By Colin SyBing
Dear UMD Club Running,
As I write this, it’s almost midnight on Sunday November 11th (though it’ll probably be much longer before I finish). More specifically, I’ve just emerged from a post-Nationals car ride coma, checked the grade I received on the midterm I took right before leaving last week (eh), commented on a couple of Andrew Lent’s meme-y photos from the meet, and already begun experiencing NIRCA withdrawal. But, as I reflect on yet another wonderful weekend full of running, inside jokes, and absurdly cold weather, I can’t help but feel a bit emotional and look back at the past half year. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to look back on the past six months and share my experiences with the team and take a moment to think about the future. That’s right; kick back and choose your favorite assignment to procrastinate on, because it’s gonna be a long blog post. Let’s reminisce.
As I rounded out the final, ~90-meter straightaway at UMD’s very own Kehoe Track, I glanced at the clock to confirm the suspicion in the back of my mind. For the umpteenth time in my career as a 1500m/mile runner, I had led the race only to been outkicked in the last 200m by some guy with better leg speed and a smarter racing strategy. Despite what Prefontaine might tell you, running boldly doesn’t always pay off when you can’t kick. But that wasn’t what stung the most. What stung, deep within my throbbing chest as a slight drizzle began to fall down on the track that Friday night in May, was that ever since a thrilling 4:01 PR a month prior, I had failed to reach my season goal of breaking 4 minutes in the 1500m, a goal I held ever since entering college.
I puked up the 251 dinner I had 3 hours prior into a nearby trashcan as my father came on to the field to congratulate me on my fantastic 5k race (my father, to this day, doesn’t know how long a track is). Regretfully, I looked up at the varsity athletes setting up to run the fast heat of the 1500m, the cut for which I unfortunately did not make. I couldn’t help but feel another pang of disappointment as I realized that my season had just ended, and ended in such an unceremonious fashion. No more interval workouts, no more lacing up spikes, no more laughing at kids with horrible form with Jacob from the stands. Yet another year of running completed, and yet I was still left without that sense of climactic achievement: the bursting sensation of finally smashing that goal that you’ve been working towards for months. Nothing. Zip. No ceremony, no inner satisfaction, no victorious spirit left for some club kid that got outkicked in the slow heat at a varsity meet.
I shuffled through a short, rainy cooldown jog as I prepared to cheer on my teammates for the 5k. As I awaited the starting gun for the final event of the night, I began mentally mapping out the next couple months. “Build up your mileage, stay consistent, get the strength training in, hit the midsummer tempos, and then you guys will have your shot at a great nationals finish.” It was all so simple. Nothing could possibly go wrong. My planning was cut short as I was tasked with shrieking at my teammates in the rain for 12.5 laps around our stupidly proportioned track, but I knew that, despite my disappointment today, my teammates and I had a shot at working on something great, and that alone was enough to lift my spirits: a belief in a better tomorrow.
The Long Summer Months
After a week of finals preparation, summer goodbyes, and, most notably, no running, it was time for a very special part of the year: summer training. Everything’s hot, everything’s long, and everything’s possible. This year, unlike past years, we had clear goals and an ambitious training plan from everyone’s personal life coach, Jack Wavering. Hit the miles, do the workouts, make the podium at Nats. Simple. Elegant. Genius. Not only did we have an A-1 training plan, but we had some bomb-ass plans to follow it. With a large portion of the boys team still in and around College Park and the move in date for an infamous non-club-associated house just on the horizon, we didn’t just have a training plan, we had a training team, a luxury not many college teams possess.
And boy was it a blast. Through three and a half summer months of torturous summer class, a music festival, World Cup matches, trips to the beach, a shitty half-internship that I still haven’t been paid for, counseling at a summer running camp, and a trip to Canada, through heat warnings, 100% humidity, thunderstorms, early mornings and late nights, over concrete, dirt paths, but mostly concrete, I powered (and sometimes trudged) my way through summer miles alongside my teammates, my roommates, and my best friends. New routes were constructed, running playlists were carefully designed, and friendships were strengthened. My team was with me every step of the way as we all strove towards that Nationals podium, with tens of salty core sessions, hundreds of rounds of Contact, and most likely thousands of popsicles.
And from what I saw on the greatest running log site known to man, the 8809 group was not the only one putting in great efforts. At the end of long days in a classroom, I would pull up running2win to read tales of heroes, tales of Katrina waking up before sunrise to run before work, of Elliot pumping up his mileage and quickening his pace during his first year of summer training, of Sarah and Julia driving across Maryland to find a place to run together, of Christina fighting to return from a nasty injury in the spring, of Ryun running multiple times each day at blindingly quick paces, and of Shannon running even faster than Ryun because why the hell not? Each of these teammates, and all the others that unfortunately use Strava like hobby joggers, were all working for the success of the team and for themselves, embodying what I believe to be truly beautiful about our sport. It was these people, the people who were forced into bad situations but fought to reach their goals anyway, who faced great adversity and simply didn’t care, who inspired me when my training was at its toughest, and for that I thank everyone (and running2win).
Each day, I got faster, leaner, and more confident as I logged the hardest miles I think I’ve ever run in my life. Capping it all off in August with two consecutive 70-mile weeks (my highest mileage weeks ever), I strode into the school year with the utmost confidence in myself and my team, with just shy of 800 summer miles on my legs and legs of my teammates to back it all up. This was it. This was our year. After two years of not living up to the potential of our training due to nagging injuries and generally unfocused goals, we were waltzing into Fall of 2018 with a goddamn squad.
New Beginnings and New Successes
The semester started off quick and chaotic like normal. Classes are hard, finding time to run is difficult, apparently you have to start applying for jobs in September, and there’s a whole new crop of names and majors to memorize. Nevertheless, it was clear, at least to me, that this year had a different vibe to it. I felt more focused, more motivated, and generally in higher spirits. My morale was further bolstered by the arrival of a fantastic class of new club members, some with stories that’ll make you laugh hours after you hear them, some with impressive running accolades, and all of them with positive, cheerful, motivated attitudes that I certainly wish I had as a freshman entering a new environment. Everything was lining up perfectly, and everyone around me seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves, something I think we can take for granted when semesters get busy.
From September to mid-October, I felt invincible. It just seemed like everything was going right; my classes were interesting but not too tough, I had a couple internship interviews lined up, and my EWB project was getting off the ground, but to be honest, any joy I took from those paled in comparison to how I felt when I ran with this team. To paraphrase Mitch, “Literally nothing else matters as long as you’re fit.” And he was right. No matter how long a day I had or how sleep-deprived I became, I had trump card for happiness; I was fit and I had a great group of people to run with. Some personal highlights of my semester include (but are not limited to):
- A 6:30AM 20 x 400m with Mitch followed by a 7AM Lumberjack with Mitch two weeks after
- Running at 9PM on a Monday with Jack only to be outrun by a guy in jeans who was late for his shift at Blaze
- Running a mile with Elliot and MT while finishing a freezy-pop on the first day of practice
- Nearly losing a time trial to some random freshman
- The Toga Party
- Finally running a decent race at Paul Short at my 4th time at that stupid course
- Hearing about Andrew and Mitchell’s race after that and subsequently crying of laughter
- Styling on the IM soccer field during our most successful season yet (long live Yeet City)
- Following MT on a run of 20+ guys to PG Plaza that somehow turned into Riverdale, because all routes are actually just Riverdale
A Glorious Day: Princeton
With two races under our belts by mid-October, it seemed as though our third would be spoiled by some unforeseen circumstances. The Princeton Invitational, the historically fastest meet of the year and fastest course on the east coast (unless you’re a girl), had its existence come into question due to “construction” on the course. How you perform construction on a cornfield literally two days after the varsity meet at the same course remains a mystery to me, but I’ll give the meet coordinators the benefit of the doubt on this one. There was talk of rescheduling and cancelling, talk of moving the meet, and talk of going to the *shudders* Georgetown Invite instead. The uncertainty was absolutely maddening.
Fortunately, Princeton’s Running Club, led by a really fast leprechaun, that girl that doesn’t know how to read results, a sentient didgeridoo, and Jacob’s boyfriend, found an alternate course at a park in New Jersey. With bright eyes and high hopes, we set off for New Jersey on an early Sunday morning, and were rewarded with perfect weather, great competition, and, most importantly, the actual fastest course on the east coast. My Lord this park was like cross country heaven, mainly because it was nothing like a cross country course; not a single hill could be seen and 80% of the race was run on a crushed gravel path.
The girls raced first, and the results could not have been more encouraging. People were PR’ing left and right, shaving multiple minutes off their fastest times. People were so excited that it seemed as if the air itself was electric. I could hardly contain myself as the girl’s race wrapped up and I began warming up. Today was going to be great, I could feel it. My chest swelled with excitement as I was rudely photographed doing my leg extensions on the start line once again. As always, Ryun graced us with a wonderful pump up speech about turtles and defense and whatnot and we strode back to the line.
As soon as the gun went off, I flew out to the front to dodge traffic at the first bottleneck. Despite some later chastising from Ryun, I thought I was off to a dream start. As the first mile wore on, I allowed a group of 10-11 leaders to move up ahead. For someone who usually chases the leaders, an odd calm had settled over me. Maybe it was the hyperventilating guy in sneakers and a T-shirt that sprinted ahead of me to chase the leaders that told me that some of the guys in front of me were likely to drop back eventually. I rolled through the first mile with the leaders still in my sights, not bothering to check a watch or listen for anyone yelling out a split; I knew it was fast. Calmly, I decided to maintain my following distance until the third mile before making any bold moves, and as I made that decision something miraculous happened. Mitch came up on my shoulder, barely breathing. I was already determined to race well, but there’s something about racing next to a teammate that you’ve known for years, matching strides, knowing that you both feel good that makes you think “Let’s. Fucking. Go.”
Mitch and I ran stride for stride for the next 3 miles, watching utter carnage unfold in front of us. The leaders were dropping like flies. One by one, overly ambitious athletes faded from the front pack, only to be surrounded and passed by Mitch and me on either side, never to be seen again. Soon, we hit the grass by the start for the final time, meaning that we had just a bit less than a mile to go. I focused my eyes 30m forward on my next victim: the dubious individual known solely as “Princeton Guy.” At this moment, a sliver of doubt crawled into my mind for the first time. This guy was older and more talented than I was. I watched this guy lead the Mid-Atlantic Regional race one year ago from 50th or so place. If I even got close to catching him, he’d most likely just outkick me. Maybe this was it. Maybe my luck had run out. Maybe it was time to settle and cruise to the finish. But as Princeton Guy rounded a turn about 30m ahead of me, he did something that melted any fear out of me.
He looked over his shoulder, straight at me. He was scared.
In an instant, I became a different runner. My hips were no longer dropped. My stride lengthened ever so slightly but my feet were leaving the ground faster than before. My arms were pumping harder and my eyes were glued squarely on the shoulders of my newest competitor. I was bounding closer, closer, and closer still with every stride. This runner who I had previously classified as completely out of my range, totally above my paygrade, was moving back to me in slow motion. Ten seconds later, he was a thing of the past. I blew by him with a kilometer to go, and soon I put another runner behind me as well right before making a hard right onto the final straightaway.
Eyes focused straight ahead, I saw Ryun’s back in the distance. Ryun, who consistently ran workouts twice as long as I did (and way faster too). Ryun, whose running logs made my eyes pop out of my head. Ryun, the guy who I watched score a bronze medal at track nationals six months prior. That guy was in my sights. Maybe it’s rude to say this about a teammate, but I can tell you honestly that I’ve rarely felt a stronger urge to accelerate than I did in that moment. 600m or so later, and it was all over. I had closed my following distance to a meager 10 meters, and as I leaned over the line, I craned my neck to the left to see the clock.
Holy shit. 25:30 and change. I didn’t even have time to calculate that as a 70 second PR before my teammates started streaming across the finish line behind me. Mitch flew in right behind me, and then Brian blazed into the chute, followed soon after by a hard-kicking Rylan and Jack, and in that moment I let out what could only be described as a primal scream. This was it. Not only did we have this meet in the bag for the second year in a row, but we did it in triumphant fashion. Scorching fast times aside, we had run together perfectly, and dominated a rival team that had blown us out of the water at Regionals and Nationals last year.
The rest of the day was a blur of congratulations, granola bar fueled sprints (courtesy of the long-missed Matt Patsy), and victorious devouring of free food. The crowd of parents and athletes gathered around a picnic table to read out results, and for the first time in 3 years, I stepped up to receive an award on a cross country podium. More importantly, the girls’ team earned a podium finish and the boys’ team was announced as the returning champs. For me though, more important than any time or place or celebratory rubber duck, was the return of a feeling long-lost. For the first time in a very long while, that bursting swell of accomplishment, that pride, that primal joy of knowing that on this day, I laid everything out on the course and performed at my best, that I truly became the best version of myself, that feeling returned. What I was missing at the Kehoe Invite last May, what I fell short of during cross season last Fall, and what I spent long summer months fighting to reclaim, was finally mine again. And with Regionals a week away, I wanted more.
Regionals. Oh boy. I had a personal history of completely blowing it on this course. Team-wise, for the past two years, we’ve strode up to Lehigh with the intent of walking away with the trophy. In both my years on this team, we’ve managed to find a brand-new source of swagger right before this weekend, whether it’s a post-Lumberjack pump up speech from Ceruzzi or a strong team performance at Princeton. This year was no different, and the background audio on a certain video on NIRCA’s Instagram from that week will confirm the presence of some cockiness. In past years though, it never worked out. We, specifically the boys’ team, always ended up blowing up or underperforming (aside from some unofficial race results stemming from a course mishap last year).
For anyone who can read results, it’s no secret that that trend continued this year. Some things happened out on those Lehigh hills that happened yet this season. People burnt out early, fatigue showed on the legs of many, and the killer instinct necessary to succeed in an 8k was nowhere to be found. The boys and girls each finished 4th, and while I would later chalk up this less than stellar performance to the fact that we trained through the meet (as opposed to other teams who may have designed a small peak into their training plan at the expense of a sharper peak at nationals), I couldn’t help but walk away from Lehigh with a sour taste in my mouth, though I suppose it’s hard not to get frustrated with the dystopian echoes of “We Are Penn State” still distantly ringing in your ears.
Despite a disappointing weekend of racing, I shook it off and turned my focus to the future once again: three weeks until Nats. Three weeks of speed refining workouts that would take months of training and transform it into raw speed (or speed raw enough for an 8k). With the culmination of my training so close, even the second Lumberjack lingering on the horizon didn’t scare me. I was raring to go get some great workouts in, but at the same time my poor performance at regionals left me somewhat cautious. After consulting with a past coach, I decided it would be best to forego this week’s interval workout and the race at UVA for a couple longer tempos and a relaxing weekend at home back in Rockville. My reasons for returning home for a weekend extended beyond running. In the preceding two weeks, somewhat due to losing my weekends to meets, schoolwork had begun piling up, alongside a mountain of bureaucratic BS for my EWB project and a fat stack of labs waiting to be graded. I could barely stay awake in class anymore and I could feel my motivation to succeed slipping away. I was going home as a bit of a mental vacation to destress, catch up on some homework, meet up with some old friends at a high school county championship meet, grab some home cooked food, and see my parents for the first time in a while.
But as I mentally checked out from my responsibilities that Wednesday, some worrying signs started appearing. The temperature took a quick drop, and as it did people around me began getting sick. I mean really sick. Quarantine kind of sick. Some classmates of mine got hit hard with the flu, but I had gotten vaccinated so I wasn’t particularly worried. Academically, I continued limping through until the end of the week, putting off assignments and meetings until the upcoming week. If I could just make it to the weekend without getting chewed out for missing a deadline, I’d be just fine. That’s what I told myself, and by some miracle it happened. Then, as I returned from my final run in College Park for the week that Friday evening, as I stepped back into my house right behind Mitch and prepared to do a short hip workout in the living room, something peculiar happened.
My head began pounding, breathing started to become a bit more difficult, and within 5 minutes I was on the floor of the living room shivering uncontrollably. While I stabilized a bit after a half hour and a warm shower, it was clear that I was coming down with something. While obnoxiously timed, it wasn’t too surprising; Hiro had been sick for the past couple weeks, Christina had come down with an illness a day before, and Jack actually passed out sick on his bed shortly after I returned from my run. Nobody’s safe when it comes to biological warfare. With my head fuzzy and my legs unsteady, I sloppily packed my duffel bag for a short weekend home and awaited the arrival of my parents. When they finally arrived on the way back from my brother’s white coat ceremony in Baltimore, I dropped my bag in the trunk and slumped into the backseat of my mother’s Honda Accord. Through what was likely a rude mumble, I told my parents I was feeling sick, and after catching up for about 10 minutes, I lost any strength I had left to socialize and proceeded to pass out as we slogged through beltway traffic.
Back in Rockville, feeling a bit stronger, I stumbled into my old house, parked myself on the living room couch, watched a recording of a recent Celtics game with my dad, geeked out over the new Smash Bros announcement with my brother, and went to bed early in the guest room that used to be mine. Consciousness sliding away, I pulled up my phone to let Ryun know that I most likely wouldn’t be up for the tempo we planned for Saturday morning, but that I would probably still see him at the county championship as a spectator. Missing one workout wouldn’t derail my training significantly and attempting a tempo in this state would simply be unproductive. Might as well soak up some recovery over the weekend right?
I soon found out that no recovery would be occurring this weekend. I woke up at 3AM, somehow simultaneously shivering and drowning in sweat. I tried to throw my covers off, but I soon realized that the strength I needed to get out of bed simply wasn’t in my body. With significant struggle, I crawled onto the floor, stood up, and snatched my water bottle from my nightstand and drank greedily. By the time I had emptied the bottle, my head had started spinning from standing up too quickly, and I realized that I needed to get to the bathroom. Quick. I barely made it through the pitch-black hallway in time before I had to vomit. A less than ideal Friday night, but there have certainly been worse ones.
My night did not improve after that, as I quickly became trapped in two-hour cycles of falling asleep shivering, waking up sweating, going back to the bathroom to splash water on my face, and then returning to bed only to dream/hallucinate about being dissected by aliens that all looked vaguely like past cross-country coaches. I slept well past 11AM but did not feel rested at all. My throat pulsed with agony whenever I spoke or coughed, my head spun when I stood up, and somehow the entire world was simultaneously too damn hot and too damn cold. After a warm breakfast and some tall glasses of OJ though, it all seemed to subside. I could walk fine and my fever even dropped a bit. My mom shot me a concerned look when I told her that I still planned to go to counties (which had been delayed due to rain), but I assured her that I wouldn’t be there long and that I’d come right back as soon as I started feeling sick. Within 10 minutes, I was on the road to Briggs’s alma mater to fulfill some promises to some old friends.
After a day of watching my high school team get wrecked and avoiding handshakes for fear of infecting the rest of the general population, I returned to my house a bit fatigued, but not feeling any severe symptoms. I concluded that the worst was over, that I had sweat out most of the fever already and that I’d be right as rain come Monday morning. I even managed to catch up on some grading that night before my tiredness got the best of me and I passed out on the couch. About an hour later I returned to my guest bed with a full bottle of water and an extra heavy blanket, ready to finish off this sickness with a hefty ten hours of sleep so I could get back to business on Monday. I had a training schedule to keep, after all
No such thing occurred. Friday night was a warmup, and Saturday night was the main event. I could barely scrape two consecutive hours of sleep before I had to switch blankets to get rid of the one that was slick with sweat. Nightmares occurred and re-occurred, water bottles were emptied and refilled, clothes were changed, and I soon began to wonder whether there was an end in sight. When my dad opened my door at 9AM to check on me, my room was a swirling mass of discarded blankets and clothes with a writhing, shuddering, broken animal at the center. I croaked at my dad that I needed to see a doctor, and he obliged.
It turns out that strep throat can be pretty nasty when crossed with a vicious strain of the common cold. My dual illness would continue to trap me in my bed for the rest of the week. Unfortunately, life in the outside world continued, and the world had decided to kick me while I was down, Scott Sterling style. While indisposed, I received two internship rejection emails that essentially wiped out the last of my current prospects, missed two midterms, got screeched at over email for being behind on EWB work, and, perhaps worst of all, found out that Shannon, Mitch, Dan, Anna, Dolf, Lent, and Jacob had all begun experiencing similar symptoms. After a week in bed, two doctor’s visits, a round of antibiotics, a couple half portions of chicken noodle soup, a thoughtful visit from a recovered Christina, and a full season of Attack on Titan, my body had finally recovered, but the universe in which I previously existed had shifted completely while I was gone, and I was not prepared to go back to it.
But I could’ve forgiven all the knocks I received in that week if it wasn’t for a discovery I made on Sunday afternoon. For the first time in eight days, with nationals a mere six days in my future, I laced up my running shoes and took a jog around my neighborhood. The leaves in my neighborhood that were green when I had last looked at them had morphed into brilliant colors. At first, I was stunned at how Fall had come instantaneously, but I remember I hadn’t stepped outside in seven days for anything other than a short drive to the doctor’s office. Glad to be outside again, I allowed myself a small bit of optimism. However, once I began jogging up my street, the truth settled in. Like it usually did, my running2win entry encapsulated my feelings perfectly: “2.8 Miles in 20:49 [7:26 per mile]. oh dear god I forgot how running works. 8 days of sickness. fuck.”
The Deepest Valley
After some last-minute packing, I piled my things into my father’s RAV4, an old stick-shift that always smelled faintly of cigarette ash. Daylight savings time had kicked in a day before, so it was already pitch-black out at 7PM. As we pulled onto I-270 with The Eagles playing out of the Bluetooth radio, my father cheerfully asked me how it felt to finally return to school. In hindsight, it was funny how disconnected our mindsets were. We had probably spent more time together in the past week than we had in months, but I suppose we hadn’t communicated a lot beyond me asking for a glass of water or for help walking to the shower.
How did I feel about returning to school? About facing up to a mountain of responsibilities I had ignored for a week? About starting a long and demeaning internship search over again? About begging professors to let me retake midterms that I wasn’t prepared for in the first place? About running a race, a championship race that I spent six months preparing for, as a shadow of the athlete I was just two weeks ago? I told my father exactly how I felt. I told him I was frustrated. Furious. Miserable. Scared. I asked him how I could be expected to do any of this. How could I can continue to devote my time and effort to these pursuits that mean so much to me if all that progress could be deleted in a week by a couple of microbes? I told him that I was at the lowest point that I had been in a very long time, and the worst part was I had no idea how I was going to claw my way out. Everything I had spent the last six months building was crumbling, and it seemed like I wasn’t going to be far behind.
My father listened as he piloted us past beltway exits. A generally easygoing man for a first-generation immigrant, my father responded to me in the way only someone whose life experience infinitely eclipses your own could. Without skipping a beat, he told me that he was surprised that I was even having these thoughts. He thought that, after all the adversity I’d faced as an athlete, after all the work I’d done as a student from an overly competitive high school, after all the stories I’ve heard about how difficult his life was in the Philippines, that I would’ve grown up and accepted some things about the world. “The world doesn’t owe you anything. Any work that you do might earn you a chance at what you want, but you’re not guaranteed jack shit. And it sucks. It’s hard. But that’s the world you live in son.”
As you can expect, I had absolutely nothing to respond with. I didn’t know what I wanted or needed during that car ride, whether it was empathy or sympathy, or some acknowledgement of how unfair my situation was, but I was sure as hell that it wasn’t a lecture about how I was being entitled. We spent the remaining 15 minutes of the trip in complete silence, aside from my “Parents” playlist cycling through the Rolling Stones and the two Tom Petty songs that my dad knows. Soon, we pulled into my driveway and my dad helped me move some groceries and fresh laundry back into my house, again without any conversation (and even more oddly without seeing any of my eight roommates). With my possessions all squared-away, I walked out the garage door to thank my dad for driving me back. I began to mouth the first word of some half-assed goodbye when the conversation was taken away from me. The wind had picked up a bit, but I could make out every syllable as my dad hugged me in the middle of the driveway and breathed two sentences in my ear:
“I believe in you son. Not because you’re my son, but because you can do it.”
Something in my chest broke. In 30 seconds, my father was gone and I was back in my bedroom, sitting in the middle of my floor, sobbing. For a while, I couldn’t pin down a specific reason for it. There was a lot in it at once: fear, mental fatigue, loss, disappointment, but at the same time, there was relief in there as well. I don’t think of myself as overly emotional, and I also like to think I’m pretty independent, that I don’t rely a lot on other people. But this felt different. Maybe it was just the sincerity in the words, or that they came from my dad, but when I think back on it hard enough, I think the reason was that, for a while before he said that he believed in me, it didn’t feel like anyone did.
Brian, who I now suspect is an omniscient being from another dimension, once told me that, no matter how the weather at your high school regional meet, whether it was 70 or 40 degrees, it would always be sub-freezing at your state championship a week later, which is probably the most accurate thing I’ve ever heard. Nationals in Kentucky, which I found out is not actually in the deep south like I thought, was no exception to the trend. After some eccentric upperclassmen races and a long bathroom wait that forced me to run a solo warmup to the woods and back (truly dark times), I stood on the start line, moments before the gun with one thought; “Mittens or no mittens?”
Ryun’s final pre-race speech wasn’t met with overzealous screaming today like it usually was. The jokes about turtles or other teams weren’t there today, and Ryun kept his voice level and steady as he delivered his 2 minutes of inspiration. He talked about being a senior, about how much work we had put in together, and about the obstacles we had hit. It was true; four of the seven guys on that line had spent at least half a week with the plague in the past two weeks. We we’re about to fight quite an uphill battle. But Ryun passionately disregarded all of it. “Today isn’t about the physical stuff. That was done weeks ago. Today is about that logo on your jersey. Today is about how much that logo on your chest means to you, and whether or not it means more to you than some other guy’s logo means to him.”
Despite the speech, I had no illusions about my capabilities. I spent the week prior struggling to complete five-mile easy runs. It had been almost three weeks since I had run a mile in under six minutes. Beyond that, I was 90% sure I was still sick. But just because I didn’t believe that I would PR, or earn an All-American certificate, or even score for my team, didn’t mean that I didn’t believe in anything. I believed in Ryun’s message. I believed that no matter the race results, that the white ‘M’ emblazoned on my chest meant more than another letter of the damn alphabet on anyone else’s crusty ass singlet. I didn’t need a trophy or a medal to know that I ran for the best team on that starting line, and that was enough.
Five minutes later, we were all out there together amidst a toiling sea of athletes, jostling each other around as they struggled to fight through the frozen mud. Already straining to breathe, I rounded a curve to watch the leaders hit the mile mark about 30 seconds ahead of me. Feelings of indignance crept into my mind; a couple twists of fate in the opposite direction and I would’ve been chasing them, not stuck in the back with a dude racing in sunglasses and another guy in a T-shirt. But I silenced those thoughts. I didn’t live in that world anymore, and I was going to focus on what I could control. With each progressive mile I fought new competitors as the race ebbed and flowed. I lost some battles and I won some, worked a couple uphills just right and botched some others. My body my have faltered many times in those five miles, five miles that I had run around a thousand to train for, but one thing never changed out on that course. At every turn I made and every hill I crested, through the thunderous tunnel of sound that surrounds runners on a crowded course, I heard my teammates cheers piercing through the noise. They were out there with me, when they could’ve been preparing for their own races or relaxing in a heated car. If there was any doubt about it before, it was completely gone now; my dad wasn’t the only one who believed in me.
My finish, once again, was unceremonious and lacking in terms of personal achievement. Just like Kehoe six months before, I finished another season not with a bang, but with a pop scarcely louder than the faulty starting pistol at Nationals. But this time that blow didn’t have the same sting to it. Sure, I hadn’t reached the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the season, and it would be a long time until I had another shot. A younger me would’ve been worried about ever being able to make a real run at those goals ever again, worried about what my short future as a college athlete held, but as I staggered back to the tent shivering for warmth under a sheet of aluminum foil, I was enveloped by a symphony of hopeful sounds. Jokes and heartfelt congratulations were exchanged. Those who raced shared advice with those who hadn’t, and successful runners modestly deflected praise. Plans for cheering on the remaining runners were concocted and wishes of good luck were sent towards the girls’ team as they departed for a warmup.
A younger me would’ve been worried, but after all I had gone through with this community, after the endless workouts we dragged each other through and the brutal obstacles we helped each other overcome and the failures we rebounded from together, I knew I had nothing to worry about. I was not alone. I was no longer cold. Thanks to every single person on this club, our tomorrow looks bright, and I truly believe in that.
I may not have achieved exactly what I set out to do this semester. In May, my goals fit into the framework of any generic, computer-generated cross-country runner: An All-American finish, a podium finish for the team, and a shiny low 25-minute PR. Good place, good team finish, good time. More generic than a cornfield in Ohio. What I’ve found instead, is that I achieved a lot of what I didn’t set out to do this semester. I’ve connected with so many new people, and found some friendships with people who have been around for a while who I’ve just never clicked with until now. I’ve failed, and recovered from those failures, and in the process become a more resilient person and learned more than a fast time could have ever taught me.
This is what I believe is so special about our club. We attract so many people with such diverse backgrounds and goals, and when these people all start to interact, they start to resonate and react to each other and, in many scenarios, people end up getting way more out of the community than they expected when they first approached it. We are all constantly changing and being shaped by the people around us, and I am grateful that I get to surround myself with people who are constantly trying to better themselves, both as athletes and people.
As the semester winds down and we look to the future, I’m certain that I’m going to look at this season as a special one, and I plan to enter next semester with a newfound determination. Not only determination to exact my revenge on Penn State for permanently damaging my hearing with their dumb chant, but determination to be the best version of myself. The best part of this team is that I know that I am not alone in that. I hope you all took as much from this season as I did and are looking forward to sticking around for the Spring and beyond, because I believe we’ve got a special group of people here, and it’s truly the people, all the people, that make UMD Club Running the wonderful phenomenon it is.