When I was a freshman in high school, I wasn’t exactly comfortable in a crowd, particularly one that included older kids. So, riding a school bus filled with a rowdy track team wasn’t my favorite thing to do.
Sitting in a parked bus was even worst, but that’s what we were doing in the parking lot next to Westminster High School.
On the bus were the elders of South Carroll Track and Field, the upper-class superstars. My peers of the time will remember the names: Aleshire, Woodward, Llera, among others.
I was mildly intimated by these guys, not that they did anything to deserve that. Their confidence seemed unusual to me because it didn’t exist in a freshman’s world. We never talked about it; the four-year canyon between seniors and freshman is rarely crossed.
It was my first high-profile track meet, the Tri-State Conference Championships. We must have arrived early, because I remember sitting on the bus for a while, near my teammates who would join me to run the two-mile relay.
We would each run a half mile, two laps. Some say it’s the most painful event in high school track, wedged somewhere between a sprint and distance race. By the time you finish the first lap, you’re already in oxygen debt. Sometime during the second lap, the discomfort becomes agony. Only a runner’s resolve can carry him to the finish, where he’ll spend several minutes gasping and sometimes, in one of the less glamorous realities of the sport, retching.
Ours was the first event, so we’d need to get ready as soon as the team exited the bus.
If you never ran track, I should tell you that the four-person order in a relay is an important thing.
The first runner asserts a team’s intention. A good position at the end of this leg is a statement of strength – “we’re in this thing to win it.”
Maintaining is the job of the second and third runners, and while moving up is celebrated, holding the team’s place is their real job.
The final leg is the position of responsibility, the anchor as it’s called. If the anchor receives the baton with a chance to place, he runs feeling the collective stares of his teammates, as their fates rise and fall with him.
Sitting on the bus, the four of us wondered what our order would be, so we asked our coach, and he answered loudly for the entire team to hear.
“Horigan,” was the first name. I was relieved. On occasion, I had run the first leg, and I was happy to take a less glamorous role.
“Fyler,” came next. I became anxious.
I waited to hear the next name, unprepared for what my coach was about to do. “Hogman,” he said.
If you’re lucky, from time to time, you get pushed into a situation that you don’t think you’re ready for. “Griffin,” our coach finally said.
Over the course of a track season, you compete against the schools of your conference several times, so I was already familiar with the other team’s runners. Our relay team couldn’t match up against the best, so when the gun sounded I began to hope that we’d quickly fall out of contention. But as our third runner rushed towards me, he held the final scoring position. Team points and conference ribbons were at stake.
I stood on the track, next to the bigger, older and faster runner who would anchor the team just behind us. We glanced at one another, and then turned our attention to the guys sprinting our way.
I grabbed the baton and started running faster than I should have. If I was going to be caught, I didn’t want it to be during the first lap.
My teammates lined the inside of the track as I came around and ran by them. Their shouts roused me from the fog I was about to enter, and I was gifted with a shot of pure adrenalin.
The backstretch is a lonely place on the final lap. The noise from the crowd on the other side was silenced under my own breathing.
When I reached the final turn, I still hadn’t been passed, but I had no idea how much distance I had on the runner behind me. Looking back now, I’m sure the blind uncertainty terrified me, and it was fear more than fortitude that got me to the line where my teammates were waiting. All I remember from the moment they surrounded me was Fyler saying, “You didn’t let him catch you, Dave!”
Later that night, I watched Chris Fox from Martinsburg High School run the two-mile. Rumor had it that Fox, who later became one of the best distance runners in the country, would try to break nine minutes. Moments after the gun sounded, he was already far ahead of the others, and I watched him run by me, lap after blazing 67.5-second lap.
In one night, I became aware of two important realities: I am capable of more than I think and human potential is beyond imagination.
Ever since, I’ve been trying to make those two realities one.