One moment. One chance. One shot. What will you do? You have a decision to make. Will you push, or let him go by? Will you give it all you got, or allow him to pass you? Cross country is all about decision making. You have to decide if you are in too much pain. You have to decide if it is worth the pain. You have to decide if you can give a little more in the second mile. Will you take a chance and pass this guy? Will you finish?
It is Friday afternoon in the middle of fall and we are surrounded by miles of forest. There is a strong wind but the trees shield it well. We are up north in Hayward, Wisconsin. More specifically, Hatchery Rd, Hayward, Wisconsin 54843. Maybe not important to you, but very significant to at least 17 individuals who all share the same passion of running. That’s right, this is the 2017, WIAA, division two, cross country, sectional race. Also known as the race that determines the top five girls and top five boy individual qualifiers for state. This is also the race that determines the top two girl team and top two boy team qualifiers for state. Now only 14 out of those 17 individuals are running today. One of them is an alternate for the girl’s team. Six of those 17 individuals are injured in some way. Two of those six are physically incapable of running. We have seven boys and 11 girls but only seven of those girls run today. 14 individuals have the honor of representing our high school at the sectional race.
We arrived at the course in our dirty, yellow bus at 3:20. We hike over to an open area and as we walk I can hear the crackling and crunching of fall leaves under our prerace shoes. There is an open field to our right and hiking trails to our left. We set up our big red tent, which we consider our prerace and postrace home. The tent is just big enough for the 18 individuals on the team with a very small amount of wiggle room. We are set up about 100 yards from, what you know as, the start and finish of the race. To runners it is the place where dreams live big and then the place where either, dreams die or come true.
Our seven girl runners and 1 alternate lace up their running shoes and set out on their warm up. Our coach has to be at a coaches meeting at 3:45 and I am staying at the tent replacing spikes on the girl’s race shoes. When the girls return they anxiously do their leg drills, anticipating that 15 minute warning. The boys go scout out the course. Now, for most, sectionals is just another race. However, two individuals on our team have a shot at state this year. To them, this is the only race that matters. Everything they trained for has been for this race. The next hour will determine if all the pain, all the early mornings, rain runs, mile repeats, all the setbacks, have been worth it.
Even though we are up the hill from the start of the race, we can just vaguely hear what the referee says through the mega phone. We don’t need to be able to hear what he is saying though. We know these words by heart. We have heard them a million times before. “15 minutes to the start of the girl’s race. 15 minutes.” That single sentence puts butterflies on steroids in most runner’s stomach. It is so much more than nerves. It is a combination of excitement, fear, anxiety, impatience, and determination. The girls calmly, attempting to push those emotions away, lace up their spikes and make their way down to the start. They visualize how their ideal race would go, over and over again. Typically, you want a race to have consistent mile times. However, this race is a more a matter of if you can push yourself farther than the person in front of you. Now, they had to make some changes to their strategies because the course was like a stormy sea. You power through one hill and as you surge the crest of that hill you see another waiting in front of you. It’s a little intimidating but that’s when the decision making comes in. Are you going to surge the crest? Or take it easy? Surge the crest is a saying that coach uses to push us. It means push incredibly hard at the top of the hill. That saying helps us get0 over the hill and prepare for the next.
They loosen up down at the starting line, doing their typical prerace drills, deep breathing and praying. The girls have a billion thoughts racing through their mind. For each individual it is different. One girl wonders if she will finish. Another girl is trying to figure out how she can control her breathing. One girl wants to know how hard she will have to go to make it to state. All these thoughts and none of them really matter. What will happen is already decided and all of the worrying in the world can’t change that. The referee says through the mega phone, “5 minutes.” Typically, by this time runners are either shaking or so excited they can barely breathe. However, our girls look very focused, calm, and determined. “10. 9. 8. 7.” With every number he says, I recall my first sectionals race. The fear of the unknown, the curiosity of pain, the longing to support and push your team. Those thoughts filled my head and I used to hate that feeling. After being out for two months, I dream of the day when those thoughts and feelings overwhelm me. I took them for granted. “6. 5. 4…” there is unbearable silence. These last three seconds are the longest of your life. These three seconds teach you incredible patience and control of fear. Bang! The gun fires and the girls take off leaving nothing but dust and worry behind them. The girls run their course and while I am along the side cheering them on, I can see the pain, determination, and passion on their faces. They approach every hill like it is war, and the crest of the hill determines who will surrender to the other.
Although, we had one girl collapse for a second, one have a slight asthma attack, one bust up her hip and another her knee, every single Amery girl crossed the finish line. Some not in the way they wanted but they all finished. All those questions that they were asking themselves 25 minutes ago, had been answered. There is nothing they could do to change the outcome. They accepted it and pushed. By the time the last girl finished, our boys had five minutes to the start. This may be Jude’s, our boy’s captain, last race ever. If he wanted to go to state, then he would have to get in the top five. He would have to put everything he had on to those painful up hills and the heavy and hard down hills.
There are those seven simple numbers again. Every second the referee counts down, I can hear my heart pound and I can’t breathe for a split second. “10. 9. 8. 7.” As the referee counts down, one phrase captivates my thoughts. It’s go time. A phrase our coach uses to get us in the zone and tell us when it’s time to push. “6. 5. 4…” Bang! There they go. Into the forest, to exceed expectations and push limits. For most this is the last race of their season. For others, this is the last chance they have to run at the state meet. Either way, every single runner has a reason to put their best foot forward and make easy impossible for Jude. He will have to run his heart out.
As I walk alongside the course, doing my best to encourage every one of our boys to give a little more, I can hear the heavy breathing and synchronized stomps of the runners as the rush by me. I make my way to the end of the race and I stand with little patience to see how this will play out. The first two runners come in one after the other. The next guy comes in with a decent sized gap between him and the number four runner. I turn my head for a single second and as I am looking around me I hear the cries and cheers of some fans from across the course. I don’t look to check. I know for sure that it is my team. I know in the pit of my stomach that they are cheering for Jude. Right away, without looking to make sure it is him, I sprint to the finish area and only then do I look. There he was. I break into tears of love and pride because this guy, once a little freshman with a dream of State, is making his dream come true. He is making the four years of training worth it. I can see the pain and exhaustion on his face. I can see how badly he wants it. He gave his heart to the course. Now, he has nothing left except that little piece of him, which everyone has, that says hidden in the deepest part of his soul. He has to dig incredibly deep for it. He finds it and allows it to carry him through the finish line. As he faltered to a halt, I can see he has nothing left. A teammate and I rush to him and he collapses into our arms. He has nothing left to keep him up right. We carry him into an open area and the whole team is waiting for him. I hear him whisper “did I do it?” Those words will stay with me for the rest of my life. We all have tears in our eyes as we nod with overwhelming joy. “I can’t believe I just did it…” Never in my life have I been happier, more proud or excited, and felt more love for someone.
He was the number five runner in. Which means, Jude was the last individual runner to qualify for state. I have never seen him smile more than that night when he accomplished his four-year-goal. I remember talking to him the next day about his goals for this season. One of them, as a captain, was to inspire his teammates to set their standards for themselves high and then work your butt off to achieve them. It’s possible, you just have to want it. And you don’t have to be born with greatness. You just have to work for greatness. He then said “If I haven’t done that then I don’t care about state…” The amount of selflessness someone must have to feel that way is incredibly overwhelming.
This cross country team is more of a family than anything. Not a single person is better than another or is stronger than another. We all go through the same pain, it is just a matter of how much pain we are put through that determines who finishes. We support each other’s goals. We challenge each other to push farther and harder. Although, we have injuries throughout the team we do not allow it fracture us, but rather use it as motivation. At the beginning of October when you don’t think you have three weeks left in you, that is when we become closer. We use each other to push us out of our comfort zone. We count on each other and relay on one and other and that is what pushes us towards greatness. We love, we hurt, and at the end of the day it’s just us. After the race, a girl on my team said the only thing that got her over those hills was the thought of how much pain her team was in and how much they needed her to finish. Her team was there for in that moment and they didn’t even know it.
I will never forgot that moment. That feeling I had when I saw every single one of my team mates cross the finish line. The feeling of seeing them all make it. When they put their pain aside and just ran. That feeling is what will drive me to recover and become a better runner than before. More importantly, it will push me to be a better person and drive me towards greatness. Everyone has their own hills in life. Maybe your hill is depression. Maybe your hill is alcohol or porn. Maybe your hill is just high school. We all have our own hill. How will you handle it? Will you surge your crest?