The Disappearing Fun Button

Did you know there’s a loop around the University that’s about three miles long? It’s also part of the biking/hiking trail that someday will go all the way through Maryville. You can see joggers and walkers on this loop about any time of the day, evening or early nighttime. As I see these health conscious people, I ask myself, “Where is their fun button?” The fun button is an imaginary button-shaped light that blares red when you are exercising and it’s no longer fun. Most young people don’t even know they have a fun button. They can exercise all they want and the imaginary fun button isn’t even visible.

That’s the way the fun button was for me for a good portion of my life. I have to admit, high school track wasn’t good to me. I only went out my first two years. The straw that broke the camels back came during the district tract meet my sophomore year. I was scheduled to run the mile. Most of the time, there were about five of us who battled for the distinction not to finish last. I could usually manage to keep up a little better than dead last, but not on this day.

First my shoe came untied after one lap. I was too afraid of my track coach to stop and tie it, so I trudged on. At the end of the third lap, it was hopeless, so I kicked the shoe off. Now I was clumping around with one shoe off and one shoe on. I not only finished dead last by quite a margin, but I had a ruined sock and had developed a bloody foot. On top of that, the school had bought new super 8 cameras and was filming all the students from my school crossing the finish line. That was it for me and running in circles. I had a bloody, blistered foot with a last-place finish and proof of it all to keep forever. I was mortified. I quit track after that final race of the season. I should have known even back then my fun button was trying to tell me something.

When I entered my 30s in 1980, I suddenly felt the need to exercise. Jogging was the exercise of choice. I didn’t know anything about it, but three or four times a week I ran around the track at Wilber-Clatonia High School. I ran in my high-topped basketball shoes, not knowing shoe technology had developed great running shoes. Afterwards I decided to run in a 10K race and even bought a pair of Nike running shoes that looked just like the shoes Jenny gave Forrest Gump for his birthday. Forrest took those shoes and ran coast to coast for more than three years. I barely made it six miles. I thought I was going to die. The 10K was near the Lincoln Airport. It went out for half the race then back home. It was flat and looked easy enough. The trouble was the 30 mile per hour wind that pushed us out there, but running back home meant cutting through what felt like a hurricane. I didn’t see it, but my fun button doesn’t like wind in its face. The funny thing is I liked to run. I probably averaged three to four miles three or four times per week. I had no idea that someday a fun button would ruin all my good times.

One day I signed up for the Buffalo Run in Pioneer Park in Lincoln. There is a statue of a Buffalo that we had to circle twice. It stretched the run to about eight miles. I was thinking I would jog it, only beating the chubby contestants. Then I ran into Tom Hood. Tom was a football coach at Doane College and he kept in great shape. We agreed to run it together, but I could see trouble looming. Just before the buffalo, there’s a real steep hill. I made it up the hill and around that hairy mammal the first time. I let Tom do most of the talking so I could conserve my breath. However, the hill got me the second time and I spent a few minutes gagging at the side of the hill. I could see the chubby runners who now passed me smirking and thinking, “I told you so.” I even think the buffalo was making fun of me. I decided right then and there that the macho approach to running was not for me. Suddenly, I saw my fun button come into existence and it was glaring red. I ran a few competitive races and sort of maintained a little physical fitness during the next decade or so. As I was hitting the back end of middle age, I moved to Maryville. I quickly found a few routes that kept me a little hidden from the general public. I sure didn’t want to embarrass myself too early to the locals.

There were even a few competitive races. My assistant, Lori Hopkins, had never run a competitive race. We entered the Abby Run so she could experience the same humbling experience as the Buffalo Run gave me. As the race began, chubby runners in spandex shot ahead of us. Lori seemed concerned that these runners were beating us. I told her to be patient; it would be like the Hare and the Tortoise. Sure enough, the spandex runners ran out of gas and Lori didn’t finish last in her first race. As I was struggling to keep up with Lori in the Abby Run, I noticed my fun button flashing red as we neared the finish line at the Abby. Showing Lori the fun in a competitive race was a big mistake. A few years later, Lori and Brook Hogue, my graduate assistant, talked me into running the 10K portion of the Maryville Marathon. I was really skeptical since Brooke was a lot younger and a lot better runner than me. Lori’s conditioning also had surpassed my abilities. However, they promised to run slow enough to allow me to keep up.

That promise lasted exactly one mile into the 6.2-mile run. Over the course of the first mile, there were no residents and virtually no spectators. As soon as we turned into a residential neighborhood, people were out on their lawns encouraging the runners. Lori and Brooke took one look at the spectators and decided they didn’t want to be associated with a runner like me. Off they shot into the morning mist, while I struggled to keep up. That’s when I was sure I had a fun button. Attempting to run fast enough to keep up with two women 20 and 30 years younger and in better shape than me caused my fun button to vibrate, flash red, and shut down the foolish attempt. I struggled in five minutes behind my coaching staff. They were headed to breakfast and I was headed to the nearest portable toilet. You would think my days in road races would mercifully be over. However, the next year, Matt Gaarder talked me into running the 5K of the Maryville Marathon. I made sure my coaching staff was no where to be found. I then entered thinking a good three-mile jog would do me good. I had no idea the embarrassment that I was about to experience.

When they shot off the gun for the start of the 5K, there quickly became three groups of runners. The first group typically sprinted like they were running a 100-meter dash. The second group was walkers and no threat to my manhood. The third group was just me. I again was the tortoise, waiting for the rabbit to tire. After about a mile, the sprinters had stopped to walk. I slowly caught up with them. I could see some of them sneaking a peek at me. They were whispering about the old man catching up. About the time I was ready to make my move to the front, they sprinted ahead for another 400 meters or so. They stayed just far enough ahead that they were safely in front of the old tortoise. The sprinters played this game for about two miles. When I almost caught them in front of Lamkin Activity Center, one of the group stayed behind and her grandfather chose to stay with the sprinters. My fun button was on red alert, now. The sprinters made their last move just out of view of the people gathered at the finish line in Donaldson Park. They wanted to make sure the fans knew they were clearly superior runners to me.

About 100 yards from the finish line, this man on the side of the road became very excited. He yelled, “Get him! Get him! You can take him!” I realized it was the grandfather of the girl I had passed in front of Lamkin. She had regained enough strength for a final frantic kick. Twenty meters from the finish, she passed me, much to the delight of her grandfather. As my fun button was screaming, I crossed the finish line in humiliation. I swore never to run a competitive road race again. I have kept that promise.
I still make feeble attempts at physical fitness. I mostly walk now. The three-mile loop around the University is perfect for a walk. I try to avoid big crowds, though. If I try to jog much, my fun button comes on much quicker. I try to walk the stairs to my office. By the time I climb the 42 steps, my fun button is begging me to take the elevator. I now have to decide; do I listen to my fun button or will I risk embarrassment and humiliation again. I hope my new assistant coach, Meghan Nelson, doesn’t like to jog.

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Gene Steinmeyer

About Gene Steinmeyer

Gene Steinmeyer coached the Northwest Missouri State women’s basketball team for 13 seasons before retiring after 26 years as a collegiate head coach after the 2011-12 season. He retired as the second winningest women’s basketball coach at Northwest as his 2010-11 team won both the MIAA Regular Season and Tournament Championship advancing to the NCAA National Semifinals one game shy of the national championship game.