“I’m sure there are equally compelling stories out there that need to be told. Tell them!” – Tony Holler
I coach distance for the Hinsdale Central boy’s track team. We qualified zero distance athletes or relays to the state track championships this year. First time since 2008 that has happened. Nonetheless, I have a story I feel compelled to tell. My story is a little bit different. It doesn’t end in triumph. It ends with us failing to advance out of Sectionals, which forced me to do some deep thinking about coaching, training, and how to quantify something that can’t be measured: love. I’ll start by explaining my motivations for writing, then will begin at the end and work backwards.
I was inspired to begin writing about our story after reading John O’Malley’s recent blog “Sandburg 4*800 2019.” It is an amazing story well-told. It also, if you will permit me to be candid, brought up some painful memories for me.
While John’s Sandburg foursome performed brilliantly at Sectionals to earn a birth to state, it was our Hinsdale Central team that ended third in that race, one place and less than two seconds away from qualifying for the trip to Charleston, the goal, we, too, had prioritized unquestioningly from the very beginning of the season. Sandburg’s success in the 4*800 – no finish worse than 4th since 2011 – is unparalleled, but we also had a modest streak to boast of – 8 years in a row of qualifying for state in that event, an achievement which put us in elite company: only Sandburg and Neuqua could say the same. The 4*8 is a prestige event at Hinsdale Central. It is also a freaky event, where crazy stuff happens – one year we advanced through to state after running a mediocre 8:06 only because a team in front of us dropped a baton; other years we were the victims of the Track God’s capriciousness, most painfully last year in state finals when our lead runner, Colin Yandel (now entering his sophomore year for the Fighting Illini) was clipped from behind 600 meters into the race, killing our dreams before we’d even reached the first exchange. Despite leaving Charleston disappointed in 7 of the past 8 years of state 4*800s (the 2017 all-state team being the one exception) we started this track season knowing we’d be going all in. Next year will be no different.
John teaches English, and it shows in his writing. I teach social studies, a discipline that emphasizes the importance of seeking out multiple perspectives in order to better understand a historical event. So here is how the Sectional Race so vividly described in John’s blog played out from the point of view of Hinsdale Central:
The gun goes off. We put Alec Hill as our leadoff guy. Alec, who battled plantar fasciitis all cross country season yet persevered through countless hours of rehab and cross training to save our season. Alec, the lone remaining link to the aforementioned 2018 4*800 team, a group with such promise and whose ultimate fate felt so unjust (another story I felt compelled to tell). And Alec runs perfectly, bolting to the lead with 200 to go and giving us a wide margin at the first exchange. He runs 1:59.5 – tying his lifetime best, run in last year’s state prelims. I was surprised the lead legs weren’t out faster, but Alec ran smart as he always does and put us in a great position. Matt Kusak and Piyush Mekla run 2nd and 3rd. Both run in the lead the entire way. Running in the lead is a tough task – psychologically it is much easier to be the one chasing rather than being chased. Both run about 2 seconds off their PR. Not quite what we were hoping for, but we are still in the lead at the final exchange. I see Naperville Central and Sandburg only about 10 meters back and I know we’re in trouble. Carter McCarroll is our anchor. His PR is 2:01.4. I don’t know what Nico Calderon’s 800 PR is at this point, but I vividly remember him blasting into the lead on the third leg of the state finals last year – and we all know that Naperville Central will be rolling. As for Carter, no one on our team has matured more over the course of this school year. We’d kept Carter in our long distance group and geared his training for the 3200 for track, and we know he is in great aerobic shape. The plan had been to have him run 3200 at Sectionals. He’d run a solo 9:35 a few weeks earlier and state qualifying seemed eminently reasonable. However, we’d thrown him in a few 800s outdoors and were impressed with his trajectory: from 2:04 to 2:03 to 2:02 to 2:01 in four races. In practice earlier in the week, he’d beaten all our mid-d guys in a 2*600/200 workout, so we took a gamble and put him on the anchor leg. He was the guy who trained harder than anyone else on the team, and had blossomed into a leader both through word and deed. Maybe this would be his moment. And so, as John wrote in his blog, the rain is pouring down, our guys, like the Sandburg guys, are running from one side of the track to the other, screaming Carter’s name. But as Sandburg and Naperville Central pull up next to him, he searches to find a gear to match, and it isn’t there. Now it is a race against time, and it will take a 2 second PR for him to get us under the qualifying time. He misses his PR by .5 seconds. Our season is over, and also our streak.
My heart broke for Alec, Matt, Piyush, and Carter. As John wrote in his blog, they also “fought like hell for the things they love” – each other, their team. Sometimes love loses.
For two weeks after the Sectional meet, I couldn’t look at twitter. Perhaps this is immature, but the truth is my ego felt particularly fragile after feeling that I’d failed my team. I didn’t want to look at all the celebratory posts from coaches excited about how great their athletes’ seasons ended. That is not a good place to be, but there I was. I spent this period of self-imposed social media doing a lot of reflecting on the past season, trying to figure out how I managed to screw it up (did I mess up the order of our Sectional 4*8? Was our training inadequate? Have I lost my touch?) By all traditional objective measures, the 2018-2019 school year had been our worst in a long time. Aside from advancing no athletes to state in track, we’d finished 11th in cross country, our worst finish since 2012 and had only 2 guys sub 10:00, the lowest total in a decade.
A few weeks later, I was back on twitter, following along as the division 1 national meet took place. Perhaps the most exciting race of a meet that featured many of them was the men’s final of the 1500, where Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse came out of nowhere in the final thirty meters of the race to just edge Justin Kiprotich of Michigan State by the proverbial eyelash. I didn’t get a chance to watch that race live, and first learned about upon seeing this tweet:
Now, I don’t know Coach Carlson, but I admire his achievements (and I certainly enjoy following him on twitter). I will permit myself a moment of immodesty to brag that it was I who suggested to Jeff Purdom that he interview Carlson for his awesome podcast, as I was interested to hear how Carlson managed to land Dylan Jacobs and Danny Kilrea in the same year. I was floored by that. And during that interview, I loved how Carlson advocated a back to the basics approach of high mileage while downplaying ancillary work. As a former York guy, that resonated strongly with me. But this tweet brought up unexpected feelings: pangs of jealousy, feelings of insecurity. My thoughts ran thusly: if the reason Yared Nuguse managed to pull of this remarkable victory is that his team was built on love, then what does it mean if you lose, like our 4*8 did this season? Did we not have sufficient love? This is not a knock on Coach Carlson at all, but simply an honest account of my train of thoughts upon reading his tweet.
One of the major motivations for coaching, as we all know, is the transcendent moments of shared joy we get to experience when an athlete achieves some long-sought goal. We all relish expressing our love in those moments. However, the tougher part of coaching comes when our athletes comes up just short. It is then that we find out whether we succeeded in communicating to them that our love is unconditional, based on the mutual trust we create in the effort to improve – that it is not contingent on performance.
I’ve been mulling this question: how do you measure love? How do you measure if your team culture is healthy? Can you do it by looking at meet results?
This past year, I found myself in an unfortunate but unique situation: my cross country season was interrupted by the month-long illness and eventual death of my 1-year old daughter Beatrix, and my track season coincided with my on-going efforts to grieve her loss and to figure out how to move forward with purpose after the foundation I thought my family had established crumbled beneath us. And this year, more than any other, I found out that while the results weren’t there for us, we were there for each other: 80 Hinsdale Central Cross Country runners, each with a hand-written card, attending the visitation for my daughter, Bea. Dozens of alumni returning home, from as far away as Texas, to pay their respects. Those same runners, later in the track season, waiting 3.5 hours in line to be there for their teammate and his family after that teammate’s father died, succumbing to cancer 9 years after first being diagnosed.
I have all those letters the boys wrote to me collected together in a photo album. On the very first page of the album, I pasted two photographs: our top 7 girls and our top 7 boys, posing after the Sectional XC meet. If you look closely, you can see that they are all wearing ribbons in honor of my daughter Bea, who’d died a week earlier. I was not at the meet; in fact, Bea’s funeral had been the day before, and several of those athletes pictured had been in attendance. The boys, who I help coach, finished 5th, only 2 points ahead of Plainfield South, to barely manage to qualify for state. From left to right they are: Mike Ward, Piyush Mekla, Will Ricker, Matt Kusak, Alec Hill, Colby Revord, and Carter McCarroll. Piyush, Matt, Alec, and Carter ran on our 4*800 which won conference for the first time since 2012, beating both York and LT who would both earn all-state, and which finished third a week later at Sectionals, just missing state qualifying.
On the backside of that first page, I pasted two other items. At the top of the page is a photograph zoomed in on the ‘Bea’ pins that the boys and girls wore in their race. These pins were designed and created, I later learned, by Sara Magnesen, the mother of Billy Magnesen, the top runner from our first state championship team back in 2013. Billy and Colin Yandel also wore the Bea ribbons while representing University of Illinois at the Big Ten Cross Country Conference Championships. The bonds between past and present at HCXC remain strong.
And beneath, I taped in an email sent to me from John O’Malley, written after the Sectional XC meet, which occurred one day after Bea’s funeral:
John’s Sandburg team had finished fourth at Sectionals, one place in front of us. His stellar coaching staff had filmed the race at 1200 to go, and he took the time to share this data with Coach Westphal and I because that is the kind of person he is: a class act, caring towards others beyond his team, one of the coaches who ‘gets it.’
I cherish that email. And what struck me most when re-reading it after the track season ended was this realization: our 1st guy went from 14 to 7 – that was Matt Kusak. Our 2nd guy went from 17 to 12 – that was Piyush Mekla. Our 3rd guy went from 24 to 21 – that was Carter McCarroll. Our 4th guy went from 44 to 35 – that was Alec Hill. In the final 1200 of the Sectional XC race, those four guys passed a combined 24 runners. And we advanced to state by 2 points. Those four guys. The same four guys that would end up on our Sectional 4*800.
Here was my answer, and it was, appropriately enough, in John’s email all along: my guys did fight to get to state because they loved me. They fought in cross country, and they continued to fight in track, and they didn’t love me any less just because six months had passed by. They fought to get to state because they loved their coach, and each other – only this time, they came up just short. No medals. No glory. Just the pain of feeling they’d let each other down. The pain that is inextricably bound to love.
Also, in the photo album, I included the letter I wrote to the team the week before Conference XC. I’d just watched a documentary about Mr. Rogers, and found this quote resonating at that particular time: “you don’t have to do anything spectacular to be worthy of being loved.”
By tradition, at our annual Track banquet, seniors come and speak about each member of the coaching staff. This year, senior James Giltner spoke about me. James had a stellar indoor season, dropping his 1600 PR from 4:58 to 4:41 and finishing 7th in that event at the always tough WSC-silver indoor championships, a great accomplishment for an athlete who’d had minimal varsity experience. His outdoor season was plagued by frustration and did not go as well, despite our best efforts to diagnose and address his races. But his maturation from joining us as a sophomore (a soccer convert) was inspiring, and he will be running next year at Bowdoin. And in his speech, he quoted that exact same Mr. Rogers quote: you don’t have to do anything spectacular to be worthy of being loved. It is a really rewarding feeling to hear your words repeated back to you, and to know that those words were believed.
John O’Malley is absolutely right that the coach’s job is to ‘frame the narrative’ and he does this as well as anyone, which is a huge reason he is such a good coach. And so, while I love hearing the inspiring stories he, and I, and so many other coaches tell, I think it is equally important that we as coaches tell our stories when things don’t work out the way we’d hoped. And so it was for the Hinsdale Central 4*800 2019 – we fought, we loved, we lost. And that is OK.