Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Beyond Fair Hope

by Mark Cullen

for Andrew and Tessa

Copyright 2019. Mark Cullen/Trackerati.com. All Rights Reserved.
Olympiastadion, Berlin, August 13, 2018, 12:30am
photo by Yujia Dou
In year of blessings beyond fair hope

It’s not a momentous decision to retire

It’s not kind farewells

It’s not an epic 5-week track and field trip in Europe

It’s not “Why Germany?”

It’s not Olaf and Thomas and Dave and Yujia and Michelle and Phil and Matt

It’s not French sportswriters to my left in Berlin

It’s not standing on a dais in Coos Bay with Billy and Linda

It’s not old pictures with a new friend

It’s not IAAF the night before USATF

Not Mondo Mania

It's not even “Carma”

Or Carla

Not the Weltklasse and the Van Damme at long, long last

It’s not LeBron and Robert

Not Shalane, Tshepang, or Blake

It’s not even the night of uncommon kindness at Safeco Field

It’s who was there with me

My new friends, my new neighbors

In a year of blessings beyond fair hope

These are the greatest blessings of all.

Beyond Fair Hope

In year of blessings beyond fair hope
I could never have asked more of a year. As the good rolled in, I held my breath - time after time - and waited for the crash to come.

It didn’t.

In any single year, any one of the people and events referenced here would have been the signature highlight of a memorable year.

It’s not a momentous decision to retire
It was just another Sunday evening in March. I was at my dining room table correcting a stack of essays – something I always enjoyed. In my 41st year in education (in various incarnations: teacher, coach, athletic director), I had gone to a ¾ time contract, which meant two things: I had more flexibility for appointments, and I baked Christmas cookies for the first time in decades.

I had been working with the school on a half-time contract for the next year, and thought I might well teach for several more.

Halfway through the assignments I looked up and said, “You know what you need to do.”

To make sure, I gave myself this task: “Write down what you’re going to.”

That was easy. My future couldn’t have been clearer.

“It’s time.”

We had an inservice day the following Friday; I had decided that’s when I’d tell our Head of School. But Tuesday at lunch he sat down across from me. The Middle School principal was at the end of the table, and the Academic Dean – the one who’d been so helpful with the contract discussions – showed up moments later.

The administrative harmonic convergence was at hand.

Deep breath and I changed my life.

It’s not kind farewells
The school couldn’t have been more gracious on my way out, and at two separate events, longtime friends and colleagues Karen James and Deb Playter gave the kinds of speeches that left little doubt as to what likely would be said at my funeral. I can’t imagine two people better qualified to put the ‘fun’ back into funeral.

It’s not an epic 5-week track and field trip in Europe
This is the future I imagined.

However, the launch (first, a plumbing emergency in my house five hours before my plane was to leave – without me, as it turned out; and, as I arrived two days later, the Frankfurt airport closed and in chaos due to a security breach) wasn’t quite the joyful beginning I had in mind.

Nonetheless, after a 23-hour travel ordeal, I was in Olympiastadion in Berlin for the European Championships. Never more tired or, surprisingly, more focused, two of my articles that week soared into my top six most-widely read out of over 200. Apparently, I should write while exhausted more often.

My grand tour took me to Zurich for the Weltklasse and Brussels the next day for the Van Damme Memorial. Thank you, scheduling gods, for putting a few days between these events in 2019.
Letzigrund Stadium
Home of the Weltklasse
Zurich, Switzerland
Then, back to Berlin for the ISTAF meet and 2012 Olympic discus champion Robert Harting’s farewell. Who knew I’d encounter not only Harting but a certain US basketball player, too?

I was never more in the writing zone. In my five weeks on the road, readership for my website more than tripled, and six of my top ten articles bear the copyright date of 2018.

The last stop on my tour was the Continental Cup in Ostrava, Czech Republic, where I met with IAAF Heritage Director, Chris Turner, at the site of IAAF Hertitage's first public exhibition. We discussed how my running shoe and memorabilia collections could be helpful in telling Eugene’s track and field history at the 2021 World Championships. 

As we concluded, he said, “And I’ll be in touch regarding Doha.” There a more extensive display will be mounted in conjunction with the 2019 World Championships.

Sometimes the trip is about more than the writing.

It’s not “Why Germany?”
For a dyed-in-the-wool distance devotee from the University of Oregon, who knew that I’d take such an interest in the throws?  

I have an ongoing conversation with two of Germany’s javelin greats, 2016 Olympic Champion Thomas Rohler and 2018 World #1 Andreas Hofmann, about why Germany is the dominant throwing country in the world right now. 

“Why Germany?” became a theme of our summertime interviews.
Colin Jackson interviewing Andreas Hofmann and Thomas Rohler
Letzigrund Stadium, Zurich

August 29, 2018
It’s not Olaf and Thomas and Dave and Yujia and Michelle and Phil and Matt
The most wonderful part of this new life is, of course, the people, and these writers – and many more - enrich my life more than they know. 

It’s not French sportswriters to my left in Berlin
I didn’t get to know the French sportswriters very well, but there they were - all five of them - to my left on press row at the European Championships every night. Even though we didn’t speak much, we always acknowledged and welcomed each other as we occupied the same air space. 

It was on the last night I realized they – all easily half my age – were looking out for me. As they got ready to leave after midnight, they asked if I'd be OK. Gracious farewells, but they didn’t leave until they knew I had a stadium exit plan. I was writing “Mondo Mania” and wouldn’t leave until 2:30am, well after the trains stopped running.
With Yujia Dou
Olympiastadion, Berlin
August 13, 2018
Photo was taken by one of the French sportswriters referenced above.

As Yujia Dou is from China, three continents were represented in the creation of this image.
It’s not standing on a dais in Coos Bay with Billy and Linda
Linda Prefontaine brought Billy Mills to Coos Bay, Oregon, in October, and the 1964 Olympic 10,000m gold medalist thrilled every audience he engaged with.  I let drop that I had introduced Mills at an event in Everett, WA, in 2005, and Linda gave me the distinct honor of introducing Billy Mills in Steve Prefontaine’s hometown. 

This was not the only memorable moment brought my way by Prefontaine this year. She also invited me to accompany her to the inauguration of her brother into the National High School Track and Field Hall of Fame in New York in February. 

Livin' the dream.

Billy Mills and Linda Prefontaine
Steve Prefontaine Murals
Coos Bay, OR

Linda Prefontaine introducing Billy Mills
Marshfield High School
Coos Bay, OR

It's not old pictures with a new friend. 
The single-most time-intensive project of the year was bringing to light Joe Head's photographic treasures of a 1968 meet at the Echo Summit (CA) High Altitude Training Camp. A classic example of how the internet can not only give this historical record new life, but of how it can link two people together who otherwise would likely never have connected. 
Jim Ryun 
wins the 1500m
Echo Summit, CA
August 31, 1968
Joe Head photograph
It’s not IAAF the night before USATF
Earlier in the year I had submitted a profile of US 800m runner Drew Windle – silver medalist at the 2018 World Indoors – to IAAF. I knew they would publish it at some point, but had no idea when. After the USATF press conference in Des Moines, Iowa, the day before outdoor nationals began in June, I drove to Ames to visit my brother, Matthew, and his family. It was only after everyone had turned in for the evening that I checked my social media - and it had exploded. IAAF had published the story as their lead-in article for US nationals.

Not Mondo Mania
My friends at IAAF’s Spikes Magazine got ahold of this article and sent it out to the athletics world. Over 400 people responded to it directly, and it reached almost 600,000 people on Twitter. It was boosted by the retweet of a certain Olympic pole vault gold medalist; when Renaud Lavillenie retweets a link to your article, over 300,000 followers receive it in an instant. http://www.trackerati.com/2018/08/mondo-mania.html
Mondo Duplantis scaling the pole vault heights
in winning the European Championships
in the = #2 outdoor vault ever.

6.05m/19' 10 1/4"

Note how high Duplantis is over the bar.
Photographer Jeff Cohen captured the magic moment
in my choice for track and field photo of the year.
It’s not even “Carma”
I took some lumps on this one as the humor in my post was misunderstood by some. I wasn’t making fun of the safety issue involved when the screening around the USATF hammer throw venue in Des Moines was inadequate – not even close. I was, however, interested in how the universe responds when you park illegally near that venue and a hammer gets loose (the hammer bounced and added a chapter to an already well-storied vehicle). My short photo essay of this event enjoyed a vigorous 24-hour life online.

Or Carla
The support staff of these meets make all the difference in how we experience them, and when it seemed all was lost when it came to finding a media souvenir backpack at the Van Damme, Carla worked some wonders and one magically appeared. I still fear that she gave up hers for me; nonetheless, there is Seattle smoked salmon in her future this summer.

Not the Weltklasse and the Van Damme at long, long last
If ever I felt I paid an unnecessary price (in track terms) for working so many years, it came with the Weltklasse (Zurich) and Van Damme Memorial (Brussels) meets. These iconic single-day events always fell during the first two weeks of school. It was painful to know these were taking place as I was 10,000 km away in what were similar school meetings for the 37th – 38th – 39th times. Though I had been to nine World Championships and two Olympics, I hadn't been to these. It was high time to close the gap.

Few people on the planet have ever arrived at these meets as joyfully as I - and the waits were worth every exhilarating moment these two meets had to offer. This year, they were held within 28 hours of each other. Never was there a more fun train trip than the 6:00am from Zurich to Brussels after we all were writing until 1:00am earlier that morning.

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that my stats-based report on the historic Brussels men’s 5000m soared to be my #1 most widely read piece. My joy and excitement in being there, and my wonder at the performances, was reflected in an article I hadn't anticipated writing. The magic of the unexpected - 18 year-old Selemon Barega's 12:43.02 5,000m is #4 all-time - was thrilling to watch.
Selemon Barega after winning 2017 U20 3000m title.
Photo credit: Getty Images for 2017 IAAF
It’s not LeBron and Robert
Only I could inadvertently photobomb LeBron James and 2012 Olympic discus champion, Robert Harting, at the ISTAF Meet in Berlin.
Duo with Dufus
Matt Lynch photo
Matt Lynch, my new writing mate from Australia, recorded this for posterity.
Not Shalane, Tshepang, or Blake
I came to appreciate - in a way I hadn’t before - the relationships I’ve built with athletes over time, including athletes I met well before I began my website five-and-a-half years ago.
Shalane Flanagan winning the
2017 New York City Marathon
photo credit: New York Road Runners
One of those who came back this year was Blake Preece, who I had featured in my 2017 story about Linda Prefontaine’s Tour de Pre. I met Blake – now all of 20 – in the Hayward Field stands just before the start of the Prefontaine Classic. 

“It feels like you’re jumping off the pages of my website,” I said.

Before I left he asked me to stay for an extra moment.

“I want to show you something.”

He turned on his phone and my article popped up – as it does every time he turns on his phone.

You never know where it lands.
Mark Cullen and Blake Preece
Prefontaine Classic
May 26, 2018

It’s not even the night of uncommon kindness at Safeco Field
It’s who was there with me
My new friends, my new neighbors
In a year of blessings beyond fair hope
These are the greatest blessings of all.

A tumultuous day was over – my retirement day from school. Andrew Schneider, new to our school, and I were in the group office. I was decompressing and looking forward to a quiet evening at home. My style is the quiet and the internal, and I looked forward to catching my breath.

It was a Friday in June, however, and it was hard not to notice that the Red Sox were in town.

“I’m thinking of going,” I said.

“I could do that…”

It was the first time I met Andrew’s wife, Tessa - they’re both over half my age younger - and in four hours they pulled off quite a surprise. Andrew had said they would ‘get the tickets’ – did they ever.

First base side.

First row.

Their memorably generous treat.

Andrew was colleague and co-teacher, and by the time I decided to retire, a good friend - one who lived only three blocks away. Already I had lived in the same house for 41 years; now with friends in the next generation in the neighborhood, I felt more anchored than ever.

Andrew and I shared teaching duties for 6th grade geography; little did I know this would turn into a double-edged sword. I came to realize early in our work together that his talent would make it easier for me to retire, as the 6th grade geography curriculum I care so deeply about would be in such imaginative and creative hands. 

Ironic that just at the time I worried considerably that my extended family would contract as I went from seeing so many people every day to far fewer, it expanded.

My work on the Echo Summit story caught Andrew’s eye one day.

“Tessa and I met at a camp nearby,” he said of the Stanford Sierra Camp.

When Thanksgiving hosts asked what it’s like to be around two Stanford graduates, I said that I hung in there and tried to hold my own, but they were right to perceive a problem.

“Their dog’s a genius, too,” I said.

“Now that’s rough!” they replied.

I wrote the front page in November, and since then, there have been some wonderful life changes. By far the most joyous is that Andrew and Tessa are expecting their first child. Already they’ve moved to a house that will accommodate their new future far better than their beautiful, hip, urban apartment would. It’s the second time in a year we’ll have to be intentional about this unlikely friendship of ours; while they have moved, our friendship has not.

In my experience, we don’t get many years like the one I just had. It’s time for me to hand off the baton to Andrew, Tessa and their child, and share the wealth.

It’s their turn for a year beyond fair hope. 

Billy Mills (left)
walking down the hallway of Marshfield High School

Coos Bay, OR
October 30, 2018

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