My First Road Race…
Shortcuts, Cheating and Spotting “The Man to Beat”
(Left: Cliff and Mike Taylor after their sweep of the 1975 Paden City Fun Run...Matt and Vernon joined them as my 4 brothers finished in the top 8 over-all)
As I've mentioned many experiences impacted and helped shape my career as a distance runner. Most of the situations and lessons that became driving forces behind my running carried over into shaping my coaching philosophy. Some of my life lessons had more of an impact than others but there are those that many would deem inconsequential yet they became a lasting epiphany for me. My four brothers were typically patient in educating me. They shared the wisdom they learned through athletics and each related this savoir-faire with me in a slightly different way. The things that influence a young kid or child often go unnoticed by the surrounding adults. I realized early on that someone is always paying attention and watching our actions. Now as a parent I understand even more how young people and children are influenced. You may not think they are paying attention, but they are. They are watching, learning, listening and being molded by their surroundings. They are taking it all in. As a child I was no different. I watched my parents and hung onto the back pocket of my four older brothers: Mike, Cliff, Matt and Vernon. Always watching…Always learning...Eager to be just like them.
The 1970’s and Our Changing Society
Back in 1974 when I was 9 years old the world was changing. It was the ‘70’s baby! Our country was coming out of the unrest of the 1960’s; out of the Vietnam War and many people within our state of West Virginia were still fighting coal companies to our East and South. Our family had just moved back to St. Marys from Hundred, WV which is near Farmington. Just a few years earlier on November 20, 1968 the Farmington Coal Mine Disaster near Hundred trapped 99 miners and eventually claimed the lives of 78 of those men. 19 of the bodies were never recovered and after 10 years of recovery attempts the mine was permanently sealed in 1978 . This was still fresh in our minds and people within the state were skeptical of big business…especially coal companies. The skepticism would be founded in our own community on April 27, 1978 when the Willow Island cooling tower collapsed within our county claiming the lives of 51 of our own including my sister-in-law Dianna's dad, Bob Blouir and my niece, Beverly's Ganddad...Jim Blouir, my first cousin Brian Taylor and several cousins and relatives from the Steele Family (See Chapter 12).
The coal field battles never reached our part of the state but their impact was felt and influenced every West Virginian since the 1920 Battle of Matewan, the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain (see chapter #3) and still to this day influence people within our state.
Our WV Roots and the Coal Mine Wars
Starting in the early 1900’s when huge coal deposits were found within the West Virginia mountains the coal companies were determined to prevent the miners from forming a Union and they were going to great lengths to ensure the Union never materialized. As I mentioned in detail within Chapter #3, the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest organized armed citizen uprising in American history. It is my strong belief that these coal mine wars within our state are the reason nearly every citizen within our mountains bristle when someone opposes our 2nd Amendment Rights and why we true West Virginian’s will fight for our Constitutional right to bear arms until the end.
Many people do not realize US Government Officials approved the bombing of its own citizen's, the West Virginia miners during the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain in Logan County, WV. You will not find much about it in the history books and thankfully between bad weather and ineptness the biplanes did not inflict serious casualties to the miners (for more information Google search The Battle of Matewan, The Battle of Blair Mountain and Don Chafin. And for a great movie I recommend the 1987 John Sayles film “Matewan”.). This is our history and it has helped mold and shape every family with a long West Virginia heritage…including my mom and dad’s families (The Rawson’s and the Taylor’s).
Work Week and Church on the Weekend
I continued to be drawn to the sport of distance running as I grew up. My four older brothers (Mike, Cliff, Matt and Vernon) continued to have an influence on my interest level. Our family worked hard during the week and by the weekend we’d enjoy a little baseball and then church every Sunday morning at the Clay Point United Methodist Church. It was a small, white, one room country church about 1 mile from our home. The church still stands although church services are not held there. We only had around 15 regular attendees in our church and 7 of those were members of my family. I used to get to ring the large church bell signifying the start of the service each Sunday morning. I would unwrap the rope from the hook that held it in place and pull downward as hard as I could making the bell explode into its magic.
Lawrence and Edith Elder were our neighbors and she was our Sunday school teacher. Even at the age of 9 I enjoyed the Sunday school class and listening to her daughter Beth…I was just a kid and she was much older than me but she was always amazingly nice to everyone. I believe she was Mike’s age. They were a great family and the first people in the community to welcome us back to St. Marys when we moved from Hundred, WV. Sam and Elizabeth Bailey (Bill Bailey’s parents) were also our neighbors and rode to church with us each Sunday morning. Edith and her daughters made a small quilt for me when I was born. I carried that quilt for years and believe my mom still has it tucked away somewhere.
Dad Makes a Life Changing Decision
By the time I was born in 1965 my dad would not drink alcohol and to my knowledge my mom has never tasted alcohol. We never had alcohol, even beer around our house and I never tasted alcohol until my first day of college (see chapter #63) when it was forced upon me by some of the upperclassmen at WVU. Our dad quit smoking around 1967, after realizing it was literally killing him. He had been a smoker for much of his life and got to the point he could not sleep while laying on his left side. The smoking was killing him…one lung at a time. He kept his cigarettes in the front pocket of his shirt. As I recall he was smoking about a pack a day until he came home from working on his sawmill and placed his cigarettes on the kitchen table declaring that he was done with them. He quit that day…on the spot and never smoked again.
I remember asking him years later how he did it…how he just quit smoking cold turkey and his reply was telling. He said as a matter of fact, “It was easy; I just made up my mind and decided I was finished.” No psychological counseling? No pills or medication? Only the “will power” to stop a habit that he had spent the better part of his life doing. I realize addiction is different for different people and I’m not suggesting that everyone can quit an addiction in this manner. I’m just glad that our dad had the strength to quit and the ability to quit a lifelong addiction by simply making a determined decision. My brothers and I were blessed with two very strong, determined parents. When they set their minds to something…so it would be. Growing up this was sometimes a good thing and other times a bit…frustrating. Once they made up their mind that was it. No way could you change it. Determined? Stubborn? Both? I will admit now…as Hank William’s Jr sang, “I’m just carrying on an old family tradition”. My wife, Lori will agree that I’m all of these things and then some.
A Close Family
We lived in a 1 bath home on Mt. Carmel Ridge about 3 miles from St. Marys. All 5 of us boys had beds in the upstairs of our house. Cliff and Mike had beds next to each other on one side of the room while Matt, Vernon and I had beds on the other side of the room. Vernon and I shared bunk beds…One stacked on top of the other, like you see in a college dormitory and I was in the upper bed. That lasted until I fell out of the bed one night and then Vernon and I had to switch places. He moved into the top bed and I moved to the bottom bed with Matt next to us. I cherish those memories of all of us lying in our beds talking until mom or dad told us to “quiet down”. We got to know each other as a family listening to each others stories.
Matt and His Radio
My brother Matt liked listening to "tunes". It was 1975 and the music on the radio was lively and the age of disco was starting. The Bee Gee’s were beginning to gain popularity and KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get down Tonight” was at the top of the charts (video link: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1p8nk_kc-the-sunshine-band-get-down-tonig_music). Matt had a small battery operated AM radio that he listened to while in bed. Sometimes late at night he could pick up an AM radio station out of Chicago. The DJ on that station was “Wolf Man Jack”. What a voice he had. Every time he would break for a commercial he would say, “This is Wolf Man Jack and we’ll be right back”. Matt would listen to that radio all night it seemed like. He would lay it on his pillow and press his ear to it. It was never loud but sometimes I would be a pain and get him in trouble by yelling to our mom that he had the radio on. He never seemed to get too upset that his little brother was basically a pain in the ass. Regardless, he listened to that radio for hours and is likely why to this day he can quote song lyrics and their artists. I’m not sure how he learned movie trivia and the ability to remember actor’s names, but he is exceptional at that also. Don’t believe me? Test him the next time you see him.
News on Steve Prefontaine
In June of 1975 my brothers convinced my dad to take up running to get into shape. A few weeks before my dad started to run I remember my brother Matt waking up and reaching for his radio. It was Saturday morning, May 31st, 1975. As I lay there in bed we listened to the music from a station in Parkersburg. It was 7:00AM and the top of the hour as the ABC News came on the radio. Matt had the volume turned up high enough for Vernon and I to hear. That’s when it came on the air. The news that only years later would I understand. That's when the news announcer said, “Great American distance runner Steve Prefontaine is dead.” He went on to explain that “Pre” was killed in a single car accident the night before (May 30) while driving to his home in Eugene, Oregon. As I listened I recall Matt’s disbelief. He and Vernon began to talk rapidly about the news. As their little brother I wanted to know who this Steve Prefontaine was. After several minutes Matt began to explain Steve Prefontaine was the greatest American Distance Runner ever. At one time he held American Records in every distance from the Mile through the 10,000 Meters. He was also the first athlete Nike ever sponsored and today he is even more legendary. His race toughness and competitiveness helped build a reputation for the Nike Athletics Empire that was in its infancy at the time. I can still hear the words coming from the radio and that was nearly 35 years ago.
Our Dad Begins to Run
As my brothers convinced my dad to run I decided I wanted to tag along with him on his 3 miles of running from our home on Mt Carmel Ridge…down Lamp Hill to the Middle Island Creek Road proceeding to the Truax Farm and turning around in the road and heading back. The easy part was the beginning of the run because it goes downhill for the better part of ¾ of a mile. When we came back we had to climb uphill to our house. Just a couple of years earlier this route would have been very difficult because the road along Middle Island Creek wasn’t much more than a mud path and a challenge to navigate by vehicle. It was at best a 4 wheel drive road back then. In 1972 the Army Corp of Engineers built a series of dams on the Ohio River to help control flooding in the Ohio River Valley and to help barge traffic on the river. My grandfather, Gene Rawson, was a carpenter and helped build the lock and dam that are roughly 5 miles below St. Marys.
People that live on the banks of a large river, like the Ohio; understand barge traffic is a critical part of supplying coal and fuel to the power and chemical plants along the river and moving their products. Making the river deeper and more navigable was important to the development of industry up and down the Ohio River from its origin in Pittsburgh to its ending point where it converges with the Mississippi near the city of Cairo, Illinois. Regardless, the building of the locks and dams raised the river level permanently by nearly 6 feet and that meant a lot of clearing of trees had to be done along the tributaries of the Ohio River to prepare for the new water level. The trees could not be left standing along the shore line because if they washed out in a flood they could block the dam causing serious issues. The Army Corp came in and cleared the trees from the banks of Middle Island Creek because it is one of the Ohio River tributaries within our county. When they cleared the shore line they expanded the mud road on the North side of Middle Island Creek below our house turning it into an amazing road. Since this new road was only a couple of years old it was still unique and a great place to run for our family.
As the weeks turned into the Dog Days of summer my four brothers began to get into heated discussions, debates or what most would call arguments about who was the faster runner. At some point a challenge, and trust me they happened daily, was decreed between Mike and Cliff vs. Matt and Vernon regarding which team was faster. I was only 9 and felt left out of all the big challenges. I was riding motocross but not remotely close to my 4 older brothers…My little Honda 50 cc would not keep up…I could fish pretty good as long as it was cat fishing…I was too young to carry a gun hunting. It seemed I was too little for anything my big brothers did. This running challenge was no different. I felt left out but I was ~determined~ to change that.
As my brothers bantered back and forth it was decided a long race would settle the argument. That’s the beauty of our sport. If you think you are faster than someone else…line up and someone will be proven right and someone will indeed be proven wrong. The race would be around the “loop” as we knew it. The “loop” is a 4.5 mile circle starting and ending at our house. One team of brothers would start by going down Lamp Hill to the Middle Island Creek Road following it to the Route 2 Bridge before turning right onto the Mt. Carmel Ridge Road following it until you took a right onto Lamp Hill road leading downhill back to our house. The challenge was for Mike and Cliff to run the loop in one direction and Matt and Vernon would race them by going the other direction. The team that got their 2 runners back to the house 1st would win. The losers and it would be reiterated often that the 2nd place team were losers, would have to listen to the two brothers for the entire summer.
The Anchor…Which Meaning?
Our dad told them to “line it up”. This was a big deal in our household. It’s an understatement to say we were competitive. This was serious and not one of my brothers wanted to listen to the others gloat the entire summer. I wanted in on this race but I was ignored every time I would say, “I want to race too.” Finally as the race came together I put on an old pair of my brothers shoes and got ready. I stood there in front of our mailbox which served as the official starting line and finish line. Our house was about ¾ of the way up Lamp Hill. Cliff, as if this race was going to come down to a sprint to the finish, took a stick and drug it across the dirt road forming the official start/finish line. Since we lived on the hill, Cliff and Mike would go down Lamp Hill to start…while Vernon and Matt would go up Lamp Hill to start “the loop” in the opposite direction.
As I stood there I decided I did not want to start and end going uphill, so I would follow Mike and Cliff. They did not want me to follow because they were always babysitting me. My brothers constantly had to watch over me and I would be an ~anchor~ to them…slowing them down. That couldn’t happen on this day because this race was serious business. They couldn’t afford any distractions from the race… the task at hand. Both Mike and Cliff told me they would not wait on me and that I was on my own. Wow, I thought. That sounded great. I was actually going to be on my own? No one would be watching my every move? No one would be telling me what to do? For the first time in my life I was getting to do something on my own. I would be out there on this 4.5 mile loop by myself. I would be free to experience this on my own. I felt as if I grew several inches right then and there.
I was feeling pretty good about this and refocused my determination telling myself to not mess this up. I did not want to be an anchor, like on a boat. Instead I wanted to be the anchor as it applies to a relay team. There is a big difference between the two applications of the word. I had to stay close enough to Mike and Cliff that they did not have to worry about me so they could race Matt and Vernon without me being a boat anchor to them… I did not want to be anyone’s excuse for losing. I did not want to carry that burden. In later years I would call on these feelings and this fear when I was handed a baton as a member of a relay. I never wanted to be the reason for losing!!! It did not matter if I got the baton behind the leaders I felt obligated and responsible to get the win. In a few years after this my favorite feeling during high school was getting the baton, especially getting it behind the leader. I loved the opportunity to bring the team to victory.
As our dad started my brother’s race he also started the stopwatch. Off we went. Mike and Cliff sprinted off Lamp Hill like they were shot out of a canon. I knew nothing except keep them in sight. I kept telling myself…Don’t mess this up for them…Stay close….Run harder…Hurt a little…Hurt a lot…Stay close…Don’t let them get out of sight... This effort continued down Middle Island Creek Road. As I ran, Mike and Cliff got further and further away until I was alone. I was alone running down the road. No one was around…Just me and my own private thoughts. I began to worry...I began to think...I began to think TOO much, instead of just running! "Should I turn around?" If I did then it would prove that I was still just a child that needed to be babysat. I knew that I must keep going.
The Shortcut at the Barley House
I passed the Truax Farm and got down to the Barley house (now owned by Jimmy Riggs). Near the Barley house there is a natural gas line right-of-way that goes from the Middle Island Creek Road up to the Mt. Carmel Ridge Road. This section of the gas line right-of-way is still grass covered and on this day it had been recently mowed. I was slower than my brothers without question and I needed to get them back into view in a hurry. So…I took a right turn and cut the course by using the gas line right-of-way to cutoff some time and distance. As I climbed the gas line I was cutting at least ½ mile off the course. As I stepped onto the Mt Carmel Ridge Road I looked up the hill and did not see anyone. Mike, Cliff, Matt and Vernon were nowhere to be seen. I started running with a bad feeling that I was ruining it for them. I sure hoped they did not come looking for me. I should have known better thinking that way. I kept running and started to feel small once again. I had a lot of self doubt going on. That’s when I heard something and looked over my shoulder. There 70 yards behind me…yes behind me…were Mike and Cliff chugging up the Mt Carmel Ridge Road hill. I was in front of them! Yea baby, I thought! Ha Ha…I was rolling! I was revived and I certainly wasn’t thinking about the ½ mile I cut off the course…No, not at all because I was thinking that I was in the lead.
By then they were tired and climbing uphill so I stayed pretty close until we reached the old “dump”, the place where the trash from St. Marys was hauled and literally dumped over the hill. From there Mike and Cliff really pulled away from me. When I got home all 4 of my brothers were back and still arguing. I missed the finish and to this day I can still strike up an argument with the 4 of them by asking who won that day. Our dad left his finish line post and since he was not there to declare the winners each team of brothers claimed victory. I know this isn't possible but I can’t get an accurate result from any of them. For me, I was feeling really good about myself. In my mind I was a big boy and did the 4.5 miles on my own. No one was watching over me. No one was holding my hand. I felt like I was independent for the first time in my life. It was a powerful feeling!
A Great Lesson
As I walked around feeling good about my new independence and how close I finished to my brothers my dad started telling them how great I had done. It turned the attention away from their race which didn’t go over real well. Then, moments later, I learned a great lesson when one of my brothers said I had “cheated”. Then he called me “nothing but a cheater”. Being called a cheater was a low blow. With my brothers you didn’t get much lower unless someone said, “you love Rosie” our 300+ pound neighbor. Even though I was 9 years old I was old enough to know that being labeled a "cheater" was bad and I took it pretty hard. It made me mad. I knew what he meant but I didn’t want to face it. I yelled back, immediately ready to fight and then stormed off starting to cry.
All my brothers looked out for me throughout my years. On this day my brother Matt caught up to me and stopped me being a little more delicate in his approach. He said, “Listen...you cut the course…and that is cheating”. Matt always had patience with me and he continued to explain to me that nothing good comes from cheating and that although I might have some short term glory, in the long haul it would be something impossible to stop. He said, “If you cheat today by cutting the course it becomes that much easier to do it again tomorrow.” I heard him loud and clear. It was a lesson that likely saved my running, academic and professional careers. For years I’ve wondered what would have happened if I had not learned this lesson…and what the future would have been if my brothers had not corrected me that day…What if they had not called me out then and there? Even today, as a coach I get irate quickly if I see someone cutting a course, walking between intervals, taking a shortcut or cheating in some manner. Athletes that I have coached will attest to this. It all started on this day in 1975.
Road Racing Begins in West Virginia
As the summer rolled along I was preparing to move from St. Marys Elementary School up to the 5th grade and the brand new Pleasants County Middle School. I’d just turned 10 and after training for a few weeks with my dad he began to feel better and better about running. My brothers began talking about running a road race in September on Labor Day. Road racing was a new phenomenon. The Frank Shorter, Bill Rogers, Steve Prefontaine era had moved running to mainstream. The race my brothers talked about was the Paden City 3 mile Fun Run.
Paden City was a slightly smaller town than St. Marys and located along the Ohio River roughly 20 miles north of our town. My four older brothers continued to talk about this race until they convinced my dad to run. I decided I wanted to do it also, but my mom told me it was too long of a race for a 10 year old. She was convinced it would stunt my growth if I ran that far. She might have been right based on my weight at my 1983 high school graduation. I reminded her that I was running that far with dad at least 3 days a week and then brought up my 4.5 mile Loop Run. Strike that, my 4 mile Loop Run.
The Paden City 3 mile Fun Run
I was finally given approval by my mom to run and we headed to Paden City for the big race two days before Labor Day. The race was held on Saturday, August 31, 1975 and would be the first time I had ever run in an organized road race. When we got to the race site a pretty good crowd was gathering already and I began to get excited. I was wearing yellow shorts, along with a striped red, white and blue tank-top shirt and a pair of my older brother’s hand-me-down running shoes that were several sizes too big. That didn’t matter. It was race day and I was pretty excited about it.
As my dad paid each of our $5.00 entry fees we got our race numbers and the green, short sleeved “Paden City Fun Run” t-shirt that went to everyone that registered. Anyone that knew me in middle school likely knows the shirt I reference since I wore it nearly every day to school. I wore the shirt so often that my homeroom teacher pulled me aside on two separate occasions and asked me if I had any other shirts at home to wear. She even brought me a shirt to school one day offering it to me. I assured her I had shirts other than my “race” shirt but I really don’t think she believed me. I was proud of that shirt and wore it as a badge showing my declaration that I was a "runner"...just like my older brothers.
He Looks Like the Man to Beat
As registration continued my two oldest brothers, Mike and Cliff, noticed a guy decked out in all Nike gear, head to toe including the socks to match. Nike was a fairly new company and not the giant it is today. They had just come out with a print ad with the tag "There is no finish line" and the year before in 1974 they sponsored their first athlete, the great American distance runner, Steve Prefontaine who I mentioned earlier. Even though it was a fairly new company it was gaining a name.
This runner decked in Nike gear was in his late twenty’s and he had a good tan. For some reason I can still picture the guy to this day. As was common in the '70's he had long curly black hair. As he shifted his weight from one foot to the other his legs showed muscle definition. He was a running specimen based on everything they saw. Cliff turned to Mike and said, “He looks like the man to beat.” They both agreed after sizing him up. He wore the Nike waffle shoes that had just become available for purchase and the latest running shoe rave at the time. These Nike waffle shoes were named by their designer and invented by Oregon's legendary track coach, Bill Bowerman on his wife’s household waffle iron…This runner’s shorts…shirt…everything he wore matched. He was intimidating.
As we left the registration area I remember listening to my brother’s talk. I was 10 years old and a sponge taking it all in. What were they seeing in this guy? Why was he “the man to beat”? I needed to know and understand these things if I was ever going to be a runner. I didn’t bother asking right then because it was nearly time to warm-up and race and their nerves seemed to be on edge. I watched their every move.
My four brothers went on their way to warm-up. Dad and I ran a couple hundred yards down the sidewalk and back while my brothers ran the course to familiarize themselves with the turns and finish. They always ran the course and later told me, "the leader had to know where to go." I understood clearly what they meant and in the years following I would practice this habit of theirs by ALWAYS previewing/running the course before my races. As they all 4 returned to the start line the feelings were intense even for a 10 year old. There was music and an announcer talking over it. It was loud…It was busy…It was overwhelming…It was awesome!!
The Next Lesson
As we all headed to the start line my brothers were looking for “the man”. Dad and I were towards the back of the 200+ people racing. My brothers were all up in the front row while I was connected to my dad’s hip. As they stood on the starting line it was time for another valuable lesson to be learned. My brothers stood there looking around for the man-to-beat but they did not see him. As they scanned feverishly for the guy that ~looked~ like a running specimen they eventually spotted him. He was not in the front of the race. He was not warming up doing last minute strides. He was not on the start line preparing to breathe fire on the course. Instead he was completely in the back of the race, leaning against a telephone pole smoking a cigarette. In the end there was no reason for the anxiety and worrying over this person that ~looked~ like a runner.
Get Out of My Way
As the race was called to the start my dad leaned over to me and told me that when the gun sounded I should get out of his way. He was joking but I didn’t realize it. I interpreted what he said differently than he intended. His point to me was that I should basically move over out of his way because he was taking off fast and he didn’t want to use me for traction…I interpreted his comment to mean that I should take off when the gun sounded…Which is exactly what I did. The gun sounded and I got out of my dad’s way alright. After the race he laughed about it and still tells the story how he told me to get out of his way…and I did.
The race ended with Cliff and Mike taking 1st and 2nd…Matt and Vernon both placed in the top 8 which meant four Taylor brothers finished in the top 8 overall. I won the 14 and under age group although I was only 10 years old. I ran the 3 miles in just under 23 minutes which meant nothing to me. What did mean something was that I won my age group and I got a t-shirt for my efforts. I wore the shirt to school nearly every day and for the remainder of my competitive running career through 1996 I wore it often in workouts after cutting the sleeves off. By 1996 it was so worn that I could clearly see through the material. It served as a constant reminder for me to remember my roots, to remember where I came from and that I was from West "by God" Virginia.
Brothers Teaching Little Brother
After the awards ceremony it was once again time for my big brothers to explain some things to me. It was time for Mike, Cliff, Matt and Vernon to teach me what they were learning. Again, some people may think the lessons are of minimal consequence but in the years to come they influenced my career, how I approached races and how I managed what some would consider stressful, high pressure situations. My brothers explained the reality that it takes hard work to be successful…There are no shortcuts to take...and that cheating gets you nowhere.
On this morning Cliff continued with comments on the runner he and Mike determined ~looked~ “like the man to beat”. He stressed how that was a mistake for them to have done that and told me that they would never do that again and that in the future I should never concern myself with what someone looked like before a race. I grabbed a hold of those words and never forgot what he and my other brothers shared with me and how they took the time to explain these things. As he continued he interjected that distance running is not about what a person looks like, as they learned that morning…After all, great distance runners come in all sizes. It’s not about the shoes… It’s not about the uniform they wear…and it’s not about being color coordinated from head to toe. Instead, he explained…distance running is about guts, passion, determination and as he put so bluntly on that Saturday morning in Paden City, “it’s about your heart and the size of your balls”.