Ten chances: my decathlon journey

This is a story, a true story although some of the facts may be a little muddled due to the passage of time. It is the story of a young athlete striving to be the best he could be with limited ability, but with laser focus and steely determination. This is not about a prodigy; it is about a late comer starting one of the most difficult athletic events there is – the decathlon. In German Zehnkampf: ten battles. Looking back, I see it as ten chances, ten chances to get better. Ten parts to make a whole. Each event is scored and at the end of two days the scores for the individual events are totaled to determine the overall score for ten events. Therefore Ten = One.

In fact, this is my story. When I started training for the decathlon, I knew I wasn’t going to be an Olympian or national class. (Although I secretly hoped I could get good enough to qualify for nationals) I went into the decathlon to make up for lost time. I had never done seven of the ten events. I wanted to be a great track coach and since I had never competed in track in college, I felt I was starting out at a disadvantage. I was encouraged to use the decathlon to learn all the events, to gain the experience I had missed. In essence to learn by doing from the inside out. Little did I know how seductive this decathlon could be, at times it was my mistress, my enemy, my friend, but always my teacher.

The decathlon was the event of my athletic heroes, Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson and CK Yang. It is a test of will, not endurance as it is often portrayed. Like any event it requires day to day focus on the process. One event is up, another is down – that is the reality. Turn the page, move on, there is always another event.

This fascination with the decathlon did not happen overnight. My first real awareness of the decathlon was from an hour long special on Channel 5 in LA – It was a special on CK Yang and Rafer Johnson and their quest for gold in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. They trained together and shared the same coach, Ducky Drake. In fact, the gold came down to them and Rafer Johnson prevailed. That sparked my interest as a 13-year-old. In high school I also followed Paul Herman and Dave Thoreson of Westmont College in their quest to make the 1964 Olympic team in the decathlon. Paul Herman made the team and finished fourth. Little did I know that six years later I would be training with them. During college, one year behind me John Warkentin came to Fresno State as an all-around athlete in high school. I watched him training and improve to the point where he was a national contender. His training and progress intrigued me. It looked challenging but something that I could do if I dedicated myself to it.

Meanwhile I was trying to make it as a football player at Fresno State. I had moderate success eventually earning a starting position at offensive guard my senior year. I quit after one game in my senior year with nerve damage to my right shoulder. For a couple of months, I floundered athletically and emotionally. I knew I wanted to be a teacher and coach but was not sure what sport I wanted to coach. I knew it was not football as that had been an overwhelmingly negative experience for me. I thoroughly enjoyed track and field. I liked the individual challenge; I liked the fact that you were the master of your own fate. The tape measure and stopwatch don’t lie. So, I decided I wanted to be a track coach. Easier said than done, since I had not competed in track in college. Many of my friends were on the track team which gave me insights in the psyche and the training. In fact, I did much of my weight training with the jumpers on the track team.

To begin the process, I took Theory of Track & Field from Red Estes, the assistant track coach at Fresno State. We had to show proficiency in all events. I was hooked. Since I had not done most of the events, I had to practice them to show proficiency. It was fun and challenging. In addition, at the start of the semester Red brought in his college coach, Bill Bowerman, to be the speaker at the first Track & Field Clinic in January of 1968. His presentations, persona and philosophy convinced me that I had made the right decision to be a track coach. There was no looking back now, I was fully committed. So, I went to Red Estes and told him that after graduation I was going to UCSB to earn my California State teaching credential (In California you must go a post grad year to be a certificated teacher). Red suggested that since I wanted to be a track coach, that I take up the decathlon so I could better learn the events. He recommended I talk to Sam Adams the coach at UCSB. He had been a decathlete at Cal, and he was one of the few coaches in the US, along with Jim Klein at Westmont who understood and coached the decathlon. In addition, UCSB had become a center for decathlon training with athletes from all over the world.

I graduated from Fresno State the first week in June and moved back to Santa Barbara to start my summer job with the county park department and to prepare for my year at UCSB and for student teaching. I followed Red’s advice and introduced myself to Sam Adams and explained my background and that I was interested in competing in the decathlon. He was very welcoming and invited me to begin training with Gerry Morro, a Canadian decathlete who was preparing for Canadian Olympic trials. The first session was block start 30’s. I held my own with Gerry, after all that’s all I had been doing the past four years in football. Then reality set in as we started to work on the events. Showing proficiency to pass theory of track and field is one thing, not the same as getting ready to compete. Gerry was very helpful to me. In essence he gave me a simple technical model in each event to work on. I could see this was not going to be easy. I had years of background to make up for. I became a sponge and tried to learn everything I could as fast as I could.

I also had a professor, Sherm Button, who had been a high school track coach in Portland, who taught a Theory of Conditioning class. The class brought many ideas together and solidified my thinking about training. He was way ahead of his time. His willing to share and give me individual attention helped me immensely in in my journey both as an athlete and a coach.

The summer of 1969 after completing my student teaching and coaching I started to train with more direction and purpose. I had a better understanding of the fundamentals of the events, especially after coaching. I still worked all day for the park department and competed in a few all-comer meets without distinction. Progress was slow, but I kept plugging

In the fall of 1969, I started teaching and coaching at LA Cumbre Junior high school in Santa Barbara, about three blocks from where I lived and grew up. I taught four periods of US History and one period of seventh grade geography. That fall I started the cross-country program which over the next years rose to national prominence. In spring I coached track.

That whole year I tried to intensify my training, but I was always injured. Making the transition from football was tougher than I thought. The only thing I consistently was able to do was strength training, which in retrospect was what I needed the least. I had an extensive strength background from football. I trained with Curt Harper, a world class discus thrower. Curt was a great help to me in the shot and discus and advice on my overall training.

I competed in my first decathlon in March 1970 in Fresno at Radcliffe Stadium in Fresno where I had played my last football game in September 1967. I can only describe my training going into the meet as naïve, I just was not ready physically or psychologically. It was a disaster. I came dead last and did not even break five thousand points. I was disappointed. My goals were not realistic going into the meet and I was not 100% healthy. It was a signal to get healthy, get rid of all the niggling injuries that were hindering my training and reorder my approach. The plus was that I was now a decathlete, I had finished a decathlon like my athletic heroes Rafer Johnson and CK Yang. There was nowhere to go but up.

That summer I did not work. I just trained and competed in all-comer meets. That December I broke five thousand points for the first time at the Glendale decathlon. That was the breakthrough and I needed it. I left there with a glimmer of hope that I could get significantly better. I stated making connections between events. I also came to the realization that I did not need anywhere the amount of weight training that I was doing. In fact, that fall I stated doing gymnastics two evening a week. Just elementary movements but it paid huge returns in terms of being able to handle my bodyweight, mobility, and body awareness. The whole thing was less mysterious. I just had to keep learning and train smarter.

In January 1971 at the MTSAC track clinic I met pole vault pioneer George Moore of Pacer. The pole vault was my nemesis. The more I coached the vault and trained for it the more I realized that having the correct length and weight pole was a key to progress, I discussed this with Mr. Moore, he must have felt sorry for me, or fearful that would hurt myself if I stayed on the same path. He offered to make a 14’6” pole that I could hold higher and bend. It was FREE! He even labeled the pole “special.” My pole vault went up two feet!

That spring I became more immersed in coaching and intensified my own training. In June of 1971 I got married. That summer I went to summer school and trained. I made big improvements in my jumping and sprinting. My weight stabilized at 184 and healthy. I was very fit and rapidly gaining deeper knowledge and proficiency through my training and coaching of others.

In the fall of 1971, I really upped the ante. The fall of 1971 I started teaching physical education. I was on my feet all day having to demonstrated various activities. By December was down to 179 pounds.

I trained six days a week which I had done before but added a second session in the morning three times a week and sometimes four. Looking back at it I had an amazing routine. I coached cross country (We were very good – City Champs and National Postal Frosh Champs) and taught a full schedule of physical education classes (Five classes). In December of 1971, I got another PR at the Glendale decathlon. I started to get the feeling that maybe I was figuring out what worked for me. I was healthy for the first time since I started training for the decathlon and the consistent training was paying off.

Here is my training routine for fall 1971 and winter spring 1972:

Monday and Wednesday before school at 7:30 in the multi-Purpose Room

Rope Climb x 2

Peg Board x 1

Maximum dips on parallel bars

After teaching first period PE Class I would change run 600 meter to a hill (On Asphalt)

Run 6 x 100-meter hills with a walk back recovery. Shower, shower have a protein shake and get off my feet.

Tuesday and Thursday morning I would meet Dave Thoreson at 6:00 am and do a thirty-minute run either in Hope Ranch or at the Municipal Golf Course.

Each day with fifteen minutes between class periods I would work on something technical. One period something oriented to the shot put. Next period – Throw a weight plate for the discus.

Another period I would throw a weighted ball for the javelin. Before noon I would do one set of maximum pull-ups – usually around twenty or twenty-one.

Noon – Each day I would get off my feet and rest, sometimes take a fifteen-minute nap.

After lunch I would teach another PE class, then coach track or cross country at La Cumbre Junior high where I taught. After school, usually until 4:00.

In the fall I would then drive 25 minutes to UCSB and if possible, get in two events (most of the time hurdles and a jump – jumps were my overriding weakness) and something for running. Most of the time in the dark!

I would go home and eat dinner. Two nights a week I went back to the UCSB weight room to lift for 45 minutes.

In the. Spring of 1972 I also coached the throws at Dos Pueblos High school in exchange for the coach there helping me with my pole vault. I did this after track practice at La Cumbre, then I went to UCSB to train for 45 minutes to an hour.

I was tired all the time, but that is what I had to do to make up for not having competed in track in college or having done seven of the ten events before I started in the decathlon. By December of 1971 I was down to 176 pounds, in 1969 when I started training, I was 194. My resistance was low, and I got sick and missed a week of training. In the first week in January there was a decathlon at UCSB. I did the first day and quit. I was awful. Very discouraged, I had no pop, very slow. Very explainable in retrospect. Too much distance running, and the overall workload sapped my explosiveness.

That was a wake up – I was doing too much. I was just training to put in more time, getting tired, not getting better. I figured it out and cut back and emphasized more quality work and more rest. In April of 1972 I got my PR score of 5884 at the Alan Hancock College decathlon. My goal was 6,000 points, but a terrible pole vault sabotaged that, and I wimped out in 1500 meters when I still had a chance. That turned out to be my last decathlon.

After the PR I continued to train hard was ready for a breakthrough, all indications were a score around 6300 points. Unfortunately, it was not to be. I got a free pair if sprint shoes that were one size too small. I irritated a bursa in my left heel – my take off foot for all the jumps. That ended any hope for that year. It took two months to resolve. I went to 72 Olympic Trials; it was a very inspirational and educational. Fall of 72 I made even more significant improvements. Looking for a big breakthrough in March of 1973, but I missed the pit pole vaulting and shredded the deltoid ligament in my right ankle. That was it for me. Niggling injuries, grad school and coaching took the front seat. I did one pentathlon in December of 1975 and got a couple of personal bests in the long jump and discus, but it was unrealistic to continue to compete.

Looking back on this adventure I would not trade this experience for anything.  I made lifelong friends. I learned more about the events by doing them myself. It made me a better coach. The insights I gained I still apply today. The decathlon is ten battles, it is unforgiving and merciless, but immensely satisfying just to finish a decathlon. For me it was ten chances to learn and get better. I trained with the best in the world at that time and I can say that none of them trained any harder than I did or came as close to their potential as I was able to do. Would I do it again knowing what I know now? Absolutely yes, probably would have been a little more intelligent in my approach. I did not win the war, but I won many battles.