Over the years I’ve written about my children’s successes and disappointments in running. A common theme, whether it’s obvious or not, is how our sport gives back what we put into it. And for the most part, it’s focused on the individual aspect.
Today I’d like to share a story of four runners coming together to win a state championship. It is a true example of a sum being greater than its parts. It’s about four individuals coming together, sacrificing individual glory for each other.
It’s also about intense year-round focus for just one day in one race. It’s also a lesson in coaching individual athletes in a team setting.
Last Friday the Carroll boy’s 3,200-meter relay team won the IHSAA state title in a near-record time of 7 minutes, 40.14 seconds. It is the fastest time in the United States this year for a high school team and marked a second straight state title. What made it possible? Many things did, beginning with sacrifice.
Three of the boys on the relay team — Eric Claxton, Alex Hess (my son) and Jon Harper — were on last year’s state championship team. Along with then-senior John Hester, they went on to North Carolina and placed fourth in the New Balance National Outdoor Championships. In the fall the three runners combined to lead Carroll to a state runner-up finish in cross country, second only to national finalist Carmel.
Been there, done that?
So with plenty of team success behind them, their final high school season remained. A last chance at individual glory was on the line. Instead, in February the trio each stated their first goal for the track season was defending their state title.
“It was pretty cool because they didn’t have to,” Raber said of choosing to run the relay “And we couldn’t (successfully defend) if one or two picked that. But they all wanted to do that.”
One runner who was very thankful that the trio chose to defend the state title was fellow senior Kyle Gater. Eventually he won over several other teammates for the rite to join Claxton, Hess and Harper on the post-season relay.
“I was sitting in the stands at the football game last fall when those guys got their state championship rings,” Kyle said. “It killed me to be watching that. I wanted to be there so bad. Watching them just made me just work so much harder over the winter.”
One day, one race
The Carroll 3,200 relay lineup was set late in the regular season and didn’t actually run together in a meet until the North Side Sectional. But the focus that day was not on the relay but on getting Kyle and Alex (1600) and Eric and Jon (800) through to regionals.
The same was the case the next week at the Wayne Regional. The strategy worked, but the Chargers came into the state meet with the third seed (7:55).
The quartet was primed and ready to roll. But then came a hiccup. Eric had a chest cold the previous weekend and missed three days, including final key workout. He ran easy for three days and said he was fine on race day. But Friday’s conditions (100 percent humidity following the storm) were too much. His expected 1:55 became a 1:59. And his final 150 meters were a struggle. It was clear he didn’t give up. If he had.....there is no way Carroll would’ve had a chance to win. He gave the baton to Kyle in about 7th place.
“Eric really battled,” Raber said. “We knew he wasn’t himself, but he did all he could.”
Kyle’s personal best coming into the meet was only 2:00. But he was the star of the day, running his leg in 1:55 and handing the baton to Hess in third place. Kyle’s job all along was to NOT lose the race, to do everything he could to give his teammates a chance. He did more than that.
“Kyle was amazing,” Raber said. “We’ve worked all year long on him not letting people get away from him the first (400 meters). He needed to trust his training and know that he doesn’t have to save it for the end.”
Next up was Alex, who Raber refers to as the “chaser.”
“Alex is not afraid to chase down anyone,” Raber said. “He doesn’t worry about the end of his leg, all he wants to do is catch whoever is in front.”
But Alex, who was 30 meters behind the leaders (Chesterton and Crown Point), not only caught the them, but blew past them as well. His first lap of 53 seconds was followed with a 58 for a 1:51 leg.
“I knew I was supposed to stick (with the leaders) when I caught them, but I felt great so I kept going,” Alex said.
The result was a 30-meter lead for Harper, a runner who prefers to be in the lead and “running for his life” said Raber.
Asked if running with a 30 meter lead against 1:53 half-milers is the easiest job or the hardest, Jon responded: “It’s scary. You know they are coming after you, so you just have to run as fast you can.”
At this level of competition, running too fast early could result in getting caught before the finish line. But being too cautious in the beginning and you will lose momentum.
But Jon responded with a perfectly executed split of 1:53 and the Chargers were once again state champs.
Team over individuals
The conditions during the 3,200 relay were temperatures in the high-70s with 100% humidity. A storm had just rolled through and steam was coming off the track. Going “all out” took its toll on the Chargers.
Alex battled in the 1600 and placed sixth in 4 minutes, 16 seconds. It was well off his season-long goal. His last lap of 66 seconds was as painful to watch as a father as his 1:51 was awesome to watch.
Jon had nothing left in the 800. It was also hard to watch as he finished in 1:55 and just out of a medal. I wonder how his 1:53 running scared and alone in the humidity would’ve translated in the open 800. The winner ran 1:52 won.
Eric’s sacrifice was the biggest. He went 2:05 in the open 800 and then straight to the ambulance and then to the hospital to receive treatments for bronchitis/asthma. Not exactly the senior state meet he was planning. All three were pretty disappointed but by Saturday they had remembered the decision they made for each other. High-achieving athletes are greedy. They are driven. They win one race and they put it behind them. They want to win the next one.
How and why?
Throughout the rest of the meet on Friday and all day on Saturday (at the girl’s meet) coaches, friends and fellow runners approached and asked me, “How did that happen?”
They wanted to know how the Carroll team ran “only” 7:55 in the regional and then a nationally-leading 7:40 at state. I told them, simply, “Coaching.”
But Raber begs to differ, noting that the quartet could’ve run faster much earlier. But instead he held them back.
“We only run (the relay) once in the regular season,” Raber said. “These four guys were experienced and we knew what we had with them. We could afford to hold them back; we knew that on the day it counted they would run their best.”
Upon further review, it was more than coaching: it took a group of guys willing to sacrifice their individual hopes for a common goal.
Running, by itself, is an individual pursuit. You are alone and there is no one to block for you or carry you along the way. Running in its purest form is a battle against your weakness, your limits.
Unless you are in a relay.