SO IT’S MARIN COUNTY in the 1960s, see, and there’s this great all-star distance runner by the name of Wes Holman. Wes was the pride of the North Bay; he was hungry and fast and he even qualified for the ’64 Olympics in the 10K.
Holman was poor. He spent all of his time training. Back in those days, there was no prize money, no shoe sponsorship, no endorsement deals. You ran as an amateur, and if you wanted to eat, you worked another job.
Holman loved to race and he liked to eat, so he swallowed his pride and did what everybody did: He cashed in the airline tickets sent to him by race promoters, pocketed the money and drove to races. There was a name for it: shamateurism. Everyone knew what was going on, but no one wanted to name it. Holman saw the hypocrisy in the practice and he tried to organize the running community press for reform.
Holman’s arch rival, fearing that the roof of the fragile “shamateur” house would come crashing in, ratted him out to the amateur athletic commission. Holman was banned from running. He turned tail on the sport, moved far away from his home and tried to forget the past.
Twenty years later — 1984 — Holman returned to Marin to train for the Cielo-Sea, a brutal race from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach by way of the summit of Mt. Tamalpais. Wes badly wanted to win the Cielo-Sea for reasons that had quite a little bit to do with redemption.
So Holman moved into derelict dredge floating in a Marin back bay, and gave it up for the Cielo-Sea.
Sound too plot-riven to be true?
Well, yeah. I’m cribbing from On the Edge, a 1986 film starring Bruce Dern playing Holman. I won’t spoil the film – you’ll have to see the movie to learn how the film ends – but the denouement proves a refreshing twist on the Hollywood comeback trope.
I’m nursing a crapped out achilles tendon and I’m riding a bike when I’d rather be running, so I’m thinking about On the Edge.
Maybe there’s been a time in your life when running served as a kind of sandblaster for the soul. You ran because you had to. You stripped your life to the quick, and your time on track and trail ennobled and enabled. If so, you’ll love the film.
My favorite lines all come from Holman’s coach, Elmo, played beautifully by John Marley:
“I’m going to teach you everything there is to know about the Cielo-Sea…and that’severything to know. I’m going to take your bloated carcass and teach you how to become a mountain racer.”
“There are three things about the Cielo-Sea. There’s philosophy, strategy and training. Any one without the other two is worthless. You’ve got to be an artist to take on this mountain.”
Elmo on downhill running:
“This is where philosophy ends. This is pure religion.”
“How do you run the downhills? I just put my foot out. As soon as I put my foot out, I’m committed. You see, I have to find a place to land…it’s just like falling. The last possible moment you catch onto something. Now that’s fate. It’s crazy. But that’s how you run the downhill, see?”
Elmo on Holman’s banishment from the sport and his attempts to do the right thing:
“There’s politics in sports. There’s good politics and bad politics. Just like the labor movement and every other goddam movement. You know that Wes threw away his chance to run in the Olympics because he had the balls to stand up and face the whole damn sports establishment and let them know that the rich set up amateurism so the poor couldn’t play?”
Elmo’s last bit of advice to Holman:
“I want you to go out and feel the course. Burn the uphill and soar the downhill. When you burn, you say soar. When you soar, you say burn.”
Great to watch Holman burn while I cool my heels, and wait for a healthier day.