The Big Finish
The Longest Week Ever
STATE BOUND was all I could think of on the ride home from Regional! I was stoked, nervous, and scared all at the same time. I had never competed at the state level and had no idea what to expect because I was still adjusting to my first year running cross country. The last time I was in Columbus was when St. Francis won the state football championship the year before. Now it was our turn, and I could feel that pressure building.
The entire week of practice was a blur and my nerves just kept building each day, and I had no idea what to expect at the state meet. Was there a special course? Was I going to be one of the last ones since it’s the state meet? How big is the state meet race? To make matters worse, this was a brand new course in Columbus at Scioto Downs (a horse race track). As I wrote about earlier, we had pretty awesome coaches, so they went down to Columbus and made a video of them walking the course. We at least were able to familiarize ourselves with what to expect and the surroundings.
The night before we were leaving for Columbus, the entire team went to the mall and had our ear pierced. I don’t know what our reasoning was, or if we just thought we looked cool...we didn’t. The nerves were getting real tense and little sleep took place the night before the race. I got up early the next morning and headed to the bus because the race was at 11:50 AM, and it was a 2.5-hour drive. I am not sure what the weather was at home, but I did know that it had been raining in Columbus all day.
Deer in Headlights
We got to Scioto Downs and it was definitely a little intimidating walking into a “stadium” for a cross country race. I was surprised to learn that there would only be 16 teams in the race plus individual qualifiers, so it would be small. This did not calm my nerves because all I thought was, “Man, this is the fastest 16 teams and individuals in Ohio...I’m in trouble.” As we headed to check out the race track, the rain just kept coming down, and it was going to be a sloppy race. The team emerged from the stadium, and we could scan the entire race track from our vantage. The last part of the race had the runners finishing on the actual horse track, and I could see standing water on the track from where I was standing.
I went over to the coaches and asked if my racing shoes would be ok in this weather. Being a newbie to cross country, I did not have standard metal spikes because I was naive and thought metal spikes would hurt my feet over the course of a 5K. I had a pair of Nike Zoom Racers that had little rubber nubs in place of metal spikes. They were lighter than spikes because they didn’t have the spike plate and metal spikes. The coaches told me I would be fine because the horse track would be able to hold up. This was just another worry that swirled through my brain as we prepared to war-up for the race.
We were lucky enough to be able to warm up on certain parts of the course, so we hit the course to see what we could preview before the girls’ race. It wasn’t terrible out on the grass area because there weren’t too many areas of standing water. What I did notice were all the officials on the course and the restrictions of where we could and couldn’t warm up. This was serious business, oh, my! Eventually, we were asked to clear the course because the Class AAA Girls’ Race was about to go off. We finished our warm-up outside the stadium and headed back to catch a glimpse of the finish to the girls’ race. As the girls came sprinting down the horse track to the finish line, it seemed to take longer than a normal finish. I later realized this was due to racing on a horse track because of its size. The horse track was over twice the size of a standard school track, so these girls were literally sprinting about 400 meters to the finish. You could see how many of them misjudged the distance because they were fading in the last 100 meters when most are picking it up.
I was on pins and needles once I got my racing shoes on, and my coach must have seen it on my face. Coach Lewis came over and reassured me that my shoes would be fine out there, and it was still a 5K distance no matter who was in the race. I looked at him and just nodded my affirmation. In my head, I was frantically finding excuses for why I could possibly race poorly…
It was raining out.
I didn’t have proper spikes.
This is my first year running cross country.
I don’t have the experience of the other runners.
It’s all puddles and mud out there.
These thoughts were on an endless loop as I put on my shoes and began to make my way to the start. We were wearing our “commie” uniforms for this race to throw off any other team who was trying to spot us in the race. We had never worn this combo uniform during the season, so we were looking for every advantage with gamesmanship. They were our normal white shorts, but the jerseys were red with white piping along the neck and shoulders. We kept our sweats on until we had to strip down to keep the “commies” under wraps.
I remember very little from the race except for the finish on the track. I hit the track and that’s when it really got tough for me. I was slipping with each step and could not get a strong foothold on the ground. I had to slow up my pace a little, so I could plant my entire foot down to stop from slipping so much on my toes. This didn’t help much either, so I just put my head down and grinded it out to the finish line. I had never felt more exhausted than when I crossed the line! I searched for my teammates and family as I wandered out of the finish area. Once I got back to our team camp, there was a buzz on how well we ran. Some of the parents were saying we won because they saw us from the stands finishing up at the front of the race.
School History is Made
The coaches were pretty excited too, but they did inform us that we weren’t the only team wearing white shorts and red tops. Mentor High School from the Cleveland area was wearing the same combo but had grey piping on their jerseys. The parents couldn’t tell the difference in uniforms from the stands, so we did not look as amazing as they had thought.
When all was said and done, Mentor High School had won the state championship, and Shelby High School was the runner-up. We had placed third, and it was the highest that St. Francis has ever finished at the state meet. In 1993 St. Francis finished 3rd again, but that is for another story because I was an assistant coach for St. Francis in 1993.
On November 2nd, 1985, I placed 108th out of 175 runners with a time of 17:24. Not where I was hoping to be but not a complete implosion because I was still 5th man for the team and only 4 seconds behind our 4th man, Dan Harrington. The team race was pretty tight with Mentor at 104, Shelby 118, and St. Francis 131, and Brad placed 7th overall in the race to claim 1st team all-state. He was the top local finisher, and we were the top area team at the state meet. We did it! I am not sure if we could have placed any higher, but we had made school history.
As I have been writing and looking back on my first cross country season and introduction into the world of distance running, I realize how all the ups and downs had made me the runner that I have become over the last 35 years. I will always remember this season, my teammates, and that special year for us in cross country.
Running has been at the center of my life since 1985, and I owe a huge thank you to my classmate and good friend, Chip Tokar, who talked me into running cross country with him when I was unsure. This was the beginning of what would become the focus of my personal life for the rest of high school. I had finished my cross country season and was already beginning to think of how good we could be next year because we had 5 underclassmen on varsity for most of the season. We had lost Craig to an injury late in the season, but he was right by me whenever we raced. This boded well for next year, but I had a track season to prepare for. What I didn’t know was that this track season would be vastly different than my previous two seasons.