Ode to the Average Joe

I’m not an average Joe, with an average flow. . . .
–Method Man

I think it would be fair to say that all beginning hurdlers harbor notions to one degree or another of someday competing in the Olympic Games, of taking a victory lap around the track after setting a new world record, of waving to the crowd with one hand while holding a flag of their native country above their head in the other. For a small handful, such dreams are based in reality; their talent level is high enough that they can aspire to such lofty goals. But most of us sooner or later come to the sobering realization that we can only go but so far, no matter how hard we work, no matter how much we love the sport, no matter how much we give of ourselves to the sport. Still, the “mediocre” athletes, whose chances of qualifying for the Olympic Games are less remote than their chances of winning the state lottery, also have much to offer. Those athletes who, in terms of ability, are “average Joe’s,” but are committed to bringing out the best in themselves – regardless of how ordinary their own personal “best” may be – are the ones who usually make for excellent teammates and future coaches, and they are often the ones who remind us all of what the true spirit of athletic competition entails.

I was an average Joe. With pr’s of 14.7 and 40.4 coming out of high school, no colleges were knocking at my door offering me scholarship money. I ended up going to Franklin & Marshall College – a small Division III school in Lancaster, PA (yeah, Amish country) known more for its rigorous academic standards than for any of its athletic programs. I went there because it was only two hours from where I had grown up, but mainly because I knew I’d be able to run there. I loved hurdling too much to let my career end at the age of seventeen. I wanted to find out how good I could be with another four years of training and competing. I believed that I might be able to get down into the low 14’s or maybe even the high 13’s in the 110’s. I bought a copy of Wilbur Ross’ The Hurdler’s Bible and Ken Doherty’s Track and Field Omnibook, and I also bought a subscription to Track & Field News. I studied The Hurdler’s Bible like it was The Holy Bible, and even memorized the Ten Commandments that appeared in the early part of the book. I thoroughly perused the sprinting and hurdling sections of the Omnibook. I studied track a lot more than I studied for my classes, that’s for sure. Nevertheless, even with my passion for the sport and my consistent work ethic, my pr in my freshman year was a meager 15.8 in the 110’s. I was only the fourth-best hurdler on my team, so, because only three athletes per team were permitted to compete in each event at the conference meet, I didn’t even get to run. My season was over before the first of May.

The following year, I trained very hard in the off-season, devising my own workout plans and weightlifting program, and by the time the spring season rolled around, I had improved to a point where I had surpassed the other three hurdlers on our team. Throughout the indoor season of that year, I had been feeling that I was truly learning how to hurdle. I was focusing a lot on my trail leg, on driving it through. While hurdling in practice, I would get in the habit of waiting until that moment when I felt like my hips and shoulders were on the verge of going off-line, and, right at that moment, I would thrust the trail leg upward. What a rush! The feeling of running in one continuous motion, of making those 42-inch barriers feel small. Not only that, but my coach allowed me to help plan the workouts that I and my fellow hurdlers did. I took a lot of what I read in the Omnibook about Renaldo Nehemiah’s high school training methods and adapted them for our purposes. So, hurdling was engrossing me; it was truly the only thing in life I cared about. Intellectually, learning the nuances of hurdling technique fascinated me to no end. Physically, the attempts to improve upon my technique and find my own personal hurdling rhythm thrilled me to no end. Spiritually, hurdling workouts fulfilled me in a way that simply made me feel whole.

But still, my times were mediocre.

My best race as a collegiate athlete came at the conference championships during my sophomore year. The race was a semi-final heat. In order to qualify for the finals, I would have to finish among the top four in my heat. I barely made it, although I ran the best technical race I had ever run. I had great rhythm and balance throughout the race and felt very fluid over the hurdles. Also, I ran a personal best of 15.63 over the forty-two inch barriers. I was very happy to make the finals – probably too happy, and performed very poorly in the finals, finishing dead last. After the finals race, Phil Salmon, one of my teammates, asked me what went wrong. It was the headwind, I explained, plus they put me way over in lane eight by the fence, plus I was tired from putting so much energy into the semis. Phil heard all that and promptly summed up the reason for my poor performance: “You ran outta gas, Steve.”

Looking back on it, I think I realized something in the day between the semis and the finals, and I realized it on a conscious level, which explains why I couldn’t get myself emotionally amped up for the finals. What I realized was that I would never grow to be but so good as a hurdler. Here I had trained all year long, improved significantly in regards to my technique, had added some upper body strength, yet still was only good enough to finish fourth in a semi-final heat of a conference meet in a Division III conference. The writing was on the wall, whether I wanted to read it or not.

What I remember most from that meet was that I had to beat one of my own teammates to get into the finals. Joe Mikus was his name. He was very small for a high hurdler – only about 5’8”, but was very flexible, having had some gymnastics background. He was an extremely hard worker who competed in a multitude of events, basically willing to do whatever the coach asked of him, even if it was to his own personal detriment. Joe long-jumped for us, he triple-jumped, ran the intermediates, and filled in as a relay leg wherever necessary. His best event, though, was the 110s, and I feel quite certain that if he had been more selfish, if he hadn’t been such a team player, he probably could have bettered me that day. He and I were in the same heat in the semis. I finished fourth and he finished fifth. I was the reason he didn’t go on. And although I knew I had earned my place in the finals through all the hard work I had put in, I also recognized that if hard work is the sole criterion for success, then Joe was equally deserving to move on, if not more so. After the semi-final race I approached him and asked if he had qualified. No, he said despondently, I finished fifth. So, because I made it, he didn’t, and it really didn’t seem fair, not even to me. As hard as I had worked that year, Joe had worked equally hard, and being only 5’8”, he probably worked even harder. So how was it fair that I made the finals and he didn’t, just because I was taller? It wasn’t fair. I’ll never forget what Joe said as we walked off the track together that day. I was feeling giddy, having pr’ed and having survived to see another day. Meanwhile, Joe, a senior, had seen his last chance to run in a 110 conference final fall by the wayside. Instead of trying to provide some sort of philosophical, big-picture insight, he bowed his head and made the simple observation, “I’m just too small.” I didn’t say anything in response, because Joe had pretty much said it all.

At that moment, as much as I respected Joe for his work ethic, I found myself respecting him even more for his willingness to accept the fact that, after making a valiant effort to overcome the odds, he was simply too small at 5’8” to negotiate 42” barriers as swiftly as the rest of us. If he had said it before even trying, then he would have just been quitting, just avoiding the challenge, which wouldn’t have been admirable at all. But because he said it after a tremendous amount of effort and struggle throughout his collegiate career, his words rang true and clear, and I admired his attitude, because I knew it hurt him deeply to say those words aloud. People always preach clichéd mantras like “the sky is the limit” and “you can make it if you try” and “there’s nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it,” but the average Joe’s of the world know that we are limited by our natural abilities, that we can try our hardest and still not make it, that there are things we cannot do even when we put our minds to it. Reality, unfortunately, is often much harsher, much more unforgiving, than the imagination.

As a coach, some of the athletes I’ve had the best relationships with were those who weren’t stars, who weren’t extraordinarily talented, but who had the personal qualities that I saw in my teammate Joe Mikus. One such kid, David Jones, graduated in May of 2004 and now attends Wake Forest University. DJ, as I call him, had pr’s of 15.8 and 41.5 in high school. In the beginning of the school year this past September, he asked the track coach if he could walk on. The coach asked him what his times had been in high school, and when DJ told him, the coach assured him that there was no way he could walk on. So DJ’s competitive hurdling career, unlike mine, did end at the age of eighteen. What a shame, because I’ve never coached an athlete who had more of a passion for the hurdles, nor as great of a work ethic when it came to training on a daily basis. With DJ, the numbers don’t tell the story. Even though his times were relatively mediocre, he worked very hard on his technique and, by the time he graduated, he had the best hurdling technique of any hurdler I’ve ever coached. His technique was better even than that of his own teammates who were beating him. He wasn’t as gifted an athlete as they were, but his steady progress provided me with more satisfaction than that of any of my athletes, even that of those who brought back hardware from the state championship meet.

When DJ first came out for the track team as a seventh grader, he was the skinniest, palest kid I had ever seen in a pair of running shoes. But even back then, he was always eager to get out on the track and work out. He began hurdling as a freshman, focusing on the intermediates. As a sophomore, he managed to get his 300 hurdle time down to 44.1, which was good for fourth place in the conference. He came back as a junior and went out for cross country in the fall, where he did real well for someone who had never tried that sport before, finishing the season with a personal best of 19:01 for the 5k. He then trained with me throughout the winter, and started lifting weights to build up his strength. Also, during the winter, Jacob Berton, another junior, who played football, decided he wanted to try track, so he joined us in our off-season workouts. From the first day, he was faster than DJ, although it wasn’t so obvious back then because we emphasized volume during the off-season more so than speed. But once the outdoor season hit, Jacob emerged as a force to be reckoned with, especially in the 300 hurdles. Jacob’s rapid development made DJ the odd man out in his best event, as only three athletes per team in each event can run at the conference and state meets. We already had Joe Coe and Alex Steinbaugh – our best 300 hurdlers from the previous year, returning for their senior year. Seeing Jacob’s instant success in the 300s, and seeing how he was having trouble adjusting to the tighter, less-margin-for-error 110m hurdle event, I decided to have DJ focus on the 110s just to ensure he would have an event in which to participate at the state meet. At the time, he was just beginning to three-step a whole race, and even then he was reaching noticeably to maintain the rhythm over the last three hurdles. His best time in the 110s coming into the season was a 17.5., and his best time after the first three meets of his junior year was a 17.1. Since then, after we started focusing on the 110s, he whittled his time down to a 16.9, then a 16.7, 16.5, a 16.1, and a 15.9 by the state meet. It amazed me to see how much quicker and aggressive he had become in that race. He had lowered his personal best by 1.6 seconds in one season – quite a remarkable accomplishment. He had gone from barely reaching the hurdles in the beginning of the year to powering through them by the end. As a coach, nothing is more gratifying than watching an athlete develop in such a manner, and knowing that you inspired a passion within an athlete that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Although an average Joe in terms of talent, DJ had all the qualities that coaches look for in athletes. He worked hard, he didn’t back down from tough workouts, he trained in all kinds of weather, he was a good teammate and a good leader, he fought through injuries, and he came up big when the occasion called for it. In the conference championship meet of his junior year, DJ had to run in the 4×400 because one of our members of that squad had hurt himself earlier in the meet, so DJ was his replacement. I thought that we were well enough ahead in the team scoring that DJ could run pressure-free. Just get the stick around, I told him a few minutes before the race was scheduled to start. Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker declaring that we were only one point ahead in the team scoring, and that the meet would come down to the last race – the 4×400. I walked up to DJ and looked him in the eye. “You’ve gotta run the race of your life, DJ,” I said. “You only gotta do it once. Now is the time.” He met my gaze and nodded.

He went out and ran the race of his life. He had never run better than a 56 or 55 split in a relay before, but his split this time was a 52-something. He handed off the baton in first place, and, although the race remained close, the rest of our guys never relinquished the lead. After the race, I ran up to DJ and bear-hugged him. Usually, as a coach, I try to keep my emotions in check, but I was so proud of him at that moment that a pat on the back and a “nice job” just wouldn’t do. Not only had he come through for the team when we had a man down, but, more importantly, he had proven to himself that he could do something he didn’t know he could do. The moment had presented itself, and DJ had lived up to the pressure of the moment. That’s what heroes do. That’s what the elite athletes do. That’s also what the average Joe’s do; they just aren’t as fast.

Another athlete I coached who would fall into the average Joe category was a kid named David Young, who ran for me in the late 1990s and graduated in 2000. David’s pr’s were 17.1 and 42.4. In his senior year, it was looking like he would finally get the chance to be the best hurdler on our team. Our other good hurdlers had graduated, so it was David’s year to step up and be the man. Then, in the beginning of the outdoor season, a frail junior named Cameron Akers came out for the team and decided he wanted to try the hurdles. Cameron, to quote the old saying, took to the hurdles like a fish takes to water. Cameron ran a sub-16.0 in his first full race, and went on to run a 14.40 at the state meet that year. In three months, Cameron went from learning how to hurdle to being one of the top fifty high school hurdlers in the country. But David took it so well. Not only did he not pout and complain, but he helped Cameron a great deal through words and by example; in fact, he even gave Cameron a ride home from practice every day. He could have caused much divisiveness if he had wanted to, but he didn’t, and I respected him for that. I thanked him for that. If anyone had a right to complain about being replaced, it was David, but his attitude and approach to practicing and competing didn’t change. Such selflessness and quiet yet effective leadership isn’t average at all; it is indeed quite rare.

For most of us, our passion for the hurdles doesn’t take us to an Olympic medal stand. In my case, it led to my becoming a high school track coach. Little did I know that when I was studying The Hurdler’s Bible and The Track & Field Omnibook, I was preparing for my future career. Little did I know that while I was doing all I could to better myself, I was actually preparing to better the lives and athletic careers of kids who weren’t even born yet at the time I was struggling through college. Little did I know that while I was planning my own workouts, I was preparing to plan workouts for the rest of my life. Little did I know.

So, all you average Joe’s out there, stop telling yourself you’re average. Greatness comes in many forms, and not all of them are obvious. Be true to the hurdles – that’s what I always say – and the hurdles will be true to you. No doubt.

© 2004 Steve McGill

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