by Dante Zappala

I knew what the kid was capable of. I’d coached him for two months. He crushed workouts and competition alike. And yet, I still thought I could beat Marco in the mile. On a sun-filled day in May, my delusion would collide with the reality of what this young man had become.

I’m in my second year as a part of the coaching team for the Springside Chestnut Hill Middle School boys track team. Marco, an eighth grader with a passion for running, came to me at the beginning of the season with a distinct goal: He wanted to break five minutes in the mile.

He had set the bar high for himself. I didn’t make him any promises. But I told him that if he worked hard and things broke right, he had a shot.

As the season progressed, we had more than a few excellent training sessions together. I knew he was close. When Marco raced, he was usually alone at the front, battling himself and the ticking clock. I’d prep him with simple advice: “Run the third lap like it’s the last. Believe that what you have in the tank will carry you around the track on the fourth lap.”

He could get to halfway in 2:30. Despite a sincere effort and me screaming at him on the backstretch, his third lap would balloon to 79 seconds, leaving too much to make up at the end. He ran 5:03 one week, then 5:02 in a cold rain the next.

He was learning from his near misses along with his teammates. “Trust and Try” was our mantra this year. A staple of middle school track is watching kids hang on to a gear so that they can kick at the end. The challenge is transitioning them from these schoolyard racing techniques to real track racing strategies.

A seventh grader broke the ice for us when, at an early meet, he stormed through the first half of a 400 meter race. We all watched in awe as he seemed oblivious to the pain he’d endure by the time he reached the home stretch.

“Bear witness, boys,” I said. “That’s how you run the quarter.”

We built on that example with our other athletes in every discipline. Trust and Try. In most cases, we were confident that they would surprise themselves and succeed. But if they blew up instead, it would never be considered failure because regardless of the outcome, a bold effort would reward them with knowledge.

The team had bought in. Their extraordinary progress gave us a reasonable shot to win the Inter-Ac championship this year. To that end, I asked Marco to run both the 800 and the 1600. His goal of breaking five minutes would likely not happen now that he had to double. He never hesitated to do what would help the team.

The 800 comes first in the order of events. Our strategy was simple: Win with as little effort as possible. He followed the race plan to a “T” and took the race with a big kick in the last 200.

When the 1600 rolled around 45 minutes later, we took a cautious approach. He sat behind a kid who had run 5:07 this year. Never anxious as the lead grew in front of him over the first two laps, he waited patiently, closed the gap, and battled stride for stride with the other runner through the final lap.

I never doubted he had the heart and legs to win any race at this level and he didn’t disappoint. He simultaneously won the race and lost out on his goal with a time of 5:01.5.

Despite an incredible 27 personal best times and distances from our athletes, we finished a close second at the championship.

We still had a week of practices scheduled after that competition. On our last day, we staged one final race to give Marco a shot. We moved the starting line back 9.3 meters to make the distance a true mile. Everyone else on the team ran a leg on various relays that equaled a mile. We had teams of 2×800, 4×400 and 8×200. We wanted as many people in front of him as possible to chase.

To sweeten the pot, I jumped out there to race Marco as well. I was familiar with the fire Marco could unleash at the end of a race. I used to do the same thing when I competed in high school. I was ready for an epic duel. And I had no intention of losing.

I told him he was on his own this time – no coaching from me. He surprised me with a strong first lap in 72 seconds. “This kid figured out how to race,” I thought as I sucked wind and tried to recover. But it was already over. I was dead on my feet at the half, just as he was winding up. I was too far behind to scream at him on the third lap. He dialed in and ran it in 76.

He powered home to a 4:56. He’d have to wait a good bit for me to finish and congratulate him.

Our last order of business as a team was to enjoy sundaes on the infield. I rolled out a cooler of ice cream and toppings. After a season that saw unseasonable cold and constant rain, we finally had a perfect spring day to reflect on their accomplishments.

These kids had unlocked something special. They found through the cultivation of belief and courage that limits are sometimes only self-imposed constraints.

I relaxed in the sun and enjoyed a second helping of ice cream topped with caramel, a little indulgence to celebrate their success. Just as I had wrapped up the season in my mind, Marco comes over and says to me, “Coach – you want to go for a cool down”?

“Not at all,” I thought to myself, “but trust and try.” I retied my shoes and set off for one last jog with the kid.