The Sag Wagon, continued

Posted on Apr 16, 2014 in Alumni News and Sports

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 The Sag Wagon, from Wannabe Distance God, by Tim Tays, c’83


“The guy I’m running with (I’m on the left) is Paul Schultz, All Big 8 XC and track many times from 1977-1982, from Omaha, Nebraska. The photo is from Big 8 XC 1981, where I was 5th, Schultz was 6th, and Tim Gundy was 10th, and we got 2nd behind Iowa State (but finally beat Colorado).” –Timothy Tays

Timmie often took us out onto the roads for softer surfaces and less traffic. Generations of University of Kansas distance runners ran on those roads before me: Glen Cunningham, Wes Santee, Billy Mills, Jim Ryun. Many All Americans, Olympians, and world-record holders. I wanted some of that, so I psyched myself up and prepared for the onrushing challenge.

A siren whooped as a squad car appeared. The cop eyed us, a truck bed full of emaciated young men. We must’ve looked like an Auschwitz work gang, except we were fit as all get out and starved-looking by design as we grinned beneath our shaggy hair. No one mouthed off even though we were in our teens and early twenties. We knew better than to embarrass Timmie. He was an unapologetic Christian conservative, which included respect for authority, our competition, and ourselves. Nobody wanted to disappoint Coach either, so we grinned at each other as the gum-chomping cop leaned on Timmie’s window ledge. He said something about being overloaded, and there were chuckles from the cab.

A minute later the young cop went back to his squad car after Timmie let him off with a warning.

So you see I was far from the only new guy who bought into Timmie’s program. The whole town bought into it—fifty thousand souls, twenty-five thousand when school was out of session. I felt especially committed, being alone, far from home, with something to prove. That wasn’t a bad thing because it took away the option to slow down or quit. Not that I would have. I could go to school anywhere, but I went to Kansas to run. Anything that wasn’t running was a mere detail to deal with to keep me running. So in my seventeen-year-old mind, if I didn’t return home Christmas break wearing a KU letter jacket, I would have failed at the sole reason I went so far away to school. A knight on a quest doesn’t stay in his village and wait for the dragon to attack. No, he goes out after the dragon, disappears for a while—say a semester or so—and then returns a man, the severed head of the monster on his pike. Being unreasonable when it came to running came easy for me. So yeah, I too bought into Timmie’s program.

Many new runners showed up that fall of 1977, but midway through the season, some had already disappeared. That terrified me. They were good runners, literally track stars in high school or junior college. They had PRs faster than mine, so I rationalized that my times were done at altitude. In high school I trained on a dirt track that had tire ruts after it rained. But excuses meant nothing on race day. We all had excuses, but the guys who used them were the same guys who eventually disappeared. I no longer passed those guys on Jayhawk Boulevard between classes. They didn’t show up sloppy and reeking at Joe’s Doughnuts. Where were they? It was as if they died. Whatever happened to what’s-his-face, you know, that miler from Shawnee Mission? Or it was some other dude, from some other place, with killer times who had balked, who questioned the work, who got injured and stayed injured, who was left home and then became yet another rising star who climbed into the back of the truck with us with the same high expectations but then disappeared. Somewhere. At some point. Nobody remembered when exactly.

It was honorable to sit in the truck week after week as others fell off. Eventually my tenure stretched into months and then years. I became a grizzled veteran who, for the most part, didn’t feel much compassion for those who vanished. That was one more stud I didn’t have to fend off any longer. I’m not saying I feel that way now that I sit at a desk, now that I cross my legs at the knees, but at the time, in the heat of battle, there didn’t seem to be room for empathy.

The truck continued past the old homes once terrorized by Quantrill’s Raiders, over the Kaw River, into north Lawrence, past the mills, and onto the farmers’ roads. Oread Hill and the red-tiled roofs of the university receded as I rode backward in the truck.

Timmie slowed at an unmarked intersection where our dirt road bisected an identical road. It created a quadrant of brown-furrowed fields beneath which the winter wheat patiently waited to break through the dry clods. Timmie started to turn right; we shifted our weight and then he turned hard left, sending us crashing the other direction. We slammed our knees and elbows against the truck, and the guys who stood now squatted so low they used their armpits to clamp onto the sitting guys’ knees.

“Everyone still in?” Timmie laughed, but he didn’t wait for an answer. Instead he accelerated. It wasn’t that Timmie didn’t care how we were; it was that he understood why we were there, him included, and he didn’t let details get in the way. Perhaps he wanted to take us on some rolling hills, changed his mind, and opted for flat and fast. Regardless, the point was he cared how I ran, which made him one of my favorite people. He cared for me from the moment we met.


Tim Tays’ book, Wannabe Distance God, is available in paperback and for Kindle at

– David Johnston