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A Man Transformed, a New Runner Born

Bob Hodge reports from the Lowell High School Alumni Cross Country Challenge 2016

Shedd and Fort Hill Parks in Lowell MA have been home to Lowell High School Cross Country for a very long time. I ran my first cross country season ever in 1969 and it was our home course back then.

Coach John “Feets” Lang was our leader and also my Algebra teacher. He was a good runner himself and was on the Lowell High Track Team with Lowell author Jack Kerouac in the 1930’s and he makes a cameo in Jack’s book Maggie Cassidy

Coach Lang, at the time I met him, wore a Fedora and smoked a pipe. He was a laid back person for a coach and I liked him right away.

I have never attended alumni events at my former high school though I always wanted to one day run the alumni cross country race, which this year was being held as usual on the day before Thanksgiving.

I made an extra effort to attend tto help send off my friend Coach Phil Maia after his incredibly successful run, including a State Championship title, of 31 years. Phil was a few years behind me in school, but also competed for Coach Lang also. Lowell will remain in good hands with assistant coach Scott Ouellet another successful Lowell High runner who was coached by Phil at Lowell High. This year both the Boy’s and Girls Teams finished second in the Massachusetts State Cross Country Championships.

The Lowell Girls have also been highly successful with Coach Marybeth McKenney at the helm. Marybeth had a great high school career at Lowell High as a sprint specialist and also attended the University of Lowell where yours truly was her coach for a few years.

I am curious about the race course being used today. In the 1970’s the course was 2.6 miles or “thereabouts.” I can visualize the course in my memory but that is suspect.

I don’t return to Lowell often since the days when I returned to the University from 1986–1990 finishing my undergraduate degree.

Recently I have been doing some writing, much of it about my own past, just to get that out of the way, before I tackle something else. Although I have not lived in Lowell since 1978 and have lived in Clinton, MA (a town not unlike Lowell only much smaller), for the past 30 years, there still appears to be a lot of Lowell in me.

I arrived in Lowell a few hours early and I walked and drove around parts of the city of my youth. It is a bit traumatic and a strange and eerie feeling comes over me whenever I remember the past. I passed by my old grammar and high schools and the tenement house where I lived for part of my youth. Much of it remains the same. I visited the public library and toured myself around it and then sat reading for a while. It was hard to imagine myself living in this city now; though my feeling of hauntedness would, I imagine subside into normalcy.

It was now time to head to the park for the annual run. I parked there and quickly changed into my running gear in the car. I went out and walked and jogged a part of the course that I remembered. The course was well marked and one of the loops appears to be exactly the same as it was those many years ago.

I saw Coach Phil Maia unloading T-shirts and refreshments from his car and I greeted him and helped with the unloading. Phil explained the current course and a pre-race tradition where the participants gather in a circle and each gives their name and year of graduation. My 1973 is the oldest and gets some hoots and howls from the youthful gathering.

He also related that Coach Lang referred to a loop of the course as your “vita” equals life. Coach Lang had a way about him.

The alumni have some ringers among them, like Brian Gagnon who has an Olympic Trials 800 meter appearance to his credit and currently runs with NY/NJ group under Coach Frank “Gags” Gagliano. There are also some other strong collegiate runners and I’m told that the Alumni hold a 29–0 edge in this annual contest.

As we climb Fort Hill and approach the first mile mark I am breathing like a locomotive and foaming at the mouth.

When the race starts I am standing at the back of the fifty or sixty runners talking with assistant coach Scott Ouellet . I begin running much faster than is prudent for a 61 year old with tight calf muscles and assorted other aches and pains. I catch up with Coach Phil who is waiting for me but instead of moderating my pace I charge ahead caught up in the moment. As we climb Fort Hill and approach the first mile mark I am breathing like a locomotive and foaming at the mouth.

First mile is an 8:18, one of my fastest of the year. I see Marybeth just ahead and hone in on her but I make no progress and she continues to pull away. I am having fun running through the tricky footing and rough terrain over hill and dale and also thinking how sore my legs will be tomorrow. Second mile in 8:01 and I am talking to myself now “just around the tennis courts and then a lap of the muddy ancient running track to the finish at 2.8 miles.”

We were told that the first thirty only would get sticks. That would be a tongue depressor with a number on it indicating place and scoring. I did not get a stick.

After the race we sat around chatting drinking cider and having some snacks. Photos were taken old friendships rekindled while new friendships were made. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how much you change, there’s a lot to be said for going home.

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

-Tennyson

See photos from the race at the Lowell Sun.

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