You May Say I’m a Dreamer

Rich - Winnetka, Illinois
Entered on December 5, 2011
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When I was nine, I could do a perfect imitation of Nellie Fox, my favorite player on my favorite team, the Chicago White Sox. I taught myself to bat lefty, choked way up on my bat, and stuffed a huge wad of bubble gum in my cheek in place of tobacco. My mom rolled her eyes and said I had a “lively imagination.”

A few years later I discovered a new sport—long distance running—and I worked on imitations of its stars. I could do the odd arm swing of New Zealand’s Murray Halberg; the ramrod-straight style of Australia’s Ron Clarke; and the classic head roll of Kansas miler Jim Ryun. Some of these names may be obscure to you, but trust me, they were great. And I wanted to be great too.

Nevermind that the idea was ridiculous. I weighed 95 pounds and stood 5’2”. I looked nothing like a great athlete. I looked more like a bookworm, which is what I was, and as such, I read everything I could about the great runners. How Murray Halberg, despite the handicap of his crippled left arm, won the Olympic 5000 meter race. How Clarke used a merciless pace to break opponents and smash world records. How Ryun in high school morphed from a subpar beginner to a sub-four minute miler in a matter of months.

I read and I imagined the runner I wanted to be. I wanted to be like Halberg, risking everything on a long-kick strategy. Or Clarke, decimating the field with an unheard-of pace. Or Ryun, scorching his opponents in the final sprint.

I was lucky because my coach also had a lively imagination and delusions of grandeur. He insisted I’d be a great runner, and I drank from his Kool-Aid. I ran twice a day, logged hundreds of miles. I sprinted up sand dunes. I lifted weights that flung me around. I shaved seconds. I read and imagined.

Flash-forward to the end of my senior year in high school, where I found myself, the scrawny daydreamer, toeing the line in a 5000 meter international race in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The race promoter liked to include an up-and-coming high school runner, and that year it was me. The field was loaded. Way down the starting line in lane one stood my hero Ron Clarke, the holder of 17 world records.

On a perfect California evening, the gun went off, and Clarke inflicted his brutal pace and never looked back. All the rest of us were splayed around the track, racing for second. I hung on for dear life, ended up beating a few people, and accomplished my goal of not getting lapped by Clarke. I ran my heart out.

I had my 15 minutes of fame. I didn’t dream it, it really happened. And it made me a believer. Any achievement in this life, whether large or small, begins with one indispensible ingredient—and that is imagination. This I believe.