What's a Mule Pack?!
Did Somebody Say Sand Dune?!
The saying “fear of the unknown” rang true for me back on August 29th, 1985. Back then, growing up in the South End of Toledo, we all played the same sports: baseball, football, basketball, and street hockey. Anything else was foreign territory to all of us, so imagine my anxiety as I got on the school bus at the St. Francis parking lot for my first ever cross country meet. I sat silently on that 20-minute bus ride to Temperance, MI, with one thought running through my mind, “What if I can’t finish the 5K? What if I go out too hard and can’t finish?” Even though every run that I had completed up until that time was farther than the 5K race, I could not stop that overwhelming feeling of failure. I’d like to say that I was a confident kid back then, but I was far from it. It took me years to gain confidence and trust my abilities in just about all aspects of my life. The inner confidence that I have gained through the years in the sport of running has played such a tremendous role in why I love coaching the sport so much.
Temperance, MI, in 1985 was a fairly rural area, and this was the first time that I had ever been up to Bedford High School. Once we all exited the bus in the BHS parking lot, we got a lay of the land from the Bedford coach, Gary Duhaime. I did not know this back then, but Bedford had an extremely unique course that I have never come across again in all my years of running cross country. First, it was one huge 5K loop where spectators could only see the start and finish. Secondly, and the wildest part of their course, there was an area in the woods of the course that had a sand dune. You heard me right, a freakin’ sand dune in the middle of the woods that we had to run through! If I was anxious on the ride over, I was crapping my pants when I was told I was going to have to run through a sand dune. I thought to myself, “Oh, man, what have I gotten myself into!”
The coaches led us on the warm-up over to the sand dune to check it out, and it lived up to its name. There was a clearing in the woods where a little dune awaited us. We would have to run about 300 meters through this sand dune before leaving the woods. Both Gary and coach Lewis told us it was nothing more than mind games, everyone had to run through it, it was a tiny part of the whole 5K, and all that other jazz that coaches tell their runners when they see panic in their eyes. I could barely hear the coaches because that little voice in my head had taken over and was yelling, “Nope! Not good! Not good at all!” After stopping at the dunes, the rest of the warm-up had the team fairly quiet. It was the calm before the “sand” storm.
Cross Country=Contact Sport
After some stretching, getting our spikes on, and running some strides prior to the race, I was as ready as I was going to be at that point. It was a dual meet (only two teams) and SFS had 28 of the 41 runners. We looked pretty impressive lining up next to the Bedford Mules. I was already dripping sweat from the heat and nerves when the gun went off for the start of the race. This was it...no turning back now!
I was definitely in the back half of the race at the start for fear of going out too fast. After about a quarter-mile into the race, we rounded their softball field and were heading toward the long stretch to the woods. A left turn was coming up after passing the softball field on the right, and this is where the race got real interesting. There was a large garbage can on the left where we had to turn, so nobody would cut the course. Not a single runner cut the course, but I watched in disbelief as a Bedford runner shoved one of our runners into the garbage can. Our guy got tangled up with the garbage can and went down in a heap. I looked at the runners around me, and I couldn’t tell if they were as shocked as I was or just focused on their own race because nobody said a word. Well, I wasn’t the only one who noticed this outright hostility toward the all-boys Catholic school. Ty Silberhorn, a senior for us, was a bit ahead of me and saw what I saw because he gave chase to the Bedford runner who took out our guy.
Not sure if it was the excitement from the race or seeing what Ty was going to do when he caught up to the Bedford runner, but I began to pick it up to see what was going to happen next. It took well over a mile for Ty to catch up to the other Bedford runner, but this kid was now running with some of his teammates. These unfavorable odds did not seem to phase Ty because he came up and shoved the Bedford runner in the back. Unbeknownst to Ty, another Bedford runner came up behind Ty and yelled, “Mule Pack,” while shoving Ty in the back. Ty immediately turned around and took a swing at the kid, and that was all it took. These two MMA wannabes stopped in the middle of the trail to duke it out. I scooted by those two in utter disbelief and headed toward the dunes. I saw several Bedford runners ahead of me and was a bit concerned that if I caught up to them, I might have to do more than just run by them. Luckily, I did not have to worry about catching them because we hit the sand dunes. Once I got into the sand, things quickly began to crumble for me. My legs were on fire after 30 seconds, and I was only around the curve to begin to head out of the dunes. As I headed out, I looked over to my right and saw all the runners behind me across the dunes heading to the curve I just rounded. Ty was still running as was the other Bedford runner, but both were a little disheveled from their sparing match.
Once I was able to muddle my way out of the sand, I tried to catch up to a few teammates that I could see about 100 meters ahead of me in the last mile. My legs were officially jello as I tried to pick up the pace and make a run-up to my teammates. This may be hard to believe, but they actually got farther away from me even though I “felt” like I was picking it up. I was finally on the straightaway to the finish, and I still wasn’t in the clear because I could hear another Bedford runner behind me. He was bearing down on me in that last .1 of the 5K, and there were people cheering on both sides of the straightaway. I had to suck it up and hold him off, but I was DEAD. I just wanted to jog it in but then I heard coach Lewis bellow from somewhere, “Masters! Donuts!” Before exiting the bus earlier, coach Lewis explained to the new guys that if we were passed at the final stretch of a race, we owed the coaches a dozen donuts for each guy who passed us. It was simply known on the team as the donut rule, and the coaches would tell us where the rule took effect in the race. I put my head down, gritted my teeth, and took off as fast as I could because there was no way that I was going to be that guy on the first race.
3.1 and Done
I am happy to report that I was not THAT guy on THAT day, but there would be donut days for me in future races. In the craziness of the race and my utter exhaustion after the sand dune, I had no idea where I finished for the team or my time. I knew I was close to varsity but wasn’t positive, so I slowly exited the finish chute and even more slowly made my way to the guys who finished to see how we did. More importantly, to see how I finished on the team because the top 7 would get to run varsity at the first invitational meet. After the dust settled, I was a distant 7th for the team, but I was VARSITY! I accomplished my goal I had set walking into the season, and all the fatigue and dead legs were gone. I couldn’t believe that I was 7th after how bad I felt in the race, and my inability to catch my teammates. To give some perspective, I ran 18:21 and my teammate who was 6th man that day, Craig Snyder, was 17:30. He was almost a full minute ahead of me and he was a freshman to boot. I didn’t care because I made varsity, and Craig was a legit freshman that could fly.
My takeaway from my first race was that racing on trails, grass, and sand was far more difficult than racing on the track, but it was way more exciting than a track race. This is something I could get used to, minus the fighting and sand, but it would take more work. We left Bedford with our first win of the season, and little did I know that I would be part of something special that year!
Stay tuned for the next part as I share our 1986 campaign through Ohio, and I realize just how great our #1 runner was on the team.