20 years ago I finished my career as a collegiate runner and have been thinking about the things I learned at that time. This is part three of my series, Lessons from the Back of the Pack.
The other day I saw a list someone posted to Facebook that had 100 pieces of advice a teacher gave to his class of high school Seniors. No author was credited and my google search also did not reveal further information, so I apologize for not passing on the proper credit. Most of the advice was good but one thing in particular stuck out. The line read "you may not always be the strongest or the fastest but you can be the toughest." That made me think about my time at the back of the pack in college and what I learned about being tough.
I was not the toughest runner on the team. That belt was held by Lester Sheneberger. His collegiate running career consisted of a single race, but it was enough to make him a legend. The team had traveled to Decorah, IA for the first race of the 1992 season at Luther College. During warmups he felt that something was not right in his ankle but started the race anyway. About a mile in he was in rough shape. He kept going, though, up hills and through the woods. Did I mention that it was a five mile race? He was in visible pain, limping along, but finished the race somehow. Afterward an X-ray revealed a broken bone in his ankle. His Cross Country career was over that day. Among the team if someone did something tough, we would call it "pulling a Sheneberger" or some variation like that.
On that team I was surrounded by tough people. Another teammate, Travis Glanzer, ran for three seasons of Cross Country, even putting up one of the best times in the history of Bethel University, with horrible pain in his shins. He had compartment syndrome, which is kind of like Carpel Tunnel Syndrome in your lower leg. Every step hurt but he never complained and never missed a workout. Matt Wickman ran for two years with chronic back pain. Like Travis, it always hurt and he never complained. Spending time every day with people like that cannot help but make you tougher.
Toughness is hard to explain but you know it when you see it. Brett Farve in the NFC title game against New Orleans a few years ago was one of the most amazing displays of toughness I have ever seen in sports. The Saints defense was playing dirty, hitting him on almost every play of the game and he was taking a beating worthy of Rocky Balboa. Yet, every time they hit him, he got right back up. When the game ended in a close defeat for the Vikings, he couldn't walk. His ankle was swollen to about twice it's normal size. That is physical toughness.
Mental toughness is usually less obvious but no less impressive. My wife, Heidi, has no interest in pushing the physical boundaries of toughness. There will probably be no marathons for her, but she is still one of the toughest people I know. For years she suffered from horrible headaches and some days she could barely find the strength to make it through the day. The headaches are gone now so she found a new way to demonstrate how tough she is. Four years ago in March she carried twins to 38 weeks and amazed the doctors when they each weighed seven pounds. That is 14 pounds of baby that she carried around. Not to be outdone, three years later she pushed out an 11 pound baby without any pain medication. If anyone pulled a Sheneberger, it was her.
My time spent at the back of the pack made me tougher. When it was 90 degrees and the scheduled workout was four miles of intervals, I put on my shoes and joined the team. When it was 20 below and blowing wind, I got dressed and headed out. Now, twenty years later, I still run, just not as fast or as far. I am tougher than I would have otherwise been without those experiences.
It never crossed my mind to quit, despite finishing races after most of my competitors had already cross the line. I am not sure if that makes me tough or just stubborn, but either way, I am glad I had the chance to learn those lessons at the back of the pack.