Why Do I Like Running? Pt. 2
Thursday, November 03, 2011
Chapter 2: Cross Country Rookie
Now a full-fledged member of the varsity x-country team, I found myself in the #10 spot on the ladder, running in the neighborhood of a 21-22 minute 5K. The 5K distance was the standard distance for high school cross country competition. 21 minutes is rather pedestrian, so in essence, I was a "scrub" on the squad. I did wind up improving during the course of the season and by the end I was finishing in right around 20 minutes. I couldn’t break that 20-minute mark though, and I didn't move up on the depth chart despite my improved stamina. I didn’t mind though. I was only a sophomore and I had time to move up. I didn’t particularly like to run, and I dreaded the practices, especially the sprint repeats that left me feeling like I was going to barf. Any postponed or cancelled practice was sweet relief, and I never thought to train on my own. But I liked the competition and I managed to earn a varsity letter that year.
After the season was over, I did not run at all. My attention turned to winter swim team (which I loved except for having to get up at 5AM every morning for practice). Tennis was my first love, and I played that year round, striving to improve through continuous practice and competition. Running, on the other hand, was something I forgot about. I didn’t consider it important enough to prepare for during the off season. For some reason I didn’t equate conditioning and training with improvement the way I did with other athletic pursuits. It was just something I did during the empty Fall season and I assumed that I’d get better just by being older.
Boy, was I wrong. When my junior year began, I returned to the cross country team, now as a veteran and upperclassmen. We’d lost two good runners to graduation, but the squad was still very strong. We’d gained a star freshmen and another star junior who had transferred from another school; and the other runners in the previous year's top 7 had all been training during the off season and were improved. Me? I was probably back to where I’d been at the start of my sophomore year. I don’t know why I ever assumed I’d just pick up where I’d left off the previous year.
We went out on that first shakedown run and there were some new kids trying out. One was this kid I knew who was a year behind me named Matt. He showed up in Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars, cut-off jeans and a white undershirt. I figured I’d hold my place on the team and the other newbies like Matt would fall in behind me. Matt started out fast and I chuckled. “Rookie…he’ll fade.” I stayed on his heels, but after the first mile, he wasn’t fading. I was. I’d underestimated him and overestimated myself. Despite looking like a kook, he was fast. He smoked me. All of a sudden, I realized that I might be sliding to #11…as a junior.
To make matters worse for my ego, our school’s local athletic conference had instituted a new policy for cross country meets. For the main, varsity event, only the teams top 9 runners would line up. All the others would run in a “exhibition” or “junior varsity” (JV) heat that didn’t officially count for anything. I didn’t want to do that at all. JV was for freshman and sophomores. I was a 3rd year student-athlete. How was I going to enjoy the year if I couldn’t run with the big boys?
I did manage to quickly work my way back into the #10 spot, running near 20-minute 5Ks again, but it still wasn’t good enough for “varsity.” Coach B was sensitive to the semantics of it all, and he started calling us the B-squad instead of JV, and I was #1 on the B squad. I still didn’t like it but unless I could consistently overtake the guy who was #9 on the squad, that was my lot and I wasn’t going to quit the team because of it.
A strange thing happened, though, being #1 on the B squad instead of #9 on the A squad. I ran faster in competition. It was weird. I vividly remember that first meet. Normally, teams will line up at the start, matching each team’s #1 runner, then #2 and so on, in a line abreast and then filling in the space behind. They may go through the top 5 runners on each squad, and then the rest of us would fill in behind. Every race I had run up until then I ran as part of the pack, trailing the leaders who would stretch out ahead of me and before long I’d never see them again until the finish line. I was a faceless, anonymous runner lost in the crowd. But when I lined up as the #1 runner in the pre-race exhibition heat, suddenly I found myself in a new role. Something clicked in me that no one, least of all me, expected.
We were racing another high school in Newport News, VA in that first meet with segregated varsity and JV heats. I lined up in the pole position and when the horn sounded to start the race, I darted off like I’d never done before. I’d usually start more conservatively, get revved up and then try to quicken my pace over the course of the race and then just hold on until the finish. This time, though, spurred by being out in front for the first time ever, I jetted off like I was racing the quarter mile again. The bulk of the spectators were supporting the home team and I started hearing shouts from them yelling “rabbit…rabbit!!” That meant that they thought I might be a decoy, sent to draw the other team’s runners out into a fast early pace and tire them out so that our key runners could overtake them later. Of course, that wasn’t the tactic. I wasn’t a decoy. I was just unfamiliar with how to pace myself when out in front.
I felt two things. One was the constant pressure from the sounds of the pounding feet behind me. They urged me onward, pushing me to maintain the pace and avoid being caught and passed. But the other was the indignation at the “rabbit” jeers. I wasn’t a rabbit, and I’d show them. I rounded the first quarter of a mile still in the lead, still running like I was racing a 440 sprint and then headed off onto the rest of the course, afraid to look back and see how close the pursuit was.
My coach met me at the mile split and was excitedly yelling out my time; 5:38. He’d never seen me run that quickly. Heck, I never knew I could run a 5:30 split. I knew I couldn’t sustain that, but could I at least sustain a quick enough pace to hold off the field? I never looked back. I was high on adrenaline or something because I whisked through that 5K course and wound up clocking something in the low 19-minute range. It was the first time I’d ever broken 20 minutes, and I’d blown it away. I felt like an Olympic gold medalist the way my team and supporters cheered when I crossed the line. Everyone was stunned, and suddenly I was a star. Yeah, it was only exhibition, but if that’s what my B-squad experience was going to be like, then it was worth the demotion.
That new found ability didn't translate in practices. Even though I could constructively beat the next two guys on the squad after comparing race times, I couldn't beat them head-to-head. In non-conference meets, where we didn’t run separate B-squad exhibitions, I couldn't duplicate my fast times. The only time I could beat them was when I ran in a separate heat and was lined up in the front position. I went through the regular season undefeated in the B-Squad heats. Not only was I undefeated, but I never trailed. I’d led wire-to-wire in every race. There was something about jumping out ahead and holding onto a lead that drove me to dig deeper. I couldn’t find that when I was just part of the pack.
It actually turned out to be a fun season, despite what I thought was going to be the humiliation of having to run junior varsity. Having the chance to be a star of sorts was a new and rewarding experience. Unfortunately, it all ended on a sour note.
Next: Cross Country Fail