The picture of me that you see was taken in the fall of 1984. I was a 13-year-old eighth grader who was competing in his second season of cross country for the middle school I attended. I was far from being the fastest runner on the team, but I wasn’t a slowpoke, either. Yeah, I typically was nervous before races. Once the starting gun went off, though, I was confident in my abilities.
That certainly wasn’t the case the prior year.
I had gone out for cross country in seventh grade because I was too puny to play football. Running seemed like a natural fit for me. I had an abundance of energy. I had the right build. Run a few miles at practice after school and cover the two-mile courses at the meets in which the team competed? Hey, give me something a little more challenging to do – like Pre-Algebra, for example.
Truth is, I was failing miserably as a long-distance runner after the first couple weeks of the season. I’d thought it would be easy, just like I’d mistakenly thought a few years earlier that I would lace up a pair of roller skates at the local rink and instantly start burning polyurethane. I retreated to the safety of a bench after I’d stumbled and fallen a few times. I had no such sanctuary at cross country practice. Steve Hole, the coach, made it very clear I was there to run no matter how tired I was, and no matter how badly I wanted to crash under one of the shade trees in the park where the team practiced.
He could be tough, but he also let me know he believed I could be a good runner if I worked hard. I did improve as the season progressed, and I both appreciated and never forgot about the confidence he had in me.
I was devastated to find out last Thursday morning that Steve had passed away unexpectedly the day before. The public knew him as a man who’d been a devoted math teacher, coach, and activities director for many years at the high school I’d attended. He had many roles, and he did an outstanding job at each one. But I always saw him first and foremost as someone who helped me become the person I am today.
We’d see each other and chat from time to time during my tenure as a sportswriter at the local newspaper when I would cover a game at my alma mater or come to the school to interview an athlete for an upcoming feature story. I’d address him by his first name, but it always felt a little strange to do so. There always was a small part of me who still was a teenager that appreciated Mr. Hole’s guidance and encouragement.
I sure needed it that very warm September afternoon in 1983 when the cross country team was having an intrasquad meet. All I could think about was the hot sun beating down on me and how much I wanted a cold drink, a swimming pool, air conditioning – anything that was cool and didn’t involve moving quickly. I dogged it the first mile of the race and jogged past Steve at a pace that I would be overly generous to call “leisurely.” I started walking once I’d gone a few yards past him. Then I heard a very irate voice from a very upset coach.
“You don’t walk! Run!”
Needless to say, I started jogging again – at least until I was out of his line of sight. The second mile of the race was more painful than the first. I walked more than I ran, and as I halfheartedly crossed the finish line, my mind was made up that I wouldn’t – couldn’t – continue to be a runner.
Steve let me know that that couldn’t be further from the truth. He was talking to the entire team at the time, but in a small way it felt like he was addressing only me. Yes, running can be difficult. Yes, your body is going to hurt. And yes, there are times when you’re going to be tired and want to quit. But you’re stronger than you realize. Start a race strong. Settle into a steady pace. Finish strong. Just keep going and don’t quit.
I’m sure I was thinking about my coach’s words as I stepped to the starting line of my first race the following week, and I’m guessing I was at least partially motivated by not wanting a butt-chewing in front of my teammates and a park full of spectators. What I do know is I ran the entire two-mile race. I’m sure my lungs felt like they’d been soaked in kerosene at one point in the race, and my legs probably hurt as well. The fact I’d done what my coach wanted me to do and come out of it in good shape made me proud. I’d like to think he was proud too.
To the best of my recollection, I never walked in any race in which I competed. Even now, I still occasionally hear Steve’s encouraging words when my daily morning run isn’t going so well. And they’re really worth listening to in my everyday life.
My son, Nolan, has been having a rough go of it at times over the past few weeks. His Adapted Sports League wiffleball games have turned into father/son wrestling matches in the outfield. He’s been aggressive with both me and my wife, Cindy, and he’s been all over the place emotionally. Whether it’s due to the struggles that come with having Autism and being nonverbal, the erratic spring weather here in the Midwest, the fact the end of the school year is near, the joys of puberty, all of the above or none of the above, I don’t know. I just know life has been challenging.
I also know that quitting is never an option. I have my low points, and I hurt both physically and emotionally. That’s when I have to step back and remember I am stronger than I realize. The race has been long, and there still are miles to go. But I just need to keep a steady pace and realize that I’m very capable of enduring anything.
The last time I saw Steve was December 2019 when I went to a basketball game at my old high school while Cindy visited with two of her friends from college. The game was over and we both were eager to leave, so unfortunately we didn’t talk for very long. I’d been thinking about him recently and was going to attempt to contact him via social media when I found out he’d passed away. I regret never properly thanking him for helping me realize what I could accomplish as a runner, and also as a person in general.
The kid in the picture took his coach’s words to heart. The 51-year-old version of him still does today.