Nightrunners (from left): Ben Szunj, Dante Zappala and Alfredo Santana.

Nightrunners (from left): Ben Szuhaj, Dante Zappala and Alfredo Santana.

by Dante Zappala

The apocalypse had come and gone. The gale force winds had subsided. Light rain misted sideways, riding the roller coaster of lingering gusts that swept across the fields of Germantown Academy. Even as lightning still flashed in the distance, Ben Szuhaj wanted to race.

He had come to the track meet this night to compete in the last event, the 3,000 meters. An accomplished runner and soon-to-be senior at Penn Charter, Ben was looking to race faster than he ever had before. Recruiting season is in full swing and kids like Ben around the country are dutifully providing college coaches with updates on their most recent results.

Unlike other sports where coaches want to see you play and assess your skills, track coaches can look at your times and form opinions from there. It’s a bit crude, but as I said in a previous column, the clock don’t lie.

A few other would-be competitors lingered around the track, myself included, waiting for the inevitable news that the last event would be canceled and we should all go home. This was the common sense decision, as it was now past 9, darkness had arrived on the express train and the landscape around us was stunned silent in the aftermath of the storm.

But common sense and running are like siblings – they share a natural bond but they are constantly getting at each other’s throats. Ben embodies this sentiment, which is why he hatched a plan to run the race anyway.

He figured that if his father, Tim, could tape the entire thing on a cell phone, this evidence could be shared with the coaches who were waiting to hear the outcome. He wouldn’t have official results, but he’d have more than just his good word that he’d run a fast time.

This is what makes teenagers special. If they have even half of what they need, it’s enough to conquer the world. Forget that the meet was over. Forget that it was pitch black. Ben had a track. He suddenly had tolerable conditions. It was windy, yes, and a crack of lightning in the distance got our attention, but the temperature had also dropped 20 degrees.

And, making this moment even more vital, he had three guys ready and willing to set the pace for him.

Ben had brought along a friend, Billy McDevitt, who was already set to run with him for part of the race. I was warmed up and ready to go, as was one of my training partners, Alfredo Santana.

We cleared the track of debris and drew up a makeshift plan where we’d take turns pacing Ben through the 7 ½ laps at roughly 70 seconds per lap.

Tim began recording. Ben and Billy started off. We set three watches in motion. Patricia, Ben’s mom, cheered her son so loudly on each pass down the homestretch, you would have thought the bleachers were full.

I stood on the backstretch, waiting for my turn to take over the pacing duties. I had to listen for the pitter-pat of feet as the tandem of runners would emerge suddenly from darkness.

Lap after lap, we rotated in fresh legs as Ben ran machine-like behind us. Alfredo led him down the final stretch then fanned away as Ben crossed the line with a new personal best of 8:47.9, 8:48.3, or 8:48.6, depending on which of the three watches you want to call official.

After our cool-down, Alfredo and I had a chance to talk with Ben about his performance. As Ben prepares for a college career, Alfredo just wrapped his up. He graduated this spring from La Salle University, earning athletic and academic All-American honors.

Two paths could not have crossed at a better moment. The budding professional passed along very useful advice to the aspiring high schooler. Ostensibly, this was about how to translate this experience of running with pacers into championship racing. In reality, he was giving him the clues on what it will take to meet his potential at the next level.

Ben’s time has him right on the cusp of Division 1 credentials. And time ultimately measures us all to some degree – how long we race, how long we train, how long we live. But what we do within that time adds more to the picture we’re painting. When coaches hear the story of this race, I trust they’ll see that Ben Szuhaj is much more than a kid who can run sub 8:50 for the 3k. He’s a kid with a big heart for the sport who won’t set limits on where it will take him.

He’s exactly the kind of individual I would want on my team – the one who gets after it even when the apocalypse sweeps through.