A couple of weeks ago, the kid ran to the second the fastest time that anyone on his team ran last year. Everyone was mad, especially him.It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried. He had started fast, in the top five at the end of the first semi-sprint to where the path narrowed. Then he ground down and nearly out over the 5K distance, finishing well behind racers he’d beaten easily earlier this season. He came in so woozy and worn that another dad walked him by the arm for a few minutes.Sick, spent and, his parents suspected, mentally giving in, he came short of what we thought he would run by as much as minute. And so the anger, which of course flashed and died into a hangover of disappointment. Last year’s very best was this year’s bitter pill. How is that? What’s the difference? Well: Potential. Expectations. Goals. Cross country racing is an almost perfect testing ground for this. There’s no bull here; it’s all in the time. There’s no “the coach likes that guy better” or whether you are playing your best position, playing enough or sacrificing to play a certain role for the team’s greater success. You just hit your time or you don’t. Everything else is pretty much stripped away. It’s cold, but you can’t say it isn’t fair. In this sport, everyone fully earns everything they accomplish. It’s also where that mix of potential, expectations and goals take center stage for each athlete. This is what they grapple with, and cannot hide from, as they train and race toward their peak, ideally at just the right meet. The kid has shown potential since his old man forced him off the couch one summer afternnon just before school started and the kid blew his dad off the mountain road they ran. He edged onto the varsity squad his freshman year, improved through the next season to No. 2 as a sophomore, and was the steady No. 2 as a junior up to his season high running right behind No. 1 at their grueling Beaver Creek home race. He was running in range of his potential, he felt this/close to reaching his goals and, of course, he was running exactly where expected for the final sprint to regionals and hopefully the first state championship race in the boys team’s history.Things were going so well he’d stopped taking his medicines for exercise- and cold-induced asthma, something a surprising number of young athletes up here fight. As it turned out, a full-blown attack during his next race a few days later changed everything.With his lungs seizing, his potential changed, though we were all slow to understand the consequences for expectations and goals, which remained at the healthy end right on through. Call it unwarranted hope in the medical regimen taking effect in time to salvage the season. We fooled ourselves into thinking he was back on track when the coach had the kids run a relative cruise in the next race at Aspen. It would be the third in eight days, and coach wanted to give their legs a little break. I recall I wasn’t pleased. The kid likes hills and he’d finished first for his team on this course last year, so he figured he might have a shot at it again this year. But they throttled back as instructed and he took his accustomed second. We assumed he was healthy again. And so the disappointment a couple of weeks ago when he missed expectations based on the warm afterglow of that Beaver Creek race. Ah, next week at regionals, he’d get it back. Surely.So we – his parents, his coach and especially the kid – set up disappointment the next week, too. Even more unreasonably, looking back. The boys and girls teams did unbelievably well, both finishing second out of a dozen or so teams and qualifying for the state championship race.The kid ran that full minute faster than he had the previous week, despite his lungs tightening in that inexorable vice of asthma. He achieved his personal best time at 17:07. Only problem was his teammates were a minute and a half faster. Instead of the expected second, he finished fourth on his team and collapsed at the line. Boy, were we mad; boy, was he mad at himself. Kids runs his best time ever while fighting an asthma attack, and we’re all mad about it? Our sense of potential, expectations and goals simply had not adjusted to the new reality. We didn’t see him at the finish line on the ground, struggling for air and throwing up. He’d actually run the race of his life and nudged closest to that ineffable potential. In hindsight, I don’t think I could be prouder of him than that day, with the real iron it took to leave it all on the course while straining to meet an expectation he could not possibly meet under the circumstances.The state race was more of the same. This time he came in a distant fifth for his team, wheezing badly. The season ended just in time. He, alone, was mad this time. I did the fatherly thing, consoling him that adversity now could actually help make him a better runner in the end. And other such blah, blah, blah to the teenage ear. I left out the larger lesson, that this could help make him a better person, too.So we’ve learned something about this mix of potential, expectation and goals, right? Well, maybe. The calculation for next year assumes healthy lungs and staying on the meds. “Dad, I think I can actually win some of these meets next year,” he said Sunday morning as we chatted about the seniors in the region this year who will graduate out.You know, I actually believe that, too. It looks from here like it’s in the realm of possibility. But then, so does getting mad at a 17:07 time. Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.orgVail, Colorado
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