In a recent blog post, I mentioned how I actually learned to fly at one time in my life – not in a plane, or even a hang-glider, but just on my own, completely self-propelled. One gentle reader asked if I would tell that story. It’s a tough one for me to get my head around, not unlike nailing jello to the wall. And the events surrounding it defy not only gravity, but any effort to formulate them into conflict, crisis and resolution. But it’s a golden moment worth the attempt, so here goes…
It started with a note on the kitchen table. Well not really, but sometimes you have to start the story in the middle, this middle being December 1980. It was freaking frigid out there in Minnesota, with snow already piled up in huge mounds on the streets, both in Minneapolis where I was going to school and in Owatonna, where I still called it home. The note on the table said “Call Bill McChesney” and there was a 451-xxxx number. An Owatonna exchange.
Yeah right. This was no doubt another in a long string of practical jokes perpetrated by the pater familias, my father. This was the guy that fooled me into thinking the tuft of antelope mane in his overcoat pocket was in fact my Christmas guinea pig; the guy you had to watch like a hawk on April Fool’s Day because he would cook toilet paper in your pancakes.
Except this time it wasn’t a practical joke. It was true.
Now you may not know who Bill McChesney was, but in December 1980 I sure did. And that he was waiting for my call at an Owatonna landline required a remarkable confluence of events. Just six months previous, Bill had run an insanely bold and brave 5000 meter Olympic Trials race to make the ill-fated, Ruskie-boycotting U.S.Olympic team. With a mile to go and time running out, he had stormed the field with a power surge that electrified his Hayward Field homeys into a frenzy in Eugene, where he was both a red-shirt junior Duck and a hometown hero, being a product of South Eugene High School. Spent by his surge, he was overtaken down the stretch by legends Matt Centrowitz and Dick Buerkle, but Bill hung on gamely, lunging at the last moment for the third and final slot on the team. The crowd, as they say, went wild.
Oh, I knew Bill McChesney alright.
Or at least I knew of him. Over the next two weeks we ran together twice a day, cruising in the crushing cold and crunching snow of Minnesota, developing a bond that would last until a dark, dank day in October 1992.
It’s at this point of the story I need to backtrack a bit. In December 1980 I was, as the saying goes, at the end of my rope. Having accepted a scholarship to run track and cross-country at theUniversity of Minnesota, my days as a Golden Gopher had been particularly undistinguished, gold-plated at best. I’d shown a few flashes of semi-brilliance, but by mid-way through my junior year I was bogged down in what could only be described as mediocrity. Or worse. My first race of the 1980 cross-country season, (held in a heatwave in Wichita in early September) saw me collapsing, blacked-out and puking in a heap with a serious case of heat exhaustion. That debacle unhinged me and made something go horribly wrong, not just physically but mentally. I was a psychic mess. Once at least a decent enough runner who could hang with the leaders and score a few single digit points for my team, I turned overnight into an also-ran, pulling up the rear and falling off the back of the truck. For somebody who had dedicated and defined himself by his running prowess since he was sixteen, I was embarrassed. Embarrassed and, quite frankly, humiliated.
So when I approached Bill for our first morning run, I did so with a double dose of humility. Introverted by nature anyway, I didn’t say much our first few outings. Bill on the other hand was chatterbox of the first degree, weaving yarns of European racing and Oregon life, exotic experiences to my Midwestern ears. How the guy could keep up the patter the way he did while we carved out 10 mile runs through the southern Minnesota countryside was a wonder. As for Bill, he couldn’t believe we ran in such conditions regularly. “You mean it’s like this all winter long?” he would say shaking his head. “I could never do it! Nobody on my team could do it…Well, maybe Alberto.” Slugging me in the shoulder he’d shout “You are TOUGH, man. One tough hombre.” And he wasn’t above being cheesy, telling stupid jokes, or stories about skinny-dipping with nymphets on the beach in Nice, France. One of his favorite things to do was to adopt an overblown television sports announcer’s voice (think Cris Collinsworth) and provide color commentary on our run as though we were duking it out down the backstretch of the track at Bislett Stadium in Oslo. He would egg me on until finally, transported, I would bolt around the curve with McChesney in hot pursuit, the Norwegians going crazy as we drove in a mad sprint the final meters to a World Record time.
Bill was in my little town down by the river because he had fallen madly in love. About a year previous, broken down himself by injury and scraping the bottom of his own barrel, he had one night been lured out by his brother to a local Eugene watering hole for a 1950’s dance contest. His hair slicked back and collar popped, he was struck by lightning. Lightning by the name of one Nanci Westerlund, a blonde bombshell from (you guessed it)Owatonna who was attending theUniversity of Oregon as a grad student studying modern dance. Captivated by Bill’s “unique” dance moves, Nanci paired up with Bill on the dance floor. They won the contest and immediately fell for each other. The electricity was such that it is amazing anyone in the building lived to tell.
Which explains how he found himself stuck in frozen Owatonna,Minnesota in December when just a few months prior he was speeding around the great tracks of Europe, captivating crowds there with his infectious energy and fearless front-running.
One day, after a week and a half of running together, Bill and I finished up the last half-mile of a long run with an all-out sprint, one that saw him barely inch in front of me at the end. Exhaling huge steam clouds and panting with our hands on our knees, Bill put a hand on my shoulder and looked up at me. “Tell me,” he said between breaths. “What happened?”
Breathless, I paused a moment. “What do you mean?”
“For ten days you have been taking me to the limit in every run. I just gave you everything I had and you stayed with me stride for stride. But I never even heard of you before I came here. What gives?”
So, I told Bill my story of heat exhausted woe, of how no matter how hard I tried, how tough I was, something just happened to me now when I got in races. How I’d get a mile in and suddenly my legs would turn to oatmeal. How I was worried I would never be the same, let alone any better.
Bill looked up at me. By now we had recovered some of our breath. “That happened to me too,” he panted, going on to tell me how he too had suffered from heat exhaustion and struggled mightily for months after. “It goes away, man,” he said. “Don’t worry, you are going to be alright.” He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye, his face just inches away from mine. “You are going to be more than alright. You are going to be great. You know how I know that?” I shook my head.
“Now you know the secret. Your body won’t let you kill it. You are so damn tough, you can run yourself straight into the ground. But now you know that even though you can run until you black out, you aren’t going to die. Your body won’t allow it, it won’t let you” He paused a moment. “You can pull the ripcord, you can let it all hang out. You can run free. And you’ll be OK. Not just OK, you are going to be great.”
And with that, he pulled my sweat-soaked stocking cap off my head and threw it in a snowdrift. “C’mon champ, let’s get some tea. It’s fucking freezing out here.”
We ran a few more days after that and then it was time for Bill and Nanci to head back west, back to Eugene where Bill was at home in the drip and drab of his Eugene.
As for me, learning to fly didn’t happen overnight. Bill flipped a switch for me, but the toggle took awhile to fully take effect. Things got better for me almost right away, but I still had some serious uphill sections of road in front of me. But I was better. And I started to feel at ease. Little by little I let it go. And the more I let it go, the more free and easy it got.
Then, finally, it happened. It happened like Scott Fitzgerald went bankrupt – that is, gradually and then all at once.
On May 22, 1982, I woke up in the morning and I could fly. Not metaphorically, literally. As in, I could propel myself through space with virtually no effort, my feet not touching the ground. OK, it looked like my feet were touching the ground, but they weren’t, not really.
That morning I cut my shakeout run short after just two miles, worried that my newfound ability would disappear as quickly as it had come. But it didn’t. Later that afternoon, I knocked a minute and a half off my previous best 10,000 meter time and almost effortlessly beat a field of excellent runners for the Big Ten Championship. The next day, I doubled back in the 5000 and again lopped dozens of seconds off my previous personal best, being beaten in the process only by Jim Spivey and Tim Hacker, two men who would go on to distinguish themselves as Olympians and international stars. Two weeks later I was an All-American.
After that, I was on my way. To be sure, not every day was one where I could fully take flight, but I had more good days than anyone deserves to have. Some of those days were even great. Some days, I even flew. Many days in fact, and the memory of being able to do that lives on in my body and in my bones to this moment. For a thick-legged kid from the flatlands, I did reasonably well. Not the best, not by any stretch, but I did well enough to rank in the second fifty runners in the world in my event. Top 100 doesn’t sound like much, but it meant something to me then, as it does now.
As for Bill, he had his share of good and great days as well. Man, when that guy was on, he didn’t just fly, he was a fighter jet. There were few people in the world that could stay with him. Ultimately, he hammered out a 5000 meters in 13:14, which at the time stood as the U.S. Collegiate Record and was agonizingly close to the World Record. At least three times he was ranked among the top five in the world at 5000 meters. His time still stands as the UO school record, which is no slouch given Oregon schooled the likes of Alberto Salazar and Steve Prefontaine, among many other champions.
As with all champions, Bill had his own Achilles heel, which ironically in his case was actually his Achilles heel. Born with fragile tendons, Bill nevertheless flew close to the sun and then, when inevitably his wings melted, he crashed. Mortals like us can play with the Gods only so long, but eventually we are fucked. On a rainy afternoon in late October 1992, his running career prematurely cut short and now long over, Bill’s small pick-up truck hydroplaned (ironically flying again I suppose, but in a very bad kind of way) on a busy coastal highway and he spun out into an oncoming semi-truck.
Bill was just 33 when he saw the black lights. That the world is a little bit less for me without Bill McChesney in it bears mention. If you never saw him run, you missed something pretty special – the sight of a human being in full flight.
Here is a video of Bill with some great clips of him flying. At first glance, it looks like he is running like normal mortals, but if you look really close, you can see that his feet don’t actually touch the ground. He’s flying…
Now I am getting old and I can’t fly any more. Still, I have my memory and my imagination, and on a crisp fall day with the sun slanting low, memory serves.
It seems odd to wrap up this story with a recipe, but that’s the format of this column and I’m sticking to it. This recipe actually came from Bill’s mother-in-law, Nanci’s mom Mary Lou Westerlund. Or at least that’s where I think it came from. I remember Bill loved it and we had it every morning after we ran together. I still make this regularly and the recipe is in my card box with the title “Bill’s Granola.” If you start levitating after eating this, don’t worry – it’s natural.
3 cups whole oats
1 cup chopped nuts
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup melted butter
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2/3rds cup raisins
Mix all ingredients except raisins and bake in an ungreased baking pan @ 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until well toasted. Add raisins and mix well.
Fly. Bon Appetite.