Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rattlesnake Shuffle

The previous post reminded me of a story.  It has nothing to do with oaks, but it had me laughing to myself as I jogged yesterday though the dwarf oaks lining the (rattlesnake infested) hills above my new California home.

For me the most compelling piece of sports footage ever is when Bob Beamon set the world record in the long jump at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. No, he destroyed the old record*.  The raw statistics are astounding.  29 feet, 2 1/2 inches.  Up until that time the long jump record had been bested 13 times since 1901 (once every five years), by an average of 2 1/2 inches each time.  Beamon broke the existing record by 21 3/4 inches, and his record stood for 23 years.

But as amazing as the numbers are, it is the actual footage of the leap that is the most astounding.  And heartbreaking.  Beamon runs with the fluidity of a cheetah toward the board and launches himself into the stratosphere where he... just... floats.  This was before the hitch kick came into vogue.  Today's long jumpers pedal and imaginary bicycle across the sky.  Better for distance, but definitely less poetic.  Beamon just literally floated.  And floated.  And forgot to come down. Almost as though his body so enjoyed the feeling of floating in the air that it refused to come down.

When he finally does surrender to gravity and return to Earth, he bounds out of the pit.  He knows he nailed it.  He knows it was a great jump.  He's literally skipping while waiting for the distance to be posted.  There's a delay in posting the distance - probably because the judges know that the distance they are coming up with can't possibly be correct.  And when the distance is finally posted three things happen in rapid succession:  Beamon's eyes get huge, the crowd erupts, and Beamon collapses on the ground in a sobbing heap - a man who knows that he is not physically capable of doing what he just did.

* A fellow competitor later told Beamon that he had "destroyed" the long jump for future competitors.

That record stood until 1991.  The great Carl Lewis never broke it.  Mike Powell broke it.  By 2 inches.  Hitch kick and all.

Officially, Mike Powell's record still stands.  Unofficially, Powell's record was broken in 2003 in Tucson, AZ.  By me.  No, I didn't break his record.  I destroyed it.

As I said in the previous post I often ran in a dry wash near our Tucson home.  For company I often brought a Walkman that was so old it played cassette tapes.  Usually though I listened to the radio.  When it worked.  The Walkman was on the fritz (probably the result of being subjected to about 3 gallons of salt water every time I ran in that scorching heat) and the radio came in and out.

One day the radio had gone silent for so long I completely forgot I had it with me and that I had headphones on.  Mid afternoon, approximately 132 degrees in the shade (I'm only guessing, because this was Tucson - there is no shade).

All of a sudden I heard the tssssssstttttt of a rattlesnake's rattle and it was RIGHT NEXT TO ME.  At that moment I put both Bob Beamon and Mike Powell to shame.  I went airborne - taking the "hitch kick" technique to a whole new level.  In fact I was running at top speed while in midair.  Judges later recorded my leap at 39ft 6 3/4in.  I still think they cheated me out of five more feet.

After I landed, and after my heart started working again, and after I started breathing again (in other words, about 10 minutes after I landed) I heard... static.  In my head phones.

I hadn't heard a rattlesnake.  I had heard static, suddenly kicking in after radio silence for the previous hour.  Static.  The local Gambel quail, javelinas and cactus wrens were treated to the sight of a grown man sitting in the sand laughing at what an idiot he is.

No one has ever understood how Bob Beamon was able to crush the long jump record by 21 3/4 inches in 1968.  Yes, Mexico City is at altitude, but the altitude was the same for everyone and they didn't jump 29 feet.

But now I know.  Bob Beamon thought there was a rattlesnake next to the take off board.  He just had the grace and elegance to float through the air, rather than flail in the air like a panic stricken fool.

Then again that flailing probably bought me an extra ten feet in distance.

Anyway, it's good for my heart to be back running in rattlesnake country.  And even better for my heart (in a different way) to be in country where acorns were the staple food until not much more than a century ago.

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