What’s scarier than the Burger King “King”? Colonel Sanders in Japan, that’s what!
Once upon a time, in a land far far away, I ran the anchor leg of an international relay as a member of an astoundingly average track team. In 1988, I was in graduate school at San Francisco State University imitating someone who was going to actually write a thesis and get an M.A. in English that year instead of fifteen years later. Hard as it may be to believe, I got sidetracked by other things like playing music and driving around Alaska for 4 months (where, by the way, I saw Russia and Joe Sixpack!) and so on. By “sidetracked,” I mean leaving my main direction and branching into other things that have nothing to do with my original plan and line of thought. Not that I ever do this anymore.
Where was I?
Anyhoo, I was knee-deep in Shakespeare and D.H. Lawrence when a friend who worked for SFSU informed me that there would be open tryouts to be on the relay team that would compete at the International Women’s Ekiden in Osaka, Japan over the week of Thanksgiving. I had no idea what she was talking about, but it sounded important. More importantly, it sounded like a really great excuse for getting out of some classes and having a tedious paper delayed for a couple weeks. Thus, my love for running led me to the track for tryouts.
Let me preface this next part by saying that the SFSU women’s track team in 1988 was average. By “average,” I mean not very good. And by “not very good,” I mean bad. The tryouts consisted of running a 5k on the track. The top 8 (I think) finishers would get to go to Osaka. Historically, nobody other than track team members ever competed for these places. Why? I don’t know for sure, but the fact was that you had to be an SFSU student and have a burning desire to go to Japan with a bunch of strangers and be able to run a 5k in at least a non-laughable time. All this plus giving up Thanksgiving turkey and fat-soaked vegetables for raw fish and tea for 5 days. This seemed to narrow the walk-on field substantially.
In any event, my 5k time back in Ye Olde 5k Days, was around 19:00…a good time, but not stunning. Certainly not a time that, I thought, had a chance of beating all but one person on a university track team. (I repeat: by “average” I mean “bad”). But there it was. I came in 2nd and was on my way to Osaka. My first thought was that everyone on the team would hate me. After all, I had denied one of the real team members a place. I had invaded their inner sanctum of runnerly teamhood. Focus would be skewed and competitive worries would mount.
In reality, the primary team worry was that I not tell the coach that they would all be secretly drinking Bacardi on the flight over. As soon as I let them know that I would not only not tell the coach, but also join in, I was totally part of the team. Training methods? 5k strategies? Flats or trainers? No one cared! I had never been around a group of runners who had such utter disregard for and disinterest in running. It was a nice breath of fresh air.
Coach Whatever-His-Name-Was was a nice guy but not even remotely coach-esque. He looked like Buck Owens, had a wicked combover, and spent most of the time sleeping. His idea of a motivational speech before competition was: “Well, here we go.” He laughed at jokes five minutes later. I’m fairly certain that every team member could have worn one of those headgear things with two bottles of Bacardi attached to tubes that ran directly to their mouths, and he wouldn’t have noticed. But he was nice. He gave everyone a pack of Juicy Fruit for the flight over. Nice.
The San Francisco State Lady Gators had placed in the bottom five of 60 international teams for years on end at the Ekiden. What a grand tradition! And there were few worries that this tradition would be marred in 1988. While other teams practiced and fine-tuned once in Osaka, our illustrious team spent a lot of time shopping for Hello Kitty items, cracking up at the Japanese menus at McDonalds and KFC, posing for pictures in front of beer vending machines (those were cool), riding the bullet train and screaming, and making our Japanese guide pronounce our team captain’s name. (Her name was Trish. He pronounced it “Trash.” Hours of entertainment!).
The night before the relay, all those teams that intended to do something insane, like actually compete, were in bed by 9:00. Meanwhile, Trash and a couple other Lady Gators who had packed their skateboards (really), woke up Coach What’s-His-Face around 10:30 to ask if it would be okay to do a little skateboarding down in the alley behind the hotel. In a rare display of vehemence, the coach barked, “Probably not. I’m tired. What time is it? Good night.” As a result, the girls simply decided to skate around the hotel hallways while the rest of us clapped. This was all fine and dandy until about midnight when a gigantic female coach of one of the German teams slammed her door open and thundered something in German (of course) at us.
After a shot or two to calm our frayed nerves, we all retired around 1:00 a.m. Wake-up calls came in at 4:30.
Ah, the lovely and long-gone resilience of youth. I woke up 3 hours later feeling totally ready to run a 5k. I had been assigned the anchor leg. Apparently, between naps and rearranging the 12 hairs on his head, our coach had determined that, next to Trash, I was the fastest person on the team. Trash began the relay, six other team members would run distances between 2 and 4 miles, and then I would finish with a 5k. As with most races, I don’t remember too many details. However, the crowds of cheering Japanese people were tremendous…all of them chanting something over and over again that I couldn’t understand. Flags from all over the world lined the entire race route. I do remember feeling more psyched than I ever had felt for a race.
Between the adrenaline and the Pop Tart I had had for breakfast, I managed to pass 5 other teams in the anchor leg. And as I ran into the stadium for the final 1/2 mile, I could see a Japanese runner not far ahead of me. The track was on a jumbotron up ahead, so the Japanese runner could see me gaining on her. It was one of those slow-motion, surreal moments as I pulled up behind her. The crowd, naturally, was screaming for her to pick it up (I don’t know if they say Pick it up! in Japan, but anyway..). They were waving at her wildly and pointing to me as if she was not acutely aware of my presence. We were less than a quarter mile from the finish when I passed her. It was bittersweet. I could hear her crying as I passed, and there was an audible hum of disappointment from the crowd.
Still, it was sweet to see our track team excited about something that, oddly enough, had to do with running for just those few minutes as I finished. Coach Buck Owens actually exerted the effort to stand up, walk over to me, pat me lethargically on the back and say, “Well. What a run. Yes sir.”
As it turned out, by passing that last runner in the stadium, I ruined the long-standing tradition of the Lady Gators’ finishing in the bottom 5 at the Ekiden. But I guess there were no hard feelings. Later that evening, Trash bought me a Sapporo from a vending machine and let me sign her skateboard. Good times. It had been a magical week.