Cold equations

I was in junior high when I first learned about metaphors. Or more precisely, when I first heard about metaphors, because it took a long time to understand what they were.

I think my difficulty was in how they were explained, which was by textbook definiton. A metaphor, we were told, and I quote, “is a direct comparison between two unlike things in order to show their likeness.”


Further confusion ensued when, added to the mix, was the difference between a metaphor and a simile, a simile using “like” or “as,” but metaphors not using them.

Even more “Huhs.”

I think it would’ve been much easier if we’d just been told that metaphors are figures of speech, word pictures, to turn an idea into image. Then if we’d been given examples, like “He’s a bull,” “She’s a saint,” it would’ve been a lot clearer.

But if I had problems with metaphor as a kid, they were small potatoes compared to the one Joe DiMaggio had as an adult. It involved a Paul Simon song, “Mrs. Robinson.”

There’s a line in the song, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” The song, because it was in the movie The Graduate, reached a vast audience, including Joltin’ Joe himself, who simply couldn’t get his head around it.

DiMaggio and Simon met by accident in a restaurant and when they did, DiMaggio said he couldn’t understand why Simon had said he was gone. After all, DiMaggio said, he was still in the public eye and hadn’t gone anywhere.

Simon patiently explained that DiMaggio had been a huge American hero, an icon, but there were almost none left anymore.

Apparently, their meeting ended on a good note, as they shook hands upon parting. But frankly I’m not sure The Yankee Clipper ever really understood metaphor. Then again, how much does a baseball player need to understand metaphor to be a success?

While teachers might think everyone can learn the difference between literal and figurative thinking, the sad reality is they can’t, and I’m a victim of that.

Not that I don’t understand the difference — I do. But someone who didn’t screwed up what should’ve been my greatest athletic achievement.

Time vs. place

It took place on a midwinter day in 1974, at a frostbite race in Lake Placid. By the way, in this case, the term “frostbite,” was not figurative — the temp was at an all-time winter low. By contrast, I was at my all-time athletic high.

I’d started running five years before, just to get in shape, but then increased my distances until I’d run a marathon the preceding fall, and I was training to run another one in the spring. I was running 65-mile weeks and was in great condition. I’d trained so well that by the time this race rolled around I was pretty much nothing but sinews and running shoes.

The race, sponsored by a local service organization, was around Mirror Lake and had two separate distances — 2.5 and 5 miles. They’d be run simultaneously, the 2.5 miler being one lap around the lake; the 5 miler being two. I signed up for the five miler, figuring it’d pretty much be a sprint anyway.

Now here’s the thing: Although I loved to run and trained seriously, I wasn’t really competitive. At that point in my life, competitiveness was just silly to me. If you won a race, you felt like Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy. But if you came in second in your next race, you felt like Jack Crapp the Rag Man.

There was a perfect role model for this, a guy I knew. He’d been a nationally-ranked college runner for a few years and then got eclipsed by better runners. Since his ego had been on the line the whole time, as soon as he was no longer in the, a-hem, running, he never ran again. “If I can’t be first, I don’t want to even try,” he’d say to anyone who’d listen to him. And, from what I recall, to anyone who didn’t listen to him, either. He was a great example of what I never wanted to be.

This isn’t to say I didn’t pay attention to my running, but not in terms of beating people. Instead, I wanted only to beat my times. I guess you could say I was competing against myself. And it only made sense, since I’d never finished in the money anywhichway.

The eastern flyer

So there we all were, lined up at the starting line, feeling the cold cut through our sweatsuits like icepicks aplenty. Luckily, there was no wind, which would’ve made conditions insufferable.

The timer counted down from 10 and when he said, “Go,” I didn’t sprint off — I blasted off!

It was as if I had a built-in jet-assist, and after a 100-yards I had about a 20-yard lead on the rest of the pack. After a half-mile, I’d pushed the lead up to 100 yards, and increased it from there.

It was unreal. I’d never run like that before, and I’d never run like that again. The road had a light snow cover over ice, but somehow I never slipped or slid. Instead, it seemed as if I just touched down for an instant and then sprung away, only to repeat it. I know it wasn’t really happening, but I felt like I was flying over the pavement like some freak out of The Teachings of Don Juan.

I kept this up for the whole two laps. I never got winded. I never felt the cold. I had no idea why I could run like that. The only thing I knew was I did it.

I crossed the finish line as strong as when I’d started. It took mere seconds to get my breath back, and I was neither stiff nor sore. Only one thing was out of the norm: It was so cold and I’d breathed so hard that in addition to my beard being iced (which I’d expected), my eye lashes were frozen together (which I’d never expected).

Anyhow, while winning felt good, I really cared about my time, which I knew was my all-time best. But when I looked at my watch, I was gobsmacked: My time was slow — so slow it was about my training pace. Squinting through my lashicles, I saw my watch’s second hand was still moving. So my watch wasn’t broken, Maybe, I thought, due to the cold and all, it had slowed down.

When I checked with the timer I found out my watch was accurate after all: I wasn’t just seconds slower than I’d thought — I was minutes slower! By then I was too cold and disgusted to mull over it anymore. I stayed for the certificate presentation, then left and said to hell with the whole scene.

The numbers game

I never figured out what had happened till a bunch of years later. I was chatting with a pal, another guy who’d run local races way back when, and I mentioned that race.

“Oh man,” he said, “I’ll never forget how cold it was.”

“Yeah,” I said. “And I’ll never forget how lousy my time was.”

“Really?” he said. “I remember you smoked that race. How could your time have been lousy?”

“Beats me,” I said. “All I know is that was the slowest 5-miler I ever ran.”

“What?” he said. I repeated myself and when I did, he burst into laughter.

“What’s so funny?” I said.

“It wasn’t 5 miles,” he said.

“It wasn’t?”

“Uh-uh. It’s 2.7 around Mirror Lake. You ran almost five and a half miles.”

“But … but … how could that happen?” I stammered. “Didn’t the race organizers know it wasn’t 2 and a half miles around?”

“Sure they did,” he said.

“Then why didn’t then tell us?”

“I actually asked the race director about that,” he said.

“And what’d he say?”

“Well, he said two things One was that 2-and-a-half and 5 are nice round numbers.”

“And what was the other thing?”

“He said he figured it wouldn’t really matter to anyone.”

And all I could think of was that old cliche incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain:

Figures won’t lie, but liars will figure.