I can still visualize the race. It was high school. Two suburban public schools, one white, one black. I went to the white school. It was 1967, a year before Dr. King was assassinated. I one of two freshman on our County Champion Varsity track team. We had a superb quarter miler. I will call him H. The other team had two twin brothers, both superb runners. One of them J., he was to race against H. They were best in the County. H was a nice guy, except if you happen to be black. J. may have felt the same about whites, but certainly knew what H. was. The hatred was mutual. The week before the race H. made a point to his teammates that he was going to beat that nigger. I imagine, something similar was going on between J. and his teammates.
It was likely that given how many years J. and his brother ran high school track, that J. was really 20, rather than 18 like H. H. was the dumbest guy on our team in a team of no scholars. H. always made colorful points about J.’s inability to graduate. It was also certainly true of H. and likely true about J., that each used speed (methamphetamine), including when they ran. Meth is a performance enhancing drug that is banned in sports. Speed usage was widely used in the late 60s, but many high school athletes in my County did not use it. H. and J. had talent, but they also had an advantage.
I wish the race had been captured on film. H. was very pale and had the physique of a cadaver. In some ways he resembled a comedian of the time, Frank Gorshen. J. had a strong build. It was H. who was photogenic. As they came around the last turn, as always, every vein in every visual part of H.’s body was popping. His face was red from strain, his body white. I always admired H. for his ability to use every last ounce of energy when he ran. You could see and feel the pain on his face, but he always pushed through it. These are the dumb guys who become heroes in war. I am a sub- 3hr marathoner. People think it a drueling race, but I know the 440 (quarter mile) is the hardest race. The mental strength to sustain the distance at great speed and to mentally condition yourself to expend all your energy over the distance is phenomenal to me.
In the final straightaway H. and J. were in a dead heat. I and others have been in this position before. You can lean at the line, as is common in the shorter distances, or depending upon the race and the respect between competitors, you can extend a hand and come in tied. There was not going to be a tie between H. and J. It is possible that with a lean J. could have won as he was taller than H. He choose to dive and win. In those days the tracks were supposedly cinder, but they were really hard dirt. H. gave no indication of minding the loss. He laughed as that nigger monkey ate dirt. Like white trash, he was of a higher social strata.
I am trying to put this race in context with Lance Armstrong. I was offered drugs to improve my performance in high school, but before the age of “professionals” at the Olympics, I viewed sports as pure. Running was unpopular back then, with only elites getting shoe money. Running to me is still personal. There is no politics in running. Just you and time. It is a competition against yourself; the test of your mind over your body with the competitors there as a crutch. To take drugs to improve performance would be meaningless. H. and J. competed for pride. H. did drugs anyawy, as might have J. The performance enhancement was just an additional benefit and detriment.
In the case of Mr. Armstrong, power and fame entered into it, but it really was about money. To Armstrong’s point that others did it and to remain competitive you needed to do it, one commentator made an analogy to “we were just following orders”. The latter is too strong, because the options are more limited and require more strength and morality to overcome. This was not the case with Mr. Armstrong. As with many other athletes today, it is the money.
I will always remember the race between H. and J.; for the beauty and ugliness in the human spirit. Mr. Armstrong will just fade in my memory.