I was barely 16 years old when perhaps the most pivotal moment of my running life occurred. I received a handwritten note from Tom, an Olympic development coach who happened to see me unleash hell in the last 400 meters of the cross country state championship. He claimed my finishing kick was the strongest he saw that day. He invited me to train with him during the off-season.
Just the idea that someone who had worked with Olympic caliber runners saw 'something' in me blew me away. There were guys on my team who were MUCH faster than me who didn't get a note or invitation. Was this guy smoking something or did he see something in me that no one else saw? I clung to the latter idea, but thought the former idea was more than plausible.
Either way, he had me. I would blindly follow his instruction. I would absorb every word he spoke. I trained my ass off during the off season and as the bleak, depressing Kansas winter faded into marginally less depressing spring, I found myself looking forward to my first season of track. I looked forward to becoming the runner Tom saw in me.
Progress in cross-country had not come easy for me. I worked hard and had to continuously develop my tolerance to discomfort. I didn't know if I had any real talent for the sport, but I knew I had a gift for showing up. I thought I might be good at track, but quickly realized it was in some respects an entirely different sport from cross-country. Progress and success didn't necessarily come easy.
I started thinking about the way I was training. Was there something wrong with it? I went to my track coach (not Tom) and tried to discuss with him why I didn't think things were clicking and mentioned my work with Tom. He became visibly uncomfortable and in so many words, disparaged Tom.
I may not have learned much in my first off-season between cross-country and track, but the one lesson I learned from Tom is perhaps the most important one. The lesson was simply that being determined and doing the hard work eventually pays. It may not pay ALL the time. It may not always pay when you want it to. It may seem like it's never going to pay, but stick with it and the stars will align for you.....eventually.
I walked away from my track coach's office and knew one thing. If I wanted to become the kind of runner Tom saw in me, I was going to have to be determined to do the hard work to get there. What that meant right away is that I needed to start running more. The next morning (and every morning thereafter) for the next several months I was up at 5:30AM getting in five miles on my own.
From there, I'd head to school, attend class, and then hit the track. This grueling schedule was not easy to maintain, but there was a part of me that must have known this would take me somewhere. I still struggled to find a distance that resonated for me on the track. The 400 and the 800 just killed me and the mile wasn't my friend either. The only other option for me was the two mile which was the only distance that came close to what I had covered during cross country (3 miles or so).
I soldiered on logging the miles and posting mediocre results wondering when I might see a glimmer of hope. The season was rapidly coming to a close and everyone was talking about getting to the state championship. I had done nothing that season to even suggest I might have a shot of getting there, but I hadn't abandoned all hope. I just kept showing up.
Conference championships arrived. I was tripling that night because our coach was trying to win the meet. I'd be running 800 meters as part of a two mile relay team as well as the 1600M and 3200M. I entered one of my last track meets of the season wondering when my hard work would pay off. As it turns out, my time was nigh.
I led off the two mile relay and ran a monstrous PR shaving six seconds off my fastest time ever and our team took second. Roughly thirty minutes later, I lined up for the mile feeling strangely spry. I unleashed another 10 second PR and broke five minutes for 1600M for the first time in my life and placed third.
I could feel it coming in the air that night. I was feeling oddly confident. This was MY night. My time had come. I'd never won a race in my entire life and I found myself wanting to win the 3200M race BADLY.
I ran out in front for the first time in my entire life. Fuck it, I figured. I'd never run this way before and I might never again. Might as well go for it. Win or lose, I was determined to give this race all I had and it might be enough.
While my heart and head were in the right place, my legs lacked the zip to carry me to the promised land. The 800M and 1600M I had run earlier had taken a greater toll than I realized. But, it was without a doubt one of the most glorious defeats I've ever had.
I fought one of my teammates tooth and nail every last step to the finish line and came up just a hair shy. I was happy in defeat. I knew it wasn't a question of 'if' I would win, but 'WHEN' I would win.
The District Championships arrived the following week and it was do or die. If you placed in the top two for your event, you went to the State Championship. If you didn't, your season was over. This time, I had one race assigned. I was lined up for 3200M the race I had lost by a hair the previous week.
I didn't know much, but I knew last week wasn't a fluke. I listened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover of 'Higher Ground' one more time and tried to convince myself I was headed there as I walked to the start of the race.
I had never won a race in my entire life and didn't necessarily expect to win this one. Win, lose, or draw that day, I simply knew that I was starting to become the runner Tom saw in me. As it turns out, it was my day to win. It was my very first race victory and decades later it's still the sweetest.
I often wonder exactly what Tom saw in me. I'll probably never know (he passed away some time ago), but I don't know that it had much to do with running per se. I think he saw something in my eyes. I think he saw a look in my eyes during my finishing kick that convinced him I had something.
I think Tom saw determination in my eyes. I wasn't the fastest. I wasn't the strongest. I wasn't the most talented. But, I think Tom saw someone so ferociously determined that maybe he simply didn't care about any weaknesses I might have had.
As a coach, the runners I love working with are not the ones who are fastest, strongest, or most talented. The runners who are most determined are the ones I gravitate towards. Talent is great, but without determination, it's not worth much. Determination has taken me far, so I stick with what works. I run because I am determined.