Blake and “Bender”

On both Friday and Saturday night this past week, I stayed up late to watch the webcast of the Arcadia Invitational, a meet hosted each year outside Los Angeles which attracts many of the best prep athletes in the nation.  On Saturday night, I watched the invitational 3200, which featured Illinois’s top two runners, Jessie Reiser and Zach Dale, both of whom will be joining our own Billy Magnesen at University of Illinois next fall.  It was a thrilling race which featured a pack of athletes jostling with each other for the lead..

Reiser

(Less than a meter into the race, look how intense the runners are as they fight for positioning – photo credit to Scott Matzelle)

…and came down to a heart pounding finishing kick wherein the top 5 athletes all finished within 1 second of each other.  In the end, it was Reiser who emerged the victor, with a national best time of 8:52.0.  Though I rarely stay up past 10:00, even on weekends, I was glad I’d made the exception so as to be privy to such a hotly contested battle.  That race having been run, I powered down the computer, brushed my teeth, and went to bed, quickly falling into a deep and peaceful sleep.

After watching Blake Evertsen run the previous night, by contrast, my body had surged with adrenaline, such that when I laid down to bed rest did not come so easily: this is what it means to coach.  There is a visceral bodily reaction to watching our athletes perform well (as there is when they suffer disappointments).  Though Blake was over 1000 miles away, I felt the same emotions watching him run as any previous race of his I’d been able to watch live.  In the end, the trip to California proved well worth it, as Blake had perfect conditions and excellent competitors, which propelled him to a personal best time:

Arcadia results

His performance represented a personal best by 15 seconds, established a school Sophomore outdoor record by 17 seconds (besting Billy Fayette’s 9:32 from 2009) and ranks as the third fastest 3200 in my tenure (behind Fayette’s 9:09 and Magnesen’s 9:12).  He has run as a Sophomore a time within ten seconds of Jon Thanos’s school record (9:06) – a mark he will no doubt be targeting in the years ahead.

Between Blake’s race on Friday night and Reiser’s victory on Saturday night, we hosted our first Outdoor invitational of the year, the annual Hinsdale Relays.   Though conditions were not quite as amazing as out in Arcadia, relative to typical Midwestern Spring weather, we had little to complain about: sun, winds kept to a modest 10-12 miles per hour.  Though the meet did not prove to be our best overall performance (perhaps we are a little rusty, having not run an invite since Indoor Conference) we did have some nice individual performances: Josh Feldman running a 3-second mile PR (4:30.5), our Frosh/Soph 4*800 of Ryan Doorhy, Sean O’Connell, Jacob Belgrad, and Ethan Planson running 8:30, a time as fast as any underclass foursome I’ve yet coached.  However, the highlight of the day actually came before the Relays began, with a 1600 meter time trial we held for all our athletes who were not competing in the meet (one challenge with Invitationals is that there is not unlimited entries, so not every member of the team gets to run).  I am a big fan of the time trial – it is the academic equivalent of a self-assessment: the opportunity to take stock of where you are at, and what kind of progress you’ve been making in recent month.

Our goal for the time trial was to get lots of PRs, and hopefully a few new athletes joining the ‘sub 5’ club.  Roughly 30 runners toed the line (about the same number of athletes who ran in Blakes’ seeded 3200 at Arcadia) and we had 33% earning personal best times.  Those ten athletes were John Bynan, Joe Griffin, Ben Anderson, Daniel Hu, Justin Lue, Luca Karginov, Kiril Kuzmanovski, Suraj Khattau, Ben Lotsoff, and Ian Stevenson.  Most thrilling of all was Anderson’s PR, as he broke five for the first time ever, finally achieving a long sought goal.

Ben’s journey to the sub 5 mile had not been an easy one.  His accomplishment, though, is impressive.  He first joined us for track season of his freshman year, and in an early season 3200 time trial ran 14:31, finishing 5th from last.  From these inauspicious beginnings, his distance running career began.  He proved himself to be a dedicated athlete, upping his mileage and increasing his tempo, so that by the following cross country season he’d earned a spot among the Sophomore top 7.  A highlight of that season was his 19th place finish at the conference meet, where he finished as the all important 5th man and helped secure HC’s first ever Sohomore conference title.  Yet Ben’s trajectory is reflective of most: it has not been straight up, but jagged.  In the past year, he’s endured illness and injury.  He’s been sidelined from meets, forced to cut his mileage, and humbled by race performances that fell below his own high standards.  I know he suffered doubts, questioned his training, considered whether the demands of training were worth it.  To his eternal credit, he stuck it out.  This is not easy!  It is not difficult to remain motivated when you are running great – when every race out secures you a PR.  The true test of one’s commitment and character comes from weathering the dry spells.  Though it was hard on him, Ben faithfully came to practice every day, and often did much more on his own, working with a physical therapist several hours a week to recover from his injury.  Though his sub-5 mile is not a pinnacle, it was nonetheless an incredibly gratifying place to take in the view of how far he has come so far.

I felt for Ben what I’d felt for Blake the night before: a sense of pride in his accomplishment, a feeling of excitement and anticipation about what he might achieve next.  Though Blake entered our program as a highly touted phenom while “Bender” joined us as a lankly freshman, unknown and unheralded, I’ve watched each grow with equal amounts of joy and excitement, been motivated by each of them to become the best Coach I can be in order to help them reach their full potential.  We don’t know yet what that will be for Blake or Ben, or for any of the 60 members of our Distance squad this season.  We do know that we’re not there yet.

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