Saturday, December 28, 2013

The two most important races in my life

The last three months have been among the most difficult of my life.  Physician Assistant school has challenged me in ways for which I was not fully prepared.  Everything that I’ve done athletically doesn’t compare to the constant grind of having 28 hours a week of lecture in Anatomy, Physiology, and Pathology.  Not to mention the incredibly difficult tests.  In undergrad I had a 3.56 – and got all A’s in my pre-reqs that I had to take the last few years in order to get into PA school.  This last semester I took ~18 tests – I got exactly one A. 

Experiences like this make you question yourself.  Am I smart or dumb?  Am I a hard worker or lazy?  Am I a team player or selfish?  Like anybody, I can find examples of my own behavior that could lead me to either conclusion.  In the end I decided that I needed to focus on the positive.  I needed to remind myself of who I really am. 

I needed to find examples of times where I encountered disappointment or even failure and somehow came out stronger for the experience.  I thought about one of my first major disappointments.  Being cut from my 7th grade baseball team.  If you had asked me as a 5th grader what I was going to be when I grew up – I would have said “a professional baseball player.”  I could have even told you what I was going to do with the money I earned – I would have bought something nice for my parents.

Well, a few things happened between 5th and 7th graded.  For one – all the other boys grew – I did not.  Suddenly the pitchers were much stronger and my weak upper body couldn’t swing the bat fast enough to get around on a fastball.  So, I didn’t even make my 7th grade middle school baseball team.  One of my friends could tell how bad I was hurting after I got cut.  He told me how he was running track – and that I should try it since I had done pretty well in the mile we had to run for gym.  I was instantly hooked.  That spring I got 5th in the mile in the city and the next year I not only was city champion for the mile (in a time of 5:08) – I also ran my first half marathon that June.  I won my age group with a 1:29 as a 14 year old.

Although that was a decent example of how I deal with adversity – I remembered two other races that seemed even more appropriate.  Like many young boys – I was an emotional mess as a 15 year old.  It impacted my ability to be successful in school.  Early that semester I got a “D” on a Biology test.  My parents were scrambling for answers – trying to figure out why their son – who had shown some promise academically was doing so poorly. 

They concluded that running was taking too much time and energy away from my studies.  But the truth was that running was the fine string that kept me sane.  It was everything to me.  When my mom told me that she thought I should quit the team I threw a tantrum.  I was hysterical.  Luckily for me, she realized that whatever was going on she couldn’t take running away from me.  My parents asked me if I wanted to talk to a psychologist – but I wasn’t strong enough to do that.  I was a boy – and I thought that it was something only weak people do – although now I know that asking for help when you need it is actually pretty courageous.

Not long after this episode came our conference meet.  Our team was relatively poor that year.  We had lost our best runner the year before – an incredibly gifted and kind kid named Terrance Vaughn.  As I freshman I had looked up to him.  He taught me a lot about how to compete.  I remember that he told me that what separated the best runners in cross country wasn’t how they ran up the hills – it’s how they ran down the other side.  Do they take it easy on the downhill?  Or do they throw caution to the wind and charge down the hill?

The prior spring Terrance had come back from injury sustained during the State Cross Country meet.  He worked his way into being one of the top two-milers in the state.  Unfortunately he had some issues at the State track meet.  The worst part was that two guys from our cross town high school, Huron, had beaten him at the state meet.  They were only a freshman and a sophomore – and they had taken it to my mentor.

I don’t remember much about how I felt toeing the line before the gun went off in that conference meet my sophomore year.  What I do remember is that I was just behind the two boys from Huron, who led pretty much from the start, when all of a sudden at around the mile mark they did a fist bump – as to say “we got this.”  It enraged me.  How could they disrespect me and my teammates like that?  I already didn’t like them because they had beaten my friend.  My rage oddly had a calming effect in some ways.  I didn’t try to pass them initially – I just patiently stayed on their shoulders – waiting for the right time to pounce.  With about ¾ of a mile to go we hit a long downhill – I felt that they were being tentative and used it to my advantage.  I charged past them down the hill and never looked back.  My momentum carried me on the relatively flat remaining part of the course to the finish line.  I won the race.

That race taught me that you can do things that you didn’t even know were possible if you have adequate motivation and a smart race strategy.  It also made me think about what I might be able to do at States this year.  These guys were easily in the top ten in the state – maybe I could be top 5?  Maybe better?

I don’t remember much about our regional meet.  We did well enough as a team to qualify for States – which given the team we had that year wasn’t a sure thing.  Then a really bad thing happened.  A week before States my knee started to hurt.  Knee pain is a weird thing.  Sometimes you can tweak your knee on a run and the pain goes away after a few strides.  Sometimes it lasts for a day or two.  My coach decided I just needed a few days rest.  I was in great shape – a few days of not running wasn’t going to kill me.

I don’t remember doubting for a moment that I was going to run that race.  After all – even if I was in some pain – how much would that really cost me?  About half mile into the race I found out.  My knee hurt so bad that I couldn’t run without a limp.  Later, I found out I had Osgood Schlatter’s.  A condition that happens with boys whose growth plate hasn’t fully sealed.  Basically my patellar ligament was pulling the upper part of my tibia away from the rest of the bone.  Needless to say – it’s pretty painful.

I could have dropped out – I don’t think anybody would have really blamed me – but I just couldn’t do it.  I almost had this sport ripped away from me (because of my own failure in school) I wasn’t going to let an injury rob me of this experience either.  Plus my teammates were counting on me – I figured I could still be in our top 5 runners and score for the team.  But one-by-one my teammates passed me until I was 7th on the team.  I kept fading – but I kept pushing on for some reason.  To be honest I don’t really know why I kept running – but I did.

At the finish line there was a momentary feeling of embarrassment as I realized I had run two minutes slower than I had the week before.  But then I saw my teammates.  They all had big smiles on their faces – pretty much all of them had personal bests that day.  We had even placed pretty well as a team – even with me being injured.  I decided that however sorry I felt for myself I wasn’t going to ruin my teammates day.  They had worked too hard to waste their time feeling sorry for me.  I remember having a big goofy grin on my face for the team picture.

Although I had to use crutches for a few weeks – I recovered in time for track in the spring.  I noticed that two of my teammates were gaining on me.  Todd Snyder was a nice kid – but he didn’t seem to take running all that seriously.  I never even really thought of him as a rival until he beat me the last track race of our sophomore year.  Don McLaughlin was a skinny awkward kid who was a decent runner – but who I was still usually beating.  By the end of my sophomore year Don was starting to show some real promise – running sub 4:30 as a junior.

The next summer we all trained together.  We started to trust each other.  We started to depend on each other.  By the fall of my junior year my days of beating Don and Todd were over.  At the state meet I was 10th in the state – but 3rd best on my team.  Todd was state champion and Don was 4th.  We not only won the state championship – we were ranked the 3rd best cross country team in the country.  We went on to get 2nd place as a team in the Track state championship – where Todd was the 3200 state champ and Don did a miraculous triple – 4X800, 1600, and 3200 – doing an fantastic job in each race.  We won the 4X800 with a time that was the second best ever in the history of Michigan state meet.  It also happened to be the 3rd fastest 4X800 in the country that year.  Then the next year we repeated as cross country state champions.

Of the guys who were on those teams - seven of us had at least partial scholarships to Division I universities.  Don and Todd were the most impressive in terms of what they accomplished in college.  They both ran for the coaching legend Ron Warhurst at Michigan. 

Don trained almost every day with Kevin Sullivan – multiple time NCAA champion and three time Olympian.  Kevin was 5th at the Sydney Olympics in the mile and has the Canadian record at a 3:51.  Don took full advantage of his training partners and ended up running an open 4:00.8 in the mile.  He also ran sub four minutes in a relay.  If you ask Don – he doesn’t consider that running a "sub-4 minute mile" – but the dude did cover a mile under his own power in under four minutes.  Not only that – but he was Big Ten champion in the indoor mile.  He was on multiple Penn Relay distance medley relay champion teams.  The dude is a stud.

In high school Todd ended up with six individual state championships.  He also beat Abdul Alzindani in every race they ever competed against each other.  Abdul was a year younger than us.  In his senior year of high school Abdul won the Footlocker national championship.  Todd continued to develop in college.  He had some impressive training partners at Michigan as well.  His freshman year roommate was John Mortimer – who had been second at the national Footlocker championship.  Todd had a number of successes – but probably his most impressive race was placing 10th at National NCAA cross country meet his senior year to become one of only 20 All-Americans in the history of the Michigan Cross Country program.  He went on to run for famous Hansons running group and qualified for the Olympic trials in the marathon in 2008.  The dude is a stud.

These guys could not have accomplished what they did without a lot of talent and an incredible work ethic.  But, I do feel proud that I was a part of the environment that helped them to become successful.  We had a great coach in Don Sleeman, but a lot of our success was due to the fact that we were a special group of kids.  We were far from perfect.  But we cared deeply about each other.  We put ourselves on the line for each other – and we all put out our best effort because we knew we could count on each other to do the same.

Those two races taught me what was important about being on a team and life in general.  Even in a seemingly individual sport we can’t attain what we’re capable of alone.  The same is true of life.  I don’t know if life has “meaning” – but I do know that we are all here together.  If it does have meaning – then I think it’s that we’re supposed to take care of each other.  That is what’s important in life.  And I was lucky enough to experience what that means with an incredible group of young men – for that I will always be grateful.  And in regards to my struggles in PA school – by thinking about those races it makes me realize that I will be fine.  I am the kind of person who doesn’t give up on myself or anybody else.  I have gone through enough this semester to know that I will be successful in whatever the next chapter of my life happens to be - whether it is PA school or something else.