Dunn Neugebauer Column: Breaking Barriers

"I want to break the five-minute mile."

It was one of our seniors, three days before XC Senior Night. All do it differently, but we have a mile time trial a week before the region meet. The idea is to get the fast-twitch muscles going while keeping race-sharp. Okay, maybe this makes us the Nick Saban of cross country coaches, maybe it doesn't. 

Still, it's what we do. And a senior was taking it -- not as a day to jog four laps and collect his goodie back, but for real. A thing. A goal. We'd been to the river the day before -- a place for shake-out runs, hills -- with the quarters marked you can do speed work. Basically, the river is the one-stop training shop, regardless of what's ahead. When we got back, though, I watched while our senior walked to the track. 

Watched him further while he stared at his watch, did a 100-meter stride, walked back, repeated the process. "What are you doing?" I asked, more curious as a writer than a coach. "Visualizing," he said. "I'm getting the fourth lap inside my head. Every bit of it." 

Ah, nice, I thought. At this point, I temporarily resigned as his coach and became his fan, his chronicler, a curious observer. "Just try to get some sleep tonight," I offered. "I will," he said, but we both knew he wouldn't. 

Fast forward to race day: It's hot, too hot, 82 degrees in the shade. With his prior best time around 5:04, I didn't know if he could do it. And, as unluck would have it -- he went out too fast. Way too fast -- came in at the split at 71. The coach in me is thinking, "Too hot, too fast, has never broken the barrier before. Las Vegas odds say it doesn't make it."

At the halfway point, he's at 2:30, dead on but still, two more laps. The heart dropped, though remembering that mile records are run in negative splits, not positive like the 800. But still… Then, it happened. The bleachers came alive. Our school is small. When Johnny breaks up with Sally in the morning, everyone knows at lunch. And when Blake wants to break five and had three days to draw a crowd, the crowd is THERE!

And forward they came. Beside me. At the finish line. "Let's go Blake! Come on, you've got this!" But, in my mind, he hadn't, as after Lap 3, he was at 3:48, three seconds slow. Also, please remember, it's hot, he's gone out too fast. "I still had confidence," he said later. "I knew that I could do it."

Now, get the picture: Screaming teenagers. Nervous coaches. People staring at watches. Even the timer had a smile on his face. With 300 meters to go, Blake started his kick. "Oh no," I thought. "There's too much track left." But there wasn't. Picking up his stride, he was smooth with 200 to go, still gliding through the heat at 150.

The clock, though, the dreaded clock.  I didn't look at the time during his last 100, still don't regret it. After all, this was one of the many things that are so good about this sport. I mean, look at all these screaming people! I've heard less noise at crime scenes, car accidents, parades. I love this!  Seventy meters to go, 40, Blake is nothing but angles and elbows and knees and arms and legs and hair. His face looked like he was passing a kidney stone. If a stone wall were in front of him, I'd bet on him even though he only weighed a buck-30.

He crossed the finish line and he screamed. Loud. Speaking of murder scenes, it sounded as if he'd just taken a bullet. Now, nervous or no, I looked at the time: 4:57. He dropped a 1:09 or so in the last quarter. In the heat. After going out too fast.  I shifted now from coach/journalist to observer. At this. These people. That clock. Blake. That look on his face. The fist pump in the air. Classmates congratulating him. Smiles -- I could see all 32 of his teeth. 

Remembering to do my job, I recorded his time next to his name on my timesheet. Looking back over my shoulder as I walked off the track, I gave the whole scene one last look. At this sport. This race. All these people. This sport we've chosen or that somehow chose us. I tucked my notebook under my arm and I smiled…

Dunn Neugebauer