Road to Tokyo: The Healing Factor
Coach Thompson and I are having a brief meeting. It is a sunny morning with a forecast of 72° by mid-afternoon. I have just finished an incredible workout. The golf course is closed today so I did what I call “tee to greens”: Sprinting from the tee box to alongside the putting green as fast as I can run without losing composure, continuing this until I have completed 18 holes of golf.
Cary Weisiger, who had just finished his tour of duty as a 1st Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, had introduced me to the workout. Cary is a world-class miler. He was ranked #4 in the world in 1963 and is the American record-holder in the 1500-meter. Unfortunately, he has been plagued with an injury this season. Timing is everything to an athlete.
Coach asked me if I had already worked out today. I said, “Yes, tee to greens, Coach. Followed by a hard 10-mile run.” Not showing his usual captivating smile (since he knows how challenging tee to greens are), Coach Thompson quietly said, “How are your legs?” His expression conveyed concern.
I replied, “They are getting very sore now but didn’t bother me too much during today’s workout.” He felt the front of my shins and I flinched. With a firm look, he gently said, “Shin splints. We need to confirm how severe, Billy. They can cause stress fractures.”
Now my expression must have spoken volumes, because, with his smile that I was counting on more and more each week, he confidently said, “We still have time, Billy. Keep believing!”
It is April 7, 1964, and I went to the doctor’s office early this morning. He confirmed I had a mild to moderate form of shin splints. He arranged a series of ultrasound treatments and showed me how to tape my shins. He recommended one week of rest and reminded me it will only get worse, and the pain more severe, if I did not rest. He finished by saying neglect can lead to a stress fracture.
It’s mid-afternoon and I am at the track. Coach Thompson knew I did not want to take time off and said he would explore my options, along with potential consequences. Then I could decide what to do.
Coach and I discussed our concerns and came up with two options:
1. Rest for seven days and come back cautiously, or
2. Change my long runs from blacktop roads to soft dirt engineering roads and softer dusty trails.
Coach suggested option #1, but I chose option #2.
Since I still had to do my workout today, I said I was going to start exploring the dirt engineering roads and dusty trails.
Coach said, “Watch out for rattlesnakes!”
We parted, and 26 miles later I was back at the track. Thanks to a familiar orange orchard, two oranges kept me from going low blood sugar. And yes, I saw a large rattlesnake!
While I was on my run, Coach marked off a 440-yard distance on the grass parade field so I could do my track workouts. I had my own grass track! Can you believe it? Well, I was the only one who used it, so I called it my grass track.
It’s now Thursday, May 14 and I have been doing endurance, work-speed endurance, and speed work for six weeks. All on dirt roads, dirt trails, and my own grass track. My workouts have been very encouraging; however, I am constantly thinking maybe I should have taken the seven days off, then started back slowly.
My shin splints have gotten worse and the doctor recently confirmed plantar fasciitis in my right foot. I now have metatarsal pads in my shoes and hope to be getting orthotics. The pain can be unbearable when I do speed workouts. Tomorrow I will run the 5,000 meters in a meet at the LA Coliseum.
It will only be my second attempt to see how I am doing training through my races so I can hopefully gain some additional training time. My goal is to meet the Olympic qualifying time in the 5,000 meters.
It is early evening, May 15, 1964. The starter’s pistol is raised and we hear “Set!” The pistol is fired and we are underway. As I expected, my legs are tired since I am finishing a hard 85-mile week of training with this 5,000-meter race.
I take the lead to set a pace that will be under the Olympic qualifying time so I will not have to rely on a strong finishing kick to achieve it. Bill Baillie from New Zealand goes with me.
Baillie is an excellent runner and has a chance of winning an Olympic medal in the 5,000 meters or the 10,000 meters for his country and he has an impressive finishing kick. I am actually feeling better as the laps go by. I lead for the first two miles, then Baillie charges to the front, taking the lead and moving hard. I went with him. We break the field. The race was now between the two of us. One more lap to go, I take the lead but make a novice mistake perhaps because of the pain in my shins. I don’t move fast enough. Baillie settles in right behind me and with 200 meters to go, starts his power kick. He opens 12 yards on me and I can’t close.
I finish 2nd.
My teammate Don Jeisy comes running up to me and says, “Congratulations, you met the Olympic qualifying time! First step is accomplished.” He is referring to the process of becoming an Olympian:
1. We have to meet an Olympic qualifying time,
2. Qualify for our Olympic Trials from one of several designated meets, and
3. Finish in the Top 3 places at our Olympic Trials.
I go to join Don in the stands and I hear a voice say, “Nice race, Billy!” I look around and to my surprise, it is former KU track teammate Wilt Chamberlain, of basketball fame. We have a great visit. The track meet is over. I start to get up and feel the sharp pain.
It is Monday, May 18 and I do a hard 10-mile run that morning. In the afternoon I follow up with speed work. My total mileage for the day: 19 miles.
I am in a lot of pain. I know what I have to do. I tell Coach Thompson I will forgo the 5,000 meters and focus on the 10,000 meters and the marathon. He agrees and we joke about watching the Olympics together on television with its 4-hour satellite delay if we didn’t get my injuries healed up!
In deciding what to do about training and healing, we start by reviewing my last 6 weeks of training. April 6, 1964, to today, May 18.
We will look at the training, then the highlights, and make adjustments based on where we think my progress stands.
We decide my condition is excellent and if I could run without the pain and going low blood sugar, my times just may be world-class.
Coach and I agree we will take the next month to heal and just try to maintain my fitness. My next race will be the All Military Championships on June 5th at Quantico, Virginia.
It is now June 4, 1964. The Camp Pendleton Track and Field team is in Quantico, Virginia for the All-Military Track and Field Championships.
Tomorrow, June 5 is the final for the 10,000-meter run. The winner qualifies for the USA Olympic Trials.
I am still injured. For the past month, I have been resting my injuries. Unfortunately, the healing process is going slowly.
My training has been minimum, but I have done some ocean swimming and continue getting ultrasound treatments. I have not done any running in the last eight days.
If there is a silver lining to my challenges, perhaps it’s that Patricia, Christy and I have been going to the beach a lot. While she and Christy build sandcastles, I run on the wet sand and then do ocean swimming, trying to save my cardiovascular conditioning.
It has also given Patricia and me an opportunity to visit some of the amusement parks in Southern California. We took Christy to Disneyland; she loved the characters and attractions, even though she is only 14 months old.
The last attraction I took her to was President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It’s never too early to start learning about our country’s history, right? However at “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought”---- Christy is sound asleep! But she loved Cinderella and Mickey Mouse!
Perhaps the love of family and the innocence of youth is where we find our greatest strength to heal.
See you next month!