“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
This quote has been with me since sophomore year of high school, as it was inscribed over the entrance to the school locker room. I try to apply this mindset in all areas of my life, well beyond sports, because honestly those days are over for me. But I think of this quote whenever I get a whiff of an idea to take on a new goal or objective.
I think everyone needs to experience at least one glorious triumph in their lifetime, the realization that they have truly won something, been a champion at some level. And by no means does it have to be sports or even related to established competitions. It can be a childhood sports league championship or the school spelling bee. As you get older it can include that first big promotion, closing on the purchase of your dream home, or earning that college diploma.
Having won something, at any level, gives you something that no one can ever take away from you. And being a winner at something provides you with something to always look back on to inspire you to try new challenges. It can instill in you the spirit to always reach for bigger and better things! The alternative? “To rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much” because you sit on the sidelines, having bowed out of the game of life.
Unfortunately, along with winning often comes losing, and sometimes quitting. If you compete at anything, the chances of failing are often greater than the chances of winning. My sports life has both examples, and within a year of each other.
An Unassuming Sport
To say I was not a very athletic youngster is an understatement. In fact I was quite clumsy. But in the 1980s the “craze” of jogging was still in its infancy. And running is something just about anyone can do with the right mindset. And so “Cross Country” became my sport of choice. Cross country requires seemingly little athleticism but a great deal of endurance and mental fortitude. I found that I could compete well over a 2-4 mile distance. So I joined the cross country team my freshman year at a college preparatory school. I was not at all happy about going to this school, but I had no choice in the matter. It was family tradition. This tidbit is a big part of this story.
Cross country running by its nature is the quintessential “team” sport. In the state of Kentucky, boys’ cross country “meets” (races) are conducted as follows: Each school must field a team of at least five runners in order to qualify. Each team’s score is the sum of the finishing places of their top five runners. For example, if your top five runners finished in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th places, your total team score would equal 15, which is also the lowest and best score possible. The team with the lowest score wins the meet.
Mind you, each school must have five runners in the race to even qualify for a chance to win the meet. Your team doesn’t qualify to win with fewer than five runners. And at my college prep school we barely had five decent runners to form a complete team.
As a final note, each team may field more than five runners, usually seven, but only the top five runners count toward the final score. This is a very important point for the story that follows. The advantage of seven runners is to have back up in case one of the top five is injured or simply has a bad race.
A New Beginning
After my freshman year, after much pleading and begging to let me go to the high school where my friends were – Covington Catholic – my parents finally relented. So sophomore year I transferred to Covington Catholic High School (Cov Cath), and I was not only happy to be among friends, but also to be joining a much more competitive cross country team.
However, an unfortunate consequence of transferring from one school to another is that any transferring athlete must endure 1 year of ineligibility before being allowed to compete for the new school. This is the state’s way of discouraging recruiting.
I joined CovCath’s cross country team anyway because I wanted to establish myself and earn a spot on the varsity team for my junior year. The rules allowed me to run in races, but only as an “ineligible runner.” In other words, I could run the races, but my finishing place wouldn’t count toward my team’s total score. While I knew in advance that this was “my lot in life” for one season, I committed myself to doing it. But it really did stink, working hard all season seemingly for nothing. Every day that Fall, after school, we would run along the highway or through the hills of Northern Kentucky, anywhere from 4 to 10 miles.
As the end of my ineligible season approached, the Regional Finals and the State Championship neared. To prepare for these important competitions, Coach Kaelin (Coach K) ramped up the practices. He would hold various infamous practices, well-known by upperclassmen and alumni. He would have the team run, for example, a loop in Devou Park of about a half-mile in length, but which had about 10 hills in that loop. He would let us rest for about 1 minute after completing the loop. Then we would run it again, and again, and again. We would run this loop about 10 times on that ugly day.
More loathed than the Devou Park loop, however, was the heinous “Ladder.” The phrase “The Ladder” would be whispered for weeks before as teammates would psyche themselves up (or out) for this loathsome day. And the team rule was that if you skipped out of practice that day, you don’t get to run in the Regionals or State. In the week leading up to the Ladder, some teammates would shout out “Ladder” randomly, in attempts to rouse themselves, while others just mumbled, “I hate the @&%!$ Ladder.” Not knowing what to expect, I began to fear the Ladder.
Here’s how the Ladder works. The Ladder practice took place on the school’s track. The team would line up on the track, and Coach K would say in a mild, nonchalant tone, “Ready, Set, Go.” We would run as fast as we could, in order to beat a set time limit, yet still try to pace ourselves. First we would run 50 yards, and then walk back to the other side of the track to the next starting line. Then on signal we would run 100 yards, then walk back to the starting line, then run 200 yards, walk, 300 yards, walk, 400 yards, walk, 300 yards, 200 yards, 100 yards, 50 yards. Thus the name, the Ladder: you had to climb up this cursed ladder and then climb back down.
The Ladder was a test of the team’s leg strength, endurance, moral fiber, as well as the stamina of our stomachs and bowels. I can easily say that this was the most grueling experience I have ever endured. In fact, I would suggest the CIA incorporate the Ladder as a means of torture for our enemies. When I woke up that morning I little knew just how significant Ladder day would be for me, one that has shaped my life.
I must point out, as a reminder, that leading up to this day, as the end of the cross country season neared, I was already losing my enthusiasm, motivation, and desire to continue running due to my ineligible status.
I didn’t know what to expect from the Ladder; I half believed that all the hype was meant to scare the underclassmen. But I quickly found that it wasn’t hype. Sure enough, by step 3 or 4 of the Ladder, I was quickly losing my will to continue. The Ladder had psyched me out. I had given up mentally early on. They say that over 90% of running is mental. I had lost the mental edge on this day. I let all of the hype about the Ladder defeat me.
I don’t remember exactly at what step of the Ladder I quit, but I know it was before reaching the top. Tired, mentally spent, and sick to my stomach, I simply stopped running, and I started walking off the track. I remember that I began my “quitter’s march” on the far side of the track, farthest away from the school and locker room. So needless to say it seemed like an endless death march to the locker room. I silently walked across that football field, not knowing what consequences await me. While I was still on the football field, Coach K yelled after me a gut-wrenching choice: “Borne, if you walk off this track, you are off the team.” My stubbornness triumphed over courage, mental toughness, and character. I kept walking.
From that moment my mind was in a haze. I vaguely recall being alone in the locker room as I gathered my things and went home. I can’t even remember if I showered or not. I don’t remember the bus ride home. However, I do know that I blew off the quote above the locker room door: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
So that was it. I didn’t even last one season with a good high school cross country program. What a loser. I faced one very difficult challenge that season and I not only failed, I quit. I was now a quitter. While I never was good at sports in general, I had at least never been a quitter. But now it was official. I quit on a real, legitimate team. I was so proud to be a CovCath Colonel, but I had now shamed myself as being unworthy of the name. “With A Spirit That Will Not Die” is CovCath’s motto, but I let my spirit die that day.
I don’t even think I bothered to learn how the team finished that year in the regional finals, or whether they even qualified for the state championship. I was too ashamed to ask.
At the Mercy of Others
At the very end of that sophomore year, I summoned the courage to go to Coach K’s office for a little talk. I admitted that I was wrong to quit like I did, and that I really wanted to join the team again for my junior year. I was naïve enough to think that by simply asking, I would be allowed back on the team. But Coach K was no pushover. He laid it out very diplomatically. He said it’s not as easy as simply asking to be back on the team. He reminded me that on that fateful day, when I walked off that track, I not only quit on myself. I quit on my teammates as well. I let the team down.
He told me that he was putting my running future in the hands of the team. He would let them take a vote, to decide whether they wanted me back or not.
When Coach K said this my heart dropped. I hadn’t realized before that day that my quitting had affected anyone but my selfish self. When I walked off the field that autumn day, I thought it didn’t really matter that I quit since I was ineligible anyway, and that I could simply rejoin the team the next year.
But now, I was at the mercy of each and every one of my former teammates…whom I had quit on. The very people I let down would cast a vote as to whether I should be allowed a second chance to earn their trust. To this day I’ve never experienced such a feeling of helplessness as I did that day in Coach’s office.
Fortunately, the team voted to give me a second chance. And I can’t help but to think that Coach K persuaded them to my favor – tough as he is – by talking about forgiveness, my remorsefulness, and (I hope) a comment or two about the fact that they may need me that next season.
Well, junior year arrived and things went as normal, in fact better than normal. Our team was ranked fairly high in our district and region. And throughout the season we proved that we could compete with the state’s best whenever we headed south into Kentucky for various invitational meets. By mid-season we actually heard talk and imagined vying for the state title. This for a tiny school that had never won Kentucky’s cross country title.
I was a valuable contributor to the team that season, floating between the varsity and junior varsity squads. In fact after the season I was awarded “Most Valuable Reserve Runner,” which meant that I was the most reliable 6th or 7th man overall on the team. I’ll take this moment to remind you of cross country rules, that only the top five finishers count toward a team’s final score.
Depending on my performances throughout the season, I often ran as the 6th or 7th man in varsity races. It went on this way all season. I listened to and heeded Coach K’s every advice all season long – advice on rest, practice, health, eating, stretching, mental toughness, and race techniques.
Regionals were quickly approaching. But first had to come that day. Yes, I had to get through the Ladder once again. There was no way around it. I had to face it. The Ladder had extra meaning that year. Everyone knew – coaches, teammates, even a few alumni and parents – that this was the day, one year ago, that Kurt Borne quit. So all eyes were on me, wondering if I could do it. I would certainly give you the details of my second Ladder attempt if I remembered them. But I don’t. I don’t know how – in fact that second Ladder day is a mere fog to me – but I made it through without quitting. I may have puked once or twice, but I didn’t quit. That is the main and the only, point.
Now I had regionals to worry about. First were the junior varsity regionals. I was the #1 runner for our JV team. We won the race, and I did so well that Coach K decided to make me the 7th man in the varsity regional race a few days later. I did great as the 7th man in the varsity regional as well, and our team won. So as the saying goes, we were “Headed to State!”
The 5th Man
The next Saturday was the State Championship, held at the Kentucky State Horse Park in Lexington. Based on past experiences, I hated this particular course. First of all, it was closer to 3.2 miles than the 3.0 miles we were used to running our races. Believe me, two tenths of a mile can have a huge mental and physical effect on a runner. But perhaps worse was the fact that this course was unique in that you could virtually see the entire 3.2 mile route from any one spot on the course. The 3.2 mile course was spread out over a vast area of slightly rolling hills. Therefore, you could see just how much distance was left to run, or better put, how far away the finish line was. This had the effect of making the course seem closer to six miles long than barely over three.
On the morning of the race, Coach K decided to make me the 7th man due to my recent strong performances. I was ecstatic…yet terrified! In a way, as the 7th man you feel that it doesn’t really matter how you do in the race, because unless you somehow end up as one of the top five men, your finishing place doesn’t matter. And it was unlikely that this would happen to me on such a significant day.
Race time got nearer and nearer, and my nerves got more and more intense. Teams began congregating near their starting areas, where each team’s members line up in a chalked outline about seven feet across.
Word had gotten around both the state and our school that we were one of the favorites to win. A sizeable contingent of CovCath football players traveled south to Lexington to cheer us on, and they stood at a slight distance behind our section of the starting line, belting out various CovCath fight cheers. The significance of this cannot be understated. Not just that we had raucous crowd cheering for us, but that it came from our football team! Cross country is probably the least prominent of all sports at CovCath, while football is king. So for a dozen or more football players to have traveled to Lexington to cheer us on, just that fact alone gave me a huge boost of adrenaline.
The nerves climaxed. The gun went off. Then the nervous energy shot straight to my legs. Run you idiot run!!
If you want to know what it would sound like to be caught in the middle of a stampede of buffalo, you need only to be in the middle of the start of a cross country race of about 300 runners. That is the sound just after the gun. The primary objective in those first few hundred yards is to sprint out fast and not get tripped up by the crowd of legs. And God help you if there is a sharp turn in those first few hundred yards.
A blur is the best way to describe this race. All that I recall are bodies, school colors, fans near and far, long grass and autumn leaves underfoot, feet pounding, sweat dripping, tired arms, tired legs, ill stomach, passing runners, and being passed. You can hear your shoes kicking individual blades of grass, and yet you can’t hear the shouts of the crowd. These are the quickest minutes of your life but somehow the longest. It passes in an instant, yet seemingly takes hours, days, a lifetime. Your mind is not even in your own head; it is outside looking down on you. And as the 7th man, you don’t even know where your other six teammates are in the crowd of hundreds; you just pray that all six are in front of you.
On this day, however, I catch out of the corner of my eye that I’ve passed a teammate who seems to be limping. So that makes me 6th man. Shit!
At about two miles in, reality hits in more ways than one. Feelings and thoughts from Ladder day hit me. “This is too much, my body can’t take it, so just stop and walk for a few yards, then start up again.” Thoughts of the Ladder one year ago flood my brain. This unavoidable, negative little voice runs with me for the next few hundred yards, and it intensifies for the rest of that last fateful mile. But today, on this day, I try to focus on not stopping, not quitting. I sense that listening to the voice that begs me to quit will equal doom. I know from my own personal history that if I stop once to walk, I’ll do it three or four more times. So I just suck it up and run, no matter how numb my legs or nauseous my stomach.
Then terror struck. While the little quitter’s voice continued to beckon me, a JV teammate’s real voice interrupted. I hear and see him sprinting to where I am on the course. He’s yelling the most terrifying and fateful words of my life. “Borne, you’re 5th man! You’re the 5th man! You’re 5th man!”
I’m suddenly spinning with a million thoughts and feelings all at once. I can barely speak due to the dry mouth and lack of breath, but I manage to cry, “What? How?” He simply yells back, “You’re the 5th man. Come on, we need you!”
“How can this be?” I’m thinking. “Surely I would have seen the 5th man if I’d passed him.” These thoughts are flying through my head. This reality, if it can even be reality, helps me to briefly ignore that nasty voice pleading for me to stop and walk. I don’t have a clue, obviously, where any of my other teammates are, much less the location of the competition.
So I just dig deep down into…somewhere…and I continue moving, with my JV teammate following alongside me, repeating dozens of times, “You’re 5th man…come on…we need you…you’re almost there.” In many cross country races like this, when you look back even moments afterward, you cannot for the life of you recall how you continued, what thoughts went through your head, or anything. You wonder if you could even possibly have been involved in finishing your own race.
I do remember that I did finish, and in fact I had enough left in me to sprint about the last 100 yards. And then I puked, and puked again, and continued to be nauseous the entire rest of that day and night.
While we gathered together as a team to share our personal race experiences, I was particularly interested to hear what happened to our 6th and 7th men. It turned out to be true. I was indeed the 5th man; our regular number two man twisted his ankle in the initial sprint after the gun, which is why I never saw him as I passed him. For better or worse, whether we win or lose this thing, my finishing place would count. You can imagine how relieved I was, now after the fact, that I did not stop and walk!
It took about 20 minutes after I finished for the officials to add up the scores and determine that, my God, we won the damn thing!! My place was 56th overall, but we won over the favorite Knox County Central by a mere seven points.
I love Cross Country perhaps most for the fact that it is truly a team sport. Nothing can happen without at least five runners. Looking back I often wish I could have been the 2nd, 3rd or even 4th man. But I have to wonder, “If I had stopped to walk for a bit (and then perhaps stopped again and again), just how many other runners would have passed me up?” Could it have been seven runners, and thus the seven points that would have caused us to lose? Could it be that my new-found mental toughness, to continue without quitting, had made the difference? Certainly!
It really took several years before I began to realize the significance of that day, and more importantly the significance of that entire time between my year of ineligibility and that state championship day. Those two days, taken individually, had plenty of significance: the day I quit the team, and the day I helped win state. But when taken together, those two days opened my eyes to the vast difference that lies between being a quitter and being a champion.
Even though that was merely Cross Country, for a small Catholic school, in the insignificant state of Kentucky….to me that day and series of events was monumental. It was as significant for me as any Super Bowl Championship. It was my walk-off homerun in the 7th game of the World Series. It was my Olympic hockey victory over the Soviet Union!
Having lived this experience, I have to say that I wish everyone could go through something similar. Even if it is for a minor sport like cross country, or it could be cheerleading, gymnastics, chess, a spelling bee…just about anything. It simply gives you an awesome experience to always cherish. It is an experience no one can ever take away from you. And perhaps more importantly, it can serve as inspiration for times later in life when you are tempted to give up, lose hope, or quit.
Having such vivid experiences as a quitter and a champion has inspired me to chase after greater challenges and loftier goals than I otherwise would. I know that I can persevere. I know that I can be a champion. I know because I have persevered and come out as a champion once before!