The Unnecessary Running Shoes

A Child Comes Home

As I write these lines, my oldest son JP is heading north, from Charlottesville, VA to Ohio. It’s his first visit home since he left for college. Getting to see him again has me thinking. 

I am thinking about the arc of his life. I am thinking about his past. About the things in his life that have helped him become who he is. About the way grace has reached down, more than once, into his life and given him a path to run on, helped shape his character. About the way God the Father has fathered him, in time, in the tissue of his experiences.

Squash has obviously been one area that helped JP grow as a young man. But that is an obvious area, one where I invested much over many years. I’ve already thought and written a lot about that.

Today, I’m thinking about Cross Country and Track – because these were surprise graces in his life. Unexpected. Unsought. Unplanned. Experiences that came to him after a deep disappointment and setback. Yet these two experiences did so much to shape, round out and complete his later high school experience. 

As I reflect on them now, they strike me as a stirring example of how God’s grace intersects with a human life. A concrete way God’s fatherhood can be seen in a boy’s life.

A Season Cancelled

The story begins in August 2020. JP’s junior year in high school. JP had just switched schools from a private high school to our local public school, Loveland High School. He had enrolled into a program called the College Credit Plus program, which enables high school students to take college classes (from the University of Cincinnati), earning college and high school credits at the same time. For JP, this program offered him a schedule that would more readily fit with his desire to train, travel and compete at the semi-professional level in Squash. He wanted to be able compete on the world stage in his final two years of high school. For that he needed to travel more, to be free to miss school more and to make it up on the road.

It sounded great at the time.

Until Covid hit.

As a result of Covid, all squash competitions for the 2020-2021 season were canceled. But JP had already changed schools by the time we found this out. So now JP was in a new school environment, taking classes on a college campus, with no social support system and unable to play the sport where he had long found meaning and challenges. He was like a small and solitary boat, out at sea, in choppy waters. I was worried about him.

That’s for background. We didn’t know how we were going to handle this situation. 

Cut to August 24, 2020. School had just started. JP’s brother, a freshman, was running a cross country meet at his school. He attended the same public school, Loveland, where JP was now enrolled. This was the first sporting event any of our children had participated in since the pandemic started. I was so moved by the beauty of it that the moment I returned to the car I tapped out a little Facebook post. Little did I suspect what would come of this post. 

Here’s what I wrote:

“I want to sing a song of wonder at the beauty of sport. And the drama of the human spirit breaking forth – through sinews and sweat drops. Today was Alexander’s first cross country meet of the season. The first time I’ve seen a sporting event since the lockdown started. I had forgotten what a beautiful thing sport is. How little souls can push themselves out onto life’s stage, where they strive and falter and grow. In little moments, more beautiful and fleeting than a hummingbird in air. It was a thing of exquisite beauty: in the evening light, amid cheers, beneath the loving gaze of family, in the midst of neighborly camaraderie. Beauty falling like sunlight over a hundred little spirits as they spread their wings in a new way tonight, like a flock of butterflies in sudden flight. I’m feeling grateful to have been there.”

Turns out that was a fateful post because, as it happened, one of my old grade school friends happened to see it. She saw the Loveland uniforms in the photograph and wrote me a comment a few hours after I posted it. 

“Small world! My boss is the Loveland High School Cross Country Coach.”

The Coach’s name is Steve Nester. By afternoon, he’s the Loveland High School Cross Country coach; by day, he’s the owner of two Buckeye Running Stores. I had yet to meet him but I knew who he was. 

I told my friend I would stop by the store sometime to say hi. I hadn’t seen her in years. I said I wanted to buy a pair of shoes to support Coach Nestor’s business. I didn’t need the shoes but I wanted to support his program in this way. I said I would try and stop by soon. 

A Season Begun

As the curious paths of grace would have it, an old work friend reached out to me at the beginning of the next week, wanting to connect for coffee. The place where we ended up meeting was just down the street from the Buckeye Running Store. So on my way home, I headed over, a small little road side store on Beechmont Road. So small I actually passed it and had to make a U-turn to find my way back. 

But I found it.

I remember walking in, unsuspecting that I was stepping into an encounter that would prove an extraordinary blessing for my son. Something so magnificent I hadn’t even thought to pray for it. 

It was quiet. The store was empty. There was one middle aged man there. Couple of years of older than me. I said: “Is Chris here?” Asking about my friend.

“She’s not,” he said, “But are you Neal? She said you might be stopping by.” 

“I am,” I said. “Are you, Steve?”

He nodded. It was Coach Nester. We shook hands. I told him how great the meet was last Friday. I thanked him for coaching the team. I said I wanted to buy a pair of shoes. 

We spoke a little. Then he asked: “How’s JP doing? I remember from when he was on my son’s Cross Country team.” 

In grade school, JP ran cross country with a neighborhood team. Steve and I never met, but our sons ran together. I remembered his son but hadn’t made the connection that Steve was his father.

“He’s doing well,” I said. “He actually transferred to Loveland under the CCP program. But it’s hard for him because they have cancelled the squash season. I wish he had something like cross country to participate in . . . ”

It was a throw away comment. The season had already started. Kids on the cross country team had been running all summer. They had all established their early season base of training. My experience with high school coaches was they did not make exceptions. They wanted their kids to be all in. No late comers.   

But to my shock Steve quickly replied: “I’ll make a spot for him. I remember JP. He would be great to have on the team.” 

I explained JP had squash practices in the fall. 

“I’ll work around his schedule,” Steve said. 

I was thrilled, though I didn’t have the slightest inkling of what sort of dominoes, in a grand and mighty row, now stood ready to fall. I was just glad to have a way to plug JP into an athletic community at school, to give him a sense of striving and belonging. 

I told JP about the encounter later that evening. 

“Uggh, I don’t wanna run cross country,” he said. “I’m not even in shape for that.” 

It was not the response I hoped for. 

“Give it a shot,” I urged him. It’s better than going a whole fall and winter season without a sport.

As I think back, I can’t really remember how I got him over the hurdle. JP now tells me I gave him no choice. Perhaps so. He would have needed a firm push. Cross country is a brutal sport. JP remembered this from grade school. Long, draining practices, runs in the rain and cold and mud. Races impossible to win, milestones marked by seconds shaved off of prior best times. Crowded and elbowy running lanes. It’s the kind of sport you can only love from the inside, once you have steeled yourself to the costs, hardened your emotions, set your mind. 

Anyway, using some kind of fatherly magic (a little pressure, a little salesmanship) I got him to go to the first practice. Then the second. I think we had a deal to just give it two weeks, then evaluate. He largely hated it. But the weather was good then. The fall days were sunny, breezy, bright. The chills of deep fall had yet not set in. JP grew quickly to like the guys on the team. They welcomed him. In time he kind of paired up with a boy, Ryan, that he remembered from his grade school running days. They had raced against each other, each at the top of their respective teams. Ryan had matured, had stuck to running and was now the lead runner on Loveland’s team. JP also remembered the #2 runner, AJ. AJ had won the state championship when he was in 8th grade and JP was in 7th. So JP came to feel that he was back in a flow he had once known. Always a competitor, he realized that he kind of liked it – despite the difficult elements. It felt great to be a part of something. 

The Early Going

In short order, it was time for JP’s first meet. He – and I – imagined his old competitive juices would rush to the surface and he would thrive and shine in this meet, surpassing everyone’s expectations. 

It was not so. 

I remember him looking grieved and grimaced as he worked his way through that race. If pain had a face, it was etched on JP’s face that day. His finish was neither great, nor terrible. But his high school Track and Cross Country career was, in a way, born that day. It would proceed like any meaningful undertaking would proceed. Steps forward, steps back. Frustrations. Boredom. Bright spots. Mini-victories.

One of the bright spots was JP’s discovery that, while he could not compete with the top 5 or 6 guys on the team in long distance running, his star shone in the short sprints they did in practice. The 100 yd sprints up hills, the 400 and 800m intervals. There he could run with or outrun the top runners. It made him feel good to find this niche. He also discovered he had a good kick. If he could get close to a runner at the finish, he could pass that runner before the tape. With these building blocks, he started rising among the runners on the team. 

Many of these boys became dear friends, in a way that was unexpected. JP had been a member of the Young Life Christian community since Freshman year. He invited many of his cross country friends to their gatherings. They came. That group of boys grew a lot that season and JP’s friendships deepened as a result of it. These boys strived in sport together and explored their faith together. Deep friendships – friendships for life – were born.

It was also a major bright spot for the team that, for the first time in school history, they qualified for the State Championships that season. JP was the first alternate and didn’t get to make the trip, but it was a great victory for his friends. A great morale booster for the program. 

But what was perhaps the most enduring outcome of that season was the invitation JP received from his new friends to run on the Track team in the Spring. JP had played spring volleyball in grade school and enjoyed it. He is tall, with good reflexes and knew the coach of the volleyball team. He had been planning to play. But his Cross Country teammates prevailed upon him and he chose Track.

Track – A New Discovery

This would be a fateful choice. Turns out he is a near natural at the 400m and 800m. He did increasingly well in those events as the season wore one, competing well in the 400m, qualifying for regionals, and then joining the top 3 runners on the Cross Country team on the 4 x 800m relay. That team would qualify to run at State where they shocked everyone with a breakout performance, finishing 2nd.  It was a thrill, the kind that still stirs up goosebumps to think about. An astonishing experience that bonded JP to his teammates even more and sealed his love for Track and Cross Country. 

He would sign up for both again the next year, even though the Squash schedule was up and running again and competed for his time.

In the Cross Country season of his senior year, JP earned a spot on the team that once again qualified for State – for the second year in a row. There he labored in a sport he was not so much built for, but he could be a meaningful contributor to the team’s effort. He played his part.

The real magic happened in the Track season in the Spring of ’22. JP’s senior year. 

This year JP began to specialize in the 800m individual race, as well as run again on the 800M relay team. I remember an early race on a cold and rainy night in April. JP labored in that race and finished poorly. It was a bleak finish on a bleak night, the kind of experience that might discourage the faint of heart. But JP kept working at his event until one fine evening, 8 weeks later, he set the ECC divisional meet record for the individual 800M race. This was the last race before Districts and Regionals, then State. JP was finding his stride. 

All that said, and leaving much unsaid, there are two moments that stand out in memory from that Track season. Two moments of particular grace. One happened during a loss; the other during a victory. Both equally precious.

First: the loss. The dropped baton.

The Dropped Baton

It was a Friday night. The District Finals.  Districts is a two day affair with both a team and an individual dimension. Loveland’s team had a shot to win it all this year, to beat their rivals St. X and Mason. JP had already qualified for Regionals in the 800m individual race and his team had qualified for the 4 x 800m relay. All that was left was to see which team, as a whole, would be crowned District Track Champs, across all events.

The team championship came down to the final race. The final race! The 4 x400 M relay. By that point, Loveland was in first place, leading by just a few points over perennial powerhouse, St. X. St. X wins state championships with the regularity that most people eat a steak dinner. Pretty often. It would have been a major feat to beat them. But all Loveland had to do was outscore their 4×4 team on this event and they would win. 

The race was shaping up beautifully. 3 legs were done. I forget which teams were in first and second at that point in the race. But I know St. X was coming into the final handoff in 3rd, maybe two steps ahead of Loveland. JP was to run Loveland’s anchor leg. JP is a gamer and we liked our chances. 

The race was tight. There were like 4-5 handoffs all happening at the same time. It was mayhem. The energy was electric. The St. X guy races into the handoff. JP is standing right next to him, waiting, hand outstretched. The handoff happens. JP gets the baton. There are a bunch of guys all clumped together. JP grabs the baton, turns and begins to sprint. 

Boom! He goes down in a heap. Hard to tell what happened, guys were so bunched together. He and the St. X boy who had just handed off the baton got tangled up. Did the boy from St. X turn into JP’s lane? Was JP too hasty in trying to turn into the inside lane? Couldn’t tell. 

All we knew was JP was down. Down hard. Looked hurt. The 1, 2 and 3 runners, including St. X, sprinted off, rounding the track in a pack of thunderous, pounding feet. JP was still down, stunned. The air of the Loveland section was completely sucked out of the room. If ever there were a forlorn moment at a track meet, this was it. Such disappointment. No way JP could catch St. X. No way they would win the meet now. 

But JP hops up. And there unfold this moment, frozen in time, laden with the weight of life’s deepest meaning. It’s like one of those moments you dream of. The dropped boxer who hops up with belief in his eyes. There is no reason for JP to keep running – so it seemed. The race was lost. Take the DQ one might think. Feign injury. Every single one of the runners is well ahead of you by now. The disappointment was thick and heavy, like the night-time sky. 

JP gets up anyway. He starts running. Slowly at first. Unsure whether he was hurt. He starts gradually to pick up steam. By 200 yards he nears the back of the pack. He keeps running. He rounds the bend into the final stretch. Getting closer to the pack. St. X is just about at the finish line. Meet over. They would be crowned the champs. 

JP keeps running. Barreling down the final stretch. He senses he can catch the #7 runner, from Moeller. He accelerates, full kick on. He catches the kid from Moeller and sprints across the finish. He does not finish last.

I was so proud. When nothing was on the line but pride and grit, he ran anyway. When struck in the face with the deepest of disappointments, he ran anyway. 

After the race, I texted him to tell him I was proud of him. A few minutes later a text came back:

“Thanks.”

Then a few minutes later:

“Oh, Dad, Coach just told me that because I caught the Moeller kid before the tape, that gave us one extra point for the race. That point enabled us to edge out Sycamore for 3rd place. By a ½ point. A 2nd place finish is the best District finish for our team in school history. It’s the most points we have ever scored in District Finals in school history.”

And this he did without even thinking that anything was on the line except the dignity of finishing a race that you start. The dignity of running with your head held high.  The value of competing as though everything hung in the balance, even when it seemed like nothing did. 

I can scarcely think of a better life lesson to learn from sport. 

State Champions – the 4 x 800m Relay

Second moment of grace: the victory.

Two weeks later. JP’s 4 x 800m relay team earned the right to compete at State. They had qualified with the fastest time recorded in Ohio that season. JP had also qualified, individually, in the 800m race, but I will leave that part out of this story. 

I want to talk about JP’s relay team. At some point in the season, I’m not sure when, these boys decided they had what it takes to win a state championship. They began to train that way, to believe that way. They had only lost one runner from last year’s team and a gamer, Junior Cayden Dyer, had stepped in to fill his place. 

The story of this race deserves to be retold in its entirety for it represented an athletic experience of a lifetime.

At the start of the race, the runners filed in, a sea of colors filling Jesse Owens Stadium on the campus of Ohio State University. Reds, Oranges, Blacks, Golds, Whites, Blues. 18 teams from across the state. Each having made it through Districts, then Regionals, just to get here. 4 runners on each team. 72 runners in total.

The runners had already warmed up. Now they were walking from the runners’ area to the starting line. They pumped their legs to stay warm, to stay sharp. Much was on the line. 

Among the contenders were St. Edwards, Miamisburg, Olentangy and Pickerington North. But, in a rarity, three Cincinnati teams came into the meet with the top three times. Mason, St. X and Loveland. This unique story was featured in an article in the morning paper. It’s not every day that the three favorites at a state track event all hail from the same city. 

At the top of that list, though, was Loveland. They were the team to beat. They had posted a 7:46 to win the Regionals the previous week. That meant they carried the heavy burden of favorites. How would they handle it?

JP was the lead off runner. He has a critical task. To break free of the pack of 18 runners, create some running room and stake an early lead for Cayden Dyer, in the second leg. 

The race starts off fast. Things look bleak for JP. The pack must have hopped out faster than anticipated or JP’s nerves may have clogged his wheels. But by the 350m marker, JP is mired in the thick of the pack, in the 8th position. By the 400m marker he is gaining, but still back at 6th. 6th in a crowded pack. Not where he wanted to be. His team needed him to be in first.

Around the bend they go, runners in a thundering pack. Now 300m left in this critical first leg. 

And here, amidst the race’s first major challenge, comes the Loveland team’s first spark of a champion’s will. JP finds another gear. He turns on his kick. Quickly reels in the 5th position, then the 4th, then the 3rd, then the 2nd. Yes: in the span of 100 yards JP’s vaults from 6th to 1st and carries his team where they need to be. 

JP takes the final turn with increasing speed. The vaunted Goodrich from St. X, who had edged out JP in the first leg of Regionals the previous week, moves up from 3rd to 2nd, behind JP. Goodrich seeks to challenge JP’s kick. Not happening. JP motors around the bend and down the final 100m, opening up a 2m lead over Goodrich. JP roars first into the handoff. His job for the team complete: he hands off the baton in first place and Cayden has room to run.

Cayden Dyer, a junior, takes the baton and races into the turn. In pre-race planning, the team figured it could gain some ground with Cayden’s leg. They counted on him for a lead of 10m or so. And gain he did over the first 200m. But the pack is not easily shaken; they start to reel Cayden in. By the 200m marker they are within 5m of Cayden. This was not supposed to happen. Not part of the plan. By the 400m marker Mason and St. Edward’s had closed the gap to about a meter. By the 600m marker, they had overtaken him. 

Cayden was the one runner who had not been on last year’s state runner-up team. That team’s near miss of a State title was not in his bloodstream. How would he react? Would he care enough? Would he have enough will?

They are rounding the final bend of the leg now. Loveland is in third – at a point in the race where they needed to be up by 10m or so. A possible disaster in the making.

They take the bend stride for stride. Cayden is not losing ground. But what is he thinking? Is he scared? Is he tensing up? Would he cower?

Not this young man. Cayden roars like a lion crouching – and here is the team’s second instance of a champion’s will. Cayden comes into the final part of the bend, powers into the 2nd lane, and lays down a kick that was nothing short of a thing of bi-pedaled poetry. His long legs turning over, his head tilted back like Eric Lydell in Chariots of Fire, his hair flowing in the wind. He was a force not to be denied. In the final 100m left in his leg, Cayden opens up the 10m lead his team was counting on from him. 

Mason moves in to second. St. X now fourth.

Cayden hands off to junior Brady Steiner. Brady is a powerful runner, full of fire and fantastic footspeed. He was on the state runner up team last year but suffered a back injury in the early part of the season and struggled on-and-off with it since then. He has learned to run in pain. 

Today he would need to run in pain. But you wouldn’t have known it. 

Knowing Brady’s limitations, knowing that we had a speedster in Ryan Chevalier waiting in the 4th position, the team’s hope from Brady was to stay within 10-15m of the lead coming into the 4th handoff. 

Brady speeds into the first corner. But so, in his wake, speeds a mighty pack of four: with Mason and St. X in that mix. By the 200m marker the lead was down to about 5m. By 400m, Mason reels Brady in. They head into the turn and the pack of 4 now completely swallows Loveland’s lead. 

They boys had planned for this. Brady just needs to hold his own. To hold his ground. To stay with or near the lead pack. By 600m, Brady is now in 4th, but he is with the pack. 

Stride for stride, the mighty pack round the red-rubbered turn. Brady, still in 4th, at some point says to himself: The hell with staying near the pack, I want to be at the front of the pack. At the end of the turn, he takes the outside lane, lane 2, and lays down a mighty kick. This was not in the plan. Brady says: I am adjusting the plan. He reels in St. X, then Mason, both in the final 50m. As he hands off the baton, he is essentially level with St. Edwards. This was the third mark of a champion’s will.

4th and final leg: Ryan Chevalier. Ryan is a Senior. A gifted runner. He now runs at Virginia Tech. He ran the final leg for the state runner up team in 2021. He is money in the bank if he gets the baton within striking distance of the lead pack.

Ryan takes the hand off in the 3rd lane. In his first steps, he slides quickly into lane 1. Trailing St. Edwards now, with Mason right on his heels and St. X 2m back. The runners glide into an elegant gallop. They move through the bend, toward the 100m marker. Nobody making any major moves just yet. Ryan is content to hug the heels of St. Edwards and wait for his moment.

Coming into the second turn there is this vision of elegance. The top 5 teams, the lead pack, still tight together, as though drafting one upon the other. A thing of beauty just to have reached this point in the race. Five teams, separated by just a few steps. They have each trained for months for just such a day. Just so that they would be ready to seize this next 80 seconds with every sinew in their straining frames, with every pulse of spirit in their beating hearts.

We’re in the bend now. 250m marker. A little separation opens up in the pack but Ryan is right on the heels of St. Edwards. 

As the bend ends, so does St. Edward’s last moment in the lead spot. At the top of the straightaway – the 300m marker – Ryan slides out into lane two and moves from 3rd gear into 4th. Accelerates past St. Edwards and goes into the top of his kick. 

Yes. 500m from the finish Ryan enters his kick. As though puffed by a sudden gust of wind, he puts 5m of distance between Loveland and St. Edwards and motors down the straightaway. St. X sees Ryan’s move and responds; moves from 4th toward 2nd

We’re in turn 3 now. 350 m to go. Ryan’s speed is steadily increasing like a metronome set to a new cadence. Tick – Tick – Tick … a greater distance opens up between him and the pack. At this point, one can only step back and admire a finely tuned runner doing what he has trained to do for months and years. This you might say is the 4th championship moment. A young man, counted on by his team to deliver the victory if given the baton within striking distance of the pack, is doing just that: delivering the victory.

By the 600m marker, Ryan has a 10m lead over the pack. St. X is now in second. Heading into the final turn. Will Ryan tire? 

Hardly. The metronome ticks up a few notches faster and his kick is now in high gear. Loveland will win this thing going away.  Ryan roars down the stretch and crosses the line, a mighty champion on a team of champions. St. X grabs second, Mason edges out for third and St. Edward’s finishes fourth. 

Loveland finishes in 7:45.34, a new school record.

Looking Back – The Fingerprints of the Father 

As I look back on these two years for JP, I can but stand in wonder. What an experience he has had with his school’s Cross Country and Track teams, with these friends, under these coaches. Lessons of perseverance, enduring effort, camaraderie. One long experience of grace rolling out across days, weeks, months and years; grace operating in winters and springs; through experiences which soaked down into his marrow and shaped his character and sense of self. Experiences that taught him to aim high for goals; to step up under pressure; to make his way through dark valleys;  to set his feet on the track when all that could be sensed, in the moment, was discomfort. Experiences which formed friendships in sports that spilled over into brothers in faith. Friendships for life. 

I never prayed for this. I didn’t even know it was possible – when JP joined a new school in the Fall of 2020 and entered a squash season ruined by Covid. 

Looking back now on these two years for JP, they stand as a kind of painting in time, imaging the way God fathers his children, giving them experiences that instill qualities of soul. It’s also a stirring example of the power of a Coach to impact the lives of his athletes. 

And it all started with the purchase of a pair of running shoes. That I didn’t even need. 

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