Not all that long ago I was reading a comment that someone who was much younger than I am had made about the Netflix show Stranger Things, which is set during the 1980s. I don't remember the commenter's exact words, but they expressed disbelief that middle-school-aged children would have been riding bikes all over town without their parents knowing where they were. A bunch of my fellow Generation Xers chimed in to say that this detail in the show was one hundred percent accurate.
Safety did not seem to be a big concern in my childhood. We rode our bikes without helmets,--probably couldn't even have bought a helmet if we wanted one. Our parents only ever had a vague idea of where we might be at any point in time. Child carseats didn't exist except for the very smallest of infants. Strangely enough, most of us survived into adulthood.
I feel like I need to preface my embarrassing story with this explanation, because I know that there are going to be some young'uns out there who will declare the story a blatant mistruth since they could never imagine a sports coach doing something so unsafe.
When I was in high school I ran cross-country. It was a small enough team that the girls and boys teams practiced together and had a single coach. She was a good but demanding person. She also came up with some questionable "fun" activities to make out practices interesting.
One of those activities was something called caterpillar runs. For a caterpillar run, a group of runners were arranged one behind the other in a line and tied together at the waist. This being cross country our caterpillar run was also a race with two caterpillars trying to race each other. Our coach divided us into two mixed gender groups, then arranged each caterpillar group by height.
In my particular caterpillar this meant that I was the second to last set of legs in our group. Although it's not always a one to one calculation in this case it also happened that I was the second to last slowest runner in our group. Right now you might be thinking to yourself that this "fun" activity sounds more like torture. Yes, welcome to the world of cross country.
One small mercy was that on this particular day we were running our caterpillar race on the track and the track was made of rubber. So, I guess it all could have been much worse. Our race got underway, and things were fine at first. Those of us at the back of the pack were running as fast as we could to keep up and those at the front were breezing along at a slightly slower pace than they were used to. Then something went wrong.
Somehow too much slack developed between me and the boy immediately in front of me. Maybe my coach had left too much rope there when she was tying us up or maybe I was running at a slightly quicker pace and was too close to him. I'm not really sure. What I do know is that I was intensely focused on running the race and not so focused on what was going on down at foot level.
I didn't realize that the rope had somehow gotten looped around my ankle until it was too late. I made a valiant effort to stay upright even as my one leg was being jerked violently forward. The girl behind me and the boy in front of me realized what was going on, but also realized that nothing could be done to fix the situation until we stopped. There were shouts and attempts to jerk on the rope to get the front-runners to stop, but the message didn't reach the front of the line before I lost my battle to stay upright.
I went down, but the caterpillar kept moving forward and I was dragged along the rubber track like a tin can tied to a newlywed's bumper. It felt like I was dragged a good fifty meters, but it probably wasn't that far. With my deadweight pulling on the rope, the message reached the front of the caterpillar soon enough. We lost the race that day and I lost a fair amount of dignity and some skin on my leg, but thankfully I lost neither my leg nor my life.
If memory serves correct, I was back practicing the next day despite my mortification and mild injury. But cross country runners are a tough lot. and I feel like those grueling practices my coach concocted for us made us extra tough.
One notable thing about our home course was that it went through a stream, not over a stream, but through it. It wasn't particularly deep. Unless there had recently been heavy rain it was under a foot deep, but it was wide enough that you couldn't jump across it. It was a nice thing because it gave us a slight advantage over the runners from the visiting team who would often pause ever so slightly when they came upon the water hazard as they navigated a way across. It also meant that you always finished the race with one sopping wet shoe, or in the case of one of the boys on the team, with only one shoe after he lost his wet shoe sometime after traversing the stream during one race. Another boy on our team crossed the finish line a little later carrying a shoe in his hands and shouting, "Did anyone lose a shoe?"
A year or two after I graduated the parent of one of the runners on the team built a bridge over that stream. It ushered in an era of bike helmets and child carseats, and I can only hope an end to torturous caterpillar runs. I'd like to think that my own embarrassing high school moment helped to make the world a little bit safer for the generations that have followed.
Alissa Grosso survived cross-country practice and a remarkably unsafe childhood and now writes books for teens and adults. Find out more about her and her books at alissagrosso.com.