It was not only the last big outdoor track meet of the season, it was the last race of the day, and the last race of my high school running career.
For me, the entire day was cloaked in finality.
While I was a better than decent runner — top three finishes in most dual meets; top 20 in the big cross-country races — I lacked both the talent, and desire, to pursue a collegiate career. So, I knew it was unlikely that I’d find myself on a track again anytime soon.
The sun was starting its lazy descent toward the horizon.
I toed my final starting line.
It had been a difficult school year.
A few days into it, my parents died.
Cancer for Mom.
A heart attack for Dad.
On the same day.
I could romanticize it all by musing that when my mom passed in the morning, my dad died of a broken heart. But Mom and Dad hadn’t been together for much of my young life. And the under card for Saturday visits from Dad was all too often a 10-rounder between them.
To be sure, my parents loved me. And me them. But there was no poetry in their book-ended deaths.
I don’t recall being lost — my neighbors took me in as their own; easy for a kid who spent most of his days there anyway. I don’t recall feeling alone — my older brothers and family were there for me in ways that make the cliché an understatement. I don’t recall being grief stricken. I was 16. And there was always pizza.
But I do recall being pissed. Really, really, pissed. Sitting in Synagogue during the holiest of Jewish holidays which fell shortly after Mom and Dad did, thinking, what the fuck? God is great? Uhhh…I don’t think so.
So, anger? Yeah. There was that.
But I found a way to mercilessly beat it into submission without alarming those who loved me.
I ran it into the ground.
I’d say I buried it under countless miles. But I did count them, with OCD-like precision — better to keep me even more distracted. Six miles before school. Ten to twelve at cross-country practice. Another two back home. Twenty miles a day. 100–120 miles a week. All camouflaged by a training philosophy that, at the time, emphasized high mileage.
It was perfect.
I hid my pain in plain sight.
And I got stronger. Faster. At least for a while.
At the start of winter track, I posted a 9:46 two-mile indoors on the boards of the Armory in New York City, which put me among the best in Nassau County that early in the season.
It was a breakout performance that I could build upon.
But the only thing that broke was me.
I went through a period where I cut my daily calories to what was inside a single can of Campbell’s vegetable soup. After all, if I could run 9:46 at 145 pounds, imagine what I could do at 135.
I was becoming a wisp of myself.
Fortunately, just one off-hand comment from my coach snapped me out of my anorexia.
“Dexter,” he said. “you look like death warmed over.”
And that was it.
I started eating again. I kept putting in the mileage. But those miles that had once boosted me? They now battered me.
They still choked back the anger.
But I was done.
I never got below 9:50 again.
Enter a coach whose emotional IQ was Mensa-level.
His support of me was not so much in words, but in actions. He attended Mom’s funeral, and his tears filled me with solace. He gave me just the right amount of extra attention. Not so much that it would alienate my teammates, but just enough to back fill some of what would go missing from my parents. He watched over me — from a distance, but I knew he was there. A calming presence that steadied me.
And I kept on.
Instinctively knowing that I needed a break from the two-mile, he put me in the steeplechase. A distance event with fixed hurdles every 110 yards that offered just enough playful novelty to keep me engaged. I even broke the school’s record (albeit a soft one as the best runners always ran the two-mile). But it was special to me, as it was previously held by my brother — a legend in our program whose celebrity I could never quite chase down.
I entered that final meet, that final race, with nervous, but joyful, anticipation. You see, at this meet the steeplechase would include a water-jump every lap — the signature element of the race that very few facilities were able to accommodate.
What’s more, it was one of the earlier events of the day. Better to get it done, and fully drink in the competition, comradery, and wistful finality of that last meet.
Unfortunately, our bus had other plans, breaking down on the way there. We eventually made it, but not until the steeplechase was long over.
Which is how, instead, after discussing my options with coach, I found myself on the starting line of that late afternoon two-mile.
I still had that nervous anticipation. But instead of joyful, after all that had come before it, it was full of trepidation.
I heard the familiar, “Runners set”.
And the gun sent us on our way.
I took on the first two or so laps of the eight-lap race with resolve to make this final race a good one.
But it didn’t take long for that resolve to give way. To the disappointment of the day. The burnout which, for months, I had barely held in check. The patchwork of emotions that had left me frayed. And the anger that wanted so desperately to make its presence known.
I began to slow, rapidly fading from contention, to the middle of the pack, and inexorably to the back of it. But there were still more laps to go. Laps to fall back even further. The gap between me and the last of the other runners began to widen. I eventually lost sight of them entirely.
Until they lapped me.
The ignominy of falling more than a lap behind the pack in a race is palpable. It lays you bare as track etiquette calls for the lap-ee to move to lane three to make way for the other runners to pass, unhindered by your collapse.
So, there I was. Lapped and longing for the race — no — the whole year, to just be over.
Coach was where you would typically find him during a race. Wandering the infield, stopwatch and clipboard in hand, monitoring his runners and shouting words of encouragement. I had been keeping my head down to avoid seeing him. No words of encouragement were going to erase that lap between me and everyone else.
I’m not quite sure where I was in the race when it happened. Likely in my seventh lap. Down the back straightway I lifted my head and saw coach 40–50 yards ahead looking intently at me. I wasn’t going to be able to avoid the look of disappointment this time around, the shame of having failed him.
As I got closer, I eventually made eye contact. His face was serene. No words were spoken. But in an instant, his eyes told me what words could not do justice.
“It’s OK”, they said.
“It was a painful year.”
“But you made it.”
“You made it.”
“And I’m proud of you.”
Instantly, I was, in fact, OK.
I crossed the finish line of my last race in last place.
The symmetry was lyrical.
Those final yards where I was by myself on the track, exposed for all to see, were not filled with reproach.
Instead, they were filled with dignity. Honor. Perhaps defiantly so.
I may have been beat.
But I wasn’t beaten.