Updated: Jul 8, 2020
(Warning: this post contains explicit bragging about how great I was at track and field, continue at own risk. Also, let’s read this post as if it’s in the world of a soap opera and everybody is overly dramatic)
I went to State Track my senior year of high school in 2012, and was in first place when I fell over the last hurdle in the 300m hurdles championship race.
What lessons could be learned from this?
Well to answer that, we have to go back to seventh grade. It was just a few years after my brother Matty had gone to state for high jump, and I felt like I needed to reach the bar that he set (both figuratively and literally, lol). So I was at the first meet of my track career participating in high jump, my very first event. And after a performance that could only be described as a A+ for effort, I got 8th place. And I cried. I cried because I didn’t hit the expectations I had set for myself. One of the seniors on my team tried to make me feel better, saying it was just my first try, but I wasn’t buying it.
I had a plan for that day and that event and it didn’t pan out.
Well thankfully, the guy was right, I got better as I got older. Doing well in long and triple jump, pole vault, hurdles, and high jump. I looked forward to track every single year, because I was pretty good and it was fun hanging out with my friends at meets and at practice.
But it wasn’t until my junior year when things started to really take shape. It was the first outdoor meet of the year and just like every other meet before, I was running hurdles. We lined up at the starting line for the 300m hurdles, the gun went off, we jumped over some hurdles, I got first, and ran over to Coach Thompson to tell him my time.
“42.02?” he asked.
“Nathan, state qualifying is 42 seconds. You missed state by .02.”
And like that a switch was flipped. I became possessed with qualifying for state.
But it was not an easy road.
My next meet I missed state with a time of 42.54. Hundredths of a second again. After that was Pembina, I once again missed by milliseconds with a time of 42.35. Frustrating. And during that race I pulled/strained the quadriceps in both of my legs. I’m not totally sure how, probably a combination of not enough stretching and the cement track there. Either way, it was extremely painful. I remember describing the pain as someone trying to pull the muscles out of my leg whenever I extended. And in the hurdles that’s pretty much all you do.
But I ran through the pain, because I wanted state more than anything. My next meet was just two days later in Langdon and I ran a time of 42.54 again. So frustrating.
Every night I would lay in an ice bath and every practice I would stretch my quads. I barely even remember running any other events that year, the 300s was all I thought about.
(please forgive the ice pun)
Coach Thompson had me sit out a couple weeks to heal up, because if I couldn’t get over that hump of a hundredth of a second, then maybe I could do it by placing at regionals at the end of the year. But nothing was worse than sitting at home and watching people get first in something you usually did. Ice baths, muscle rollers, and elastic stretching bands were my friends.
I came back for the final meet of the year, regionals. If you came in first or second you automatically went to state regardless of time. But still injured and quads hurting as bad as ever, I ran through the pain, got third; with another even more frustrating time of 43.25, and missed state (they changed it the very next year so that top 3 went to state, because of course). Thompson did have me run in the 4×1 relay that day for the second time all year and we got first and made it to state.
State was as incredible as I imagined it would be. But it wasn’t enough. We failed to place in the 4×1, but the experience was so much fun and I knew I’d be back. And thus ended my extremely disappointing and frustrating junior year of track. Did I mention frustrating?
I decided that I was going to win state for Mr. Thompson. Coach Thompson was, among many other classes, the social studies teacher, the anthropology teacher, and one of the history teachers. He was the football coach and the track coach. He’s one of the hardest workers in the school (though there’s a lot of hard workers in that school). He coached track for 20+ years and had coached many runners and jumpers and throwers to state. But no one was able to bring him home the gold. Which he deserved more than most (he did win Coach of the Year in 2011, which was awesome).
And just the fact that he was able to send anybody to state was incredible. Because our school doesn’t have a track, or a field. Mr. Thompson sets up four hurdles in the carpeted halls of our school building and we practice over those. We practice triple and long jump by jumping off the stage onto the high jump mat. And the 300s, the race I made my name in, was practiced by setting up one hurdle at the end of the long hallway. That was our only experience with these events outside of actual competition. And it is such a testament to just how great of a coach that Thompson is. He did what he could with what he had and did it better than anyone else who had more. His brilliant coaching method trains our brains and body with muscle memory. We didn’t have to practice on an actual track or field because when we would get to the meets, our brain would remind our bodies what to do.
Drive the knee, snap the leg down, drive the knee, snap the leg down.
Mr. Thompson deserved a championship the second he put a stopwatch around his neck, and I was going to give that to him.
Much of the offseason was spent looking forward to track starting up again. I remember multiple times laying in bed at night at least as early as October, imagining running the 300s, and my heart would literally be beating out of my chest. I wanted state. I wanted a plaque. And I wanted that championship.
During the winter, our school debuted our new weight room, bigger and better than it was before. Everyday after school I’d be in there. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday working on my lower body, to avoid a repeat injury. And Tuesday and Thursday working on my upper body.
And then track FINALLY started up again and I had never been so excited. I broke the indoor triple jump record for our co-op the second meet of the season. Just a small taste of what the season would bring.
Before each race of this season, I would say the same thing every single time as I got down into the starting blocks.
“Runners to your marks.”
“Feel the movement, feel the pressure, feel the movement, feel the pressure.” I would whisper to myself (a line from the song “Down” by Thousand Foot Krutch from their album “The End is Where We Begin,” an album I can’t even listen to without thinking of state track).
“I can do all through Christ who strengthens me, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, I can do…”
Every single race. It helped me focus and concentrate and amp myself up.
And then, the second outdoor meet of my senior year, it happened. It finally happened. I raced in my main event, the 300s, and made it to state with a handheld time of under 40; coming in at 40.84 when the computer came back with the actuals.
I was flying high. I couldn’t believe it. It finally happened.
That’s one of my favorite pictures of all time. The 300s the day I qualified. No other runners in sight. And my dad looking on in the background. This was the year my dad retired from the farm, so he was able to attend every single one of my meets. And it was awesome.
Not long after that, still riding high, I lined up for the 110m hurdles. The gun went off, adrenaline pumping, I jumped over some hurdles, got first, and qualified for state in that too. I was legitimately shocked. I hadn’t even really thought about the prospect of qualifying in the 110s, my mind was always on the 300s. I was so shocked and elated and wasn’t thinking that I hugged a few of the opponents still standing on the track with me. I shouted into the air.
It felt incredible. There is nothing like winning in sports.
The season just got more and more fun from there. Two meets later and I qualified in the triple jump also. I still remember the feeling after landing in the sand and then hearing the length of the jump. I shouted into the air again. Hugged and high fived a few of my friends and my dad and Coach Thompson. Went back to where our team had set up camp. High fives and congratulations all around. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Every time I’d qualify or break a record, an announcement would come over the intercom during the school day congratulating me. It seemed like every other day that happened (just kidding, probably every third day). I had the two fastest times in the 300s in the state. The third fastest in the 110s. I was in a few newspapers across the state including a “runners to watch” in the Bismarck paper. I was interviewed for a piece in the Grand Forks Herald.
Our normal “Class B” meets would get flooded out so we went to a couple “Class A” meets. Beat everyone there too. One of those in particular was at the Devils Lake track. One of my proudest moments that year came in the triple jump event, when one of their coaches was talking to an athlete about their technique while I was taking my turn. After my jump I walk by and I hear the coach say, “Just do what he’s doing.” A jump later I broke their track’s triple jump record.
At one point in the season I had nine first places in a row. Going unbeaten in my events in three straight meets. Out of 33 events that I competed in that year, I got first in 20 of them, and second in 7 of them. Because I had already qualified in my main events, I started doing other events that I’d neglected or had never tried. Tried the 400m dash for the first time, got third, and threw up in the nearest trash can (who knew you had to “pace yourself”?). Tried the high jump for the first time since junior year and got 4th place, which was my worst finish since my sophomore year.
I promise I’m not saying all this just to brag (though it is cool, right?). I’m saying all this so you’ll feel maybe a fraction of the heartbreak when I get to the end of the story.
When regionals rolled around I just about had it with the regular season, I wanted state then and there. It was bad, rainy day, I ran and jumped, then went home. I graduated the next day and then we had a week of practice leading up to the big weekend.
The first day I ran the 300m hurdle prelims and got first in my heat. Boom. Let’s do this. Okay, what’s next? Ran the 110 prelims and came in first in my heat there too. But whatever… 300s, 300s, 300s. Had a bad day in triple jump and came in ninth. Oh well… 300s.
Day one came to a close and we went to our hotel. I was so nervous that night I showered twice for no apparent reason. I paced the floor while listening to “Strong Enough” by Matthew West on repeat a million times. That song had Philippians 4:13 in the bridge, which was my verse of the season, as I had mentioned before.
As I paced, I prayed. I was legitimately concerned this was going to be a teaching moment. The race was mine to lose. The only way I’d lose was if something terrible would happen. I literally told God, “I know that if I lose, it’s going to be for a reason and it’s going to be for a lesson. But I don’t want a lesson, I want to win.”
Okay. Don’t misunderstand me. “Pride cometh before a fall,” right? This wasn’t me being prideful, I promise. This was me begging that all the hard work would pay off. After six years of track; and of chasing other runners. Throughout the years, Thompson would often give updates about runners from other towns. He would say, “So and so from Grafton just qualified…” “You’ll have to run hard this weekend if you want to beat so and so…” “So and so is running really well right now so you have to bring your A-game…” Well this was the year that other coaches were warning their runners about me. This year other runners were chasing me.
I prayed all night long for strength and then fell asleep.
This was the day. The 300m hurdles championship race. My mom, dad, brother Lucas, sister-in-law Jen, and nephew Eliab were there to cheer me on. As we were at the starting line getting ready for the race, Luke and my dad met me over there to wish me luck and to offer advice on what turned out to be dreary, wet day. They headed over to the stands by the finish line as we all started to get into position.
You may have noticed by now or have known this about me for years, but I have a flair for the dramatic. As I got down into my onto the track, before the starter had even said a word, I said, “It all comes down to this.”
And I meant it. I didn’t just say it so I can use it for the tagline of the movie I’m going to make about this (coming soon to a theater near you). This was it. This is what it all lead to.
“Runners to your marks!”
Feel the movement, feel the pressure
I can do all things
We took off down the track.
(MY HEART IS BEATING OUT OF MY CHEST AS I’M TYPING THIS)
I started slow but had a steady pace. Too steady. I was in fifth place at the 150m mark and I remember clear as day thinking these exact words, “If I’m going to win this, I have to turn it on right now.”
I reached down for the strength that I had left in my body. And in the last half of the race, I passed everybody. I was in first place by the time I reached the second to the last hurdle. The state championship was in my sights.
I was going to bring a championship to Drayton. I was going to bring a championship to the Aufenkamps. I was going to bring a championship to Mr. Thompson.
And then, it happened.
I jumped over the final hurdle of the race and caught the foot of my trail leg on the hurdle. I hit the ground hard.
There was an audible gasp from the crowd.
I was passed by two runners. I clamored forward, crawling across the ground and reached my hand across the finish line and collapsed. The other runners then flew by.
“You have to get your whole body across the finish line.” I heard somebody yell.
NO. I knew that! I totally knew that! Why didn’t I do that?? I quickly got up, stumbled across the finish line, and fell back down.
I got ninth place. Ninth place doesn’t get a plaque. In a matter of about two seconds, I went from state champion to ninth place.
I have no idea how long I laid on the track. Lucas later told me it was probably close to a minute, but it felt like days. A lady who was setting up the track for the next race told me I had to get off the track. By this point I was crying. I crawled off the track and onto the grass. I crawled over to where they had put our sweats and where the other runners were collecting theirs. I got a few pats on the back from them. The first place finisher told me I was the winner of that race. I couldn’t compose myself.
Before I could take too many steps, the same reporter from earlier in the season caught up to me to ask me about the race. Through tears and sobs I tried to answer his questions.
(OKAY I’M CRYING NOW, ARE YOU HAPPY??)
It felt like a bad movie. As I talked to the reporter I could see Luke and my dad sitting in the stands, halfway between the finish line and where I was headed. I finished talking with him and started walking back to where my team had made camp. As I walked, guys that I had met through track and had friendships with throughout the years stopped me and told me not to worry and how sorry they were for how the race turned out.
The walk back felt like forever.
When I finally arrived back to the camp, Thompson was the first person I saw. Through sobs I hugged him and told him how sorry I was. He of course told me that it was okay and that I should be proud of what I accomplished. That initial hug stuck with me ever since, so happy to have had a coach like Thompson. My dad and Lucas then saw me and we hugged and I cried some more. At one point I was sitting on the grassy incline with Lucas on one side and Thompson on the other, I stupidly asked Luke what I had done for this to happen. And he of course told me it wasn’t anything I had done (other than not lift my foot high enough, but you know what I mean). A few of my teammates told me not to worry and encouraged me. Including my two favorites, Becka and Morgan, who had traveled four and a half hours just to watch me run.
I cried for maybe twenty minutes and was still sniffling when the assistant track coach, the late, great, Mr. Jongetjes, got up out of his seat at the top of the hill. He walked down the incline and stood in front of where I was sitting. He loved sports and knew I loved sports and so he told me a story he knew that I’d relate to. He told me about Tom Osborne, the coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers from 1973-1997. When in the 1984 National Championship, Osborne decided to go for two to win it, instead of going the safe route with the PAT and tying it up. But the two point conversion failed and the Huskers lost by one point in the championship.
And then Jongetjes said something that has stuck with me all these years.
“Osborne had to wait ten years, you have two hours.”
Wow. Point taken. He was alluding to how it wasn’t until 1994 that Osborne finally got his championship. I lost my championship but still had a chance at a plaque and I was going to take it. That amped me up. I was still heartbroken but remembered I still had a race left.
Thompson pointed me to where I could start stretching for the race and I immediately did so. Thanks to my dad, brother, Jongetjes, and Mr. Thompson, I was ready to go again. Let’s do this.
The time came for the race and all my focus was shifted to the 110s after two years of it being firmly held on the 300s. I did my thing, the gun went off, and I ran harder than I had ever ran before. I clocked my fastest 110 hurdles time ever at 15.84 and came in third place. Finally getting that state track plaque.
I hadn’t won but at that point it didn’t matter. I was riding high again. The first place finisher and I were still shouting our excitement at the finish line while the other guys were walking off. He came over to me and put his arm around me and told me not to worry about those 3s. I thanked him. As I was walking away the reporter caught up to me one more time, this time I could speak clearly. I told him it doesn’t take the sting away from what happened, but it was a great consolation prize.
When I got back to camp, I was congratulated by Thompson, Jongetjes, my teammates, my parents and Lucas and Jen. And even the english/history teacher, Mr. Gardner, who made the trek with his wife to see Drayton compete, was there. He is one of my favorite teachers of all time, neck and neck with Mr. Thompson. He’s possibly the smartest person I’ve ever met and I have loads and loads of respect for him. When I saw him he congratulated me and told me how my character was revealed in how I responded to the loss. He said I should be proud of what I accomplished. And that too has stuck with me ever since.
State didn’t end the way I wanted it to, but that’s going to happen.
Regardless of what I wanted, I still learned the lesson I didn’t want.
Here’s one of them:
The most desirable outcome isn’t always going to be the best outcome. What I wanted to happen didn’t happen, and I am somehow thankful for that. Haha. Bear with me as I say something stupid, a lot of people came in first that day. Only one fell. That sounds as ridiculous as it was to type, but hear me out. Ever since then people have told me they remember the fall, but not who came in first. Including the very next day with a family I’d never met at a graduation party I was at with Lucas in his town. And the last being just last summer when someone told me they still remember seeing me fall. I truly question whether a state championship would have been as memorable. It gave me a great story to tell, and I love stories. A negative isn’t always a negative. Sometimes pain is more memorable than success, and that’s not always a bad thing.
One of my favorite group of verses of all time is found in the first chapter of James and it fits well here.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of various kinds. For you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
If you haven’t figured out what God is trying to show you, maybe He just hasn’t finished the work he started (Philippians 1:6).
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28
And we may not know why some things happen, but if you keep looking for the reasons, God will reveal them to you in time.
It only becomes a true negative, when you stop looking for the lessons.