I was one year removed from high school, standing at the far side of the Westminster High School track. A low wire gate was the only thing separating me from the outside lane. It was 1980, and local tracks were still untouched by the metric system. One lap was 440 yards or exactly one-quarter of a mile.
On the other side of the track, runners lined up for the Tri-State Conference mile. I was there to watch.
When the runners raced past me for the first time, Todd Ashley and Jeff Scuffins were already leading the pack. By the end of the first lap, the two had separated themselves from the others.
Ashley had been my high school teammate, and the runner first responsible for making me believe I was capable of great things. After high school, he would become a junior college national champion, setting a national record for the one-thousand-yard distance. His course record for Westminster’s Main Street Mile (3:54.6) has stood for thirty years.
Scuffins was a conference rival. He became a national class runner as well, and he still holds the course Record for the Marine Corps Marathon, 2:14:01.
In high school, both runners seldom lost, so watching them race against each other was thrilling.
When they passed me on their second lap, I cheered for Ashley and then listened as they breezed by. To me, elite runners have a unique sound, like the whoosh of a small flock of geese flying low. Their footfalls added a rhythm, each one a powerful strike against hard cinder.
They raced together around the track as if connected by an invisible force. Even as they came off the final turn and began sprinting towards the finish, it was impossible to guess which runner would prevail, until Suffins inched ahead in the final meters and threw his arms into the air.
I remember fuming for a few minutes after that race. I wasn’t running or racing at the time, so I think my own hopes were somehow linked to my old teammate.
Scuffins and Ashley were two of many elite runners I competed against while I was in high school. In our conference alone, we faced Chris Fox, Karsten Schultz, and other high school state champions who would go on to achieve even greater accomplishments.
These were the runners who first inspired me, and who widened my perspective about what was humanly possible.
In my coaching work, I often share stories about the great runners from our area. I also encourage them to read about the history of our sport. The more you learn about great performers, the more you understand that they are more similar than different from the rest of us.
My running program is between seasons now. Soon, we will begin the next training cycle and begin preparing for fall races.
I had a quiet vacation a couple of weeks ago, and I spent some of my time planning for the upcoming season. On one of my morning runs, I wondered what lessons most need to be learned by the group, and how I can best deliver the right messages.
My run ended near an ocean overlook, and I walked up to see the water. There was a heavy mist resting on the ocean surface as if to add a layer of mystery to the unseen depths below.
Most of us live in a similar fog. There is a barrier between the view we have of ourselves, and the reality of our true potential. And yet, it isn’t as apparent as the mist on the ocean; we don’t know it’s there. So, we place limits on ourselves.
In simplest terms, my job as a coach is to remove those limits, to help runners know that they can dream bigger dreams.
Once, when I was a senior in high school, I ran the mile against Scuffins. I was on his shoulder through three laps. In the early seconds of the final lap, I believed I could win. It doesn’t really matter that he ultimately pulled away because that belief never left me.
And therein lies a truth you should understand about yourself. Once you remove the barrier that hides your true potential, you’ll discover capability you can’t yet imagine. Once discovered, it’s yours forever.