I used to compete in Judo when I was a very young boy. This was before I became a runner and I even think it shaped the kind of runner I would become, because every practice started by having us run barefoot around the banked wooden track at the base gym. When it came time to compete in tournaments I held my own, winning more often than losing. I can still remember the name of this one guy who beat me all the time, even though those defeats came almost fifty years ago. Losing devastated me, and whenever I lost I found a quiet place away from the tournament noise and broke down in tears. It's what you do when you're seven years old.
At some point that habit just went away. I grew a callous about competition, learning to enjoy the victories without getting devastated by defeat. This has gone on through a long career as an athlete and now as a coach. I even forgot that crying after a loss was an option. There's always a deep sadness, followed by a slow regeneration of the competitive fire, so that within a couple days the scab has hardened and I can start thinking about the next big competition. That's why I love to compete -- it's the highest and lowest you can feel, but you always come out of it stronger and more resilient.
But I cried pretty hard the other night. Dramatically. Didn't see it coming. The best runner I ever coached, a kid who was on a course to compete for the state championship next week, came down with a major case of the flu a week before last Saturday's Southern California championships. He couldn't train at all. Still very sick, he stepped to the line in two big races on Saturday and went for the win both times. I could see the pain on his face and the look of desperation as the energy drained from his legs. We've worked together four years. In that time he's won countless championships and set phenomenal records that will stand for a very long time. This wasn't how his high school career was supposed to end. One of these days I'll be the obnoxious guy at the end of the bar, bragging about how I used to coach that kid as he stands atop the Olympic podium. That's all in the future. I couldn't be more proud of how the kid fought, and how badly he wanted to achieve his goals. And that's something worth having a moment about.
The cycle begins anew. Cross country practice starts next season. Returning runners will log 35-40 minutes plus strides.