Hurdles Were the Way

Craig Jones
Legacy Columnist

Hurdles Weren’t In the Way. They Were The Way

I was a pretty decent high hurdler on my high school track team back in the day. At least in our conference, which was Class C Level, comprised of smaller high schools in central Maine. Over the intervening years I have saved a couple of articles from the Kennebec Journal, our local newspaper, attesting to my glory days. They have been schlepped them from one place to another, in a file, whenever I have moved.

One of them has the headline “Bulldog Trackmen Roll Past Leavitt.” The article says I was one of two triple event winners on my team (our mascot was a bulldog) at a meet in which we prevailed against one of our conference rivals. It notes that I took firsts in the 70-yard high hurdles (10.4 sec), the 120-yard low hurdles (15.1) and the shot put (36′ 9″). I also got a second place in the high jump with a majestic 5′ 4″ effort. 

The other article has me winning the 70-yard high hurdles (10.1), the 120 lows (14.5 sec) and second once again in the high jump (5′ 3″).

I didn’t put the shot because I was a big beefy kid. I most definitely was not. I idolized my older cousin, who was a shot putter, so I suppose that’s why I did it. I played guard on the football team, too, and was not by any stretch a true offensive lineman at a buck sixty five. You could say I punched above my weight level.

I was also an admirer of high jumpers. I had some hops for a rural white kid. I could dunk a volleyball, though could never quite do a basketball because I couldn’t hold it in one hand. 

Those events were incidental, ultimately, an afterthought.

I thought hurdling made sense, though. Not quite fast enough to be a flat out sprinter nor quite agile enough to be really good at the high jump, I saw the hurdles as a sort of hybrid event combining both athletic skills in a way I could actually compete. 

I was good enough to qualify for the state meet held at Bowdoin College in my senior year, and I got to participate with runners from all over the state. I didn’t do anything to distinguish myself, didn’t win, place or show, but it was an honor to participate and I was proud to make it to that level.

Since then, I have done some online research on what the all-time high school records are in the 70-yard highs and the 120-yard lows and couldn’t find much at all. It’s as if the distances don’t exist anymore, sucked into some void in the space-time continuum, or were run in a Maine 1960s high school bubble. I finally found a site with some info about a guy in Fontana, CA who set records for his school in both events, back in the late 1950s. 8.9 seconds in the 70-yard high hurdles and 13.0 in the 120-yard low hurdles for the “B” division. I would have eaten his dust. Nothing but taillights.

You can find all-time records of 60-meter races and also of 60 yards. But 70 yards is 64 meters, right in between both. It’s like some phantom notion preserved only in these two newspaper articles (or my own mind). It’s the same story with the 120-yard low hurdles. Zip. Nada. Vanished like a fart in the wind or smoke from a cigar.

I saw Renaldo Nehemiah‘s name in some of these records. Greg Foster, too. Both are names any long-time track and field fan would recognize. One wiki essay says Foster set marks in both the 60-yard high hurdles and 60 meter. 70 is nowhere to be found.

Not long before graduation that same spring when I ran in the state meet, I got a call from the track coach at the college where I was heading in the fall. He said he hoped I was considering joining the track team out there in the Midwest and I said yes I was, thanks, feeling pretty puffed up. So I started in pursuit of my college track career that September and the first meet in which I ever participated was at the University of Chicago in their big field house.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I knocked over every single hurdle. Dead last, knees banged up, ego intact but bruised. Turns out that the height of college hurdles is three inches higher than high school (42″ instead of 39″). That was a bigger gap than this particular college athlete was willing to work on overcoming. So I hung up my spikes and retired, grateful for all I had learned in my years of running track and at least being in the arena. I had some glory days, as Bruce Springsteen put it, and I remember them fondly.

I had reason to recall all of this because of a young Dominican man I work with. He graduated from a large local high school two years ago and was himself a high hurdler. You learn stuff like that while you’re working side-by-side in grocery aisles talking about whatever comes to mind. He’s built like a hurdler, a little taller than I am, and had some considerable success in his high school career. I told him I’d never met anyone since high school whom I was aware had also been a hurdler. He has shown me videos on his phone of him competing, while I have nothing but my newspaper articles and my phantom distances.

What a difference a generation makes.

He told me that a new student, a freshman also from the Dominican Republic, had come on the team during his senior year and was really fast, displacing my fellow team member as the new star on the team. “He dusted me,” he said. “He came from nowhere and he’s the number one guy now.” It’s been good talking about what made us each decide to go into the event and what our experiences were like and how we worked on form and technique and what it was like to be pretty good at something for a while.

I told him I was founding an athletic fraternity called ECHO (Ex Competitive Hurdlers Organization). So far, he and I are the only members.

It occurred to me that what I felt because of all this was grateful. Grateful for the memories, grateful to have this in common with another team member, grateful for my life in all its varied particulars. An old Buddhist saying came to mind. “Obstacles do not block the path. They are the path.” Obstacles are the way, quite literally, of this particular path. I had never thought of this application to real life. If you take away the hurdles it is a different race. You can work on technique always, tweaking posture, to help negotiate the path, but the hurdles remain.

As I found out at the state meet, and later at the University of Chicago, sometimes these obstacles slow you down, even damage you, and other people may deal with them a little better than you on that particular day. Yet you’re the one in the arena as Teddy Roosevelt pointed out, at least going for it, as someone who “at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

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