It was sometime late September in 1977 when the course of my life was altered by a 7th grade gym/XC coach. The assignment for the class was to simply race a pre-defined 400m course that consisted of vague markers pointed out by the coach. Vague because many of the kids in the class were already on the XC team so circling a baseball field, rounding a 12 foot lonely pole and sprinting back to the coach was common practice for them. When I asked “what pole?” the coach said to just follow someone. That was the right and wrong thing to say to a highly competitive skinny kid who had nothing to lose - right for me but wrong for the rest of the XC team running that day.
I somehow managed to locate the rusty pole I needed to round and win the race. The coach stood there, wide-eyed and opened mouthed, as I passed his invisible finish line. When the class ended and we started back to the locker room, the 6’4” deep voiced Irish coach took me aside and “asked” if I would like to run cross country. My question back was what is cross country? He told me I would be on a team that ran races through woods and fields. Now, to a 7th grader who had just moved to Carmel from the heart of Queens and was used to darting between parked cars to avoid a beating from the neighborhood punks, that really sounded quite odd. Still, what 95 pound gangly kid is going to argue with an enormous coach asking for immediate agreement?
My running career had begun and with the good came the bad. It wasn’t too long before I was getting harassed by the rest of the team. To be honest, who would blame them? They had been training for at least a month and some for years. They were part of a running clique, a family, and here I was trying to join their exclusive group. I stood up for myself as best I could. Maybe growing up in the city I was just not accustomed to backing down from any challenge. Whatever the case may be, as time went on my relationship with the guys on the team shifted from outsider to brother. Life was good until, of course, freshman year of High School.
As it turns out - or at least in 1979 - the byproduct of a scrawny freshman constantly beating an established senior in XC results in a series of unique retaliation methods. I don’t think my mom ever really knew the cause of my torn Fruit of the Looms or how I came home after a XC meet during the middle of the winter completely soaked but it all worked its way out. Why I didn’t quit the team may be a mystery but I believe it all came down to never giving up, NEVER giving in.
Allowing others to influence your performance based on their expectations is often a mistake. I have a memory I call upon whenever I feel overwhelmed and defeated. At an indoor meet my sophomore year in the County Center (thirteen laps or so to the mile) coach entered me in the 3200m against the number one runner in the area (Steve San Antonio about a 9:12 guy). During the race I sat on Steve’s back trying to push the pace but, without any luck, was unable to pass him. With 800m to go Steve schooled me in the art of extinguishing the competition. Without warning he pulled away from me with such grace that I had no chance of reacting. I was left to watch in awe and wonder how the heck he was able to do what he did.
After the race I approached him and his coach to pay homage to what I thought at the time was near impossible as well as - with any luck - siphon some morsel of worldly running advice. What I got that day was truly a lesson, more so a lesson about myself than anything else. When I attempted to congratulate him with both words and an extended hand all that was returned was simply, “Why did you try to stay with me? You knew you couldn‘t win anyway“. With these fourteen words and disregarded hand I was set in motion. From that point on nothing stopped me from putting everything I had into winning. I was often called the rabbit after that because in each and every race I sprinted to the front and fought to stay there. I often lost races as a sophomore but was still able to finish with a 4:15 mile (my goal for that year) as well as only losing one track race during my last two years of High School.
What I’ve realized over time is that expectations from others can sometimes be a hindrance to an athlete’s success. There are always people willing to tell you things like “that’s impossible” or “you won’t be able to do that” but listening to yourself and those that encourage us is far more productive. If I had competed as a freshman by the standards of what freshman were “supposed” to do then I don’t believe I would have been as successful as I was in my career. I don’t have all the answers to what makes a great athlete but what I do know is this: if you are true to yourself, really honest with yourself, then you’ll know when you’re slacking and when you’re not. I was an athlete that could not accept knowing I didn’t give it my best. I wasn‘t happy when I lost a race but could endure it as long as I knew I tried my best. Best of luck to each and every one of you and always remember that you have an ex-Carmel runner that, to this day, is proud to call Carmel High School his home.
p.s. Always be a good sportsman and respect the scrawny kid that may someday show you the meaning of ‘personal best’.