One of my favorite talking heads in sports, Bomani Jones, frequently jokes about how it’s always the little guy in sports who stays ready to fight, because five-foot-nine dudes like Nate Robinson, who despite his freakish athleticism wouldn’t stand out from any other group of average-height brothers who played football or basketball in high school, that kick it and compete with dudes that make the Rock look like this: https://goo.gl/images/i1oHqw (and who make Kevin Hart look like this: https://goo.gl/images/DvGkTF) all feel like they’ve had to scratch and claw for everything they’ve accomplished. So, these guys stay ready to fight when someone tries to tell them what they can’t do, because somehow across years of learning and speaking fluent English they never picked up the meaning of phrases like “back down” or “let it go,” even if they can identify each of those individual words those terms comprise.
Maybe it’s because I was a late bloomer, entering high school at a height something like 5 feet and the scrawniest 100 pounds you could imagine (here’s a video of me, fro’d up in the 8th grade chasing down some guys in the final straight of a cross country race https://youtu.be/BwaaMWbQyug?t=1m7s), or maybe it’s because of my suddenly well-known history as a high schooler who ran a meager 4:29 and 9:34 in the 16 and 3200, respectively, who always played second-fiddle to the twin brothers at the school down the road. But when it comes to people telling me what I can’t do, I have an also suddenly well-publicized, salt and vinegar Lays– because I’m that salty when someone tries to disrespect me– chip on my shoulder and I am the embodiment of a stay-ready all star.
So maybe that’s why, as a close friend of mine always likes to tease me for, I feel an inexorable compulsion to remind the 8:40 flat-3k guys who jokingly say they’d beat me of exactly how obtuse that notion is, given my steeplechase time– oh wait, I can do that with 8:30 guys now– even when I know that drawing out the absurdity of my need to respond is the source of humor behind their their wisecracks; maybe that’s why, when the head track coach from my high school texts me about aforementioned twins after my performance at USAs, “what have they done? You win!” I respond proudly in the affirmative (hiding a sliver of resentment over the fact that one of them still has a 5k PR that’s two seconds better than mine) instead of that I’ve moved on to bigger and better things, and maybe that’s why I delivered that speech at the senior cross country banquet in which I passionately indicted my teammates for what I felt was a lack of support after that last-place-at-heps-xc race the year before, a race that affected me to the point of posting the number 95 on my wall in the largest font that fit on a piece of paper–because if no one else but my dad and Ben Halpin believed me, I knew I was gonna come back and be better the next year. Shoot, maybe for a guy like me who isn’t all that naturally competitive (perhaps contrary to what you’ve just read, but trust me 😉 ) maybe this attitude is why I’m even good at the sport of Track and Field.
Of course, I feel like realism has a place in athletics as well, so you definitely won’t find me out here telling dudes I’m trying to be world champion (I was there in that prelim. I saw the gap between Evan Jager and myself: it’s a lot), and, as it follows, you definitely won’t find me getting mad if you doubt me there, either. To me though, way more than it’s about shutting up the people who think they know my limits better than I do, Track and Field is about self-expression. About that last 200, 100, 50 meters where you can push yourself to the point of crossing that finish line like, “whoa, I just tried at something really freaking hard.” It’s beautiful, and it’s not something you can just find elsewhere on a whim.
It’s also why, no matter the result in that final, I was going to be happy as long as I left it on the track. Don’t get me wrong, the NACAC vest is a nice reward that means a lot to me, but Team USA caps are not why I’m in the sport. I’m here for that feeling after the race when everyone has endorphins flowing, when everyone’s barely functional and flopping around in the finish area, when that mutual love and respect between competitors is flowing because we all just tried hard af to accomplish the same thing, and no matter the result, we all know how amazing it is to feel that sensation. That’s both why I’m still happy after bad races and why I’m overflowing with joy when something ridiculously good happens. Ask anyone who races me a lot: that interview–as much as it may have embarrassed Ray–that was just this dude. Yes, I’ll set my sights on new accomplishments in the future, but rather than defining our worth, pride, and happiness on the track; moving on to new external goals should serve as a means to motivate ourselves on the track such that we can find that pure, internal joy in sport.
Well, as it were, my latest result was a breakthrough of sorts, so it’s time to do just. Of course, as I wrote earlier, there is a place for realism in our sport. If you run that race in Des Moines 100 times, there are surely some outcomes in which I notice Kebenei falling off, kick a bit earlier, and finish fourth, but there are likely more in which one or a few of my fellow B-circuit bros beats me and I finish like, 8th. Consequently, my goals for the coming year are more likely to look like “run in the low 8:20s” and “establish myself as a consistent player in the top 5 or 6 in the US Steeplechase” (i.e. go on an ‘it wasn’t a fluke’ tour) than “make a world team” or “go to the Olympics in 2020,” though Pan-Ams 2019 is probably in the former set.
But for all the years I spent telling people definitively that I’m not gonna make a World or Olympic team, joking about finding European women to marry for citizenship or going to one of the countries that buys athletes– for all those years of “no I will not make the Olympics please stop asking,” I did just finish fifth in the US in the steeplechase. I could have finished fourth. If one guy had retired, been injured, or, as is not exceedingly unlikely in my race, had fallen–though that person has far too often in the past been me–it’s suddenly not impossible that I’m third.
So no, going to the Olympics or whatever isn’t really a goal of mine. It’s not why I’m in the sport, and it wouldn’t somehow validate the blood, sweat, and tears I’ve shed on the track.
But hey, suddenly, I feel like I’m allowed to dream. And to me that, in itself, is quite cool.