It was an appropriate name for a road race: the Hesse Bear Stomp. Just about anyone from Savannah who lived in the Montgomery and surrounding communities in Cresthill, Mayfair and Kingswood went to school at Herman Hesse and can probably still sing the song:
Herman Hesse, Herman Hesse, we-ee will try to do our best…
sung in a very solemn and slow voice.
Hesse school was an extension of the old Montgomery School built in 1917 and was re-built on its current site around 1945 and dedicated in 1963. To the best of my knowledge it did not have a gymnasium until many years after I graduated though it did have a cafeteria and the dreaded office, where no student ever wanted to enter.
Hesse school and the surrounding neighborhoods used to be our old “stomping grounds”, or the place where everyone wandered by foot or by bike to visit with friends and hang out in the woods or feed the horses apples from over the fence as their owners threatened to chase us away.
Crumrine’s stable sat behind the school and a trail led from the side of the stable back into the eight track of the Gun Club.
The trails were called the eight track because they formed a figure eight around the old corn fields that had been re-planted with pines when the Bethesda boys no longer worked the fields to earn a living. It was the best high bush blackberry picking area in all the southeast if you weren't too afraid of snakes and spiders that strung webs so strong they would send a horseback rider or bicycler reeling backward before the web broke, covering one in a sticky mess.
Old Montgomery road was then an old dirt road, overlaid multiple times with clay and often rutted by tires after a rain. There were three to four horse barns on the road. The two largest were on Hendry Avenue called Mock’s and Crumrine Stables behind Hesse school. The place was owned by BJ Crumrine and had its start as a cattle farm.
Betty Jean or BJ (Jean) Crumine converted the place into a horse rental barn after her husband’s death and rented stalls for fifteen dollars a month back in the 1970s with boarders taking care of their own horses and helping with repairs on the property. Many people remember Mrs. Crumrine for the countless number of girl scouts she hosted at the farm over many, many years.
At one time there were over thirty stalls at the stable and just as many horses, but today, there are barely a half dozen horses and four stalls and the woods and private island and pond behind the fields have been cut off and laid bare by a highway linking the once sleepy Whitefield Avenue with all points north and soon south when the Truman Parkway is completed.
As kids attending Hesse, an occasional horse would break free from Crumrines and get out on the ball fields which were not surrounded by a tall fence back then, and nearly every horse crazy kid in the school would want to go capture the horse and lead it back home as an excuse to get out of classes.
The area from Cresthill to Hesse was the stomping grounds of my youth. I had ridden, walked and skidded down Old Montgomery over a thousand times. I had played basketball on the courts at St. James Catholic Church, pretended to be a horse with my friend Bari in the woods behind St. James as we leaped over ditches, snorting and whinnying and galloping through the winding paths that are now part of some neighborhood I am sure, though perhaps I should gain the courage to investigate one day.
Today we were running through that same neighborhood as part of a race to raise money for middle school athletics. Hesse now hosts first through eighth grade on the ever expanding campus. The team is called the bears, hence the name of the race: Bear Stomp.
It is a short run if you are a runner, but can be daunting if you are not used to putting in a few miles a day. The course runs down Old Montgomery, now paved, through Kingswood onto Whitefield Avenue and through St. James parking lot, past my old house on Cresthill Court, now renamed Laberta, and down through the old neighborhood where a few people actually came outside their houses to cheer us on.
The houses seemed smaller than when I was a kid, but in truth, I was just bigger. It’s all in perspective. I wondered if any of the old gang still lived there: Charlotte, Bobby, Melanie, Mark, Carol, George, Rodney, Mike. I wondered what had happened to them.
I had not run in a 5K race in quite a while. The last one I ran about a ten minute mile pace. I was determined to run faster in this one, coming in at under 30 minutes, something I had not done in many years.
Two weeks prior to the race, I had been doing great, running ten to twelve miles a week, doing speed work on the treadmill at the YMCA until I felt too ill to go on and running consistently longer and faster, but it was coming up on Valentines weekend and my old boss at Savannah Sweets had called me back to help, so there was little time do anything other than sleep, eat and work.
I woke up on the day of the race feeling strong and wanting to run and put in a short run before the race to loosen up my lungs, which always seemed to fight for air, no matter what shape I was in when I first started moving. The legs felt a little weak, but I had a good pace, so grabbed a paper towel to keep my ever running nose in check and hopped in line with the other nearly 200 runners.
It was a small race and that felt good. I was tired of running in races where it took you five minutes to get to the starting line from your spot in the middle of the pack and knowing you had no chance of getting an award or relaxing and enjoying the scenery for having to look out for people stopping in front of you or running into you from behind.
The course was fast and mainly flat, though there were a few slight uphill inclines. Little kids came whizzing past with slapping feet and roaring lungs. You knew they were not going to get far running like that, but it was fun to watch them think they were faster than us old folk plodding along at a steady pace, which was certainly boring to the kids.
Two minutes into the run, the kids started dropping like flies exposed to nerve gas. Many were still running with swaying steps and arms held straight down with bodies leaning forward as if this might magically keep them propelled in forward motion. It was hard not to feel sorry for them and took some resistance not to offer advice on holding a steady sustainable pace. They would figure it out on their own eventually as do all new runners.
I had read the race course backward, so was glad when we turned down Whitefield going out rather than going a circuitous route coming back. There is nothing like being 300 yards from the end of a race only to discover you have to divert down a side road and run another half mile or so to get back to where you are at the moment and THEN head back to the finish line.
Old Whitefield looks nothing like new Whitefield with the four lane Truman Parkway improvement (I say this with a snarl of contention on my face) with it’s wandering cone pattern that changes every few weeks confusing even lifelong residents on which lane they should be in to get to their destination.
Old Whitefield wanders past Hayner’s creek, which used to be a raw sewage ditch back in the sixties and smelled like one too. Dececilia’s (we pronounced it Dee-sess-cee-lees) store used to be at the end of Whitefield on the same side of the road as St. James if memory serves correctly. [ed. it turns out memory did not serve correctly and I was informed that Dececilia's was actually located where Maycrest Hardware is not on Montgomery Cross Road about a quarter mile from St. James church.]
The man had a huge Meyer’s lemon tree in his yard and if you were lucky he would give you a lemon as large as a grapefruit to take home to your parents to make lemonade or lemon meringue pie. No other lemons tasted as good as the ones from his tree.
The nuns had the best Halloween treats, making caramel popcorn balls and candied apples that our parents would not let us eat, thinking they were contaminated, so we ate them on the way home and lied and said we had thrown them away, though to this day I cannot eat a popcorn ball without thinking it has something deadly hidden inside.
Running through the parking lot here brings back lots of memories, but turning onto the main road and seeing my old homestead and my nephew’s car in the front yard (he now lives here) was a strange feeling.
The three oaks that stood in the court were long gone as was our tire swing and the apple tree in the back yard. The maple tree was so large now that there were no branches within climbing distance, but our house still sat on the tallest hill in Cresthill, which is one of the reasons why our father chose it, so if it flooded we would be safe. Dad was practical.
We ran past the many houses where my friends had lived and back onto Old Montgomery which still seemed odd now that it was paved. I missed the old clay roads and the short cuts into the gun club that was now separated from everything else by Truman Parkway and gigantic metal walls and fences. Sometimes growing up makes you sad as you see the freedom of your youth blocked by the same barriers in real life and that longing to play pioneer and adventurer seems too far out of your grasp and more a pipe dream than reality.
A friend from the Y had been running ahead of me. I passed him, but stopped to drink water, rather than run with the overly full, overly large cup in hand and he passed by me, looking back every few strides to see if I was still there.
A part of me did not want to pass him again, so I stayed slightly behind. I know it is silly, but I am still a southern belle at heart and try to let men lead and besides, to be honest, it was nice to slow down a bit and take a break, but I wanted to beat that 30 minute goal and decided I needed to take control over my own lazy impulsions and just smile sweetly as I passed and offer encouraging words or make a sign of “shew, this is tougher than it looks” to let him know I was struggling with it too.
There were only three or four people in front of me within catch-up range and I was too pooped to put in anything faster to catch up, so settled into a steady rhythm and tried to take in the sights.
There was the century plant in the giant cinder block container, the house with the tiny white Christmas tree lights that never got taken down ever in the forty some years they had been there. The memories kept flooding in and I lost track of running as two more teenaged boys began to falter and fail and I passed by them as politely as I could.
One tried to catch up, his flat soled tennis shoes flapping loudly like a seal on a linoleum floor. An older man who had stopped in front to walk and hold his side saw me out the corner of his eye and picked up his pace again.
We ran side by side for nearly a minute. I was pushing myself harder to keep his pace and I honestly think he was doing the same!
About 100 feet to the turn in of the school I started to pass him when the slight uphill grade and strong in-your-face headwind made forward movement difficult. Sometimes being a woman of smaller stature comes in handy in races and with less wind resistance I pulled slightly ahead and stayed there through the end of the run.
I heard one girl slightly behind me as she increased speed to catch me and just kept pushing forward, unable to sprint, but lengthening my stride and powering through hoping she didn’t pass. She didn’t and all was good with 29:17 on the clock. I had made the goal. Life was good.
As I get older, I find that many goals I have never met in all my life, are becoming more attainable if I put in the effort and persistence needed to get there. Maintaining those goal levels is not so easy, but reaching them, even if fleetingly, gives me hope that I am moving in the right direction.
Running races, especially those that cause you to reflect back on your life and look forward to the part remaining is good for the soul. It helps you see that things really weren’t that bad or that good as a kid, you just kept muddling through and now that you are an adult, things are in some ways better, yet still the same only different.
I refused to set any New Years resolutions this year because I rarely keep them and it just seems like an unwanted burden, but now, in the middle of February, I desire to set new goals, knowing now that I just might be able to obtain them.
I want to be nicer to people and less shy and anti-social. I want to be able to be pleasant even when I am not in the mood to be that way. Instead of complaining and being passive aggressive, I want to be more honest in my needs and not accept or expect the worst from people.
Rather than get my feelings hurt and getting angry and upset when things don't go as expected, I plan to speak up and give factual evidence to support fair treatment and not attach ulterior motives to people or accept abusive practices. I don’t need to absorb the negativity of others nor do I need to disperse it back at them. Instead the goal is to neutralize it and prevent it from happening a second time around.
I know I can put more effort into consistent running, though the threat of injury is ever looming. I know I can run faster if I increase my lung capacity and leg power, but it will take a lot of work and consistency to repeat it and make it habit and I know I am not good at consistency.
I need to be more assertive, more understanding, less stressed, more focused, more dedicated and to set goals with a practical plan to achieve them, which means I need to stop writing this, turn off the computer and go to work on that chicken coop which is falling apart and not going to fix itself without some effort on my part.
Today I ran back in time, relived a past that will never be the same, petted a horse that is now taller than me who was only a baby the last time I knew her and marveled at a rescued draft horse mare that was pure black and just a young ‘un and is now almost white with a gray mane and tail and so big I feel puny next to her.
I used the toilet in an elementary bathroom stall where the doors came up to my chin and the mirrors were set so low I had to squat down two feet to check that the toothpaste from this morning was not stuck to my face.
I ran faster than I had in years, even though it was still slow in comparison to others. I saw kids that I had known since they were nearly babies running against me and beating me by two to six minutes and ran into more YMCA members at the race than I would see at the gym!
It didn’t hurt that I had my own cheering squad from the Savannah Striders who were timing the race either or that the place I had boarded my horses for over fifteen years looked nothing like it had when I was there and that I was actually kind of glad I had moved on, even though a part of me still missed the old gang who were now married and scattered over the country.
If you have ever felt like you will never get to where you want to be in life, or that those goals you set almost daily for yourself are just not obtainable. If you feel like no one really understands you or that you don’t really like yourself or that you aren’t good enough or that the world just isn’t what you want it to be, stop being so inwardly focused and start looking outside yourself and take those first steps toward changing things.
It can be awkward trying to do things you are not accustomed to doing. It can seem nearly impossible to change your personality or the way you treat others or the way others treat you, but you can make things better, even just a little by being persistent and learning from your mistakes and the mistakes of others and copying those good habits you would like to have for yourself.
Running races is all about the PR… the personal record, the beating of your old time or old distance… becoming better at something, not just doing the same things in different locations, but even if you don’t improve, you learn something new every time you put on your running shoes and move your feet as fast and far as they will carry you. Life is just the same.
You learn new techniques, you meet new people, you keep what works and improve on it and toss out what doesn’t and make corrections. You stomp around in familiar places and eagerly or timidly tread on new ground in new locations and discover some thrills and spills along the way that hopefully make you a better person.
I don’t know if I will ever run a consistent eight minute mile or below. I don’t know if my life will change at all if I do, but I do know my life needs changing and improvements are in order and while they might seem impossible, I am willing to keep trying until I get it right and then repeat the process as often as necessary… same as in running, same as in life.