119. The Runner

By Peter Fraenkel

Milton Senior School, Bulawayo, was a pale colonial imitation of a

British “public” school. And that, in case you do not know it, meant “private”. The subject most highly valued, by both pupils and teachers, was sport: Rugby, soccer, even tennis etc. However, for a pupil bored to tears by all sports – and I confess I am such a one – this was difficult.  So it was for one or two others – Fred, for example. But he was regarded with contempt by most of our mates.  I did not wish to be regarded with contempt.  I found a compromise: I decided to train for the mile and to run this distance at the annual sports day. This was not an easy task, as everybody knew.

Running this distance needs training – so for a month or two before the great event I practised every day, stepping up my distance, step by step. I found it hard, but kept at it.  Several times, winded, I was on the point of giving up: Much more sensible to sit on the grass, pull a book from my pocket and settle down to read. But I didn’t. Some onlooker always called out to encourage me “You’re doing well”, even though I knew I wasn’t. Was this a joke? And I‘ve always had a bloody-minded streak. Did they think I couldn’t do it?  I’d show them.

The distance around the school grounds, including the rugby and the soccer fields and the tennis courts had been measured. All these years later I’ve forgotten how many circuits made a mile, but in those days I knew exactly.

A day or two before the annual sports day I developed a stitch.  But to give up after weeks of training? No! I did some exercises and overcame the stitch.

On the great day some 30 or more lads entered to run the mile. By the second circuit two or three of us had fallen behind. Way behind! Before long we were one entire circuit behind the front runners. One of the rear guard pulled out and sat down by the side of the track. Was there any point in continuing? Yes, there was! I ran on, panting.

Loud applause greeted the first handful to finish the race but I was still an entire track circuit away from goal. I plodded on. One of the other stragglers gave up. I carried on, stitch or no stitch.

Some spectators started to lose interest and went for an ice cream. I ran on. So did two other stragglers. Then one of these gave up. That left two of us – a rear guard of two who passed the terminus post.

We were greeted by a roar of applause. Sarcastic? I had not yet learnt enough about this foreign ethos: This applause was genuine. Despite my obvious lack of talent as a sportsman, I had not given up. Other far better sportsmen, had. Looking at the faces surrounding me I realised this applause was not sarcastic.

Several lads I hardly knew ran up and clapped me on the back. “Good old Pete!”

I wasn’t used to this.

I was discovering things about this alien ethos.