The Fundamental Unfairness of Track

Last night my wife and I lit and then enjoyed a bonfire in our backyard.  It was that rare beautiful Midwestern spring night that feels more like summer, and the roaring flames (I’d been collecting scraps of wood from the yard and tossing them in the fire pit since the last snows thawed) bounded straight upwards, as the breezes, for once, were perfectly stilled.  It was a peaceful respite from the always harried rush that accompanies the end of every school year.  Still, I could not help feel a tad wistful as I stared into the embers, sighing as I considered how much more amenable to fast running the evening would have been compared to the previous night.  Such is the plight of the track coach to never be able to fully immerse oneself in the unscheduled beautiful falling of dusk; to always, on one level of consciousness, lament the lost opportunity to take advantage of prime racing conditions.

For this is the single inherent flaw of Illinois’s Sectional qualifying system: to earn a trip to state, one must finish in the top two in their event or else run under a standard time; yet one’s chances of running under the standard are determined in ways much more significant than anyone cares to acknowledge by factors beyond our control: primarily, the weather conditions; secondarily, the depth and quality of competition.

It’s not that conditions Friday night at Downers South were terrible (temperatures hovered in the mid-fifties, winds blew in from the east at around 15 miles per hour) but rather that had the meet been held either Thursday or Saturday evening they’d have been much more ideal.  I’d just witnessed two of my hardest working athletes, seniors Alex Domiano and Josh Feldman, come achingly close to qualifying for state, each missing by just over a second.  Wouldn’t they have qualified if the wind speeds were 5 miles per hour rather than fifteen?  If temperatures had been a comfortable 75 degrees rather than a chilly 55?  Wasn’t it unfair that they’d have to end their season here, while runners in other Sectionals would be moving on to state despite significantly slower times?

Well, yes.  But this is not a complaint so much as an observation.  Josh and Alex were stung, to be sure, but neither one even remotely objected to the end result.  They each knew the standard and gave their all in an attempt to achieve it.  Beyond this, neither has any cause to look back on their careers with anything but a sense of pride and gratefulness.  They each ran in the top 5 for a state championship team and got to hoist that trophy up above their heads – an experience far more rare than qualifying for state track.

Of course, as their coach, I desperately hoped Josh and Alex would get to conclude their stellar careers in Charleston.

I know their personal odysseys from wide-eyed freshman to quiet leaders.  I know how much each invested into becoming better runners, how much respect they’ve earned from their younger teammates.  I know Josh’s tendency to forget his hat, gloves, sweats at practice, to be retrieved the next day – as well as his compassion for the environment.  I’ve engaged with long talks with Alex about the challenges and rewards of being a twin (something we share) and seen him first struggle and then triumph in pressure situations.  Because I’ve been a witness and, in some manner, a shaper of their high school narrative, I hubristically hoped I could dictate the closing chapter.  That’s not how it works.  The coach can exert some influence, the athlete even more; but ultimately there are always factors external to any quest which alter the shape of what is possible.

Widening the lens, I realize that Josh and Alex’s stories are far from uncommon.  There is no place for self-pity or really any feelings other than gratitude.  Though each could be jealous of their 4*800 teammates who will journey to state this weekend, they could just as easily consider the third member of their trio, Matt McBrien, who missed basically the entirely of his senior track season due to  a series of stress fractures he sustained in sacrificing himself for our team’s benefit in cross country.   Or, they could consider the hundreds of stories of runners across the state whose stories end just like theirs did: coming up just short of a long-sought goal.  Zach Christensen and Jack Diamond of Downers North will not get to defend their 4*800 team’s all-state finish from last season, despite a year of intense training to do just that.  Four of Sandburg runners missed qualifying by two seconds or less.  Brian Jordan of Hinsdale South, who has emerged as an excellent middle distance runner for the upstart Hornets, missed by a fraction of a second.

On the other side of fortune’s fence fell our 4*200 team of Kareem Muhammad, James Reilly, Christian Bobak, and Matt Hillock.  They bested the qualifying time by .01 seconds.  This was also true of DGN sophomore Alec Danner.  Is the runner who runs 9:29.03 more worthy of a trip to state than the one who runs 9:29.05?  Had two runners done that in the same race, they’d have virtually tied: but what different stories and emotions each would feel.

In the head to head matchup, though, it is easier to accept the end result.  The frustration of Sectionals is really more that conditions in one Sectional can be substantially more advantageous than in another.  In Cross Country, this matters much less, as one’s finishing time on a given course does not matter – only place does.  In track, though, the end goal really is to run as fast as one possibly can (or jump as high or long, or throw as far).  Until we all compete on 400 meter tracks in climate controlled stadiums, it won’t ever be possible to fairly conclude that a runner at one site is more deserving of advancement to the next level than a runner with a comparatively close time elsewhere.  The only truly fair race is the classic foot race: one runner lining up against others, may the fastest one win.

And as such, there is simply no Sectional format that could ever be truly equitable or fair.  In truth, the system we have almost always ensures that the very best athletes – those likeliest to contend for an individual state title – move on to get that chance at state (so long as they run what they are capable).  The runners who sometimes get left out are those whose goal is not to win state so much as to qualify.  And it is always tough when you invest so much of yourself into a quest only to come achingly close (been there: as a senior in high school, my team finished one point away from winning state).  Yet, as I often remind our team, the best goal setters only achieve their goals 50% of the time.  And if you did not achieve your goal, but you came close, there is more to celebrate there than had you set a goal and given up on it or fallen far short.

So track is not fair.  But neither is life.  Good people get struck by tragedy every day.  To simply be healthy enough to run fast should be gift enough for us who can.  Coaches of all sports must walk this fine line at all times: to encourage their charges to invest heavily in the pursuit of self-improvement while also keeping perspective: what we do is incredibly meaningful, but to falter should never be viewed in tragic terms.

Next weekend is state.  Blake Evertsen will try to earn all-state honors in the 3200.  Griffin Gartner, Max Maydanchik, Nathan Hill, and Matt Tobia will attempt to bring Hinsdale Central back to the state finals in the 4*800 for the first time since 2012.  Our 4*200 team will try to keep luck on their side.  Senior pole vaulter Steven Chun will attempt to become Central’s first all-state vaulter in 30 years.   A new group of athletes will see their long-cherished dreams become reality, while another group will fall short of theirs.

To win state or to just miss are not unique experiences but common ones; or, perhaps, it is more accurate to say that these are experiences many individuals have shared, though the meaning each attaches to it is unique to them.  Alex and Josh are state champions.  They are also two runners who just missed qualifying for state track.  In the end, no single race can define them, or any athlete, for that matter.  It is the giving of oneself to a challenge that both forges and reveals character.  By now I think it is accurate to say I have coached over 1000 athletes in my life, and only a handful have ever run as fast as these two.  Yet I hope that all of them can look back on their high school cross country and track practices and feel that the time was well-spent, the camaraderie and pride from self-improvement worth the hours and miles, the injuries and missed goals.  I’ve been writing a lot about Josh and Alex because the feelings I and they experienced at sectionals are still raw; but in time, the sting of their near misses will fade and I will simply remember them for who they are as individuals: tough yet caring, quiet but confident.  They will move on (to Virginia Tech, in Alex’s case, to University of Illinois for Josh), though they will live on as stories we tell to inspire the current crop of runners, entering the pantheon of the HCXC greats who came before them.

To coaches of athletes who fell just short of a goal (which is to say, to all coaches): we can’t always change the system, and we certainly can’t change the results.  But what we can do is craft the narrative.  Coach Chris Quick of Palatine likes to compare teams to cultures, and points to the importance of folklore and legend in the creation of identity.  It’s up to us to help our athletes find the meaning of their performance, whether that be an unlikely victory or a devastating failure.   In doing so, we give them a purpose for running bigger than the practices and races themselves; and we begin to establish the myths and fables that will inspire the young runners we’ve not yet had the privilege to coach.

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