After the first few days of cross country practice as a freshman in high school, the team began to sort itself into shape. Every member of the Kaneland team had the goal of making the Top 7. After a week of practice, I realized that I would become part of that mix.
Runners are built of several different components. There is natural ability. That’s a key aspect of how well you’ll ultimately do. Then there’s the training, and the discipline that comes with it. Finally, there is competitive instinct. In other words: how bad do you want it?
That third quality was inherent in my nature. As the third of four athletic brothers, I also learned quite a bit about competition through sibling rivalry. But more than any of that, I was always a kid that could not stand losing.
That never meant that I would cheat to win. While my desire to come out on top was always front of mind, at the core of my soul was a deep sense of social justice. I loved to win, but also had a deep concern about equality that applied to every aspect of life. In fact, I got booted out of Cub Scouts because some kid cheated in kick ball and I called him out on it. The Den Leader blamed me for starting a fight, so I never went back.
I never felt guilty for winning in a fair contest. Frankly, I relished kicking ass in whatever sport we were playing. In baseball I was a pitcher, a position I loved for the constant stimulation of challenging batters at the plate and being in on every play. I was successful at that all the way through my junior year in high school when the choice finally had to be made between playing baseball in spring and running track.
So constant was the thrill of competition in my life that I could not be happy without it. I played basketball through my junior year as well, and was a three-sport athlete up until my senior year, when I competed in indoor track rather than basketball. Even in college, I organized a game between the official freshman team and a group of guys that I hand-picked to challenge them. We did well through the first half but the street ball we played wore out in the second half. Still, I scored 19 points and we made the point that some of us could probably make the real team.
I brought that competitive instinct to running, and the first moment that I recognized the combination of talent and competitive instinct was in seventh-grade gym class at Martin Meylin Junior High in Lampeter, Pennsylvania. Our teacher had us run a 12:00 time trial as part of the overall fitness testing program he’d contrived. The reward system was a set of satin stripes that were affixed to your gym shorts. A red stripe was the lowest. A white stripe was the middle. The blue stripe was the best. I wanted that blue stripe more than anything.
But I knew that I was weak in the pullup category so I had to make up for it with a great run in the time trial. We ran on the cinder track in regular old gym shoes, but I found a groove early and ran 8.25 laps, a bit better than 6:00 per mile.
In 8th grade at Kaneland Junior High, I ran the half mile as there were no mile races at the time. My time of 2:27 was respectable and won a few races. But I was no world-beater.
Thus I had something to prove going into freshman cross country. By the third week of practice I was positioned as the third guy on the Varsity squad. That was how I finished in the first race of the season. For the rest of the year, a pair of sophomores and I would move up and down from the Varsity to the Sophomore team depending on the meet and our potential to place at either level. We won the Ottawa Invite for the sophomore squad and the Little Seven Conference title at the sophomore level as well. The rest of the 16-17 meets we ran (it was a lot of competition) were Varsity events for me.
Early in the season, the coaches doled out running spikes to everyone on the team. I was quietly handed a set of Puma shoes. They were soft as silk, and made from kangaroo leather. I looked up at the coaches upon opening the box and realized the vote of confidence they were giving me. It also came with a bit of pressure, of course. But somehow they knew I could handle it. Still, I heard a few snarky comments from teammates about the fact that some “freshman” was given such a nice set of spikes. But damnit, I proved myself week in and week out.
However, it was a pretty tough schedule (18 meets) for a first-year cross country runner. As competitive as I was, the training and racing did wear me down a couple times. While competing for the Varsity on a hilly course in Oregon, Illinois, I bonked out and had to stop. I recall Coach Larry Eddington finding me on the course. I was kneeling on the grass plain exhausted from all the running. As he approached, I worried that I was in trouble. Instead, he told me, “You’ve been doing a great job. Don’t worry about today. It’s only one race.”
That was a lesson well-learned about the nature of competition and our ability to sustain it. Even with all the training and discipline built up over a month-and-a-half of cross country, my fourteen-year-old body had hit a limit.
That’s a lesson every runner has to learn. Our competitive instincts are vital to success. But even those can’t carry us through every situation in running.
I walked back to the team bus with Coach Eddington. Coach Born walked over and gave me a hearty pat on the back and a knowing smile. It felt good to know that those men and my teammates understood that I while I was an ardent competitor, I wasn’t perfect, either. And that was okay.
The next race I bounced back and ran well. We all need to learn how to deal with failure or loss along the way. All feed into the realm of competitive instincts. Because while we excelled at our level, I also recognized how many runners were better than we were. In some respects, I feared those guys. Learning to manage those fears is a big part of becoming a better runner. We’ll take a look at those instincts in the next installment of 50 Years of Running.