Thank God centipedes aren't cross country runners. Trying to coordinate 15-177 pairs of legs at the starting line would be nearly impossible. Fortunately most teams only have to deal with two legged creatures, a mere fraction of those agile arthropods, and yet at many a meet the start still gets messed up.
Runners on your marks...
I've never seen a centipede stumble and fall but there have been lots of cross country runners who have done so – before they even crossed the starting line. In fact, the first time it happened to me was at the conference meet my junior year in high school. I lined up in the back row of my team's box, our captain directly in front of me.
I remember leaning forward at the whistle and staring at his tube socks before the gun fired, the aroma of Atomic Balm and nervous sweat thick in the air. The next thing I was laying on top of Dave's right leg, both of us flat on ground, our eyes as big as saucers as the field raced away. Despite the inauspicious start we jumped up and finished, in fact he won, but I was always perplexed at how such a simple action could get messed up so badly. Maybe I was the klutz my older brother claimed.
It took me two more meets to solve the problem. Dave liked to stand with his right foot back and left foot forward, while I like to start with my right foot forward. It felt natural to me. While leaning for the start of the next race in the same position I identified something each of the runners on the front row did. Their rear foot often slid backwards as they vigorously pushed to gain some speed from the standing start.
Watch Your Step
This is where the problem began. The next meet was my moment of eureka. When I realized the solution was simple.
In my desire to get as close to the starting line as possible, my right (front) foot was almost touching Dave's right (rear) heel, my face inches from his back at the gun. When he took off his right heel slid backward and pinned my foot to the ground, my upper body continuing to move despite the trapped foot until I fell on his leg and knocked him to the down. Just like a row of dominoes, when I fell, he fell.
What if I switched my front foot so Dave's left and my left were both forward? Voila! It was that simple. I never fell at the starting line the rest of my career, having learned when it came to taking the first step, a centipede was smarter than me.
To this day I still tell my back row athletes to match their front foot with the teammate's foot in front, hoping it doesn't take the School of Hard Knocks for them to discover what the centipede figured out a long time ago. Right leg forward. Left leg forward. Repeat. No arbitrary choices. Not some right feet and some left.
And just like the advice I would give a centipede, the same goes for distance runners – please don't try to dance. The arthropod discovered a long time ago that it wasn't a good idea.
Enjoy this story? Be sure to check out the rest of the website where you can purchase my books, "A Golden Era" and "A Long Road Ahead" which tell the stories of the high school and college running careers of a father in the 70s and his son in the 2000s.