Senior Jack McDonald has his arms draped over the varsity runners next to him. They’re huddled on the brown grass, 50 yards from the starting line. The last time he was here at Haskell, he was just another C-teamer trying to get the race over with. Now, he’s focused on Will Carey, East alumni and brother of varsity runner Spencer Carey, giving the pump-up speech.
“Stick to your goals,” Carey roared like a southern Baptist preacher. The varsity runners in light blue singlets huddled around him nodding, chiming in with a “yah” or “whoo” when they could. “Stick to your time goals. Mile by mile. Minute by minute. Go hard. Keep your head on your shoulders. You guys can do this; I’m confident in that.”
“East on three! One – two – three — East!”
Jack’s dad, Steven McDonald, is over by the tent preparing wet towels for the varsity runners to wipe off the sweat after their race. In under 17 minutes, he’ll be handing a towel off to his son. He’s been waiting to do this after a varsity race ever since they started running together last November.
* * *
His dad remembers watching Jack tense at the starting line of his first cross country race freshman year, time trials at Shawnee Mission Park. He remembers how, when Jack was younger, other parents would tell him at soccer and baseball practices how great of a runner his son was. He remembers when Jack won the Kids’ Trolley Run two years in a row back when he was still at Highlands Elementary. When Jack told him he chose to run cross country instead of playing soccer, he was excited. He was excited because he was a runner. He thought Jack might have the genes too.
At the line, Jack waited for the blast of the starting gun. It was his first cross country race and he thought this was something he could really be good at. He was out of shape because he joined a week and a half late, but he was hopeful. Maybe, he thought, he even had “runner’s genes” like his dad.
Crack! The gun and the runners shot off. Jack sprinted with over a hundred other runners down the hill. He had no idea how to pace himself. By his second mile, he had burned out.
When he came in, more than 90 runners beat him in that first race.
Whatever, he said to himself, walking away disappointed. Bring on the next race.
* * *
From there, cross country kept getting worse for him. At practice, he only cared about hanging out with friends. When his friends tried to push him, he refused. Running became painful for him. When the coaches weren’t looking, he’d cut the course, shaving off a mile or two on street runs.
His sophomore year, he skipped summer running all together. He came into the season out of shape. A couple times a week he’d sign in, then catch a ride with a friend dodging practice altogether.
His dad tried to push him at home. He’d ask him to go on runs with him. He’d ask him every week, but Jack only went running with him twice.
Jack described it as a constant cycle. At practice, he wouldn’t try his hardest. Then after taking a few days off, he’d lose everything he had gained. It was a struggle every run for him.
He wanted to quit. In his mind, he pictured himself telling the coaches, I’m done. But his dad kept pushing him, never letting him quit.
* * *
Going into his junior year, after pressure from his dad, Jack began going to summer running. He entered the season in shape for the first time. At practices he was able to keep up with the top of C-team and JV. At time trials, he placed in the top ten of C-team.
Then, late in the season at the Haskell Invitational, he medalled for the first time. He came in first for East in the C-team race and ninth overall. It bumped him up to 15 on the team, making JV for the Sunflower League meet, the last meet of the year. For Jack, reaching JV was a turning point.
When League was postponed, they pushed the JV and varsity races together. Jack, who had dreamt of making JV, had gone from a C-team to varsity race within a week. For the first time, he said, he wanted to do well and help the team.
* * *
“I’m going to try to be a varsity athlete,” Jack told his dad in December. “I will make varsity this year. That’s my goal.”
He and his dad started running 5Ks together to train, and for the first time, Jack started beating his dad.
“I can’t catch him,” Steven said about racing with his son. “All I see is his backside and him getting smaller as I try to keep up.”
They started early, avoiding the “I’ll-do-it-next-week” mentality. In March, they started running 5Ks. They ran the Groundhog Run, then the Trolley Run and Prison Run, all together When the season came around, Jack had already raced 60 kilometers in the off season.
In summer running, he was keeping up with varsity. In June, he was one of five runners who traveled to Colorado to train with Coach Chaffee.
When he entered the season, he was consistently hitting in the low 18-minute range, a high JV/low varsity time. At time trials, he placed fifth. The next week, he was fourth for East. Then third. Then, on a golf course in Baldwin, he ran a 17:08, and placed first for East.
* * *
Steven stands at the Haskell finish line with towels, waiting to hand them to the sweat-dripped, exhausted runners as they come in. He waits, nervous but excited. Haskell’s a fast course and Jack’s got a chance to be the first East runner to break 17 minutes this year.
Jack comes around the row of trees. Four hundred meters left in the race. Running up the hill someone shouts, “16:36!” Freshman John Arnspiger tails right behind him.
Crossing the line, he glances at the time. Sixteen minutes and 58 seconds.
* * *
It’s a rainy Tuesday afternoon. Jack’s jogging up Mission, remembering how Regionals went three days before.
“It wasn’t the way I wanted my senior year to end,” Jack said. “I think I ended up being eight seconds off from going to State. To be that close and not get it, it’s just frustrating.”
East missed making state by eight points. Jack ran his fastest 5K at regionals, finishing third for East. His fastest race was his last race.
In the spring, Jack plans on running track, something he’s never done before.
“I used to be sensing that dreaded feeling going after school, going to run,” Jack said. “I used to just want to get home. It’s now transformed into this thing that I look forward to doing at the end of the day.”