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The Runner
by Steve Slavin




When I was twelve, we had a rare family outing in Manhattan. First, we saw the spectacular movie, Ivanhoe, at the beautiful Roxy, a large theater near Rockefeller Center. It starred Robert Taylor, Joan Fontaine, Elizabeth Taylor, who had just turned twenty.  Just a few years later, I would get to relive part of that experience.



Several Saturday mornings in the fall, my high school cross country team would assemble on platform at the Kings Highway station, which is now a stop on the Q and B lines. From there, we’d make the two-hour trek from Brooklyn to Van Cortlandt Park, way up in the Bronx.

What I found amazing was the colorful array of runners awaiting the starting gun for the two-and-a-half-mile race through the hilly woods of the park. Because I am blessed with a photographic memory, I can still tell you the school colors of most of the teams.

I can still picture the George Washington runners in their orange and black uniforms, the guys from the Erasmus team in their buff (yellowish) and blue, Boys High in black and red, Midwood and Lincoln in blue and white, and of course, my own school, Madison, in black and gold.

That’s when I flashed back to Ivanhoe. I thought of those knights lined up, grasping their spears, ready to charge into battle. Seeing a cross country race for the first time, I felt like I was participating in a medieval competition. Maybe because it was so colorful.

Five hundred runners were lined up, ready to charge across a wide meadow, and then converge on a relatively narrow path leading into the woods. Decades before the New York marathon, Van Cortlandt Park had its own share of human traffic jams.

One morning, three or four races were held. After running in the first race, I changed into my band uniform, along with a couple of my team-mates. We would be playing at Madison’s football game back in Brooklyn. Our coach, who picked up a few extra bucks as a referee, would drive us to the game.

As we were headed towards his car, the last race was about to start. I opened my case and took out my trombone. We were standing about a hundred feet in front of the starting line, very close to the race starter. I heard him yell into a megaphone, “Take your marks!”

Five hundred runners toed the starting line, looking straight ahead.

“Get set!”

Just as he raised his gun, everyone was startled by the sound of a trombone playing a fanfare – just like the one played at race tracks before the start of a race:

 Dah dah dah DAH-duh-duh  DAH-duh-duh  DAH DAH DAH DAHHHHH

 DAH dah dah DAH-duh-duh   DAH dah DAH-duh-duh DAHHHHH

The race starter lowered his gun and began screaming at me. Our coach, off in the distance, was wondering what was going on. Some of the runners began laughing. Others looked pretty angry. I imagined hundreds of medieval knights charging, their spears and flags leveled at me. One of the other band members suggested that we get out of there before the race starter shot us.



Our last cross country race was the Brooklyn Champs. Instead of being held on a Saturday morning, the race was scheduled on a weekend afternoon. There were about two hundred runners representing nearly thirty schools. Sam Gordon of Automotive, Al Gasser of Midwood, and Ritchie Creditor of Madison; they were the favorites. (Yeah, I can remember names too.)  I knew, of course, that those of us who were not near the front of the pack would lose fifteen or twenty seconds at the convergence point.

I decided to go out fast. I don’t mean that I intended to sprint. But I figured if I stayed with Ritchie, I could save those precious seconds.

Things worked out well. Ritchie, Sam, Al, and I led the pack going into the woods. But there was no way I could keep up the pace. Still, I not only won a medal, but I beat my best time by thirty seconds.

A few minutes later, all of us were getting dressed in the clubhouse. I overhead a few guys from another team talking about the race. One of them was saying, “When I saw Slavin there at the front, I said to myself, “What’s he doing up there?”



A decade later, I had a neighbor named Clarence Richie, who ran twenty-six miles twice a week,

just for the fun of it. He turned me on to his bridge run, which he did on his "easy" days.

We lived on the Lower Eastside, just off Delancey Street, so we began our run on the

Williamsburg Bridge. From there we headed along Myrtle Ave to Dumbo and then over

the Brooklyn Bridge. Once again in Manhattan, we threaded our way through Chinatown and

back to the Lower Eastside.


If the Brooklyn Bridge had just a handful of pedestrians, the Williamsburg Bridge was almost

totally deserted. I rarely encountered more than a couple of people when I would do my

usual round trip. But my fondest memory was when a guy asked me for a cigarette.

Later, I thought of an answer, which actually made no sense: Don't you know that running

is bad for smoking?


There were even fewer people on the Manhattan Bridge. I ran across just a few times and don't remember ever seeing a soul. It was kind of creepy, but that still didn't compare with the stretch at the Brooklyn entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge, where you had to run about fifteen feet below the subway tracks.


Sometimes people ask me if I ever ran a marathon. The answer is "yes and no." Back in 1962,

I did run in Boston. I was twenty-two, and should have been in the best shape in my life. But

I was working full time, going to grad school at night, and also attending occasional army

reserve meetings.


That did not leave a lot of time of training. In fact, the best I did was one or two five-mile runs

a week. To this day, I am embarrassed to admit that.


My race strategy was on a par with my training regimen. I would go out fast and hold the lead as long as I could. Because there were just 181 runners, this would be possible.


I did go out fast -- much too fast. I led for a few hundred yards, but then I got a terrible stitch in my side. I was clutching my ribs as runner after runner jogged by. Soon I recovered, but now my goal was just to finish. I remember reaching the five-mile mark in Framingham, the ten-mile mark in Natick. But by then, for the first time in a race, I had stopped running.


I would walk for a while, and then start jogging again. I passed the halfway mark near Wellesley College, but I knew that I would never make it all the way. My feet were blistered and I was dead last, far behind the guy in 180th place. A few minutes later, a kindly driver offered to take me to Boston.  


Just an hour after the first runners crossed the finish line, the Boston papers had the results of the race. Here are the words in the second paragraph of a first-page story:


“The fleeting glory of leading the pack went to Steve Slavin of Brooklyn. He was instantly pursued by Kurt Steiner. After a quarter mile Slavin clutched his side and dropped back, evidently because of the fast pace he had set."


When I showed the clip to Clarence and his good friend, Teddy, the two of them burst out laughing.


"What's so funny?" I asked. "You're laughing at me because I went out so fast?"


They just shook their heads, and couldn't stop laughing. Finally, they were able to explain why the article was so funny. It turned out that Kurt Steiner was well known for sprinting into the lead at the start of marathons.


Then Clarence added, "You must have gone out of there like a bat out of hell to beat that guy!"


Maybe thirty years later, I heard that Kurt Steiner was the director of a road race I'd be running in. I walked over to him and asked, "Mr. Steiner?"


"Yah?" He was in his late sixties or early seventies, and had what sounded like a German accent.


I handed him the clipping. A few seconds later he growled, "You vere zuh guy!!!"




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