Sunday, November 4, 2012

State XC champs - 30 years later

I generally abhor nostalgia, but given the coincidence of starting this silly blog and  finding an old sweatshirt of mine I thought I might indulge slightly on the 30 year (?!?!) anniversary of Sunset High School’s state cross country championship.  It was a seminal moment in a handful of lives, and the fact that I and some of my teammates are still periodically doing these silly endurance races is a bit of a testament to the legacy that this day created. 

Oregon has long been known as a distance running hotbed, and in particular Eugene, with it’s direct connection to the University of Oregon and the fabled Hayward Field, site of this year's (and many prior) track and field Oly trials.  South Eugene High School had a 7 year dynasty of unbeaten cross country teams, with many of their guys going on to excel collegiately at U of O.  In 1980 a young but talented crew of guys from Sunset upended South Eugene, but in 1981 – with all the top guys from Sunset coming back – South Eugene exacted revenge, much to our surprise.  In 1982 all but one of those top Sunset guys had graduated, and we only had one “star” in Eric Fahlman, one of the fastest milers in the state.  The rest of us fairly well fit the stereotype of a motley crew of skinny cross country geeks, with very little resume’ to our collective names.  Therefore, we toiled in relative anonymity throughout the season but – based on the systematic and inspired tutelage from our great coach Dave Robbins – we actually came into the state meet fairly confident.  Officially, however, we were - at best - distinct underdogs. 

Knowing that the mid-November race was bound to be Oregon-worthy cold, windy, and rainy, and we wanted to address the cold-leg issue that was bound to have an effect in 40 degree rain.  This was pre-lycra tight era, but during the season we had been eyeing the football cheerleaders and had been admiring their….uh….tights!  and as such had been scouring the local dance stores’ of size large “leotards”.  So come the as-expected, miserably-cold race day, we all showed up with our secret weapon:  purple women’s tights, even on our indomitable Eric, for whom  - at 6’4” - it was literally a stretch.    As it turns out, the only other person in the field besides our seven-man crew was the guy who ended up winning the race; I like to think that with his help we sorta ushered spandex into the running world!  (for better or worse!)

The gun fired and generally it went as expected; a sea of skinny kids charging through the muck, with the easily-recognizable blond hair of Eric towering over the lead pack. And team Sunset generally givin ‘er well, though not noticeably better than South Eugene (also in purple, but not leotards) or Wilson High School from Portland, that year’s other strongest team. 

The exception was, unfortunately….me.  Inexplicably, I simply blew up, but at least I went out slow too.  I had experienced a tough year; I started out really strong but then had to sit out most of the short season with a stupid toe stress fracture, but had come back (with it unhealed, though I kept this news to myself) and had been improving steadily back almost to where I’d been.  But that day, I simply didn’t have it, and instead of a 10th or 15th place where I should have been I was….I don’t even remember.   As the account in the paper put it, I finally “wobbled” in, way too far back.  Which generally – in other running events, like a marathon or a road 10k – doesn’t matter, but I was our “guaranteed” 2nd man, so I literally felt that I had lost it for the entire team that had worked so hard together all season for this moment. 

Cross-country meet results are determined by the lowest score, based on the placements of the first 5 guys of each team.  Which sounds simple, but there were fast individuals who had qualified for the state meet without their teams so they sort of mucked up the team placements, and there were so many guys finishing so quickly that it was pretty chaotic at the finish line, such so that all we knew post-race is that it was going to be very close between the top three teams. 

Soon enough they called up the top five teams and started giving the awards, and quickly enough it was down to three.  We were cautiously optmistic that we had beaten South Eugene, and sure enough they were third, so there were two teams left standing, and of course when they announced 2nd place it would be clear who won.  The announcers recognized the drama of the moment and dragged it out accordingly.  Finally the guy pretty much screamed “Wilson!” as the 2nd place team, and pandemonium ensued.  He never even got a chance to say who won because we pretty much went nuts.(Eric actually knocked the announcer out of the way and the microphone over!)  And, I’m slightly embarrased to say, no one was more excited than myself, mostly out of the huge shock of relief that indeed I had only almost lost it for our gang (and made it much more dramatic in doing so!). 

I'm in the center, rejoicing. I admit it; I literally cried with happiness and relief,
something the gang didn’t let me ever live down! 

As it turns out, those coupla years of running cross country and track at Sunset HS set the trajectory for my life:  because we had a successful program we were asked by the burgeoning Nike to help them with their fledgling shoe weartest program, which later turned into a job for me, and now here I am today continuing to design, develop, and test footwear 30 years later.  And the lifestyle of doing silly endurance sports and challenging myself is still elemental, and the friends I made on that team are still friends today. 

Not surprisingly, my mom made the hat and that sick, huge pompom on top!

Dave Robbins – the longtime coach at Sunset whose passion and visionary training programs subsequently created the next high school cross-country and track dynasty in Oregon – had that same affect on literally hundreds of kids who passed through his program.  I see high schoolers playing football at Highland High near our house – and even rugby, for which Highland is famous – and think “wow, those kids have so zero future in those sports” but my heart is cheered when I see the UT state cross country championship going on each October in Sugarhouse Park.  I’m hopeful that at least a few of those kids will also have a great coach who will help them to understand the possibilities and confidence that the strength, fitness, and dedication associated with simply running fast over hill and dale will continue to present to them over the course of their lives. 


  1. Cried with happiness, I love it. The fact that the gang didn't let you live it down speaks to their coolness.

  2. I'm the current XC coach at Sunset and one of my kids just forwarded me a link to your post. I know Dave and have met members of this '82 team and others from the decade of the "Purple Reign". We won our first state title last fall since the '80s, albeit on the girls' side. But we have a great group of young guys coming back next fall and I think the tide will be changing for the boys, too, dawning in a new reign of purple. Go Apollos!

  3. I'm a current XC runner who forwarded the link to my XC coach:) I can tell you that we are proud to be able to start back the dynasty of the "Purple Reign". This team has a competitive drive that is still in it's youth but will surely mature. This is driven by the philosophy "It’s not how good I am, it’s how good I can be". I think with this philosophy and the amount of heart I see. Success will be a easy choice to make.