In the latter half of the 1980’s, while visiting home during my tour in military, my best friend and fellow runner, Mark shared with me something he’d recently witnessed in a race. It had to do with a mutual friend of ours I’ll call Matt. The race had taken place on the premises of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, and included a number of invited world and national class runners. As mentioned in my book, The Reasons I Run, most races in those days were competitive, and this particular race was indicative of that era.
Among the field of invited runners, many of whom had received an all-expense paid trip to the race, were runners who’d come from miles around―a plethora of competitive college and high school kids, and many of the top area runners―all chomping at the bit to have a stab at running to their highest possible level. I say “highest possible level” because when you have a concentrated group of competitive athletes, and they’re all vying for the same prize, it tends to raise the ante for the rest of the field too. A unique thing about running is it’s one of the few sports in which regular folks get to take the playing field alongside the best players. Just imagine being a fan of basketball and your hero Kobe Bryant or Lebron James has called you up and invited you to a one-on-one session. Perhaps, you think you’re pretty good yourself―maybe not as good as your hero― but still, pretty good. Maybe, you even think, if presented with the opportunity you too could be one of those guys. In running, you’re repeatedly given that chance, especially at the larger races.
Just prior to the O’Hare race, Matt off-handedly said to Mark “I think I can take those guys”―meaning the invited runners, of course. To be honest, Matt was always a wildcard and a fearless competitor. Quite often though, Matt’s racing tactics―or should I say, lack thereof―would raise the eyebrows of his peers. He was known to start too fast, surge at odd times―basically wreak havoc on his fellow competitor’s strategies, which was usually to run a tactical race. Matt was generally considered to be an erratic runner. It was, however, this same cavalier approach that caused others to respect Matt, and also accounted for some of his lightning-fast times.
The distance for this race was 8k (the metric equivalent of 5 miles). It was an out-and-back course meaning runners ran out to the halfway point and then turned around a traffic cone or something similar and retraced their steps back to the finish. The cool thing about this type of course is everyone gets to see those ahead of themselves racing back to the finish. Mark noticed, as he was making his way toward the turnaround point, our good buddy Matt leading the entire field of top national and international runners.
We all like a good underdog story, so it would be nice to say that Matt won that race. But, he didn’t. That isn’t the point of this story, however. The point is that Matt gave it a shot. On that particular day, for over two and a half miles, he led a field of some of the fastest runners in the country. And, that’s what I remember Matt for―always giving it his best shot. I think it’s an awesome way to be remembered, don’t you?