Monday, March 16, 2009

The Walker

It has been said that, "you can't go home again...but you can go back to PB." PB of course refers to the town of Pacific Beach, California. I know this because I was the one who said it. I lived in PB for about a year just after graduating from college. And I returned to PB just about four years ago, along with my friend Dave, to try and recapture a sense of my youth. What I found was that 'the sense of my youth' I was looking for was still lurking inside me. A few weeks ago, I went back to PB once again, to catch up with another old friend from long ago. His name is Ray Sharp.

By sheer coincidence, or perhaps fate, Ray had also lived in PB at one time. He had moved there while I was still in college, to track down a legendary athlete he'd read about in Sports Illustrated. See, when we were in high school back in Louisville, Ray and I were on the cross country team together. But one summer, after reading an article about racewalking "sports hippie" Ron Laird, Ray entered a local racewalk event and ended up winning it. That led to him competing in the AAU Junior National Championship in nearby Bloomington, Indiana. Which he also won. Next, Ray was off to the Ukraine to race against the Soviets. He brought me back a Russian-made Olympic gym-bag that, despite its godawful crappiness, I cherished as a prized possession for years to come -- until it literally fell apart.

In that one summer, Ray went from being just another high-school distance runner to an international sensation. He was now a walker. He had found his niche.

During our sophomore year of college, Ray and I packed up my old VW bus and drove from Louisville to San Francisco. We were on different quests, mine had to do with tracking down another friend who'd gone off the radar for a while. Ray, however, was there to begin his new life. We hooked up with another racewalker that Ray knew in Berkeley and he introduced Ray to the local scene. Berkeley had been Ron Laird's home base when the Sports Illustrated piece was written. But by the time we got there, Ron had moved. He now lived down south, in a place called Pacific Beach.

We hung around the East Bay for a while. Ray loved the temperate climate, which allowed him to train year-round. I found my 'lost' friend and determined that he wasn't in any mortal danger. Eventually, I went back to college. Ray moved down to Pacific Beach where he and Ron Laird became roommates.

I kind of lost track of Ray after that. His new life took him in a very different direction than mine. Both our parents had moved away from Louisville, so our paths weren't likely to cross very often. I did see him set a world record one night in the Millrose Games at Madison Square Gardens. He had recently changed sponsors from one shoe company to anther, but he didn't have the new sponsor's uniform yet. Rather than wear the old sponsor's singlet, Ray competed in a faded Grateful Dead t-shirt. Halfway through the race, another walker stepped on Ray's heel and nearly took off his shoe. Ray stopped, pulled the shoe back on, jumped back in and won the race. It was amazing.

I think that was the last time I saw him until, thanks to the miracle of the internet, we reconnected a couple of summers ago. I drove out to Tucson to see Ray at his parent's house. Ray's Dad wasn't doing too well at the time. It turned out to be their final visit together.

Since then, we have kept in touch via email and Facebook. I found out that Ray was entered in the National 50k Racewalk Championship in Santee, California, which is not too far from Pacific Beach. I drove down to meet Ray the day before the race and we decided to cruise over to PB and check out the old stomping grounds. We had actually lived fairly near each other, though about a year apart. We'd both worked in local fast food places. Ray's 'Der Weinerschnitzel' is still in operation but my 'Jack In The Box' has gone out of business. We walked along the boardwalk. Traded stories of our times in PB. Poked around some of the shops. As I had discovered earlier, PB hasn't really changed that much. I guess Ray and I haven't changed too much either. Not too much.

At one point we asked some young dude to take our picture. We told him we'd lived there back in mythical times. He asked if PB was better back then. Ray said, "Everything was better back then."

I noticed Ray was coughing a bit and I thought we should get back to the hotel so he could rest up for his race. But he didn't seem too concerned. For the record, the 50k is a 31 mile race that can easily last for well over four hours. It's not something you want to attempt with a head cold, much less the flu.

When we got back to the hotel, Ray stretched out on his bed and I went looking for some dinner. Ray had said he wasn't hungry, which didn't seem like a good sign the night before a 31 mile race. But what do I know? I found a barbecue place nearby and had some barbecued ham and split-pea soup. I sat beneath the head of a giant bull moose that was mounted on the wall. What kind of sicko would want to kill a bull moose, the largest and most majestic creature in North America, and stick its head up on the wall?

Someone like Sarah Palin, probably.

When I got back to the room, Ray was reading a book about Nixon. He had gone to the 7-11 for some V-8 juice. Didn't seem like much to go on, calorie-wise. He was blowing his nose and coughing more than before and his throat sounded bad. But he fully intended to walk in the race the next morning.

Ray got up at about dawn and started getting ready for the race. It was freezing. I had snagged a space heater and some extra blankets from the hotel office the day before, but these old stucco buildings do not have much in the way of insulation. Ray took off for the race around six. I tried to get my blood flowing by taking a long hot shower. I was pretty glad I was not entered in any race that morning.

When I got to Santee, the race had been going on for about an hour. They run the 10k, 20k and 50k at the same time so the field was still fairly well populated. But pretty soon after I go there, all the 10k competitors started leaving the race, which cut out about two-thirds of the walkers.

I watched the race for about an hour. Ray was doing well, keeping in the lead of the 50k group alongside another walker who happens to be a three-time Olympian and ten years younger. I heard the meet announcer reading some of Ray's history over the P.A. system. There was the AAU Junior National win, the trips to the Soviet Union and East Germany, four World Cup appearances, records and national titles in every distance, including the grueling 100k, competing in the World Championship in Rome, setting the World Record in New York, qualifying for the first Goodwill Games in Moscow...

I'd had no inkling of all of Ray's accomplishments. Just to read them over the P.A. system took ten or fifteen minutes. But it wasn't so much the number of titles he held or records he'd set, it was the span. He'd been doing this since he was 18. And he's still going strong. He did have one setback, though. After the 1988 Olympic trials, where the 100 degree heat and 100 per cent humidity nearly killed him, Ray began suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. He continued to compete for another few years, but eventually had to stop altogether. By now Ray was married and starting a family. It was time to settle down.

But Ray could not keep still. After almost ten years out of competition, he started feeling well enough to begin biking to work every day. That led to an interest in triathlons. As he felt his strength returning, he decided to get back into racewalking. Since then, he has competed in four National 50k Championships, two Pan Am Cup races and two World Cups. In Santee, Ray was hoping to qualify for another Pan Am Cup race.

Ray seemed to be holding steady, so I decided to run across the street and get a bagel. When I got back to the race course about ten minutes later, I saw that Ray had fallen behind. He wasn't looking too well either. And he still had about 15 miles to go.

But the thing about Ray is, he doesn't give up easily. For the next hour, I watched him fall farther and farther behind. His strides grew more and more unsteady. A couple of times he started wobbling around like he was about to fall flat on his face. But he wouldn't drop out. I wasn't sure what to do. He looked like he was killing himself. He was obviously sick as a dog, but he refused to stop walking. He'd gone nearly 20 miles and still had over ten to go.

I noticed the race officials conferring with the medic. They were wondering if they should pull him out. But then one of the judges gave him a "red card" for a violation of form. In racewalking you have to keep one foot on the ground at all times and keep your knee straight until it passes under your hip. Three violations and you're out. Actually, it was amazing that he had gotten this far. It was amazing that he was still conscious. Within the next few laps, Ray got two more red cards and they pulled him out of the race. If they hadn't, I don't know if he would have ever stopped.

After the race, Ray and I had some food and talked for a while. If he was disappointed, he didn't show it. And considering how sick he was, and the fact that he'd just walked twenty miles, he was in amazingly good spirits. Of course the next day he was sick in bed with a fever. And a few days later, so was I.

It was great seeing Ray again. I wish he'd done better in the race. But the fact that he didn't finish kind of says more about him than if he had done well. Racewalking isn't a glory sport. Ray never got a lot of attention or money or support for being a racewalker. It's a tough, lonely, thankless road that's only traveled by those who can keep going when there's no end in sight.

There will be other races. In fact, I got an email from Ray about a week after seeing him. He was competing in a 54k cross-country ski race in Michigan. And he was just barely getting over the flu. He's looking forward to the summer so he can start swimming, biking and running.

And next year there will be another 50k Championship. And Ray will be there.


BizNewsDan said...

Sounds like a parable for a lot of pursuits we're in these days. So the moral is, life isn't a sprint or a marathon, it's a very long walk and you have to keep your knees straight.

Todd said...

Recalling now that we're both Sagittarians, I read H.D.'s report now realizing Ray was well into age 50 by the time of this race.

One day, when we were 18, I hadn't yet gone on my daily run when Ray dropped by for a visit. So, while I ran, he walked. A still, summer evening in Louisville.

I was astonished to find that I had to step up my pace immediately just to keep up with him walking--and this was at his gentler, off-day pace. Writing this now, I recall again feeling the breeze start to move past my ears as I drew alongside him. Only then did I appreciate that racewalking is a very serious commitment. And I was in the presence of a very, very strong man in his practice of it.

This report of his latest demonstration of that commitment reminds me what he, H.D., and BizNewsDan each have exemplified repeatedly: You must honor what drives you. If you don't you're dead.