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Drop your shield

Updated: May 11

Contributor: The Nerd


Note: I wrote this two days after the 2023 Nebraska State high school cross country meet. While the article includes references to the XC meet, it could be about any junior high or high school activity: wrestling, a one-act play, an art contest, an academic competition. Undertaking new or difficult challenges often leads to losses or heartbreak, but it can also build resilience. At the State XC meet we saw so much resilience in the face of heartbreak that we had to call it out.


This is a story about why junior high and high school sports matter no matter whether you win or lose.


*******


Last night a neighborhood friend invited my wife and me to a party at his house. Mark has been a huge fan of folk singer David Wilcox since he first heard David’s songs on a cassette tape in 1991. He’s such a huge fan that he hired David to give a private concert in Mark’s dining room. Mrs. Nerd and I sat on folding chairs with thirty-five of Mark’s friends and listened to David weave fascinating personal stories before each song. It was a beautiful evening.


One of Mark’s hobbies is to play the guitar, and over the past thirty years he’s played and sang for his family countless times. He’s never played for anyone else. Last night, Mark strapped on David’s guitar and sang one of his favorite songs from David’s library. David stood next to him beaming while the rest of us heard Mark sing for the first time. Standing in his dining room next to his music idol, Mark expressed his love for David’s music in a way that few of us would dare do.


At that party I met Mike and his wife, and they told me a story about their courtship. They briefly met during college before heading off to graduate school in different states. A few years later they met at a friend’s party and ended up talking until 3:30 in the morning. Sitting across the room from each other – with no alcohol involved – Mike proposed to Teresa. He was serious. She said ‘no’.


It was a reasonable response. After all, they hadn’t gone on a date, held hands, had a meaningful conversation before that night or seen each other in the prior year. But somehow that early-morning talkfest had convinced both of them that they had found their lifelong partner. Mike gave Teresa his phone number and they talked every two weeks. Three months after the failed proposal, they went on their first date. If not for Mike’s premature proposal, a moment of clarity for both of them, they may have never went on that first date.


Mrs. Nerd and I went to church before the party. Father Brian led off his sermon discussing how many of us – all of us – go through life carrying shields. We say we want a closer relationship with God but we tell ourselves that our past behavior makes us unworthy of His love, so we don’t take the next step. We meet incredible people who could be good friends but rationalize that they’re too perfect to put up with our messy lives. We identify dream careers but don’t apply for a job or attend graduate school because we’re afraid of failing.


We make excuses. Excuses that prevent us from being vulnerable to success, failure or something in between. We don’t sing in front of our favorite artist. We don’t propose before the first date.


We refuse to drop our shield.


******


Friday was my 10th consecutive State meet and the third State meet where I didn’t have a son running. I don’t have an allegiance to any school and yet I’m quietly rooting for different athletes in every race. For the girl who has been runner-up for three years. For the athletes who missed last year’s meet due to injuries. For the solo qualifier who is so talented that he trains alone most of the season. When one of my ‘favorites’ doesn’t do well, I get a small taste of what coaches feel when their athletes don’t have a good result. They invest so much emotion into building up kids, and they fear a bad outcome could demoralize a young adult.


Being a teenager is tough. At a time when reputations are destroyed by a group text or stupid meme, the safest course is often to live life in the middle. Don’t stand out. Never lead, always follow, but not too close. Don’t tell the jokes, just laugh at them. Don’t be the nerd of the class. Don’t try something new or different. Don’t tell a soul that you’re still taking violin lessons or that you used to be into Irish dancing. If you keep your shield up, maybe the cool kids won’t make fun of you. Maybe you can slide through high school without being noticed.


And then there’s cross country.


******


At its core, cross country is a science experiment. The coach and athlete share the role of Vincent Frankenstein, two mad scientists focused on creating the Creature. Over one season or an entire high school career, they tinker with the Creature to maximize the performance of the heart, lungs and legs. They even dive into the soft sciences, tinkering with the Creature’s brain to create that perfect combination of motivation, resilience, strategy and pain tolerance.


“Be comfortable being uncomfortable.” “Leave nothing in the tank.” Those t-shirt slogans get tossed about during the regular season but are often the focus of the post-season. When the margin of error is so small, giving less than your best may be the difference between success and failure.


After building up the Creature all season, the Frankensteins focus on fine-tuning and rest during the eight days between Districts and State. The State race will not be easy; there will be no comfort. At the starting line, the athlete turns her effort dial to 100%. If all goes well, she will finish in good form with nothing left in the tank.


Sometimes the tank runs out sooner than expected.


******


In our view, there were clear favorites in each of the four girls’ races held on Friday. Sure, there were other girls nipping at their heels, but each of the four had proven time and time again this season – and over their careers – that they were the targets for everyone else. In contrast to the boys, where the top-ranked boys won all four races, only one top-seeded girl (Lindee Henning) won her race.


******


During the Class C girls race, I was sitting on the final straightaway, filming the backs of runners as they headed towards the finish line 200 meters away. I heard the voice – a mom, a teammate, a sibling? – long before I saw the athlete.


“Hannah, listen to my voice!” She screamed it three times.


“You can do it! Use your arms! Stay standing! You can do it!”


I turned just in time to see Hannah Heinrich (466 above) pass me. She was ranked 7th in State, a member of the top-ranked team, and she had gone through the two-mile mark in 10th place. The Scotus sophomore was now walking. Not in a straight line. Wearing a blank look on her face. She can’t possibly remember those final 200 meters. She finished in 24:19 in 79th place but... she finished.


Mount Michael was a long-shot for third place in the Class C boys’ race, but there are always upsets at State. Oliver Sorensen of Mt. Michael was on our watch list for most of the season and was in 10th place at the one-mile and two-mile marks. At 4600 meters, Oliver dropped to his knees before staggering to a standing position. He finished in 19:44 in 98th place, more than two minutes slower than his typical time. He finished.


Kassidy Stuckey was the top-ranked girl in Class B. Tied for the lead at the one-mile and two-mile marks, she fell near 4000 meters. She somehow found the strength to get back up and finish fourth in a stacked field.


Maddie Davis of West Holt entered the Class D race as a two-time medalist and as one of our watch-list athletes. As a medal hopeful in her final State meet, she dialed up 100% effort. She was 5th at the one-mile mark and 7th at the two-mile mark. When I saw her at 4600 meters she was lying on the ground surrounded by her family and coach. Her legs no longer worked. She couldn't talk. She was carted to the medical tent and quickly placed in an ice bath.


At some point during her 90-minute ice bath, Maddie regained her senses and asked what place she had gotten. Her dad told her that she hadn’t finished. She broke down.


After two hours in the medical tent, the trainers released Maddie and she had one request: “Let me finish.” She walked to the 4600-meter mark with her dad and a trainer. She jogged with them for 350 meters and then finished the last 50 meters by herself. The finish banners were still up. The NSAA staff cheered.


The official results reflect a DNF for Maddie. The results are wrong. Maddie definitely finished.


******


High school doesn’t always make sense. Don’t stick out. Don’t be the soloist or the lead actor or the nerdy kid who volunteers answers during math class. Be careful how you express your feelings. Don’t let people see you fail.


And then there’s cross country. Every kid sings the solo. They are all lead actors. They fail more often than they succeed. They test their limits, and sometimes discover that their limits are lower than they had hoped.


They set the dial to 100% even when their bodies can only muster 90%. They cross thresholds that few adults would even contemplate. If they have even half of this passion and perseverance twenty years from now, they're going to be incredible parents and spouses.


On Friday they didn’t give up. They didn’t fail. They were vulnerable. They dropped their shields.


They live life outside the middle.


******


First published at www.preprunningnerd.com by Jay Slagle on October 22, 2023. If you find an error, shoot us an e-mail at jayslagle@hotmail.com and we'll get it fixed.


Like this coverage of Nebraska high school distance running? There's more of this at www.preprunningnerd.com. Check out the Blog tab for our frequent stories and and the Results tab for every Nebraska high school race we can find. Once the season starts, we'll also rank the top 15 athletes in each Class at the Rankings tab. If you want to see meet photos or just need to kill a few hours on social media, follow us on Twitter and Instagram @PrepRunningNerd or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/preprunningnerd.


Finally, if you think runners, jumpers and throwers are the best things on earth, you'll enjoy our two most popular articles. In 2018 we published "The Runner with the Broken Heart" about a high school boy who finished last in nearly every race he ran. In 2022 we published, "The Fall and Rise of Emmett Hassenstab," a story about a high school triple jumper who became a quadrapalegic after a swimming accident.


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9 Comments


Guest
Oct 24, 2023

Jay,


I wanted to congratulate and thank you for your outstanding article on this year’s NSAA State CC Meet. Your article has accurately portrayed the lives and dreams of teenagers who run in a way that only those who did this sport understand. It is a look in the present all the while looking into the future. If you allow me, I’d like to give you the same but looking backwards.


I am originally from Lincoln and graduated from one of the four LPS high schools. Nearly exactly 30 years ago, I ran in my first and only NSAA State CC Meet in Kearney. Like some of the youngsters you mentioned, my team had good guys but the…

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Guest
Oct 24, 2023

Sometimes the effort these kids put in is incredible. It goes beyond what we think is possible. They thrive on the unexpected. Just watching them seek what they think is unobtainable is over the top.

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Guest
Oct 23, 2023

Amazing!

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Guest
Oct 23, 2023

Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts. I enjoyed reading your well-crafted words that captured many emotions and the willingness of many “drop their shield.” I believe I’ll be using that analogy going forward.

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Guest
Oct 22, 2023

Yes, as Coach Fruit says, "Not all winners are standing on the podium or wearing a medal around their neck." Maddie and so many others are winners in the race of life! I have had the privilege to see Maddie compete first hand and KNOW she will be a success in whatever lies in her path. It just happens to be that Maddie has chosen to compete in CC, wrestling and track...on on one, where only one gets their hand raised or are allowed to stand on that podium, yet so many are winners in the important things in life. I believe competing in these one on one sports, are the epitome of what lies ahead in life, each…


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