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the random power of the ronald reagan presidential fitness award

October 26, 2013

In 1982 I was in the 5th grade. I was short. I was slow. I was the last picked for every team, at every gym class, for every sport.

I have a particular memory of being picked last for baseball–I was given the position of designated hitter. Rusty, our team captain, tried to explain this actually meant I was “the best player on the team” even though we both knew it was a charade to keep my poor defense from sinking our team to a guaranteed loss in the Blair Elementary School recess playoffs.

Gonna date myself here, but at some point during this amazing year of designated hitting, my elementary school was tasked with the Ronald Reagan challenge of “The Presidential Physical Fitness Award”–a kind of precursor to Crossfit. The very-framable fitness certificate and awesomely embroidered patch was awarded to, and only to, students that could complete a series of feats of strength in a specific amount of time.

ppfa award 1 web2

the ronald reagan presidential physical fitness award

I was the only kid who could do more pull-ups than anyone, either from all of my practice from climbing rope in gym class (because of that awesomely weird feeling I got in my crotch) or because I weighed all of 60 pounds. In fact, despite my poor power ranking in class sports, I excelled at every feat except one: when it came to running I couldn’t finish the 40-yard dash within the minimum acceptable time.

I was devastated. I probably cried.

My gym teacher told me, “Tell you what. Come in on Saturday and let’s have you give it another shot.”

So I did.

It was a blustery Wisconsin day, and as instructed I showed up at the school playground at high noon. It was just my gym teacher, me… and 40 yards of sheer terror. He had his stop watch ready and stood at the exact spot from my previous attempt.


I bolted and ran as fast my little legs could take me. I was immediately greeted with:

“You did it! Just under the wire! The wind must’ve really been at your back!”

I was ecstatic. I did it! The wind was at my back!

me completing one mile in 5:33. (photo Gavin Smith)

Of course, looking back, there’s a great chance that I didn’t run fast enough. Regardless, I got my patch and Ronald Reagan “signed” certificate. Oddly, out of all of the random life-stuff that has been lost over time I still, still have this award. Curious.

Last week my running group hosted a one-mile run called the Franklin Park Mile. (You can read about it here.) The concept was to have a fun race to encourage runners of all ages and abilities to get out and run a short one mile course. The race was chip-timed and brought out 244 runners.

The Franklin Park Mile’s founder and creator, Owen Kendall, did an amazing job organizing various heats including a kids race. I’ve never seen little dudes so proud to rock a bib.

As the day came to a close and the initial awards had been handed out I headed over to the timing table near the finish line to get an official time. (I finished 11th overall with a time of 5:33.)

Owen was kneeled down talking to one of the young runners–a diminutive little guy with dark hair, dark eyes and a see-through complexion. His grandmother stood near by admiring the boy wearing a bib almost as wide as his polo shirt.

I was looking through a lens straight back to 1982.

“This is yours”, Owen said handing one of the awards to the boy. He carefully studied the prize for a few seconds before looking back at Owen as if he thought maybe he was just being shown the award–a heavy crystal glass paper weight. “You won this”, Owen repeated.

owen and little guy web

“I won this?”, the boy said looking up at Owen in complete and utter disbelief. He looked back down at the award and once more back up at Owen just to confirm the trust of the moment.

I can’t help but think that this little guy woke up in the middle of the night to look at his award to see if it was real. I can’t help but contemplate the implicitness of the gesture. I can’t help but think there is a great chance this boy will become a runner. If not in the near future… well, then at least in the next 30 years.

I haven’t been running races very long… a little over a year. My cube at work is decorated with enough bibs that I am running out of space. I’m running distances I never dreamed of. I never thought in a million years I would run a half-marathon. Now I’m training for my first full marathon in Paris this coming April. The Paris fucking marathon!

The other part of this is that I am not shuffling along at the back of the pack–I routinely finish in the top 5-10% of my races. It’s hard not to talk about in a way that seems like smug bragging.

bibs web

There’s just something about undertaking a difficult task and the sheer wont to share the accomplishment. So the next time someone posts their 5k time on Facebook or the smallest minutia about their run route understand it’s not about projecting a sense of superiority; it’s simply saying “I just did some shit I’m super proud of, and it was hard, and I did it.”

For me, there’s no doubt in my mind some weird Ronald Reagan-era certificate I’ve lugged around every corner of this country I’ve ever lived over the past three decades has something to do with my fastidious running pursuits. Maybe some day this kid will hold up his crystal paper-weight to the light and reflect on why he runs.

May the wind be at your back.

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  • Avatar
    Reply Robere October 28, 2013 at 11:39 pm

    It never ceases to amaze me how much you remember from your childhood. Very cool story.

  • Avatar
    Reply Sean Kennelly May 6, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    I also won the presidential award in Arizona back in like 1985…I still,have the certificate with Ronald Reagan’s name on it also a big presidential patch….do you know if there is a list of past winners going back that far somewhere? I’d like to show it to my daughter for bragging rights……;-)

    • Avatar
      Reply Stephanie Gardiner December 7, 2015 at 9:04 pm

      I won the award myself in 82&83 in Whittier California it would be great to have a list going back that far.

  • Avatar
    Reply Vanessa May 2, 2017 at 2:02 pm

    I love it! I have a very similar story around that same time period. The gym teacher knew that I absolutely needed that award, but I know I was a little short on the 600 yard dash.

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