Grab a cup of coffee or something stronger. This is a long one. It’s a story that really starts in November 2019, and there have been updates along the way, and since it never felt like the right time until now to actually write it, it’s long. But I want it documented for Luke’s sake.
End of July 2017, while midway through a glorious week on the beach in Siesta Key, Luke announced that when we got back home, he wanted to go out for Cross Country. Practice started Monday, and they’d be running every day of the week except Sunday (let me be clear – this sounds to me like what actual hell is). He’d been texting with three friends, and they were in, too. Nearly all of them planned to try out for baseball in the spring of their freshman year, and the thought was that XC would get them in great shape for the spring tryouts.
Sure, I thought. Go for it, kid. It was a no-cut sport, didn’t require a ton of new equipment we didn’t have, it would be excellent exercise, and being part of a team would be a great way to get acclimated to high school life. Why not?
Now of course, freshmen can’t drive. And thankfully, I had a flexible, part-time work schedule, so between me and the other boys’ parents, we were able to manage getting the boys to and from practice every day. (While not always convenient, I absolutely loved hauling these boys around in the minivan for a year and a half, until they could drive themselves.)
By the time the first meet rolled around, they were feeling pretty good about the progress they’d made.
A few meets in, this group of freshmen boys was continuing to progress quickly, and the coach made a comment about how incredibly early on, they already felt like a team. This wasn’t surprising to me; I knew that this core group of freshmen on the XC team had been friends since second grade, but realized in that moment that the coach probably didn’t know that. In a large high school with two feeder middle schools (which had six feeder elementary schools), this wasn’t usually the case . . . freshmen drifted in, maybe with a friend, and it took some time for them to gel. But not these guys. They were taking this seriously and working their butts off, and they’d already created what felt like a team because they really knew each other, and they were willing to hold each other accountable for doing the work.
If you’ve never been to a XC meet, I’m giving you an assignment: get yourself to one. They are FUN. They’re truly the most all-around-positive high school sporting event you’ll ever attend. We tried not to miss a race, and we often ran all over the courses to be able to see Luke in several places throughout a race, and then still make it to the finish line. Thankfully, Matt was really good at looking at the route and knowing where we should stand/run to see Luke the most times during a race.
Freshman year XC was pretty successful for this crew, and because I don’t want this to be 30,000 words, and also I’m in my mid-40s and my memory is shot, I’ll have to fast-forward. I’ll simply say that they were hooked, and all of them decided that instead of going out for baseball in the spring, they wanted to run track, in order to prep for the following XC season. Because now they had a goal . . . they thought they had a chance, as a team, of making it to State by the time they were seniors.
I should interject here that somewhere in the winter of his freshman year, Luke had his first running-related injury, which I believe was runner’s knee. I took him to a walk-in orthopedic clinic, where the ortho referred us to a physical therapist, Dr. Arik Poremba, who specialized in runners. I didn’t even know that was a thing, but was thrilled that Luke could get in to see him. Right away, Luke really liked working with him, which was fortuitous because as you’ll see, he has a recurring role in this story.
Sophomore year: frankly, I don’t remember a lot of specifics, beyond that this core group ran varsity and steadily improved over their XC and track seasons. The boys’ commitment to this sport meant that they ran and ran and ran over the summer; together, on their own, while they were on vacations. Always running. Hundreds of miles of running. I’m sure Luke had some minor injuries that our PT treated him for over the year. Like I said – the details are fuzzy.
And then came their junior XC season. They just kept doing better and better as a group, and on a freezing, rainy, late-October Saturday morning in 2019, the varsity team placed second at their District meet (we called this level Regionals where I grew up in Illinois, and it’s taken me years to call it Districts, but I digress), which meant that they qualified for Sectionals the following weekend.
Sectional meet was the perfect running day* . . . sunny, but crisp and cool. The boys’ confidence was high; if they ran a pretty typical-for-them race, they’d qualify for State as a team. They also knew that many of them stood to qualify as individuals. We positioned ourselves on the route to be able to see the start, and then had a spot where we’d see them go into the woods and come back out shortly after the 1-mile marker. We knew about where Luke should be compared to his teammates, so when more and more runners passed us, without Luke being one of them, we started to worry. My first thought was that he’d gotten hurt.
*so I’m told . . . as a non-runner, no day sounds perfect for running.
Finally, he came into view, and while it was clear he was having an off day, he didn’t appear to be injured. I snapped a couple of pictures, we cheered him on, and then we moved on to our next watching spot. Matt decided to jog and see him in another spot on the trail, while Jack Henry and I made our way to the stadium, where the race was going to end. Matt texted us a couple of minutes later, saying something was wrong, but he didn’t know what. Luke had dropped back even further in the race. I was already feeling bad for him, thinking he’d just had an off day at the worst possible time.
Runner after runner crossed the finish line, and when Luke crossed onto the track for the last 300 meters or so of the race, he was hobbling a bit and looked pained. It wasn’t until he collapsed over the finish line that the fact that he was only wearing one shoe caught my eye.
His teammates were at the finish line, waiting for him, as were his coaches. Three of the boys had qualified for State with their individual finishes, but the team was not able to make the cut. The race photographer took this picture.
It was a few tearful minutes before we could make our way to him. My friend Maggie, whose daughter was running that day, too, caught a picture of us . . . she knew it might be painful in the moment, but thought we might someday like to have it, and I am so, so thankful for her thoughtfulness. It makes me cry every time I see it.
Despite his pre-race rituals and double-checking after attaching his timing chip, his shoe had simply come untied. He said he noticed about 600 meters in that it was coming loose, and he had to make a decision: stop and tie it and lose valuable time, or keep running in hopes of being able to keep it on? He chose to keep running, and somewhere right around the one-mile mark, right before we saw him, he lost his shoe. He ran the rest of the race in one shoe and one sock, and he didn’t even finish last. This makes me cry every time I think of it, too. That kid ran more than two miles in a sock over mulch and dirt and rocks, and he finished a race that he knew would not send him to State instead of quitting when he knew it was over. I was, and still am, so proud of that decision he made.
Obviously, the disappointment for Luke was crushing. He’d been running nearly daily for three XC seasons to get to this very race. For both Matt and me what followed were a couple of the hardest days we’ve had as parents — all we wanted to do was somehow make it better. I don’t disagree that adversity is an incredibly important part of life, and it builds tenacity and the ability to persevere, but in the moment, the only thing that feels right as a parent is to try to make the pain stop, and clearly, there was nothing we could do. But there was also so much support – his coaches and teammates, all also heartbroken for him, were nothing but encouraging. One told him, and then us, “I’m so thankful he’s a junior. He’s going to get another shot at this.” His teammates all showed up at our house that night, and I remember the basement being full of laughing teenagers, which made it feel like he was going to be all right.
He went to state as a spectator for his three close friends, vowing that they’d all return senior year. He knew he had a chance to redeem this, and he planned to work hard to make that happen. (Insert horrible foreshadowing music here.) Daily running and workouts continued throughout the winter of his junior year.
Then, in late January 2020, Luke injured his foot in a non-running accident . . . leaving the hotel to attend his great grandmother’s funeral, he hopped over a pile of ice and snow, not realizing that his landing spot was right on a curb that was hidden. Seems like it would be no big deal, but he was instantly in pain and knew something was wrong. He took it easy for a few days, and when it wasn’t better, the orthopedist confirmed it wasn’t broken, but thought it was likely a deep bruise, and that for it to heal, he needed to be in a walking boot for a few weeks. (Ironically, Bennett ALSO ended up in a boot at the very same time after rolling his ankle on the mound at pitching practice. Because of course he did.) After those weeks in the boot, Luke worked with his PT to get back to running. All seemed well.
And then, if you’ll recall, came March 2020. Uncertainty and fear ruled as Covid was new, school was shut down, the world was shut down. In the midst of quarantine, Luke and friends continued training on their own or meeting up at parks, running daily in preparation for a track season they hoped might somehow eventually come to fruition. Somewhere around mid-April, Luke started complaining of some pretty serious right hip pain. And look, my approach to any injury that isn’t blatantly instructing me to take the child to the ER, like a protruding bone or a tongue that has been bitten through (yes, that happened, but it is another story for another time), is give it a couple of days. Rest, take Motrin, ice it. Luke took it easier with some short runs and didn’t feel great, but it was a little less painful. He and his teammates had planned a late-April time trial, and Luke wanted to run a mile on the track to see how he’d do.
He came home from that run both proud of his 4:41 time and incredibly certain there was something very wrong with his hip. Over the next couple of days, bearing any weight on it, even with walking, was uncomfortable. Our PT examined him and recommended he see an orthopedic surgeon, who would do an MRI.
Very long story short, we had the MRI and then met this orthopedist for the first time when he walked into the room and proclaimed, “You, my friend, have a wicked stress fracture.” He proceeded to show us the MRI and xrays, the web of tiny breaks evident on the pictures of his femur. He also pointed out that Luke also had a small tear in his labrum (kind of a small ring of cartilage in the hip socket) that likely did not need surgery, but could at some point in the near or far future. Needless to say, this was not good news, and not what we hoped to hear.
Because of the location of the fracture, he did not need to be in a brace, and he was allowed to swim or bike until he could return to running. So that’s what he did, for probably eight weeks. By July he was back to rebuilding some running stamina, but he had lost a lot of training time, and XC season was fast approaching. His PT, also an 800 runner, knew that Luke had a goal of a sub-two-minute 800 in track, and he encouraged Luke to consider XC season as training for that goal.
It took Luke a bit to get on board with this idea: not scrapping XC season, but knowing that he wasn’t in top form and thus likely wouldn’t be PR’ing during the season. What ended up getting him on board was the resurgence of some hip pain after a couple of races, and we worried it was related to the small labral tear, and that it might mean surgery. Back to the PT (truly, for the last year, he’s never really not been in PT), where we found out it was not the tear. After getting that pain back under control, Luke shifted his mindset to finishing high school with a strong track season in the spring.
Luke was able to remain on varsity XC, and the team ran a final Districts race together in October, but moving on to Sectionals as a team was not to be. So, another winter of training ensued. This time Luke added in weightlifting in the off-season (this *potentially* had something to do with spring break in Florida, too), and by the time senior track season rolled around, he was in the best shape of his life.
Spring 2021 did not bring a completely normal track season, of course, as many Covid restrictions remained, which kept meets smaller and reduced the overall number. However, it really felt like the kids and coaches made the best of it; they had fun and were improving week to week. The last regular season meet is the Conference meet. Our conference is not super competitive, and we often don’t see many of the teams until this meet. However, Luke ran an excellent 800 (in a hat, in misty rain) and won the race!
A week later was the District meet. And our District is nothing like our Conference. My statistics-obsessed son could probably rattle off the percentage of runners from our district that end up placing at State, because the number is unfairly high . . . meaning it’s pretty hard to get through Districts to Sectionals and then on to State when the competition is so tough at the first round. Luke was going to be in three races: two relays and the 800. We watched as their 4×800 relay missed qualifying, finishing in fifth and needing to finish fourth or higher. It wasn’t really that close, so it wasn’t the kind of race that breaks your heart, but we were bummed for that relay that it hadn’t gone better. Luke then had a nearly four-hour break until the 800, so I worried that had set the tone for the day.
All of us watching the 800 were so. nervous. Luke was seeded fifth, but needed to finish at least fourth to advance. Play-by-play is not my forte, but I’ll sum it by saying he had a strong first 300m but was well out of the top four, started to make some moves and lane switches around that point, and by the 500m mark or so, was in third place, which was the spot he maintained to the finish line. Matt and I were both crying while cheering for at least the last 100m.
It turned out that Luke was the only distance runner from his team to advance past Districts. It’s not what the team was hoping to have happen last Saturday, and it’s not what Luke wanted, but him advancing does feel like the tiniest bit of redemption for not tying his shoe tight enough one day in November 2019, and then having the world fall apart in ways no one could’ve predicted.
Luke will run again this Saturday in his Sectional (and his teammate Xavier, a sprinter, will also represent South in two hurdles races). Again, he’ll need to place in the top four to move on the State, and let’s just say that on paper, this is an uphill battle. That sub-two-800 has been elusive, but he’s got another shot at it. Whether he reaches that goal or not, I think he can end his high school running career really proud of what he’s accomplished and grateful for the growth and experiences and what he’s learned he’s capable of doing. I know I am.
Addendum: Luke placed fifth in his sectional race, which means he didn’t move on to state. He ran a great race, and he had a huge crowd of fans there cheer him on. It was a wonderful way to end his running career.
(Huge thanks to so many people who supported Luke along the way: amazing teammates, wonderful coaches, our families who have caught races when they can and regularly texted support, and his fabulous PT and the clinic staff as well as a myriad of orthopedic specialists who have put him back together more times than I can count!)