We were exactly one point ahead at the conference championships with only two events left: the 5k and the 4×400 relay. We were strong favorites in the relay, but our competitors were the 2nd ranked team so if all went according to plan; we’d pick up two points in the 4×400. In any given event you receive points going down to 8th place, and we had zero athletes who were supposed to score in the 5k.
We had three athletes in the race, one of which was coming back from injury, one who was ranked 14th going in, and one was a 1,500m runner who was thrown in as an afterthought. Our competitors had several runners in the mix, the best of which was ranked 10th going into the meet and a clear 14 seconds better than our best 5k runner. The problem we had here, is that if any of our foes scored in the 5k, it could open up the doors for a crushing team loss.
As the race passed the early stages, things didn’t look the best. Our top 5k runner had gone out valiantly but faded from the main pack, while our rival team had two athletes close to the second pack which was fighting for the final few scoring places. Our hopes resided on a short and skinny senior, Blake, who had raced the 800 and 1,500m all year. He was now hanging on valiantly just outside of scoring position.
Blake hadn’t run a 5k all season, and there was good reason for this. Blake had a long history of problems in his feet and shins. Ever since High School, he’s battled against a body that didn’t seem to take to running. How bad was it? Over his college career, we’d gotten to the point where he ran about 15 miles per week with a long of 5 miles. That was the only way he could stay healthy. Because of the lack of endurance work, he’d resigned himself to the middle distance events, developing into a strong 1,500m runner.
At this particular conference championship, he’d missed the 1,500m final by one spot, getting the short end of the stick in a tactical raise that left him tenths of a second out of an automatic qualifying spot in a mad dash to the finish. And just like that, his college career seemed to be over. That was until the next morning when he asked if he could race the 5k because “I have nothing to lose.” So he lined up against 40 competitors, having prepared for the event by running 15 miles per week while most of his foes had been cranking out above 70 miles each week.
And there he was, halfway through the race, hanging on for dear life, way over his head. As I watched from the infield, the logical part of my brain was screaming that “Blake is screwed. He can’t hang on to this pace. He barely does easy runs that are the length of the whole race.” But as each lap passed, you could see the power of someone reaching into the depths of his ability to pull out every ounce of energy he had. Arms flailing, face contorting, he was literally willing himself to stay in scoring place. In the end, Blake secured 8th place, a vital point, and one place ahead of the top competitor from the team we were in a fight to the finish with. As a coach for more than a decade, I have not seen someone so far exceed my expectations for what I thought was possible for that individual.
I’m a fan of telling my athletes that the only way you can find out how good you are is by giving yourself a chance. Despite all odds, and logic, Blake had given himself a chance. And through the power of someone who has for years talked about how his goal was to score just one point for the team so he could feel like he contributed. Buoyed by 60 teammates surrounding the track enthralled and yelling during a race where most people use it as an opportunity to take a restroom break before the always-exciting 4×400. The power of belief, determination, and of a team shone through. If you give yourself a shot to see how good you can be, and then have a strong enough reason that goes beyond yourself, you might surprise yourself (and your coach!) of what you are capable of.