This season has been so much more trying and difficult than last. The last four weeks, especially, were anxiety inducing, as several of our top seven athletes dealt with untimely aches and injuries. The low point came on the Monday after regionals, towards the end of our weekly interval workout consisting that day of 6*800 repeats at KLM. On the final interval, Matt McBrien finished limping. He crossed the line, and walked a few strides, grimacing in obvious pain. Having coached Matt for four years, I know how tough he is. It was obvious he was hurt, and my heart sunk contemplating how severe the injury might be. Matt was in so much agony, he could not cool down home. He was driven home, and then Coach Westphal walked him down to the trainer, who, after a cursory examination, suggested we’d better get him in to take X-rays as soon as possible to see if he’d suffered a stress fracture.
This prospect seemed horribly cruel. No one I have coached has worked as hard over four years as Matt. He has run thousands of miles, sacrificed vacations, pushed himself beyond measure again and again and again. He has been astonishingly reliable and consistent, always the lead guy on interval days, always at the front of each race. Would his season end here? How would our team ever recover?
On that Monday night, I received word from Coach Westhphal and Matt’s parents that the X-ray had proved negative. I breathed a partial sigh of relief, but knew that Matt would need days off followed by lots of physical therapy and cross training. He would not be available for the Sectional meet. I have already discussed how this impacted our performance at Sectionals – we were crushed by a hungry Sandburg squad. While it seemed as though we entered last year’s state meet riding a crest of momentum, this year felt as though we were entering the final round of a title bout, having taken quite a beating in the earlier rounds.
Sectionals humbled us, but it also clarified the task at hand. We would need to readjust our strategy – get out much better. We would not be able to afford another race where we ran flat; we’d need luck on our side, too, knowing that if any of our guys took a spill (as had happened at both Regionals and Sectionals) it would almost certainly end our hopes of performing up to expectations. So, all week, we discussed one goal: to simply run as well at state as we had at earlier portions of the season. We felt that if we did this, and executed our race strategy of getting out well, remaining focused, and kicking hard at 300 to go, we’d be in the mix.
Listen, there was nothing inevitable about this outcome. The narrative of every season is different, and you never know what the conclusion is going to be when you are writing the earlier chapters. In talking to colleagues after last Saturday’s humbling loss to Sandburg, I confided that I’d had to adjust my expectations: if we finished second at State, I’d be happy. Less than that, I’d feel disappointed. Better, I’d be ecstatic.
Well, consider me ecstatic. And exhausted: physically and emotionally spent. I am incredibly proud of our team. They executed our plan perfectly, and we did exactly what we hoped we would do: ran our normal race in the most pressure-filled situation imaginable.
The comeback began with the cascade of supportive notes that streamed into my inbox all week. On the drive to Peoria, the boys studied the packet of notes I’d handed them as if cramming for a final. There was one note I intentionally left out of the packet, saving it to read to the boys on Saturday morning a few hours before the race. It came from Kevin Huang, one of our all-state athletes from last year, an athlete who set an incredible example of what it means to be a Red Devil runner during his years here. His words set the tone for what would come:
Dear HCXC Red Devils of 2014,
When I was running with you guys, I’ve always known that each class below us has gotten stronger, more focused, and more determined. What my class did winning state was a surprise to everybody. We were the class in which no one broke 5:00 freshman year, we had the infamous (multiple) Donut Runs, and we even had a weak-kneed bastard. However, we got our shit together and managed to pull together a season that we would not forget for the rest of our lives and one that I hope you guys can all share.
You guys are different. You guys are no surprise. From Irvine pushing the pace to much of the upper classmen’s annoyance when he was a freshman, Matt and Alex wowing us by keeping up with the top packs on those long summer waterfall loops when they were sophomores, Josh’s quiet, but amazing, steady improvement throughout the years, Griffin’s competitiveness shown by his will to run 8 miles in the pouring rain after a bad indoor track race last year, Nathan and Chris’s enduring and positive attitude even when they got hurt, Blake’s ability to not only be able to handle the senior’s jokes, but also have the knack to rise above the pressure in big time meets, and lastly young Planson whose huge improvement is evident due to his hard work and talent for racing. You all are leaders and deserve way more than my class ever did to stand on top of that podium.
All your hard work- running doubles during hot, blistering summer days, Camp of Champs, 25×400 repeats, Kenosha mile hill repeats, O’Fallon Workouts, waterfall runs, and mile repeats- will pay off. You are the hardest working team I’ve ever seen even when you all were just freshman and sophomores.
Now when you’re running on Saturday, I want you to remember all that hard work that you’ve put in. What is 3 miles more? Just remember you are never alone! You have the support of all the alums across the nation. You have the support of two of the most amazing coaches in the nation. You have the support of your friends and family. And most importantly, you have the support of your teammates. Run for each other.
From a proud Red Devil,
With Kevin’s words in our minds, we arrived at the course and settled in our team area, demarcated by two raggedy tarps staked down in the back corner of Detweiller. The half hour before race time is always tense, no matter how one might try to pretend otherwise. Our alternates had to form a protective wall to shield our seven runners from a 2A school who’d set up camp right beside us and who was too enwrapped in their post-race celebrations to notice our presence. We took care of the small but important tasks that lead to a successful race: taking numerous bathroom breaks, getting sustenance from fruit and granola bars. As was the case last year, our parents and fan base respected the pre-race preparations of our harriers, and each man used the time to set their mind right for the race to come.
The boys left for their warm-up, and I headed to the starting line, toting a bag filled with their spikes and race jerseys.
Though the state meet seems so much more important than other races, the pre-meet routine is exactly the same. The boys spiked up, stretched, strided out. Coach Westhphal and I huddled up with them after the fifth stride, and Coach Westphal told our fleet-footed warriors not to worry about anyone else, to simply focus on the race plan. I reiterated the same advice I gave last year: run so you have no regrets, look each other in the eye and remember who you are running for.
With that, the boys returned to the starting line, and Coach W and I walked away, knowing that from this point forward, our fate was in the hands of the young men donning the white and red Hinsdale Central jerseys. As to what that fate would be, I could not have hazarded a guess. In truth, I was shivering uncontrollably and modestly nauseous, though I’d tried to conceal this nervousness from the team as best as I could.
When the gun went off, I was standing around the 500 meter mark, having just spoken with Bob Schultz, the head coach of Loras University and former Elmhurst College coach, a man who’d helped coach me when I was younger. I recalled seeing him at almost the exact same spot last year, and told him it was a good omen to see him there again. I then turned my attention north, to where the runners would be rounding the first bend. I knew that the first corner of the race was perilous, as the entire field is filtered into a narrow curve and many a runner has tumbled there, seeing their state meet dreams evaporate before the race had truly gotten underway.
My spirits rose as I discovered that we’d navigated this section successfully and gotten out well. In a complete reversal of last week, I saw our pack right towards the front of the race, while Sandburg’s blue and yellow clad runners had gotten out at a more modest pace. Step one of our plan had been successfully executed.
Next, I sprinted to a spot just beyond the 1600 meter mark. At this point, the race had begun to spread out somewhat, yet the lead pack was still quite large with all the expected frontrunners present, feeling each other out. Just off this pack came Blake Evertsen, seemingly running a controlled pace. Josh, Alex, Matt, and Chris remained closely packed and within sight of Blake, while Griffin and Ethan followed shortly after. It was impossible to make any predictions about team scores at this point, but it seemed we were running well.
To the 1.5 mile mark I sprinted. Matt seemed to have lost some ground at this point, but Griffin was moving up. As I dashed from the triangle section back to the course’s south loop I saw Palatine’s Coach Quick, who shouted: “How are you guys doing?” “Good, I think” was my reply, as I positioned myself right next to the metal pole which serves as the boundary between fans and racers on that aforementioned first narrow bend of the course. This would be the only spot before the end of the course where our passing athletes might plausibly hear any commands I yelled. To Blake, first to pass, I yelled “get back on the pack.” To Josh and Chris, “you’re running great.” To our next two, simply: “GRIFFIN! GRIFFIN! ALEX! ALEX!” It was evident now it would be these 5 who would decide our fate. Matt was valiantly running through his pain, while Ethan was on PR pace but would not be among the scoring five in his first state meet.
Two last spots to cheer from: with 800 to go, and then 300 to go. I could see all five of our runners among the top 50 or 60 in both places, and did not see a noticeable pack of blue at the front, as I had the week previous. At 300, I watched as our boys reached the spot of the course where we all agreed we’d need to start our kicks. I hope at some point I will get a chance to review video and see what place we were at this point. I am almost certain that in the last 300 meters, we picked up over 50 places. Josh ran this final section like a man possessed. Griffin turned on his middle distance speed and Alex, more of your archetypal long distance athlete, remained hot on his heels. I sprinted as fast as I could towards the finish line and saw Coach Westphal ahead, responding to the same impulse. I caught him and we exchanged high fives, and expressions of amazement. Whatever the results ended up being, we knew then we could be incredibly proud of how the team performed.
Teams win and lose together. When the result is not as hoped, it is never the fault of anyone individual. When we realize a long sought goal, as we did yesterday, it can only be with the unified effort of many. Only 12 guys got to pose for the official picture, but so many more people made this possible: from Stefan, Joe, Max, and Lammie running 1000 miles to JB and Ben building excitement by helping secure an unexpected victory for the Sophs at conference; from the hard work put in by Irv and Yuji this summer (two guys I hope beyond belief will earn top 7 spots next year, as they are incredibly deserving of it) to the tone set by our other seniors including Tobia, Sean, Sunil, Brendan and Garret; from the examples set by our alums when they were at HCXC (too many to name) to the new energy brought by Neil and Sean and Steven and Colin and Liam.
That being said, we won yesterday because of Matt McBrien. The final results don’t tell the story. I think many athletes and coaches, and most certainly the casual fan, do not appreciate just how important psychology is to racing well. This sport is an incredibly mental game. How we act and our attitudes are incredibly infectious, especially in the cauldron of the state series.
This was obvious at Sectionals, where we ran like a team that knew it was missing one of its best runners. Very shortly after that race ended, I found Matt and pulled him aside to give him a very firm command: no matter how much pain you are feeling in your foot, you are to project absolute confidence to your teammates. Tell them you feel great, you can’t wait to run, you are ready to PR (I had to have a similar conversation with Chris Brenk, earlier this week, after he was unable to run a cool down due to IT band inflammation). Matt nodded his assent. From that point forward, he concealed from the other members of the top 12 how uncertain he was about his foot, how scared he was that his fitness level had dropped due to having missed so many days of running. As a consequence, we were able to head to the line yesterday genuinely thinking we had a chance to win. Had Matt not been our lineup, I firmly believe it would have shaken us and been a major reason for doubt. Like Emmett Scully last year, Matt carried the team on his shoulders as long as he could. When he finally could no longer bear the weight, his brother-in-arms had been positioned well enough to carry him through the rest of the way. His 124th place finish was, I know, not the conclusion either of us had envisioned. Life sometimes unfolds in mysterious ways. Matt should have been all-state. He wasn’t. But he is a two-time state champion. How many people can say the same?
On the day before state, we have a tradition where the top 12 give each other mock awards. It is a fun way to celebrate the quirkiness of each individual making the trip and a good diversion from the serious task awaiting us the next day. The boys come up with some hilarious awards (perhaps the funniest this year was Chris Brenk’s mock twitter account dedicated to “stuff Jacob Belgrad might say”). When it was Griffin Gartner’s turned to be roasted, Austin Kleber presented him with a framed arrow (signifying his willingness to do anything for his teammates), a box of lucky charms (poking fun of his red hair), and a bottle of shaving cream (Griffin, along with McBrien, are the only two likely not to be carded when buying tickets for an R-rated movie). Austin, in turn, was given the “linguist” award by Josh Feldman, for his propensity to make up words. Josh’s award was the cover of a Rosetta Stone book with pictures of Austin photo-shopped in. The whole scene was a good reminder that, as serious as these guys are, they all have goofy sides.
We met in the lobby after the awards to head to dinner, and it took my second glance before I realized that Griffin looked different: gone was the red beard he’d sported all season! Shaving the beard was the perfect symbolic gesture: he would do what he could to shave seconds off his time the next day.
Let us now consider the high school trajectory of Griffin Gartner. There are a lot of ways to become an excellent distance runner, but he certainly took a particularly circuitous route in getting there. Freshman year, Griffin played football. He came out for track during the spring of his sophomore year but trained largely with the sprints group. We did discover an inkling of his talent and willingness to work hard because he was the rare sprinter who willingly ran middle distance events, and by outdoor conference he surprised us all by finishing 2nd at the Sophomore level in the 800. We capitalized on his success by encouraging him to come out for cross country his junior year. At first, he trained with the ‘super sprinters’ group, but as the season progressed he began to see big improvements in his times and decided to focus more on long distance running. In a late season time trial, I paced him to a 10:16 (he’d missed the Monday practice when the entire team ran and I was not about to let him skip out) and his awareness of his potential to be a good runner began to crystalize. Still, I do not think many would have predicted Griffin to be in our top 5 at the beginning of this summer, and fewer still would have guessed he’d be among the top 50 3A runners in state. It is a testament to his ability to push himself, to his decision to commit wholeheartedly to running, and to his poise in pressure situations that he did so well yesterday. If Matt won the race by helping us be confident, Griffin and Alex Domiano won it for us by kicking down so many runners in the final straightaway.
Passing the Torch
Griffin finished 43rd yesterday, the same place Chris Brenk finished last year. Chris Brenk ran an incredibly gutsy race and finished 25th, the same place TJ Caveney was last year (how amazing is it that for two years in a row Hinsdale Central not only won state but secured the very last all-state spot!) Ethan Planson finished in 142nd place yesterday, running 15:38. As a Sophomore, Alex Domiano finished 142nd place, running 15:40. Yesterday, in his final Illinois high school race, Alex Domiano was 44th in state. I told him on the bus ride home that I finished 44th in state during my senior year. I am 34 years old. I was 17 when I ran that race. That was half a life time ago. My team finished 2nd place that day, losing by a single point to Lockport Township. I left the course shell shocked, having come achingly close to a dream I’d had for years. Yesterday, twice the age I was back on that memorable but bittersweet day, I was part of my second state championship. I don’t know where Alex will be 17 years from now, but I am sure wherever it is, he will never forget his final Detweiller race.
A cup of milk, a bowl of oatmeal
And speaking of things coming full circle, consider the Feldman family. When Josh was a freshman, he watched from the sidelines while his older brother Jack, then a senior, saw his own dreams shattered when he faltered down the final straightaway, completely depleted of glycogen stores, and literally crawled on his hands and knees across the finish line. My heart truly broke that day, and I can only imagine how Larry and Lori Feldman felt watching their son, to say nothing of the anguish Jack himself must have felt. The 2011 meet taught us the harshest lesson of all: sometimes all your hard work does not lead to the outcome you were striving towards. You can invest years of hard training, but it guarantees nothing. It remains worth it, of course, but rather than leaving the course elated beyond words, as we did yesterday, you leave feeling a mixture of disappointment and resolve. I suspect this must be how Sandburg feels, though they should be incredibly proud of the season they put together.
To the eternal credit of the Feldman family, they took the whole situation in stride. Jack has gone on to University of Illinois and is doing great, mature enough to know that one race is but a blip on life’s radar. He is thriving in college, is planning to bike ride across the nation this summer. And for the past two meets, he has been a welcome presence as a hugely respected alum joining the HCXC cheering section. And he must have felt like a proud older brother yesterday. Josh Feldman, who ran 16:00 in his first high school 3200 time trial – who was 109th as a freshman at the Hornet-Red Devil Invite – who, in this, his senior year, was 27th place at the First to the Finish Invite – finished as the 22nd place runner in the IHSA state meet and earned the all-state honors that barely eluded Jack.
There are few runners I have coached who have shown as much steady improvement as Josh. His progress from last track season has been nothing short of astonishing. He literally ran a PR in every single 3200 race he ran in track. He never ran less than 50 miles per week all track season. This summer, he and Matt McBrien were by far our mileage leaders. Josh never missed a single day of practice. He is the only runner among our top seven who remained blessedly free of injury all season long. As in track, he got better as the season went on.
Perhaps one key to his remarkable improvement is his disposition. Josh is very focused, and has rituals he follows faithfully which help him prepare mentally for races. Every night, he must have a glass of milk. We made a special trip to Wal-Mart to make sure this happened Friday night (it might have been the best $2 we ever spent). In the morning, Josh has oatmeal. As we do each year, we take our morning meal in the lobby of the Embassy Suites. When we got there yesterday, after finishing our shakeout, they’d run out of oatmeal. Josh looked panic stricken. Coach Westphal talked to a manager, and they assured us that some was being prepared and would be ready shortly. I seriously got nervous just watching Josh wait for his oatmeal. When it finally was set out, we all felt relieved. That oatmeal must have functioned for Josh as spinach does for Popeye. Of all our athletes, he was the one who I sensed was most ready to run well. Did he ever. One of my absolute favorite moments from this past weekend had to have been when I was able to yell to all the HC runners and fans who’d gathered near the station where results would be posted, “where’s Brenk?” “25th!” And a huge cheer erupted. And then I yelled “where’s Feldman?” “22nd!” And Josh’s friends and teammates let out a whoop and hoisted him up on their hands. And there was the most mild-mannered, reserved, modest guy on the team being literally thrown up in the air by the joyful mob.
Consider what might not have been…
I don’t have the right superlative to describe what the fall season has been like for Hinsdale Central (in this blog post alone I’ve already used ‘astonishing,’ ‘amazing,’ and ‘remarkable’). Our state title was #4, and a few hours later the soccer team pulled out a dramatic victory to win state title #5. It is scary to contemplate the fact that had a strike occurred, none of those state titles might have happened. As I’ve written before on this blog, part of what made this season so hard was bearing the weight of knowing the season could be cut short. I cannot describe how grateful I am that our contract was settled and we could all go back to focusing on the season. I’d like to think that this fall vindicates the commitment and passion of the athletes and coaches at our school.
Alumni come out in force
What made yesterday feel so special was all the people who came out to support us. Nick Nodus flew in from Austin, Texas for the meet (and shout out to Nick’s cousin Charlie, who earned all-state and led our friends at Hinsdale South to a top 10 finish) while Emmett Scully came in from Boston. Keaton drove from Evanston past Peoria on over to Champaign in order to pick up Aria and Jack Griffin and shepherd them to the race. Chris Kennedy and his folks came to watch, while Jack Girard came across town from where he is in school at Bradley. Ryan Somerfield was there, coordinating a group text with Jack Feldman for all the alums who could not be present. Also coming from Champaign was Billy Magnesen, with current teammates and former Illinois greats Zach Smith, Tony Zea, and Dan Lathrop. I’ve surely neglected to mention some of you, but please know it’s only because yesterday is already a blur – and know also how much we genuinely appreciate it.
Building a winning tradition
By winning today, HC became the first school to win back to back state titles in 3A cross country since the IHSA initiated the 3 class system back in 2007, and the first team other than York to do it since Lockport Township in 1997 and 1998. It is incredibly hard to repeat (I shudder to think how monumental the challenge will be next season, as we’ll face an incredibly motivated Sandburg team that returns 6 of their 7 runners) and I feel immense satisfaction and relief having done so. We also had three all-state runners this year, all different than the three we had last season. In the history of Hinsdale Central, we’d had only 5 all-state runners through 2012. In the past two years, we’ve had 6.
I am also incredibly proud that we managed to pull this off despite not having Matt McBrien at his best, despite not running 9:42 3200 runner Nathan Hill, despite losing Yuji Cusick to a season-ending stress fracture and not having Andrew Irvine at full strength owing to his own stress fracture, and despite Nick Tandle having to miss a week due to his own health scare. We overcome a lot this year. This is what makes a team truly great: one guy goes down, another steps up. Alex Domiano was not healthy enough to run the first two meets of the season. He saved us yesterday. Josh Feldman was 27th at First to the Finish, yet 22nd today. Griffin Gartner was 41st at first to the finish, 33rd at Sectionals, yet 43rd when it mattered most. I hope all younger athletes take note. No matter how long the odds may seem at any given moment, don’t lose faith. And remember that you never know what role you will end up playing – Matt may not have scored low points, but his leadership paved the way.
I will end on a serious note. I have read and heard several guys on our team say that they are afraid of letting the team down. This has been said by guys who got injured, as well as some who had a race that did not go as well as they’d hoped. I know that my expressions can be hard to read, and I may sometimes appear intense or dissatisfied. Truly, all that coaches can ask from athletes is that they give their best. This may sound simple, but it is actually incredibly hard. To give your best to this sport on a daily basis, month after month, year in and year out, is a monumental challenge. Yet so many HCXC athletes have risen to the task. As Neil Pedersen said in his advice to the team, “the most commendable thing a man can do is to constantly strive to be his very best.” At this moment of victory, it is most important to remember this: had the outcome been different yesterday, I would feel no differently today about the boys on our team: I am so, so, so proud of all of you.