I paced the hall, looking at my watch. My mother was upstairs. “Let’s go!” I yelled again. We finally got going on the drive from the Crescent Hill neighborhood in Louisville, where I had spent all my years, to Atherton High School in the Highlands. I was going to my first cross country practice. School would start in a couple weeks. At least my mother didn’t dawdle with the driving. She loved her new RX-7. The rotary engine was so smooth. We arrived at exactly 9:00 am in the school’s parking lot. I didn’t know the other kids, but one caught my eye. He rode up on a BMX-style bicycle and wore a white bicycle cap. He was little, but had some attitude. A minute later, a truck drove up with another, older kid. Coach Worful walked over to the truck, and then it turned and drove away.
Coach called us over to the sidewalk sternly. He said David and I had been a minute late. Since we were underclassmen, he would give us this one break. Jeff had also been late, but was an upperclassman, so he was sent home. I said by my watch I had actually gotten there right on time. He said we go by his watch.
We did some stretches for a warm-up, and then coach explained the 5 mile loop we were to run. We started off together. Not all of us knew the neighborhood. It was about 5 miles from my house to the school. I had some friends who lived in the Highlands. I rode my bike back and forth occasionally, but still needed to get my bearings.
About halfway through the run, as we were starting back toward the school, Dave picked up the pace noticeably. He and I had ended up at the front, and the rest of the group was strung out behind us. He bounced along, his heels popping up to his shorts with every stride. I picked it up along with him. It took some effort, but it felt good. It reminded me of the pace lines we learned doing rides with the Youth Bikers of Louisville (YBOL). Joe Ward, an experienced cyclist, sponsored the group, and I participated during middle school. We did several long two-day trips. A group of us would fall into line and take turns leading so that the rest of us could draft. The leader would always push to either keep or pick-up the pace. It felt like we were flying. It was a great way to knock off a bunch of miles in a hurry.
Similarly I followed Dave. I stayed on him, even as the pace started to burn my lungs and legs. We had completely broken away from the rest of the group. I wasn’t sure of the last turns, so I wanted to stay close. When we made the last turn on to Emerson, I relented a let Dave get a few steps ahead of me. This was my first run, ever, aside from some short jogs with a neighbor around the Crescent Hill reservoir. We strode toward the school. David looked back, then signaled me to close the gap. He said we’d finish together. Coach was waiting with the clipboard at the front of the school. He wrote in his book, but he didn’t let on what he was thinking. Neither did Dave. I would find out later.
David was the second man on the team, behind Jeff. He was a sophomore, and had started running in middle school. He was taken aback by this tall lanky new kid, who couldn’t be shaken during a hard run. He wanted us to finish together because he was completely whipped and didn’t want to risk that I would pass him. I found that out much later, after David and I became best friends. Beginning with that first practice, we ran together almost every day for the next four years. David and I still run together, though much less frequently. He has paced me at two of my 100 mile runs: Mohican and Vermont. He will join me for the final 38 miles of Western States this year.
Though coach Worful didn’t let on with me, he did have a talk with my parents. I found out years later, after high school, that Coach had arranged a secret meeting with my parents at a restaurant near the school. He wanted them to know about my potential.
What do we mean by potential? I ran faster than the other kids. But that was true right off the bat, without training. Potential is about what can happen given a methodical intervention. If we cared about improvement, the greatest potential would be with our slowest athletes, because they have the most room to improve. I started out fit and active, so my improvement was gradual. While improvement certainly has value, we care more about kids’ ability to stand out in a chosen endeavor. When Coach alerted my parents to my potential, he meant my potential to stand out among high school runners in Kentucky and beyond.
It is uncontroversial to say that there are wide variations between individual people. Idiosyncratic differences between people allow us to be individuals, and to develop our own talents. Our parents were constantly trying to show each of us how we had something we were good at, whether it was music, art, or science. There are indexes of human performance, though, that are general enough you’d think everyone would wish to “have more” of it. Take intelligence, for example. It’s a good thing for everyone to be able think about and remember things, right, so why should it be that some have more intelligence than others? The capacity to develop aerobic fitness seems that way to me as well. Wouldn’t it be nice for everyone to have more of it? You should feel ripped off if you aren’t able to develop your capacity to use oxygen just about as quickly as everybody else. All of our ancestors, at one time or another must have been tested in just such a capacity. It would have benefitted anyone to be able to work more quickly to find something of value or to avoid danger.
For all our uniqueness, we have strikingly similar morphologies. Surgeons do not have to wait until they have cut into a patient to know what organs they will find in which positions, or how each does its job. They learned by studying a cadaver. Any cadaver. Coaches do not have to figure out the unique physiology of every athlete. Runners respond to training in predictable ways.
Yet, some runners have potential to stand out; potential that compels its own fulfillment. I can tell you that I didn’t wait for my mother to take me to any more practices that summer. I rode my bike.