The most spectacular athletic moment I ever witnessed in person was Ashton Eaton‘s performance in the decathlon at the olympic trials this past June at historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. Not only had he opened with breaking the world record for decathlete marks in the 100m dash (10.21) and the long jump (27′) in the pouring rain, but he put himself in position to break the Roman Sebrle‘s world record for overall points going into the final event: the grueling 1500m.
In order to break Sebrle’s record, Eaton had to run a 4:16 for the 1500m, which is much faster than what the big and strong decathletes typically run. All the other events in the decathlon focus more on strength, speed, and agility, but endurance is usually not a decathlete’s strong point. Eaton’s personal best in the 1500m up to this point was a 4:18. Once the gun went off, a pack of three runners went near the front: Curtis Beach and Joe Detmer, who weren’t even in the running to place overall, with Ashton Eaton close behind. Beach and Detmer were obviously the strongest endurance runners in the field, but as the race unfolded, I realized that they weren’t in front to show off; they were in fact pacing Eaton to get the time he needed to break the world record. Eaton latched on to Detmer and Beach, staying about 5-10 meters behind them on the first three laps.
Going into the final lap, Eaton faded a bit, and the Hayward Field announcer proclaimed, “Eaton is pacing about 2 seconds slow! He needs to run a 66 second lap here to get a 4:16 and break the world record!” The sold-out crowd got to its feet. Eaton changed gears. Beach and Detmer were the carrots, and he attempted to chase them down. On the final stretch, something unexpected happened. Beach and Detmer, still with a sizable lead on Eaton, slowed down, and I said to my father sitting next to me, “Oh my God, they are letting him pass!” They parted in lanes 1 and 3, and let Eaton by in lane 2 so he could win the event as he broke the world record. He ran a 4:14, with an unbelievable 64-second final lap. In an interview following the race, Beach said that he thought it was only appropriate that Eaton win the final event as he broke the world record.
Eaton’s athleticism over the 2-day event was impressive. I never saw anything like it. But what really touched me was the camaraderie among the decathletes. I was amazed that even at this high level of competition, they supported one another, and helped Eaton achieve the ultimate prize.
I can easily relate that experience to my cross country team. I used to think of running as purely an individual sport, but I’ve learned over time that it is something that connects many people to one another. My team trains with each other all summer long. Even when I’m out of town over the summer months, they meet up and run together almost every day. They see the value in the fact that they push each other when they run together. When one kid has a bad day, his teammates will push him along. Making the commitment to meet up with others also keeps them more accountable and less likely to take days off. They often have stories of amusing adventures that happen on trail runs, inside jokes from training camp, or tales about a teammate that helped them through when they were struggling. These stories and experiences will last a lifetime for these kids. They will always be connected to one another because of these shared experiences.
I put on an alumni track meet the last three years at Utica High School, where I’ve coached for the last eight years. I have been amazed at the number of alumni that come back each year. They tell stories of when they ran with the team like it was yesterday. Running meant something to them when they were young, and it still does. Even though the “glory days” are fleeting, the memories last. The connections I’ve made with my athletes are priceless.
I’ve also thought about how running has allowed me to connect with many others in my adult life: doing races, meeting up for runs, discussing running on my blog or on Facebook, helping friends with training plans, and so forth. We have this thing that we do that is special, and it is a shared experience. It helps us push one another to achieve goals. It helps us encourage one another. It’s an interesting topic that provides us with things to discuss and debate. It engages us in friendly competition. It connects us to one another. The more I run, the more I feel connected to those that are part of the running community. So when people use the phrase the “lonely long distance runner” I have to laugh.