This article, by Rich Stiller, first appeared in our Jul/Aug 2015 issue.
It’s the summer of 1969 and I am a runner.
Amongst my friends I am known as The Runner. No one that they know or I know runs. My latest girlfriend requests that I do not ever run to her house again. It embarrasses her. She’s young and sheepish and I have chosen a rather odd sport. I am quickly learning that it’s best not to inflict my chosen eccentricities on others. To reduce the chances of detection I often run at night. During daylight runs, I’ve been mocked, berated, pelted with half empty soda cans.
In 1969 running is considered peculiar. At age 24 I am in my first full year of running on the roads. I don’t know it yet, but there are others like me. Running communities do not yet exist. There is no perceptible running network. If other runners are out there, I haven’t run into them.
When I train, I wear a plain white cotton T-shirt, gym shorts, and New Balance Tracksters. My sneakers look like golf shoes with red and white leather uppers and black ripple soles. They’re a leap forward over the inadequate Keds I started with the year before. The Tracksters are top of the line. There is little or no pressure from the minuscule running community to improve shoes.
I bought my Tracksters at a local sporting goods store. They were off in a remote corner along with a few other brands of running shoes: adidas…Pumas…more leather. Running specialty stores don’t exist yet. 1969 is the year of leather. I admit it: I chose the Tracksters because they look flashy.
Nike doesn’t exist. Prefontaine is going to be a college freshmen at Oregon in the fall. I’ve never heard of him. In three years I’ll see him for the first time on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but it’s 1969 and all of that is in the future.
Then one day everything changes.
I’m out for a five miler. At least I think it’s five. I have no running watch. They’re seven years off in the future. If I wear a wrist watch, it’s a standard Elgin with no second hand. If I left the house at 2:00 and returned at 2:40, then I guessed I was out for five miles. I might stop for traffic or halt to check something out. I can’t stop my watch. Timing runs is an inexact science in 1969.
I’m running a standard course: back streets with plenty of hills. There’s one section where I run downhill for about a mile and then cut left, cut right, and begin the ascent back to my house. By the summer of 1969, I’ve run this course at least a hundred times.
Suddenly I see a runner on the opposite side of the road running towards me.
We’re both so stunned that we screech to a halt and stare at each other. We spontaneously introduce ourselves. His name is Aaron and he’s 18 years old. He just graduated from high school. He’s training for the Marines.
I say, “Let’s run together.” He agrees and for the next half hour we run the roads chatting like we’re old friends. It’s a unique experience for both of us. My first running partner. After 30 minutes, I peel off and head home. We’ll never run together again.
That evening I’m out for dinner with several buddies of mine. I look across the table with a grin on my face. “I saw another runner,” I said. “We ran together for a half an hour.” Everyone congratulates me. One friend, Rod, looks at me with the same stunned look that Aaron and I had plastered on our faces a few hours before.
“You mean there’s another one?” he asked.
It occurs to me that I am no longer alone on the roads. Ω
Rich Stiller has been running and racing since 1968.
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