Doing What’s Impossible by Thomas Martin Saturday


This past week my church, Redeemer Lutheran in Milwaukee, Wisconsin lighted up a new boiler to keep us warm this winter. We didn’t have the money to pay for what is a $64,000 item. We raised $69,000 in a little over a month. When we started we just felt it was impossible to get the money to pay for what we needed to keep our church, one that reaches out to help others so much in the community, alive to go on. We even worshipped in a funeral home up the street one Sunday. Of course God did this acting through all of us, and so many generous donors we all thank so much, and for whom we have so much gratitude.

It got me thinking late one night, and into the morning today about a feat I accomplished while yet in high school. I’m still enormously proud of what the ten of us did that day. I still don’t know how each of us found the inner strength to do it. The oldest was a soon to be 18-year-old senior graduate from Hinsdale Central High School in Hinsdale, Illinois. His name was Mark.

Mark jogged onto the track one afternoon on a dark, gloomy spring day to tell us what was happening at an Ohio university, Kent State. It was 4 May 1970. We listened with rapt attention and growing sadness as he related something on the radio he had managed to hear while dressing next to his locker. The news was bad; very bad. Our track practice that day was cut a little short. Even the coaches were stunned. Mark always wore a painter’s cap and trendy running shorts and shirts. Like his athletic wear, he had a ton of progressive ideas, and they all seemed to involve crazy running feats he’d read about in running magazines.

Well this one he cooked up shortly after the announcement had us shaking our heads yet again. Ten guys (or gals if it applies) run a baton for 24 hours straight and see how far they can move it. His version had each of the ten on the team run the mile as their turn came up in sequence, always the same, for those 24 hours. No one could drop out, or else the competition ended prematurely. No exceptions. Did I tell you this was crazy?

But soon after, our coach, who seemed just as cracked as Mark took up the idea, got it approved with just a word from the athletic director, and signing up to have that track for 24 hours late that spring. And we were naïve enough to think this would be fun. We’d get to run that track in the middle of the night after all—wouldn’t we? Would ghosts appear alongside us of distance runners long past? We’d find out what we were made of; how we measured up. I’d already been stupid enough to run a marathon at age fourteen in a good number of minutes over three hours. That was an ordeal. I’d run another the next year considerably faster around three hours flat.

My enthusiasm ensnared me yet again. Before really thinking about what this entailed, I was one of the very first to volunteer. Didn’t they say that in the army— never volunteer?

So one Friday afternoon around three O’clock we gathered on the visiting teams sidelines on our football field. Two coaches would monitor the event. One as a time keeper, another to see we were still alive for another mile. The two would switch with two more coaches somewhere around the 12 hour mark. We would not.

We had a nice small tent so we could be out of any bad weather when not running. We all told ourselves we’d get plenty of rest between miles. By our usual running speeds over long distance we were going to be able to get a turn on the track once each hour we calculated. And so it proved. I was in the fourth or fifth position in line. I’d get more than my share of chances to burn up that track.

The first four or five hours went easy, not even like the dreaded 20 quarter mile workouts timed to run faster with the very last one at full tilt and almost no rest. It gave us a false sense of how easy this was gonna’ be. It had been dark a couple of hours when we fully grasped the mess we were in.

Anyone who has exerted themselves athletically knows that after really pushing your body, you need at least fifteen to twenty minutes to be fully what we called “warmed down.” Warm-ups in this world that seemed to defy physical limits could be done without injury in around eight to ten minutes. The run itself, averaged over that day would be for me around seven minutes to seven and a half minutes. That’s really slow. I took the first two well under six. The first was something like 5:10 I had so much adrenaline. But we all settled into paces in that general average or just a little faster.

Problem was that when you got twenty minutes into your rest period fully warmed down, you had just fifteen or twenty minutes to try and sleep. It was no use. Warmed down or not, we all just knew we had a mile to run in just minutes so we gave up trying to get real rest. The most honest thing I can tell you is warming up and warming down your body came to be every bit as much a strain as actually running that mile when your spot came up. Oh, I forgot to tell you that if anybody dropped the baton the thing would be over.

It wasn’t midnight yet and we were cursing Mark for thinking this up, our coach for saying yes to this illogical and downright stupid scheme. And then saying boy are we really a bunch of dumb-shits (that’s French for dumb-ass) for doing this mad race to running hell.

Some elderly man walked over at two a.m. with no further intent than to see “if any group of boys from our high school would be dumb enough to still be running in the middle of the night.” We were.

The worst thing for me was running my mile leg yet again just as the sun came up over the visiting team bleachers along the track. It hit me mentally and very hard that we would be at this for another eight hours or more and we all were feeling like we just could not do another leg. My right leg cramped on the last half mile of that leg, and I dragged myself to the line where the next guy was waiting.

We were, I admit, one irrational silly bunch of high school distance runners. There was me, and those that know me would say the wackiest of the entire squad. You’ve met Mark of course. There was Jim, the son of a wealthy Hinsdale patrician family who was a damn fine runner, and honest and dependable as a friend. There was Conrad who just looked like some blue- footed- booby from Midway Island when he ran, but don’t say that to his face because he really got it done.

There was a second Mark, who though quiet, was the strongest team player and the most trusted. John was really fun to be with. Teams need a few laughs. He’d become infamous for holding a cigarette in the parking lot and pretending it was lit before giving it to the non-athlete who originally had it He got suspended for several meets without even lighting up. You see, he wouldn’t ever smoke since we knew it didn’t help your lungs. Runners really pay attention to those things. Coaches do too even if it is from 600 yards away.

One guy we called “Continental Steve” really gave Mark, the creator of this demon spawned idea a run (oh pardon that pun) for his money. He was called “Continental” since he wore no jockstrap, preferring to feel the free swing of—you know. Well he said this was what they did on the Continent of Europe. He pushed us to do the same. No one did for fear of a kind of whiplash no man wants. There was Scott who was a weak link and yet came through when it counted, and so it went.

Another baffling set of facts about all this runners today would not be able to fathom at all. You see back then, coaches still viewed water and a lot of it as something for weaklings and ninnies, and guys who were not as mentally tough. The coaches we had formed these opinions in the advanced training methods (ha!) of 1940’s military service, and the sci-fi UFO dominated 1950’s. We got a good deal of water before we started and two salt tablets. That’s it. We did try sucking on rocks. It does help a little but not for very long.

Thank God it was a cool night and a reasonably cool day. We all know this caper would never now see the light of day for ten teenagers still in high school sans water, adequate rest, and thoughtfulness for the opportunities for lawyers to say to the school afterward: “we’re suing!”

By mid- morning I was so tired I was getting most of my rest during my mile runs! My time was falling off a bit, but the team was happy if a guy just completed the thing as best he could and kept that baton moving.

Nobody and I mean NOBODY any longer even gave a thought to quitting. We were more than committed to this endeavor if it killed us. And it just might. The big job between miles was telling yourself you were going to do it again. And trying not to fall asleep for fear you’d not be able to take the baton when it was your time to move it four times 440 yards.

By this time we HATED that track, the increasing number of students, parents, and passers-by come to see the disintegration of our team and our total humiliation. WE would not give them that satisfaction! We were going to die with our track shoes on. This was now like the movie “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” that told the story of a 1930’s depression dance contest that just went on and on until the last couple left. They might have shot us the way we were feeling as the last hour arrived.

This was and remains the most demanding athletic and psychological challenge of my entire life. Marathons were just a walk in the park compared to this! I got up to the line somehow. I took that baton, holding on for dear life since I was so weak I might fall and have to get up without it falling lose. I ran a good hard mile. Don’t know why. Maybe I was so damned pissed at this point that I was getting one last squirt of adrenaline for it. I vaguely knew we had only a matter of minutes. The next guy did the same.

Then my Dad was there right in the middle of the football field on a warm sunny Saturday and I heard him say “this way now—no over here.” I think he had an arm or maybe I was being carried like some World War Two battlefield casualty. That’s all I remember until waking up several hours later in my bed and hurting everywhere like hellfire and damnation. I shakily took a full water glass from a tray near my bed, raised it to the team and yelled we did it! Didn’t we? I did not yet know how that last runner–Scott who had taken the baton from me had done. I wouldn’t know how far we went until the next Monday at school.

We moved that baton 245.50 miles on the head. Certainly excellent college teams would be playing with 285, to 295 or even flirting with 300 miles. But dammit I was fifteen years old. None of us trained for this. We’d never done this before so we went to hell gladly and with spirit. No one would ever let a teammate down. So we had kept going. We just had to.

I checked into it this week and found forums calling for “reviving this craze that swept distance running in the 1969-70 time period.” It was to be revived as nostalgia. Let me tell you there was and still is nothing nostalgic about it!

A college-level Olympic prep squad managed something like 283 miles. All the ability and experience we had was confined to a good distance running squad in track and cross country at just one Illinois high school. There were other schools in our conference that had some world class athletes. But they did not do it. Some high schools did take up this craze like we did, one says annually in June.

I looked into just what this feat we did in 1970 really amounts to. 245.50 miles. Leaving from Hinsdale, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, you would be in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin at the end of 24 hours. That city is the gateway to Door County, Wisconsin, and at least twenty more miles North as the runner stumbles from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Having traveled it, I can tell you that driving a car that distance is a good long drive. Running it is just something I have yet to comprehend.

Fifteen years old. We were all Naïve, excessively enthusiastic, and with the adults in the room, strangely absent when it came to judgment of all the hazards. Today, it would be a lot harder to arrange something like this, and I know from later running experience we’d have been just about salt pilled and water-logged to keep on going more easily.

I still don’t know what went on when Dad met me on that field and two to three hours went by. No memory of it at all. Nothing; a nullity. But we did it! We did it, didn’t we?

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