last. But no, yet another wannabe raises his hand for the mike to be passed. Arrggh! Having been seated in the front row of tables, will I perhaps have the guts to stand up in front of everyone and walk out to escape the pain? I do not want to simply abandon ship without saying a proper goodbye to Blake, whom I am still sitting next to, so it turns out I cannot. I want to escape but am unable to. I can barely stand the situation.

Finally, the sophomoric stories end — albeit interrupted by one heartfelt story of gratitude from someone to whom the coach had provided the motivation and inspiration to get through college, which had changed his path in life.

Evening air

We are asked to stay to have pictures taken. But the roving-microphone marathon has caused the banquet to run an hour beyond schedule, and it is already nearly bedtime for me. I have had my fill and am eager to return to my hotel to sleep. Not only because I am tiring and can feel my eyes becoming heavy-lidded, craving sweet surrender to a peaceful sleep, but because I want to be properly rested for an anticipated workout the following morning.

I say goodbye to Blake, the one other whom I had talked to still pursuing running, and tell him maybe we will see each other at a race sometime.

Then I begin making my way to the door along with some of the non-athletes and supporters who have attended, two or three either in wheelchairs or using a cane. With no one ahead, I am first to reach the building’s main doors, where I gratefully step outside to breathe in the fresh evening air that now beckons.

6 Responses to Picnic of champions: A reunion of out-of-shape athletic has-beens

  1. Gadz.

    This sounds even worse than the frat boy get-together I once attended as a GF of one of the men. Never again.

    Settling. It’s like a plague on human spirit.

  2. Hmm, I wonder if perhaps I made things sound a bit worse than they were due to my anxiousness and/or boredom at social events. The thing that got to me most was the roving-microphone portion of the schedule that dragged on.

    The rest of it wasn’t so bad — primarily it was a letdown how much people had “settled,” as you say — not by any means ribald or crude, just sophomoric at times (including about half the roving-mike period).

    The athlete who spearheaded the reunion actually did a superb job with the program and organization: Bringing in the caterer for the banquet, plus an experienced emcee who had been a track-and-field meet announcer for decades, and he secured the sponsorship of a national firm that installs tracks around the country to cover a portion of the expenses. It was “done up right.”

  3. At least that worked, then. In my experience, if you let people blather, they will blather and blather irrespective of any time limits. I recently went to a support group that was so mismanaged in that respect that the only people who actually had issues that needed tending to, me and another newcomer, came last and oops out of time because people went on and on about the hurricane that wasn’t. B’bye to that kinda “support.”

    I’ve seen it over and over. The only thing that works is a clock with a gong (or a human with a gong watching the clock, heh) and even then, some people will blather and babble past it, disregarding it. Sometimes, moderators just flat out have to cut them off. Still, most people will quit if you give a warning ping, you have 2 minutes to go, then a final ping.

    But my gadz referred to the lack of real time connection via the body, and its physical needs. Since that is what had brought you together once, so to speak. Shocking.

  4. You know, it’s been slow to dawn on me, but I am coming to the conclusion most high school and collegiate runners are little different than those in other sports: they are in it mostly for the personal achievement, competition, and to win. The physical-fitness and “for the love of it” aspects don’t enter into it much. Those things weren’t what really brought us together in the first place. So I suppose it’s hard to say they “settled,” after all. Most of them were probably not into it for the same reasons I was, and am.

    When I first got into running, yes, it was for the competition and because I was a natural at it. But following close on the heels of that was because I very much simply loved doing it for its own sake, and the joy and health of fitness angle was also quite important. I was raised by parents for whom physical fitness was a prime value, and had not realized how much I (voluntarily) hewed to that myself until later in life.

    This university team reunion and also a number of the forum threads on letsrun.com have demonstrated to me that competitive runners in college do it primarily to explore their limits and see how good they can be. Once past their prime with no prospect of ever setting PRs again, they seem to feel like what’s the point, and find it hard to continue and just be a so-called “hobby jogger.”

    It’s a narrow viewpoint, in my opinion, if achievement, on the one hand, or lazing around enjoying the fruits of one’s labors in the consumerist utopia/dystopia of America, on the other, are the two basic (polar) alternatives one sees. For ex-athletes like this, there seems to be little “middle ground.”

  5. I’ve only known two serious runners, you and a guy in Colorado. He started in college, did it for the love of it, and had to stop fairly recently because it finally ruined his knees. He was (still is) a heftier fellow than you are.

    I ran for the experience for about a year, and it made the repetitive motion injury of my shoulder worse, so I ended up quitting. I really liked running through the woods. But I love hiking better, so nothing lost… as long as I have hills to hike in… :-)

    I guess you would find more in common with folks who care about their health and fitness (yesterday and tomorrow) than former school athletes, nah?

  6. You are probably right about that. Except I just remembered too many people into health and fitness I’ve run across are cuckoo-heads who get maniacal about diet and turn it into a religion, haha.

    I like hiking a lot myself. If I didn’t put the energy I do into running, I could see myself doing a bunch of hiking instead. Around these here parts in the great plains, though, it’d be hard to call an outing a hike when it’s really just a walk. Ya gotta be in the mountains or somewhere else with terrain to explore to justify the term. Perhaps a reason to move, eh? :-)

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