One of my favorite authors is Kurt Vonnegut. In “A Man without a Country,” one of the last books he wrote before he died, he recalled a memory about his “late Uncle Alex” who always made it a point to explicitly point out those moments in life when one feels genuine happiness. It was a habit Vonnegut, too, adopted, and one he advocated to his readers: “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
On Saturday evening, as I sat next to my wife, Megan, on the couch, the pleasant aromas of our autumnal dinner wafting from our warm oven, a few last rays of sunlight streaming through the windows, I turned to her and said exactly that. The evenings’ contentment was undeniably made possible by the events earlier in the day (I remained unembarrassed and unabashed in confessing that my spirits are inextricably bound to the boys I coach). After a difficult conference meet, we’d responded nicely with a strong showing at Regionals, picking up our first outright victory of the season. Admittedly, we ran against an LT squad that was short-handed, opting to hold out their top 4 runners since their advancement on to Sectionals was never in doubt. We elected to rest three of our usual top 7 (Blake Evertsen, Sam Fathizadeh, and Nathan Hill), but kept in Chris Brenk, Andrew Irvine, Ethan Planson, and Ryan Doorhy to give them more practice in executing race strategy. To these four, we added Sean O’Connell, Jacob Belgrad, and John Bynan, all underclassmen who’d get some important experience in the state series races and have an opportunity to jockey for position within our top 12.
The meet started auspiciously, with our girls’ team pulling off a minor upset by squeaking out a win against LT, a team that had beaten them soundly the week previous. The addition of Annie Zaher (older sister of Steven, and a state champion miler) to the lineup for the first time this season no doubt provided a lift for the Lady Devils, as they appear to be rounding in shape at exactly the right time. We hope to follow suit.
Conditions at race time were appropriate for fall in the Midwest: brisk winds blowing out of the southwest, a bit of mist in the air (a few hours earlier, there’d been a torrential downpour – the unusual afternoon starting time proved to be a blessing). From the gun, runners from Hinsdale Central and Lyons Township moved to the front, along with Dan Santino of St. Ignatius and Eduardo Martinez from Morton. By the mile mark, the lead pack was down to six: Santino, LT’s Tim McCarthy, and our front four of Brenk, Irv, Ethan, and Ryan. This sextet came through in around 4:48, with O’Connell and Belgrad about 20 meters back, Bynan a bit behind them. The pack continued to hold, with Doorhy and Brenk taking turns bearing the brunt of the winds. At the 2 mile mark, we had four across in 9:51 – every single guy faster than they’d been on a wasted 3200 time trial we’d held two weeks earlier (on an equally windy day). A determined Sean O’Connell came through the 2 mile mark in 9:59, the first time he’s ever broken 10 minutes for that distance. It was evident by this point that Sean would be our 5th man, as the pain was evident in the faces of Belgrad and Bynan who were several seconds back. The question now was when the front pack would break, and who would emerge from the scrum.
Santino was the first to make a move, opening his stride at about the 2.5 mile mark and catching most of our guys off guard. The one guy to respond was Ethan Planson. Though Ethan could not quite keep up with the decorated Santino (we’d seen him once before this season, at the Palatine Invite, where he finished 5th overall losing only to Jon Davis, Blake, Filip Pajak, and Matt Peirera – all among the best runners in the state, and perhaps the nation) his assertive move showed a growing confidence. Brenk took a few moments to regain his composure than began his chase, catching up and passing his teammate around the final curve, but responding too late to catch back up to Santino. Chris finished as the runner-up with Ethan taking the bronze. For Ethan, the race was a major breakthrough. He’d finished a disappointing 26th in Conference the week previous, but looked like a transformed man a short seven days later, running with the poise and confidence he’d often showed at the Sophomore level last season. The jump from 10th to 11th grade is the most difficult in Cross Country, as the level of competition increases significantly. It takes time to learn. Ethan, along with Ryan Doorhy and Sam Fathizadeh, seem to have finally made the jump.
“Irv” and Doorhy were our next two across the line, with Andrew finishing a strong fourth, and Ryan 6th behind McCarthy. Andrew looked strong and relatively relaxed for much of the race. Doorhy, though, paid a price for taking the role of leader for much of the early sections of the race, but gutted out a 6th place overall finish. He clearly went to the well for his teammates, leaving his lunch on the grounds of LTs campus midway through his cooldown jog. Doorhy and Planson have charted similar trajectories throughout their HC careers, and so it would not surprise me to see Ryan have the kind of race Ethan just did in our final two weeks. With these two stepping up to join our front pack, we form a much stronger group.
Sean O’Connell finished 10th, battling hard down the final stretch with Alex Pall of Lyons Township, who had finished 20th at the varsity level in last week’s bruising WSC championships. It was Sean’s best race of the season, and he acknowledged afterwards that he’d never gotten out so hard. He is one of the finest Sophomores in the state, and in two years one expects this will be his team to command. In the meantime, he and Steven Zaher, who comprise the sophomore contingent of our top 12, will get to experience state from the inside, after attending both sectionals and state last year as fans.
Jacob Belgrad and John Bynan will also travel with us to Sectionals and State, taking in the experience, observing the process, preparing themselves for the possibility of running in those meets next year. Both young men gave their all yesterday and this season, though neither was entirely satisfied with how their final race went (a truth shared by the vast majority of the most motivated runners, to be perfectly honest about it). JB and JB finished 21st and 22nd, with Jacob about one second in front of John. Though the season did not end the way either had envisioned it, I can say this with certainty: both are changed men. This season, with its many trials, has forced a certain maturity on them. Each has experienced both physical and emotional growing pains. I’d never call not reaching a goal failure, but I’ll fully acknowledge that it can be tough to accept. However, in that acceptance is growth. I feel the pain with the athletes when all they’d given does not pay off in the way they’d hoped, as I explained in my post-conference blog. But I also absolutely believe that it is in the acceptance of that fundamental unfairness –that hard work does not always lead to the outcome we desire – that we learn the most about our own capacity for resilience. We learn, too, that others’ acceptance of us ultimately has nothing to do with how we place at any given race – that if we are down, they will be there to comfort us, that if we triumph, they’ll be there to congratulate us. To quote Vonnegut again, responding to the age-old question ‘what is life about?’, he suggests ‘we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.’
On that note, we are grateful and appreciative of the many people who came to support us yesterday. Sean O’Flaherty and Matt Tobia were both back from college for the weekend, and on the sidelines rooting for their alma mater. Youngsters Brandon Belgrad and Alec Hill came to support their teammates, perhaps envisioning a future date in which they don the red and white for the state series. A large contingent of members from our ‘white’ and ‘orange’ groups were there, as was Joe Glasby, the Reids, the Andersons, and our Principal, Mark Kolkman. My apologies to anyone I missed, but know that your support means a lot. If there is one real piece of advice I can offer about how to improve as a runner that I am absolutely confident about, it is that any individual will reach deeper within when they know they are part of something bigger than themselves. You all contribute to that culture. Thank you.