“you can ALWAYS run another 1/4 mile.”

How foul… It was the smell. The smell of that rubbery, latex industrial gym floor that hit me on today’s run. It made me revisit a high school memory I had long forgotten. Mr. Tom Birol was my high school, track coach, and his is words resonate in my mind every single day. “You can always run another 1/4mile.” He had said this early one fall, during some of our long distance workouts. I was our schools #2 in long distance running. Tony, the albino was number one. The district finals were held at Woodberry Forrest, because they had the newest, nicest and largest gym on the East Coast. Saint Ann’s Belfield, (we called them STAB) Chatham, Massanutten Military Academy, (Mass-o-nuthin) Virginia Military Institute, (VMI) and Hardgrave Military School were all there. I am sure there are others I am forgetting. My school, The Blue Ridge School, was a collage prep school and we wore coats and ties to class, but I digress.

The District finals were held at Woodberry, also a collage prep school in their beautiful, new, HUGE gym. The floor of this gym had that rubbery, bouncy coating on it. It had some ‘give’ when you pushed into it. But it was so new the smell was worse than house paint. The odor was so think you could taste it. It was hard to stay in that gym, and we had to run in there. There were huge doors at one end of the massive room they opened to try and air it out, but it was so blisteringly cold outside, it was hard to keep the doors open long. If my memory is right, there were nine full size basket ball courts with a full track that ran around them in this place. It was huge. Down stairs there were racket ball courts. Frickin huge! I had to run my mile and my half mile inside. Our school did not have an inside track this large, and I had never run inside this long. I won the full mile and was second to Tony in the half. Just after, I got sick. The thick, stagnant air got to me and I tossed my cookies. Twice. There were a total of six from our team that got sick and at least a dozen others from other teams. It was a fiasco. Tom Birol came into the locker room and asked if I was OK. I was sitting with a guy named Lathem. Birol said he needed the anchor leg for the relay that was going to run in a few minutes. Tony, that albino, yaked and wouldn’t run. “You can always run another 1/4 mile” he said. I was a distance runner and not a sprinter. This was not my forte, I had no training in it, never even seen a baton, and I had just upchucked twice. Ran in the race terrified I was going to drop the baton… I passed another runner and in doing so put our relay on the podium with third.

On the bus coming back to school, Tom got up and sang my praises to the entire team. “Even though he had no training in sprint, no knowledge of the damn relay, and he had puked his guts out 10 minutes before, Williams stepped up to the plate!“ Birol did it again during assembly that next Monday with the entire school body. It really meant something to have that sort of recognition from him. You see, Blue Ridge was not a large school, 236 total students, and the members of the facility played multiple roles in each students life. Tom was my track coach, soccer coach, english professor and my private counselor. I was just a punk kid who had discovered girls and couldn’t think outside my own pants but Tom’s style made more of an impression than I ever felt comfortable sharing with him. He didn’t just tell me how to do things, he showed me. Tom Birol acted with dignity and maturity, even when I know he wanted to choke me to death and hide my body in the woods. His quiet strength is something today I understand. My father has the same type of strength and grace.

Today when I coach students who yearn to complete their first triathlon, century bike run or marathon I use the words Tom Birol shared with me because they continue to ring true. You CAN always run another 1/4 mile. You CAN always push through that feeling of inadequacy. Your body is a uniquely remarkable carrying case for your soul and you can push it further than you realize. Your impossible is attainable.

I was not a jock in school but I have always heard Toms voice: “You can always run another 1/4mile, Williams.”

On this mornings run, passing the NASA Ames Research Center, I got a whiff of that damn floor. Funny how your mind works.

I ran an extra 1/4 mile for Tom.


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