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Races that recharge memory

Moe Johnson Running with Moe

Races that recharge memory

Sunday, November 19, 2023

There are times when the situation has a person recalling events or races that happened many years ago. It is even more special when those events are written in a book and you can read and recall the stories from the past. This past week I received a book from when I taught at Northern Arizona University in the late 60s and early 70’s.

The book is titled, “Running Up The Mountain,” by Matt Baxter and Ron Mann. The book is a history of the cross country and track teams from early beginnings to the point where NAU is the number 1 cross country team in the nation today.

The cross country and track programs were virtually non-existent around 1967. A teammate of mine in football, track, and some wrestling is the main focus of the book. Leo “Red” Haberlack had just returned from the army to Minot State University in North Dakota in 1957 when I was going to school. We played football together and were part of the relay teams in track during those years. Dale Brown, who went on to coach at LSU and recruited Shaq was also part of the teams.

Red was the assistant football coach and head track coach at Minot when he received a phone call from his former athletic director, Ted Keck. Keck was now the athletic director at NAU and wanted Red to head up the track program. So, 1967 Red and his wife pulled up stakes from Minot and moved to Flagstaff to coach track.

Flagstaff, Arizona is 6,909 feet above sea level and is at the base of the San Francisco Peaks which are in the range of 12,000 feet. For runners, and even football players, running in an atmosphere that is lacking in oxygen takes some time to acclimatize the body to these conditions.

When I moved there in 1967 from West Point my pulse rate went from the low 50’s to a resting rate of 82. I thought maybe it was the fact that the three day drive to Flagstaff was the reason. I decided to take a quick run around the block to get the pulse rate back to normal.

It only took until the first breath that I learned that running in high altitude is much different than sea level running.

And the first attempt at running while reaching the top of the San Francisco Peaks was the first time I thought I was going to die there.

Ironically, Ted Keck came to Texas State to be the physical education chairman when it was SWTSU and the men’s and women’s programs were separate. Keck combined the two programs and now the men majors had to take courses like kinesiology and exercise physiology in-stead of football, basketball, and track coaching classes. It was a change not all men athletes appreciated.

The key to the development and recognition of NAU was when the Olympics were awarded to Mexico City in 1968. Since Flagstaff was at an elevation almost the same as Mexico City many track athletes came and trained there.

For a fitness runner like myself it was an experience to watch Olympic athletes like Billy Mills, George Young and Jim Ryan train and sit at table with them sharing a meal. I shared an office with Red and George Young so I learned a lot about running. My one tidbit of information was in a conversation with Young when we were talking about a finishing kick. I thought that a runner needed to increase the stride length to run faster. George said, “No, you need to shorten the stride and increase the recovery rate.” He said, “I will be on television tonight in an indoor two mile run. Watch me on the final lap and you will see what I mean.” I watched and sure enough when the last lap came he shortened his stride and ran away from the pack to victory.

The recollection of a ‘mini-Olympic’ track meet was also highlighted. Athletes from all over the world had been training there and Flagstaff had a track meet for these athletes. I was a timer for the running events and looking back at the quality of the people assigned to timers and pickers we were terrible. There were some 3rd place times that were faster than the winning time and when pickers went to find the second or third place runner in the 100 meter dash there were times when two pickers chose the same runner. Fortunately there was a person that took photos of the finish and we were able to determine the correct place winners.

Looking back at the finish there were eight runners in a line crossing within a yard of each other and you tell a person to pick the third place runner is an almost impossible task. Good days to recall and remember.

A side note was the German weight lifters weights had not arrived yet.

I had the only Olympic set and they used mine. When they left I got their new set.

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