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Breaking the 20-minute 5K barrier

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Dunn Neugebauer has been coming to SMRC since 2004 as a staff coach. Besides working with the cross country and track teams at Holy Innocents’ in Atlanta, he has been writing about our sport for many years. This summer, he will be one of guest speakers in Week 3, where he will share some of his many stories. One of his claims to fame is as a pacing contest coach – where his teams have finished first, last, and everywhere in between. Regardless, he means well, and, if you see him while running Buzzard Bait, please make sure he’s okay.

Nineteen minutes, fifty-two seconds

0:00 - She seems so calm, which I find a bit odd. Usually on race day, you are antsy times twelve mentally and physically. I do a double-check in the mirror to make sure I’m looking at the right person. I am.

We’re on I-20 if that matters – it’s early; cross country early as we like to say. It’s the dynamic of the sport. Football players go off to torture in the summer for camp. Baseball players spend spring break somewhere in Florida. Basketball troops spend Christmas holidays traveling to tournaments. Well? Cross country runners get up at dark-thirty on Saturdays and run in exotic fields across the state.

 It’s what we do.

Now let me back up even further. ‘She’ is Bryn Foster. Her quest is to break the 20-minute barrier in the 5K. She’s been close, close enough to keep dreaming. And she’s been frustrated because she hasn’t made it yet.

We’ve talked about these near misses. “You’re almost there!” “Don’t quit!” “Trust the journey!” These are some of my texts, but like emails, they usually get deleted in my normal ‘clear your clutter, clear your mind’ manner.

I look back again to check my kids. Pre-race or pre-game rituals have always fascinated me – I love to see how they get motivated. Some rock out, pace, punch things. Others sit silently, gaze off into forever. Some joke and gather around. Others go into solitude.

I want mine to be pumped, edgy, anxious. For now, though, most of them are asleep. Jesus wept.

I laugh to myself as I change lanes – about these kids, this sport, this generation. It’s these differences and habits of the teenage mind that keeps me loving what I do. The kids of today - no, they’re not bad, they’re just a bunch of hyperactive verbs. Verbs do things, they say things, they’re busy. You want a conversation with a kid in the hall? Don’t expect them to stop – they’ve got places to go. You either speak quickly or you walk with them.

“How’d you guys sleep last night?” I ask generally to the two or three who are awake. I’m halfway not even expecting an answer. The conscious few appear ready to go off into IPod land – I want to gauge the mood; check the energy level.

Bryn, Molly Niepoky and Grace Brock look up. They smile. They’re all teeth when they do this – their whole faces get into the act and I could almost swear they glow. Personally, I’m not a father but you’re not human if you don’t find this… adorable. I almost want to stop the van and pinch those cheeks when they smile that way. It gives me comfort – like there is good in the world and in our young.

My own mind cranks into hyper mode when Bryn is the one who answers, “I slept like a rock!” This too is highly unusual the night before game day. A good night’s sleep before a big game is usually an oxymoron. Thoughts gather, wait in line while scenarios are played out – good and bad. Each thought waits to enter, ready to dive in like kids into a pool on the first day of summer.

Still, that’s her answer. She smiles again when she says it; my three conscious girls consider our conversation over and go into IPod world.

I drive on. Forty-two miles to go and ninety-two minutes to do it in.  As of this very moment, life is good.

 We park somewhere in the middle of a field – wait in line while the parking attendant points to plot T somewhere between the biggest, longest buses ever. Great chance of getting blocked in but I’m not worried about that now.

The kids get out - grab pillows and blankets and IPods and phones, book bags, spikes and even teddy bears. Some still have mattress marks on their little faces. Many seem a little ticked off about this ‘early morning Saturday thing.’ The veterans are used to it – they’ll be laughing with each other before we even get the tent put up. Eventually the sleepers will follow suit.

All battle for the best spots on the tarp. Some simply sleep. Others clamor around, look for someone to poke or prod. Bryn usually plugs into her phone and closes her eyes. “I always pretend to be asleep but I’m not,” she once told me.

For now though, she and Molly are playing tug-a-war with a phone cord. Neither have found their spaces yet so they’re playfully taking it out on each other.  Eventually Molly gets her cord back, takes off her shoes, rolls into her spot. Bryn finds her a place, tosses her pillow, follows suit. Eventually all get comfortable – many resting against each other. It’s the calm before the storm and all the runners – the serious and the not so much – will eventually reflect on what they’re here for.

It’s what happens.

Coach Jayaraj has them warm up approximately fifty minutes before show time. It’s the beauty of preparation – the kids know what to do. They will run for around ten minutes, do their dynamic stretch, and then make their last-minute adjustments to their spikes or their hair or their clothes.

Bryn pins her singlet on tighter – it’s two sizes too big. I’m not sure if we ran out of the new uniforms or if she was too slow to get in the line. The uniforms are new and pretty and they stand out, but just like the old ones, hers is too big.

As I watch the rituals, I can feel nerves all over the place as I circle the tent. “Do you have an extra pin?” “Remember to tie your chip in tight!” “Tape up your shoes if you have to. Do we have any more tape?” Words are spilling out at 500 words per minute with gusts up to 750. Little bodies are scurrying, hurrying. Now that I think about it, I’m even getting a little nervous myself.

At twelve minutes before, they walk to the starting line; do their strides; meet at the end of their first one; huddle together in each other’s arms.  Like the smile thing, the huddle is something that makes me just stand and watch. In fact, I often don’t even wonder what they’re saying; I feel it’s something they and they alone deserve. No coaches, no parents, no lectures – let them work it out. What they say is none of my business – and I’m one of the coaches.

Eventually they un-arm themselves and sprint back. Then forth. Back. Forth.

Bryn and our team captain – Izzy – are talking. Izzy is our veteran – she usually gets quiet and doesn’t like to be bothered. Bryn and her train together, though, so they have roots. In fact, last year they even joked about being each other’s conscience. It’s funny, but when you really are into running that actually makes sense in a funny, demented kind of way.

Regardless, the two heads come together at the front of the line. Bryn and Izzy discuss what they need to discuss and they both smile. They hug. They are ready.  

The team bunches in together, adjusts their watches, wait impatiently while some race director goes through his spiel. They’ve heard it before – most have anyway. At this late season point, they only want to hear one thing. Eventually, they do.

A starting gun goes off in Douglasville.

6:15 Bryn goes through the mile on schedule, but there is a problem – a big problem. It rained last night – hard – so she’s already sloshed through a couple of puddles; almost slipped a time or two.

Her start was fast, but not (state champ) Serena Tripodi fast as she was instructed. It’s sort of the oxymoron of a race: you’re told not to go out too fast, but if you don’t get out there quick you get lost in the shuffle; boxed in with the field.

It’s tricky, but you need to go out reasonably fast and then settle in fast, if that makes sense. Lots of running things are tricky. For example, she was told all summer that she needed to train slower where she could race faster. If you’re not a runner, that may make no sense. If you are, you get it.

In looking back, my summer runs with her were social but with that very point: You have to run at ‘Dunn’ pace. Her eyes would roll but she would smile again, adjust her watch and off we would go. Just as often, there wasn’t much conversation except for me telling her to slow down, to stay with me. She would laugh. “Oh, I forgot! We’re running at Dunn pace!”

If we turned her loose, every jog would be a race. Her mind can do it but last year her shins could not. She was in a stress fracture boot by November. Again, it happens.

Summer is only a memory for now though. The pools are all closed. It’s October, decades have happened in a kid’s life. And none of it matters. Except this. Now. It’s time for the second mile.

 13:04: It’s muddy and the sun has come out – neither conducive for achieving a PR. Still, Bryn’s legs chug forward, Coach Jayaraj’s voice fighting for time in her head. Jayaraj is a passionate man and Bryn a driven athlete. The two work together in a cohesive way, though Bryn - having the typical Type-A mentality of the distance runner - sometimes wonders if she’s working hard enough. “The clock won’t lie,” Jayaraj always says. “I’d rather you run faster on Saturdays than on Tuesdays.”

 Bryn will acknowledge, accept, and as she said to me after one of my texts, eventually admit: “I believe you.”

On she runs. She’s tired and her heart is in it, but – as Jayaraj often says – the clock won’t wait.

 19:47 Three miles are down, but now for the dreaded point-one. That’s one hundred, eighty-five yards for those of you scoring at home, and it can be the toughest thing there is.

Bryn rounds the corner and sees the finish, looks at her watch, hears the crowd. She’s sixth overall – more than great for a sophomore racing against bigger schools. Still – like the normal mindset of an achieving kid – this isn’t enough. The clock is ticking…ticking… She doesn’t think she’ll make it.

Her heart sinks but her legs do not. She runs like she’s trained to run. Those miles, those summer trails, those early morning jogs around the neighborhood, they’re never for nothing.

Champions don’t quit. They don’t fail either, not for long. The clock passes 20:00 but she shrugs it off. She sprints for all she’s worth and crosses the finish line. The clock reads 20:34. Briefly, she is sad, frustrated, wanting to scream.

Bryn looks down. She has 19:52 written on her hand; it’s been written there daily for the last two months. Did she do something wrong? Did she train too hard? Not hard enough? Why didn’t she make it?

She hears a voice. It’s Izzy – she just came in right behind her. And there comes 
Megan…then Evan…then Molly – on down the line to the tenth runner. 

FINISH:  They huddle again. Bryn is hugged by all teammates. They all know her, love her, respect her. She hasn’t failed at anything. Izzy – the captain and the rock – tells her how good she did. Tells her she has nothing to be ashamed of and she “ran awesome!” Izzy did well herself – as did Kate, Megan, Evan, Molly…down the line again.

Deep down Bryn knows it, accepts it, believes it. She has come to trust, love and respect Izzie and her teammates the way she does the sport. Runners, like the clock, don’t lie. You either put it all out there or you don’t. Izzy and Bryn always do. All the younger teammates are starting to, also.

It’s simply one of the great things about sports that are hard to explain. Still, if you work hard, it’s what happens.

I walk away from the huddle out of respect. It’s their moment. Still, I look. Bryn is smiling now. They all are. And right about…now…I hear a camera go off. Someone has photographed this moment in time – a time when ten cross country girls just put it on the line for perhaps ten different reasons. Some wanted to break twenty, some wanted the team trophy, some just wanted to plain out finish.

Still, they all did it. I take in the achievement, sacrifice, guts, the “we did it” look on the faces of ten active verbs. They look so happy, so spontaneous, so resilient. You see, verbs don’t stay sad for long and these are rarely inactive. There’s so much going on in the world – so much so right and so much so wrong. Regardless, there’s a warm feeling inside as these ten kids unclasp, break out of a huddle.

As for me, my eyes are searching for that photographer.

 I want a copy of that picture.  

Written by: Dunn Neugebauer

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