Updated: Jan 25, 2022
Contributor: The Nerd
For five seconds, put yourself in Brandon Schutt’s shoes.
Last Thursday he was running in the A-2 District meet at Pioneers Park in Lincoln. In Nebraska, each high school cross country team is assigned to a District race, and the top three teams and top fifteen individuals advance to the State meet a week later. In the large-class division, Brandon’s class, less than 100 boys qualify for the State race. It’s a big deal to be a State qualifier, a distinction I never came close to achieving during my high school days.
A senior at Bellevue East, Brandon was running what was likely the last cross country race of his high school career. Like the majority of high school runners, he wasn’t in it for the glory. An injury his freshman limited him to one race. While the majority of his sophomore times were over 20:00, he ran varsity all season, got faster over his 10-race season, and ran a personal record (PR) of 18:56 in his last race. He continued his improvement during his junior year, earning his first career medal and establishing a new PR of 18:42.
His performance jump continued into this fall, his final season. After a 19:02 opener, he ran a 18:06 PR in his next race. Despite warmer racing conditions, he ran under 19:00 the next four races and averaged 30-45 seconds faster than his junior year, and he lowered his PR to 17:57 in Columbus. While he would be a long shot to earn a State berth at the Districts race, anything was possible.
Blake Cerveny of Omaha Burke is a sophomore. After a promising junior high career, Blake was poised to have a strong freshman season in 2020 until Omaha Public Schools cancelled its fall sports seasons – a questionable decision that no other major Nebraska school district made. After great attendance at voluntary summer practices, Burke’s coach (and observers like us) expected his 2020 team to be in strong contention for a State berth. Instead, beginning in August 2020 OPS forbade coaches to have any sports-related communications with their athletes, leaving the Burke athletes to struggle on their own.
Seven weeks ago Blake finally ran his first high school XC race, finishing in 19:29. He lowered his PR every week for the next four weeks, down to a 18:35. If I had looked at his race results prior to Districts – knowing how well the Burke coach prepares runners for Districts – Blake was someone who could break 18:00. He just needed good weather and the will to run very hard for a very long time.
It was 65 degrees at race time; Mother Nature had cooperated. Now Blake’s body needed to do the same.
In reviewing Brandon and Blake’s race results this morning, I realized that my son and I had photographed all eight of Brandon’s races this season and all but one of Blake’s. I’ve seen them enough through a camera lens to know them by sight, but Brandon and Blake weren’t quite fast enough for me to know their names.
I’ll be honest. If not for five incredible seconds, I probably still wouldn’t know their names today.
Going into the race, Blake was confident that he could establish a new PR of 18:10. He went out fast – but not too fast – but somewhere around 2500 meters that he may have pushed the pace too hard. He ignored the urge to slow down, and with 800 meters left he still had a chance to break his 18:35 PR.
The last 400 meters of the Pioneers’ Park course are essentially three sides of a skinny rectangle. Run east 200 meters, turn 90 degrees and run 50 meters, then another right turn for the final 150-meter stretch. All of the fans line the final 150 meters, but the 250 meters before that are a no-man’s land.
Chad Cerveny stood in the middle of the rectangle as his son began the final 400 meters. With 325 meters, Blake’s legs clinched up and he fell. After five seconds on the ground, he got up and ran another 150 meters, making it to the short side of the rectangle. Chad saw Blake fall again, but he got up immediately and kept moving forward. He fell again twenty-five meters later and stayed down for ten seconds. His coach rushed to the edge of the course.
Blake was dazed and every leg muscle was flexed. Coach Satterly asked, “Are you ok?” Blake nodded his head in reply. “OK, just stay down. You did great.”
But Blake wasn’t quite done.
“I need to finish.”
Coach Satterly looked over to Blake’s dad, who gave a nod of approval. They would let him finish.
Blake got up again, turned the final corner and ran another 75 meters. He was now in my camera view finder. He staggered and zig-zagged. I’ve seen it before. His legs had given everything they had, but they were finally done.
He fell a fourth time. Chad Cerveny knew it was time to stop. He put his hand on the string of flags that lined the final 100 meters to the finish line. He was going to get his son.
Brandon also started fast but it was clear after one mile that his legs weren’t up to the challenge. He made a conscious decision at that moment to simply have fun for the last two miles of his final high school race.
This was the fifth time that Brandon and Blake had raced each other this season. However, they didn’t know either by sight or name, and that would still be the case an hour later.
At my vantage point at 3000 meters (see picture at left), Brandon was enjoying a relatively stress-free race while Blake was pushing hard 20 meters behind Brandon. Over the next 1,200 meters, a steep downhill and uphill were going to take what was left of Blake’s legs.
On September 11, the two boys raced against each other at the Omaha Central Invite. Brandon ran superbly and was in 10th place with 100 meters to go. It would be his second career medal. But then it wasn’t. His legs gave out. He collapsed and never finished. In his words, “It sucked. I would never wish that experience on anyone.”
When Brandon entered the final 400-meter rectangle, Blake was at least 150 meters ahead. He saw Brandon fall at least once, but by the time Brandon rounded the final corner, he assumed that Blake had finished.
Instead, Blake was only forty meters ahead of Brandon. When Blake fell a fourth time, Brandon was thirty meters behind him.
By the time Chad Cerveny started to step under the flag barrier, Brandon was already standing over Blake. Blake had been on the ground, alone, for only five seconds before Brandon arrived.
He tried to pull Blake up but there was too much dead weight.
“Just leave me.”
Brandon shifted his position and pulled again. This time Blake was able to stand.
They jogged 75 meters to the finish line, Brandon’s left arm around Blake’s back while Brandon’s right hand was across Blake’s chest. He didn’t want Blake to fall forward.
They crossed the timing mat while the officials yelled, “Drop him, drop him!”
Brandon did as he was told. By the time he looked back, Blake was surrounded by adults. Brandon realized he had never looked at Blake’s face. He had no idea who he had helped.
Blake was in the medical tent for twenty minutes. Blake remembers asking three questions in the tent:
1. Can you find the Bellevue East runner so I can thank him?
2. Did Tommy medal?
3. Did my place count in the standings?
A few minutes after the race, Brandon and his teammates jogged to the other side of the park to cool down and play a little Frisbee golf. An hour later, he returned to the team camp and checked his phone. It was blowing up with texts and Tik Tok messages.
Until 2021, the National High School Federation cross country rules stated that if one runner aided another, both were disqualified. This year Rules 4-6-5g and 8-6-1e were changed so that the Good Samaritan would not be penalized.
Brandon vaguely knew about the old rule. He didn’t know it had been changed. If he got disqualified in his final high school race, he was fine with that.
Blake was disqualified a few minutes after he finished. Before that happened, I took a screen shot of the online results. Blake finished in 19:14.40. Brandon’s time was 19:14.49.
Even at the finish line, Brandon put Blake first.
When I finished the first draft of this article, about 48 hours had passed since the boys finished their race. Thirty minutes after the race, I tweeted about those five seconds on our account @PrepRunningNerd. Six hours later, upon returning home, I posted a similar story on our Facebook account.
I tweet often. I’m one of the few adults in Nebraska who covers high school distance running, and pretty much all of my 3,154 tweets over the last five years have been about running. In 5 years two tweets have generated more social media buzz than the combined reach of the other 3,152.
My first impactful tweet was just over three years ago. In that tweet I shared an article, “The Runner with the Broken Heart”, about a high school boy who finished last in nearly every race he ran. I only knew about Noah because I was standing at a finish line when Noah ran the third slowest race of his career. He ran 3.1 miles in 42:23, finishing just ahead of boys who started their race thirty minutes after him. That article was viewed over 250,000 times, and Noah was later recognized with a national award for perseverance in sports.
The response to Noah’s story pales in comparison to Thursday’s posts. In just two days on Twitter, our initial tweet generated 450 retreats, over 2000 likes and 500,000 impressions. On Facebook, where 30 pictures showed the sequence of about 30 seconds of action, our post has generated over 600 comments, 5800 shares and a reach of over 1.3 million people.
In both instances, I was in the right place at the right time. When Blake fell, I was holding a camera.
Five incredible seconds. Two strangers. One beautiful gesture.
A local TV station picked up this story and arranged for the two boys to meet on camera the next day. Brandon said that Blake was a cool guy and easy to talk to. Blake thanked Brandon for his generosity. You can see that clip at https://www.ketv.com/article/a-runners-reunion-fellow-runners-meet-again-after-crossing-finish-line-together/37977485.
When a distance running story is shared this broadly, at times the comments on Facebook are critical. Why was he allowed to fall four times? Why did you keep taking pictures instead of helping him? Why did other runners pass Blake before Brandon picked him up? Wasn’t Blake at risk of dying?
The majority of these comments came from non-runners. That’s great, because running nerds want non-runners to understand our sport and how great it is. Here’s are a few of the answers to those questions:
a) Blake was fully recovered within an hour. A poor pre-race meal, high levels of lactic acid and a few other effort-related issues simply caused his legs to stop working. He never lost consciousness and was never at risk of dying. There was a fully-staffed medical tent less than 100 meters from where Blake fell, and at least five race officials were watching him the last 150 meters.
b) No other runners passed Blake before Brandon arrived at his side. Even if they had, runners rarely stop to render aid because they don’t want to disqualify the fallen runner. In the past five years, I’ve seen dozens of runners fall during junior high, high school and collegiate races. I can only think of three instances where the runner didn’t finish the race under his/her own power. In this instance, given his condition, Blake’s only option to finish on his own would have been to crawl 75 meters. He couldn’t have done it.
c) Most adults, including Coach Satterly, were not aware until after the race that Blake had fallen four times. Sports teaches many lessons, and working through adversity is one of the greatest benefits of cross country. I have never seen a coach forcibly pull a runner out of a race even though (and perhaps because) these coaches care deeply about their runners. The cross country coaches I know are not playing a ‘win-all-at-all-costs’ game; they’re playing a ‘be-successful-as-an-adult’ game.
For those on Facebook who choose to focus on negatives rather than on the simple humanity of the roles that both Brandon and Blake played, we don’t have time for you.
Cross country is a niche sport. Traditional media largely ignores it in favor of ball-oriented sports that result in predictable highlight clips – a touchdown, double play or winning goal. Less than 5% of all high school runners choose to compete in college, and the fastest runners receive the meager media attention. However, runners like Brandon and Blake are the backbone of a cross country team. They have high work ethics, are great teammates, and go to every practice to develop the type of discipline that will make them successful in life. (See the article, “Your Season is Over. You Won” for more reasons why cross country is awesome.)
Yes, we’re a divided nation, but in some respects we’ve been divided for decades. Blue or red, war or peace, Red Sox or Yankees. What’s changed is that now we vocalize those divisions 24 hours a day on cable news and social media, and a good portion of the country is addicted to this political heroin. My opinions are always right, you are always wrong, and God help us if so-and-so gets elected.
Along the way, we’ve started treating others based on the t-shirt they wear or the views they hold. We’ve stopped treating them as fellow humans who are as imperfect and helpless as we are. We have stopped meeting in the middle.
Every day, we all have these five-second experiences. Should you hold the door for the person behind you? Say something nice to the loner? Rake leaves for the crotchety widower who is too frail to leave his house?
Should you pick up someone who fallen down?
You may have less than five seconds to decide before you pass them by.
Put yourself in Brandon Schutt’s shoes. What would you do?
PS. Tommy medaled.
Like this story? NBC Nightly News featured it ten days later at:
Jay Slagle is the founder of www.preprunningnerd.com. He primarily posts Nebraska high school race pictures at www.facebook.com/preprunningnerd and race results at @preprunningnerd on Twitter. The father of three awesome adult children, Jay is a self-professed running nerd who was never good at running. He’s a sucker for a good story, so e-mail him at email@example.com if you’ve got one. He has written two children’s books available for sale on Amazon and rumor has it that he's working on a book about high school running. Visit www.jayslagle.com for more information on his current books.