The javelin hung motionless in the gray, spring air. I watched it wondering how it remained suspended in the sky. I was a junior in high school, a recent refugee of the baseball team (conflict with the coach), and my JV basketball coach had encouraged me to try out for his varsity track team, suggesting the javelin throw, because I had thrown a few accurate full-court passes.
Track team? My then very juvenile, traditional-sport mind judged track a pseudo sport, consisting of students more comfortable competing in mathalons and contesting Dungeons and Dragons competitions. Not a real sport.
But I went and watched a few throws and learned the footwork. No big deal. How hard could it be? When my turn came, I gripped the javelin and strode purposefully toward the line, intent on demonstrating to these skinny Einsteins in satin shorts the difference between solving quadratic equations and performing athletic feats. I launched the spear and it flew like a missile. I may have even posed.
The javelin sliced through the air before pausing at the apogee of its arc, causing me to stare in confusion. I then realized what happened. A cruel draft of wind had caught the javelin, rejected it, pushed it back. Now the spear was plunging back to earth, aiming directly, it seemed, for me. Panicking, I dove out of the spear’s path, narrowly avoiding impalement. I may have even screamed. My track career had begun and finished with one throw.
That was my sole, firsthand experience with track until this spring when my daughter started training and racing with the Bangor High track team, running primarily the mile. Though track meets can seem at times to have the brevity of a U.S. Senate filibuster, it has been an enjoyable spring getting to know the sport better, cheering and rooting on my daughter and the rest of the Bangor high team, and also watching the athletes from Hampden, Brewer, Orono, Old Town and beyond. In fact, I wonder if, in many ways, it is the most appealing of the spring sports.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many things to like about baseball, softball and tennis. But the spectacle of the sport, the inclusiveness, the elemental athleticism has made track one of my favorite events to watch.
What do I mean by that?
First, so many events are taking place, a great appeal to my easily distracted mind. Athletes hurdling, athletes sprinting, athletes throwing, athletes jumping, all, it seems, at once. It’s like being at a party. You can wander from event to event, chatting with friends, sampling a heat of the 100-meter dash before moving on to watch the triple jump before moving on to the next event.
And it’s a festival — athletes lounging under their school’s colorful canopies between events and starter gun’s blasting and crowds “oohing” and “aahing.” You half expect trumpets to sound at any moment and knights to appear for a round of jousting.
Another attractive aspect of track is the notion of the personal record, the PR. You hear this often at meets. “Did you PR?” or “She crushed her PR” or even as a verb, “I PRed.” This is of course unique to track. In most sports, there exists a hard yet simple notion. You win or lose. Which can be extremely painful. But at track meets, you are also competing against yourself, against earlier times, against already established benchmarks. You can take satisfaction from vaulting six more inches, from jumping two more inches, from shaving a fraction of a second off a race.
You can lose a race or event, you can finish dead last, and you can still win.
What’s more, there’s something iconic, something elemental about track and field. Of course that makes sense in a sport that has its roots in Olympia of ancient Greece where the first footrace was run in 776 BC. But it’s more than that. Run faster, jump higher (or longer), throw farther. That’s it. It is sport and competition stripped down to its universal essence.
In early April, I witnessed the end of a track meet that brought it all together for me. The competition was near its end, yellow school buses warming up, a line of cars with headlights on, parents waiting to take their children home. There was one event to go, the pole vault, with just two Bangor High athletes left competing, Morgan Johnson and Ally Vanidestine. The entire Bangor track team surrounded the pole vaulting area. Teens were chatting, joking around, but also rooting the two girls on, applauding, encouraging them.
But there was silence in the dusk when Johnson or Vanidestine prepared to vault, broken as one of them sprinted down the track, planted the pole, and launched across the darkening sky, temporarily freed from gravity’s leash, trying to arc over the delicately balanced bar. Though neither girl broke a record or even, I believe, did a PR, it was a mesmerizing moment. They were competing hard (Vanidestine cut her lip open, and Johnson misjudged one vault and landed on her helmeted head) in this simple but extremely challenging event, supported by teammates and competitors alike.
So go to the Class A state track meet at the Brewer Community School on Saturday and enjoy the spectacle. Enjoy athletes challenging themselves and each other. Enjoy the competitive battles and the iconic events.
But here’s some unsolicited advice when you do.
Watch out for the javelin.
Mark Condon, who hasn’t touched a javelin in 33 years, lives in Bangor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.