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Contributor: The Nerd


This past January, I stepped down from leading a company, choosing to transition to a more limited role that gives me more free to pursue personal interests like Prep Running Nerd. During my 27 years as a CEO I sat through hundreds of interviews, and let’s be honest – the interview process often told me more about who interviewed best rather than who would be the best employee. In an attempt to veer away from rehearsed answers, my go-to question was, “aside from your family, what are you passionate about?”


That question wasn’t fool proof, but it was pretty easy to see who gave genuine answers: they smiled and leaned forward, their eyes widened, and their voice exuded an energy that wasn’t there when they answered questions about their job experience. It didn’t matter to me if their passion was Dungeons and Dragons, dachshunds or Habitat for Humanity; I simply wanted to see the spark. If an applicant was stumped on what his passion might be, I wasn’t particularly interested in hiring him.


When our kids started elementary school, my wife and I dove into new social circles that involved a fair number of dinners and events where husbands, who often knew little or nothing about one another, were inevitably sorted off to the side with beers in hands. “Where do you work” or “how many kids do you have” were common icebreakers, and I rarely finished the night with any emotional connection to those new acquaintances.


These shallow connections are strikingly similar to the connections we see today through social media. Instead of my intimate and awkward dinner parties, teenagers today have the digital equivalent: hundreds or thousands of followers on Instagram or TikTok who spend hours a day liking posts or typing “I love you, GIRRLLL!” Despite this hyper-connectedness, teenagers report that they have a shortage of close friends to whom they can share their hopes, anxieties and secrets. In short, we’re surrounded by people who know our Instagram story, but very few know our entire story.


When I run into old friends, they know me well enough to ask what my latest time-consuming project is. My Nerd work inevitably comes up, and I struggle to adequately explain what exactly I do. “You spend all that time covering a niche sport? Are you nuts?” After far too many of these exchanges, I’ve settled on a better explanation for this hobby: I tell stories about ordinary kids who do extraordinary things.


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Being a teenager today seems to much harder than 40 years ago. My hometown didn’t get cable TV until I was 15 years old, the Internet was a pipe dream, and only the rich families had more than one phone – they had a teen line. We went to dances, played basketball at the city park or rented movies to watch in the just-introduced VCRs. We only bought new clothes in August before school started, for gifts at Christmas, or when we had to dress up for a wedding or a funeral. We might have been envious of the starting quarterback or that rich kid with the teen phone line, but we also spent so much time around them that we knew they faced the same challenges we did. Our universe of acquaintances was exceptionally small and limited to the teenagers we saw every day at school. Their lives weren’t perfect and neither were ours.


Today teenagers have so many different ways to spend their days – perhaps too many different opportunities. Social media, video games, Netflix, texting, club sports, honors classes, private lessons, part-time jobs. Even if you live in a small town in Nebraska, you might have hundreds of other kids your age (not to mention celebrities) to which to compare your life, and you often fall short in comparison to the curated life of an Instagram friend. Everyone, it seems, is living a more interesting life than me at this moment because… well, I’m stuck at home staring at my phone.


This envy bleeds over to the athletic world. If only he’d thrown me the ball, I would have scored a touchdown. I deserve more time on the court than her; she can’t play defense. If I had made that elite travel team, I would have been a lock for a D1 baseball scholarship.


I know dozens of kids who have suffered through varsity cuts, relegations to the B team and allegedly bad calls by underpaid officials. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy the simplicity of cross country and track and field. It’s entirely objective. Set a new PR. Run for an hour. Beat the kid next to you.


Of course, distance running isn’t easy. A superior basketball player may be able to use his height or shooting touch to make up for a lack of effort or preparation, but it’s a rare distance runner who can excel without putting in the miles at practice. Distance running is a near-daily reminder that completing important things is often hard. That’s not a trivial lesson. Important things matter in life. If it were easy to earn a college degree, stay in shape or have a 50-year marriage, then everyone would do those things.


If you’re a distance runner, you’ve already accepted that hard work is the price you must pay to improve. Our sport does not offer instant gratification: every day you make small deposits with the goal of cashing in your investment in October and then next May. The Warren Buffets of running have an even longer horizon; they record incremental gains in that investment over five or ten years.


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With the perspective of a 56-year-old guy, I know that the most important things in life are the relationships and achievements you develop over decades. A successful marriage has to transition from a white-hot romance to best-friend-for-life, all the while learning how to raise children, cope with crises and earn a living. Owning a home is great, but it’s even more satisfying to make the final payment on your 30-year mortgage. Watching a child’s first steps is thrilling, but seeing that same child become a happy and successful adult is so much more gratifying. All those things take time, incredible patience and a commitment to reaching the finish line.


The important things in life will be the story of your life. It won’t be about the Instagram posts, the high-school heartbreaks or that dream job that you didn’t get.


Here’s some good news. You’re the author of your story. Every day, every year, you get to add new chapters to your story. You get to choose which important things you’re going to tackle, which relationships you’ll invest in, and how you’ll react to life’s inevitable setbacks.


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You get to write your story this cross country season. You get to decide how often you show up for practice or whether you run on the weekends. You get to decide how much effort you’ll give during workouts, if you’ll walk when you’re supposed to run, or whether you’ll get enough sleep and avoid unhealthy habits. No one makes you cut corners; that behavior is entirely your decision.


Why not choose a different story? If you’re a senior, is this the year you become a leader? You don’t have to be the know-it-all loud-mouth. You can be the supportive teammate who encourages everyone in public and says, in private, “hey, I think you could do really well this year if you stuck with the lead pack during workouts.” You don’t have to be the fastest on the team to be a leader; you just have to care more about the team than yourself.


Your story this season could be knocking a minute off your PR, ‘adopting’ the quiet freshman who is new to the sport, finding new friends or simply setting higher goals. There’s no shame in setting ambitious goals but not meeting them; there will be regret, however, if you give up on your goal because it harder than you expected.


Cross country is hard. Effort is required. Discomfort is unavoidable. Hills are steep. Your competitors are motivated. The weather will too hot, cold or windy. This is why cross country isn’t a mainstream sport; the mainstream world doesn’t embrace discomfort.


Cross country season is upon us. Set your goals. Write your story.


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Originally written for and posted at www.preprunningnerd.com by Jay Slagle. Did you love reading about Nebraska high school running? Visit www.preprunningnerd.com for rankings, results, photos, long-form articles, frequent updates on our blog page, Nerd gear, and a bunch of other cool stuff that only running nerds would think to do. If you want to see meet photos or just need to kill a few hours on social media, follow @PrepRunningNerd on Twitter and Instagram, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/preprunningnerd.

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