Joel Richardson (joelrichardson _at_ verizon.net), a fellow Williams College alumnus, is collecting information for a book about the history of Williams track and field. Among the questions he’s asking is, “Do you think being on a track team (specifically the Williams team) benefited you in ways other than just being on the team (such as values learned, becoming more disciplined, or friendships and memorable meets and performances)?”
Below is my answer.
Being on the Williams track and cross-country teams benefited me in at least four ways.
First, I’m generally slow to make friends, so those daily interactions with fellow runners were important to me, especially during my freshman year, when I hadn’t yet bonded with others through shared academic interests or other routes.
Second, races served (and still serve) as a useful outlet for my competitive instincts. When I was injured in the spring of ’92, I felt myself becoming more of a grade-grubber trying to beat the test scores of my classmates — a less appropriate expression of this competitiveness.
Third, my development as a runner in college provided a vivid and dramatic lesson in my (and everyone’s?) capacity for self-improvement. A similar revelation is summarized beautifully in an essay by Adam Gopnik on the late Kirk Varnedoe, who before becoming a giant of the art world was a jock at Williams: “He [Varnedoe] gave football all the credit. He had discovered himself playing football, first at his prep school, St. Andrew’s in Delaware, as an overweight and, by all reports, unimpressive adolescent, and then at Williams, where, improbably, he became a starting defensive end. The appeal of football wasn’t that it ‘built character’ — he knew just how cruddy a character a football player could have. It was that it allowed you to make a self. You were one kind of person with one kind of body and one set of possibilities, and then you worked at it and you were another. This model was so simple and so powerful that you could apply it to anything. It was ordinary magic: You worked harder than the next guy, and you were better than the next guy. It put your fate in your own hands.”
Track may be an even better teacher of this lesson than football, since changes in performance are so easy to quantify. When I arrived at Williams, my personal best time for 3000 meters was 9:35; by the time I left, it was 8:43. It’s hard to experience this sort of physical transformation and not be changed psychologically — not become more hopeful or less fatalistic. I was changed.
Fourth, my coaches and teammates helped foster a lasting enjoyment of the sport. We took ourselves seriously and trained hard, yet were often reminded that there was more to running than trying to win races. I give Pete Farwell a lot of credit for promoting and extending the values of his predecessors: respect for tradition, respect for the environment, concern for one’s teammates, the simple joys of gliding through the wilderness….
I still run because, fundamentally, I’m still a competitive person. But I still enjoy it as much as I do in part because of Pete.