Denny, the last-place champion
Why Denny ran cross-country for four years of high school made no sense to his teammates, but I think I understood as his coach. His goals were not about position, status and recognition. Denny was racing against his doubts and training to overcome years of embarrassment (and bullying) about his weight. To his credit, Denny never quit a season and ran with a smile of pure delight, but on many occasions, Denny scaled back on effort.
He was the one I had to watch out for on the days we trained in the forest preserves. Being so far behind meant he might not know we had turned onto a different trail. If I could not circle back to catch him up, I made up a system of codes for him to follow. A carefully placed arrow made from stones or twigs at an intersection meant we had changed course. If we were on a repeating loop, I checked to make sure Denny was not hiding behind a tree to get out of completing the circuit. These interventions were not punishment but ways to encourage Denny to continue on - even if at his own pace.
Regarding pace, Denny was consistent. Harder practices where the lead varsity runners kept a six-minute mile tempo, Denny kept at a ten to twelve minutes per mile. In races, Denny could never seem to break a seven-minute mile pace. Yet, through it all, he ran with a smile. He loved it, yet I could tell by senior year something still bothered him. It was the wall of 21 minutes, he said. If he could just run one three-mile race under 21 minutes, all his training would be worth it.
So that became our shared mission: to make all his investment and sweat worth it for the feeling of breaking 21 minutes for a three-mile race. The goal, however, remained elusive throughout the regular season of races. Denny’s last chance, after a string of close calls at 21:45, 21:32 and 21:27, would be at the conference meet. While everyone focused on the varsity top seven finishing well on their goal of making it to the state finals yet again, few knew of Denny’s personal quest. He did not want the attention; he simply wanted to prove a point about determination. What had been a pastime of enjoyment with moderate effort for three years became a sharply focused final year’s effort to graduate with pride.
On race day, his nervousness had erased his usual smile. I told him to relax, but he only gritted his teeth in veiled agreement. He was almost angry in his approach. I gave him the space he needed, but not before reminding him of all the miles he had invested and the quitting mentality he had rightly abandoned. Due to the terrain and layout of the course, I could do nothing during the race to encourage him. He was on his own out there.
I found myself pacing and praying at the finish line glancing at the stopwatch in my hand as early finishers crossed the line. At my last look, the watch had read 19:58 and I could not yet see Denny on the final straightaway. My heart pounded though I was standing still. People gathered around the top runners for each team as they came through the chute. Coaches showed finishers times on their watches, gave congratulatory pats on the back and moved teams toward their respective camps.
Prepared to draft a consolation speech in my head for Denny’s near miss, I looked up to see why people were re-gathering at the finish line. The huffing, puffing and audible grunts of a laboring runner mixed in the air with well-wishers’ cheers as Denny crossed the line with one final lunge. My finger hit the stop button on the watch, but I could not look. He had collapsed into a sweaty and frothy heap and was making his way back up to a stagger when I approached. Turning the watch face-up under his hanging head, we looked together at the results: 20:49.
He had done it! No official medals, ribbons or group accolades were coming his way that day, but what followed was the most satisfying, sloppiest and slipperiest hug I have ever had. His smile came back. Denny stood up straight and punched the air with a victory shout that no doubt shattered every mental and emotional shackle he had wrestled with since childhood. No one else in the vicinity understood, but that didn’t matter. You don’t have to finish first to feel like a champion.