In 8th grade I was one of the smallest kids among my peers, yet I loved sports. I was by no means brilliant at any of them, I just loved the comradery, the tension of winning and losing, and being out there with friends. So I was in every sport offered to us.
With one exception: ice hockey.
As the son of a surgeon, it was simply not an option. Too many of my friends had visited my dad in the emergency room with broken bones, teeth and lacerations. Missing one of many sports options shouldn’t have been a problem. But the PE teacher, Mr. Hildebrand, added a wrinkle.
At the beginning of the year, Mr. Hildebrand informed us that one female and one male student in Winkler Elementary School’s 8th grade would win the Athlete of the Year award. How? Simple: each sport was worth one “athletic point” and the person with the most points wins.
By that logic, Corny Neufeld would have one point more than myself.
Corny was the easy-going classmate who was in literally every sport. By “every” I mean cross country and soccer in the fall; basketball, volleyball and hockey in the winter; and badminton and track & field in the summer. Seven sports in total. And a true polymath in athletic terms – – in all of these, he was anywhere from rock solid to the one to beat.
I noodled over this quandary now and then, with no useful answer. My dad was not budging about the hockey thing and even if he did, I would do no more than tie for total points. Further, I was not only a pretty mediocre skater let alone the lyrical art form known as hockey – – to be terrible at one of the sports that was not enough. A different way was needed. And thank goodness, one came along.
In the spring of 1976, a long distance bug had bitten our PE teacher. Why? I still don’t know. Perhaps it was the upcoming Montreal Olympics, which were all the buzz in Canada. Perhaps it was Nike, a company pretty new to Canada romancing the ethos of running. The upshot: Mr. Hildebrand created a running club. The hook: for every 50 miles you ran, you earned one athletic point.
50 miles ? ! ?
At first this struck me as a ridiculously unreasonable goal. I mean, Winnipeg was 75 miles away, and the only way to get there was a car. Running? That’s crazy talk. But our house was on 8th Street South, which dead-ended on a Southview Drive. Take that west 1/2 a mile, you end up on 14th Street. Take that south 1/2 a mile, you reach Pembina Drive. Take that east 1/2 a mile, you are back to 8th Street. It’s a big square. I asked my mom to drive me around this loop. Voila, it was 2 miles.
50 miles – was it so far after all?
Simple logic said if I could handle a 2 mile run, doing it every day would mean 14 miles per week. Just under a month would mean 50 miles, and one athletic point.
Hmmm… But it looked like the year would run out before I knocked off 100 miles and two athletic points. What if ran before AND after school? 28 miles weekly? 1 point every two weeks? I would crush Corny ( no offense Corny.) To be clear, I had not yet run one step. But the plan was clear, and this was easily worth whatever the pain I would experience.
So the next day I embarked on what would be 20 years of running (before my knees demanded a breather.) You see, running is an acquired taste, like dark beer. You don’t enjoy it on the first go round, but if something pulls you along, man can you fall head over heels into it.
Day in, day out for the rest of the 8th grade, I did two runs. The miles rolled by, as did the athletic points. And Mr. Hildebrand had to add more progress charts as I didn’t stop until I hit 200 miles.
I said nothing about what I knew – I had won. A diminutive boy of perhaps 90 pounds. Truly, a professional benchwarmer. But one that had figured out the rules and played them as hard as I could.
I asked mom to come to the graduation ceremony as back then, these were no big deal, not typically attended by droves of family armed with smartphones & digital SLRs. I had a slim shot for the academic award as I was competing with my best two friends Mark Hildebrand and Harold Wiebe. ( We were contenders only because another friend who was FAR smarter than all 3 of us combined, Andrew Labun, had moved away).
But I had locked up the athletic one.