Friday, October 26, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious Days - Day 4 Part 1

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Day 4 - Part 1.

Day 4 - September 6, 2007; Part 1
On day four I am awake at 6am as intended. The only complication to the simplicity of that statement is that I have been awake earlier that morning on more than one occasion. The source of my sleeplessness is a suddenly stuffy nose. I have no idea what to blame the situation on. Is it a totally different climate in Italy? Is it the presence of some tree to which I have never been exposed? Am I getting sick as result of the fatigue and strain of the previous 72 hours? Allergies are rare for me, maybe an episode once every 3 years, but when it happens it is dreadful. My nose reaches the point of what feels like impossible clogging combined with the fantasy that an unimaginable explosion of my entire face might occur at any moment, resembling the reaction of a propane tank filled far beyond its structural capacity. I feel I should walk around with a warning sign around my neck reading “This man’s head may explode at any moment, observe safety clearances of 30 feet.” Off and on through the night I have been awake struggling to breath through my nose, yet failing and ending up as a completely unattractive ‘mouth breather’ which is an impossible way to sleep. Thank goodness it has been dark and BEG is in her own single bed across the room.

I dress in my competition clothes. Today is the day racing begins for me. The running tights are an artful combination of red, baby blue and navy blue, the words “USA” imprinted vertically up the sides of the tights. The top is the same color combinations with the USATF (USA Track and Field) official emblem and logo stenciled on the front and back respectively. I should feel excited to pull the USATF mandated gear on for the first time. Instead I try to blow my nose and I worry about how I will feel at 10:30, the scheduled time for my quarterfinal heat of the 100 meters. I am coming into the meet having run the second fastest time in the world for my age group in 2006. Only my coach and friend Bill, the current world record holder, has gone faster. This should leave me with confidence. Instead it now seems a burden. The swift time was run in June. I had run slower in the USA national championships in August. Now it is September and the burden of carrying such a high seed has become a source for anxiety. Exacerbating the anxiety are my fatigue and inability to breathe. I walk into the living area of the apartment where Charlie and Bill are waiting. Its time to head for the bus and the trip to the stadium “How are you Seven?” Bill asks. My reply sounds like a TV ad for a decongestant. “Nime nus fair, I nan’t breathe so nood right now” is what I squeeze out.

The warm-up area at the main stadium is filled with athletes. The 100 meters is the glamour event of track and field and as such it draws the biggest fields of competition. I watch as the colorful assembly of men stretch and jog while checking out one another with quick glances. Many athletes from outside Europe are not known to each other on sight, but instead are known by their names and rankings. Bill draws the most attention since he is the star of all stars in masters sprinting. He is a multi national and world champion and holds several sprint age group world records. He and I warm up together and I can feel the stares and see the pointing. Several athletes stop to ask if I am who they think I am. I acknowledge they are correct in their assumptions. They have now associated a face and body with a name and I can imagine them preparing to slay the world’s no.2 guy since Bill is out of their reach. What all of us know is running quick times in the early season may mean little here today. In the odd world of track training and ‘peaking’ for important races, what will matter is which of the top ten in the world is truly ready to run their best in Riccione. I scan the crowd. I can spot the well-known Italian and British sprinters; all the top names I see in European results throughout the year.

My warm-up is sluggish. I feel slow and tired. Sadly it is becoming increasingly obvious to me that the toll of the previous difficult hours will extract its due, but I am failing to truly deal with the fact. At 10:05 am, the appointed time to enter the call tent, Bill and I head for the stadium. The race officials check us in one by one into the small holding area on one side of a large white tent. The tent sits just outside an entrance portal to the stadium. Later an official will lead us single file into the stadium, arranged in order according to our lane assignments. I am told I have been assigned lane3 for the quarterfinal race. There will be 2 top seeds placed in each of six heats for a total of 48 runners. Only 16 of the 48 will advance to the semi-finals race the next day. I am the top seed in the second heat of the day for my age group. I have affixed my lane assignment sticker reading “3” to my left hip. To my right, in lane 7, will be Alasdair Ross of Great Britain, the no. 2 seed in the heat and a formidable competitor with times very near mine. The rest of the field is composed of men from Croatia, Italy, Germany, France and Mexico, though I don’t recognize any of the names. The officials have us seated across from one another in the tent, sitting on benches while we wait for the official to escort us to the track. The Croatian appears to be very anxious, constantly scanning the tent and tapping his hands on his knees in no discernible rhythm. The Italian is solemn, staring at the ground in front of him, his spikes clutched tightly in his hands. It appears he is talking to himself, his lips moving slightly though emitting no sound. Perhaps it is a form of prayer. Alasdair Ross is directly opposite me. He resembles a rock star. He is dressed in the familiar thin blue and red stripes imprinted over white that is characteristic of British track uniforms. We are all between the ages of 55 and 59 so I am tempted to use the phrase ‘aging rock star’ regarding Ross except for the fact that he seems very youthful. His physique is that of a 20 year old in top shape. He has long blonde hair in the fashion of a reformed older musician and owns an aloof personal manner, gazing around the tent but consciously avoiding eye contact with me. The German is smiling like a man that has won the lottery but isn’t quite ready to tell me about it. I like the aura around him. He seems to be enjoying every moment of the experience.

I am wondering if my head does explode will I be allowed to reassemble the pieces and not be disqualified. I am worried. The warm-up was telling in a negative way. My energy level is noticeably down. The fact that having had 7 hours of fitful sleep in the past 76 hours might be a problem has not been formally acknowledged by my brain, though my biology feels completely conversant with its reality. Normally I would be a little fidgety and excited sitting in the tent at this point, but I find that my mind is wandering and unfocused. The official calls us to go to the track. She commands us in Italian which only the Italian runner understands. He recognizes the fact the he is the host in our group of eight and uses hand motions to let us know it is time. The official calls out names and places us in order by lane assignment. It is a curious protocol. It seems terribly formal as if we are all in kindergarten again. Nevertheless we obey, marching single file into the stadium under a picturesque blue sky, temperatures in the high 70’s. Once in the stadium the official calls our names again to place us in our correct lanes.

We elder kindergartners have begun to ignore her because it is apparent we are far more experienced at our task than she is. We are on familiar turf in this environment. We are in our workplace and home. Aluminum starting blocks glisten under the bright sun. They are firmly anchored behind the start line of the brilliant blue surface of the track. Each athlete begins to set his blocks and do the last bit of warm up as the track announcer begins to announce athlete names and countries. I stare down to the finish camera to establish the point of the finish line in my mind. I look into the stands as the Italian announcer struggles with the Croatian’s name. I know BEG is in the stands by now. She has come with Stephanie a couple of hours behind us. I’m hoping she found a good spot because the stands are full. Unlike in the US, the Europeans take track very seriously.

Once the introductions are complete the starter stares across the field to determine that each athlete is ready to participate. Satisfied with his observation he will repeat the commands that are second nature to his task. He begins with “runners stand behind your blocks,” announced in English to my great surprise. I stand behind my starting blocks in lane 3 though I remain unfocused and it confuses me and bothers me. Nervous energy radiates up and down the line of competitors. The starter lifts the microphone up to his mouth to begin the race. “Runners, take your marks.” I look into the stands again. The capacity crowd is buzzing up there, the race is about to begin.

The photo was taken by BEG at the exact moment described in the text where the starter calls us to our marks. If you click on the pic and look at in a larger format you can see the starter at the far right. I am in lane 3.


kathi said...

This cliff hanger bothers me more than the rest, I'm at a loss here not knowing what happens next.

Poor thing, what timing you have. Travel, illness...geeze, even I feel bad for you.

I want to know what happens next please.

Lynilu said...

Oh, Seven, I've known that kind of disconnectedness of the mind and body from lack of rest, and I feel the weariness for you. I will be in this state of discomfort until you give us the next installment, so please hurry!

Robert Shapiro said...

Seven, I want to compliment you on the quality of your writing. You've come a long way my friend and I'm very proud of you.


Seven said...

Bratcher and SL,
I'm remodeling a bathroom this weekend, at least beginning the process with the tear -out. But I will continue the story promptly. You are both so loyal and kind!

I will never forget that the first ever comment on my blog came from you. You are my model for charitable thinking on life and its content. I don't always remain positive, being human with all that being human entails, but I have learned from your writings and your attitudes about the remarkable power of giving when combined with charitable discernment. As the slang slogan goes..."you da man"

Lynilu said...