I didn’t run cross country as a freshman in high school. I discovered running later that school year, and began this lifelong pursuit as a miler in outdoor track.
By the time I joined the cross-country team as a sophomore, I had already decided that distance running was a good fit for me.
I won my first cross country race, though I’m still not sure how I did that. Perhaps for the only time in my life, blind ignorance was a benefit, and I ran out to a big lead in the first mile. By the finish, I had no more than a meter over the second place finisher.
I was too young to appreciate being the number one runner on our team, which was just as well. It didn’t last long.
Todd Ashley joined the indoor track team when he was a freshman and I was a sophomore, becoming the high school teammate who would have the largest influence on my running.
Todd was the first in a long string of elite runners who I had the pleasure of running with. He and I competed together against guys with names like Shultz, Sheely, Fox and Scuffins, all runners who would become national class athletes in the years after high school.
Not every high school runner takes running seriously. Many of our teammates spent a lot of time in the corn fields around the school, inventing throwing games that involved cobs and stalks.
Todd and I gave one another a measure of accountability. We trained together, doing the prescribed workout regardless of what everyone else was doing. The dedication gave us a feeling of mutual respect and a relationship that isn’t fully defined by the word friend.
During the winter season we often ran inside the school, lap after lap around the first floor.
There was an exact method to running the hallways so that we didn’t have to break stride on the turns. The runner on the inside surged in front, so as to place himself on the outside after the turn, while the other runner stayed wide and then moved sharply to the inside. Todd and I ran the turns with perfection, and a certain amount of pride.
In races, I usually watched him from behind, finding a way to beat him only twice over the three years we were teammates.
Running in his shadow wasn’t always easy. I was too young to understand that I was becoming a better runner because of Todd. He set standards of performance that I would have never set for myself, and I became a formable runner myself because I was chasing him.
In the fall of my junior year, Todd and I found out about a race that started in Boonsboro. It sounded fun, and his dad drove us there, dropped us off, and promised to pick us up at the finish - which was fifty miles away.
We were undertrained and unprepared for what we were about to do. While the other runners had crews to assist them, all we had was a few dollars to buy food at the stand that would be near the thirty mile mark. Fortunately, a crew helping Westminster runners recognized us and gave us some attention from time to time.
About half way through the race, I vividly remember lying on the ground together, neither of us wanting to run another step. I don’t know how long we lay there before we found the strength to get back up and keep moving forward, but I do know I never would have finished the remaining miles if it wasn’t for Todd.
Before my final season of outdoor track, my coach sat me down. We talked about how I wanted to finish and decided that my best event was the mile. For the entire season, I had the event to myself while Todd graciously focused on other distances.
The gift allowed me to win races in all our dual meets, finish second behind Jeff Scuffins in the Tri-State Championships and finally win an individual county title.
Todd finished high school with personal best of 1:54 for the half-mile and 4:19 for the mile.
He went on to become a five-time national junior college champion and he still holds the NJCAA record at 1000 yards. Closer to home, he ran a stellar 3:54.6 at the Main Street Mile in Westminster, a course record that has stood now for twenty-seven years.
Today, Todd coaches the distance program for South Carroll, giving back to the school that gave us both our start. I’ve never seen him talk to his runners about his own success, but they know, and their admiration is only exceeded by their respect for him.
Accomplishment requires independence. You need to develop the virtues of success within yourself. But full potential is seldom reached alone.
So find someone who’s willing to suffer beside you and able to show you that the challenge leads to something worthwhile, because it always does.