Winning a state high school track title when your team doesn't have a track isn't as strange as it may seem. Training on an access road is underrated, particularly once you know where all of the oil spots are. After you realize the sewer grate is in Lane 6 and the manhole cover is in Lane 5 -- or is it the other way around? -- the rest is a breeze.
Except when the occasional vehicle makes a wrong turn. Or when the city bus arrives, to pick up students. Or when the school bus does the same. How many running tracks make the afternoon traffic report?
"As you can see, it is not smooth,'' said coach Gerald Warmack, unintentionally metaphorical.
We stand on 200 meters of asphalt, out behind Shroder High in Cincinnati. Six running lanes are neatly and perfectly defined by white paint. A bend in the asphalt does actually approximate a turn on a track. It looks OK, at first glance. Then, we walk some, down the asphalt, a few hundred meters, to where the lanes ... dip.
"It's not level, either,'' Warmack said.
Maybe your high school football team shared its field with a herd of cows. Maybe your centerfielder dodged used cars on the warning track, or your basketball team played a 2-3 zone in between the first- and second-chair violins in the symphony. Slide your feet. Don't hit the tuba.
Everyone has played a sport in less-than-ideal surroundings. A slightly bent rim, base paths rutted by rain. If you haven't taken a bad-hop, must-of-hit-a-rock grounder to the face, you haven't played hardball.
This is different.
This isn't just an inconvenience, though everyone involved at Shroder calls it that. This is running as fast as you can while wondering: That school bus that was there a minute ago ... did it leak any grease on my lane?
This is making a baton exchange through a dip in the asphalt. The runner with the baton is sprinting downhill; the runner receiving it is trying to do the opposite. There is some science to passing a baton efficiently. The rest is purely physical. Unless, you know, there's a car in your lane.
"Sometimes, people looking to go to Fifth Third will miss the turn,'' Warmack explained. "That's when we stop practice.''
We should explain that Fifth Third is a bank, and that Fifth Third Bank's check processing center is next door. And that Shroder High is not in an urban area, but a commercial one. Fifth Third is here; a Coca-Cola bottling plant is there. In between those two substantial islands of commerce is a sea of parking. Shroder abuts both, and a busy road out front. It's a new school, built in 2007. It remains immaculate. It just doesn't have any land for athletic fields.
Its football field is just outside the back classroom windows. They call it The Clover Patch.
"We're kind of landlocked,'' Warmack explained. If you want to coach track at Shroder, you'd better be flexible."
Oh, one more thing.
The Shroder High girls' 4-x-100-meter relay team just won the Ohio Division II state championship. It burned up the 400 meters in 48.8 seconds, even with an imperfect exchange. "They truly earned that title,'' said Warmack.
Well, yeah. They paid the price in shin splints. And general soreness, hips to hamstrings. Tracks are rubber. Rubber relents. Asphalt is somewhat less forgiving. "I hate running on that driveway,'' said team member Toni Harkness. "But when I got on that track at state, it was a whole lot easier. I could just run.''
After dodging bus bumpers, an actual track felt like wind beneath her wings. I'm not sure what it says about a bunch of kids who catch a dream while running on a driveway. But it's not bad. What's even better, they're not impressed. "We set out to win it,'' said senior Domynique Shelby, "and that's what we did.''
The girls each won a medal. I asked Shelby where she keeps hers.
"On the printer,'' she said.
"On the printer at my house. It's holding down some papers. At least I think that's where it is.''
Shelby has suffered the most for her success. While teammates had occasional injury issues from running on the pavement, hers were chronic: "Both shins, hamstrings, hips and a quad,'' Warmack said.
Shroder underachieved in the regional meet last year, because so many of its athletes were recovering from asphalt wear and tear. This year, Warmack scaled back workouts. What had been 3,000 meters a week was cut to 2,000. They ran just one hard day a week. Also once a week, Warmack and his assistant, Chris Bishop, loaded up the 20 or so athletes in their two vehicles and shuttled them 10 minutes to a nearby high school with a track.
Warmack also entered his team in nearly twice as many meets as most high school teams typically enter, simply so his kids could have tracks to run on. He paid the entry fees himself.
That didn't solve the problem of the baton exchanges entirely. There is a 10-meter "acceleration zone'' in a relay, where the exchange must take place. If it doesn't, you're disqualified. Actual tracks have this area clearly marked. Warmack spray-painted red triangles at each end of his acceleration zone. Problem was, he didn't measure correctly at first. And because he's only working with 200 meters, his teams can't run an entire race. Exchanges are done individually in practice. There isn't much flow.
Two years ago, Shelby fell during an exchange. She didn't take off fast enough. The runner in the previous leg ran up Shelby's back. Literally. The accident haunted Shelby, even this year, Warmack said.
Then there was the dip and rise in the pavement, which happened to be right in the center of the acceleration zone. "The run-up was faulty all year long,'' Warmack said. "Practicing here made it next to impossible to get their marks correct.'' That is, the delicate timing was perpetually wobbly. In races decided by fractions of seconds, that could be a problem.
"If we can get the baton exchanged, we can outrun most people,'' Warmack said.
They didn't get it right in the state finals. Shelby ran the first leg. Her split time -- 11.8 seconds -- was the fastest of the race. But the exchange with Harkness was flawed. The girls were in fourth place, halfway through the race.
The previous year, they'd finished sixth in the state, less than three seconds behind the winner. Their two fastest and most experienced runners -- Harkness and Shelby -- returned. Warmack knew a state title in the 4-x-100 was in reach. "That's all we talked about,'' Warmack said. So much that, at one point during the season, Shelby told her coach to stop talking about it. "We know,'' she said.
Anyone heard using the word "can't'' was forced to do push-ups, coaches included. Bishop, a Cincinnati firefighter who doubles as assistant track coach and supervisor of Shroder's weight room, swears the relay team worked harder on lifting than the football team. "They knew what they wanted,'' Bishop said, "and what they needed to do to get it.''
It might be easy to forget the pain of running on asphalt, when you're gliding on rubber. The motivation was never forgotten, however. "We do wonder what we could do if we had a real track,'' said Bishop.
No better than what they did. No better than first place. The Jaguars went from fourth to tied for first in the third leg, then brought the title home in the anchor leg. Their winning time was 1.1 seconds faster than the second-place team. That was pounding some serious pavement. "Ran their hearts out,'' Warmack said.
There are no plans for Shroder to build a track, not unless Fifth Third Bank or Coca-Cola cede some of their extensive parking-lot acreage. The best Warmack and his athletes can do is what they've been doing. Negotiate the peaks and valleys and watch out for the oil slicks.
"The kids don't complain,'' said Warmack. "They just run.''