Questioning Success, and Why I Prefer the 400 Meters

In response to a recent email I sent to a small group of track buddies announcing a special achievement by my West runners, one friend asked, “Why do you prefer the 400?”

A simple question, but one I immediately realized deserved some thought. I banged out the following statement after a good thirty seconds of contemplation:

I’ll tell you why I favor the 400. Good genes/talent mean nothing without hard work, and hard work is wasted without heart. When a kid works really hard for a while, and then one day actually digs deep enough to find his heart, the outward expression of personal triumph is priceless. At that moment, I think the kid might be permanently changed. You just don’t see that with the 100 or 200, and for a lot of kids the 800 and 1600 are unfathomable, so the 400 is the defining milestone of accomplishment.

It is definitely not that I do not like other distances. In fact, I am not sure “prefer” is the right word in regard to my take on the 400. I am very intrigued by the 800, and the only reason it might come second to the 400 is that I only recently began running the eight myself. The truth behind my preference for the 400 is that I have simply run it so many times, beginning in junior high, that the race has worn a groove in my brain like the first lane on an old cinder track. Although I am a sprint coach, and I enjoy helping kids get faster in the 100 and 200, my passion is converting that speed to the longer races.

In addition to my bold statements about the 400 meters above, I want to focus this entry on a more significant issue: the ongoing development of boys and girls, and the ways that a focused track program can significantly contribute to the accumulation of traits that will help them become healthy adults (and you thought my comments on the 400 sounded bold!)

I just intentionally avoided the word success. I am becoming suspicious of the concept, at least in the ways I have been hearing it applied to young people. We seem to be obsessed with success, and yet, as a society we still seem to be unsure what a successful life looks like. Personally, I want for nothing in life, other than an elf to show up now and then and mow the crop of weeds I call my lawn. I know I am very successful, but I also know no one is going to point me out to a class of graduating high school students as an example of success. As a college teacher, where I was supposedly hired to “assist people in becoming more successful in the workplace” I find myself more and more perplexed by what that means. I see dozens of extremely talented and motivated young people creating success for themselves, often in ways that seem strange and misguided. We can succeed in many ways, but we know success does not necessarily make life more enjoyable. Without digressing into an entirely different subject, I will simply finish this idea by stating that I am not sure, after 43 years on Earth, exactly what it means to be successful, which is why I avoid the word when writing about the influence of athletics on young people.

So instead of success, I think in terms of health (surely a subset of some measure of success).

Of the 25 or so boy and girl sprinters I am in charge of, every single one of them made significant improvement over the 10-week season. Some also ran winter track, and experienced improvement over five months. When I first took the assistant coaching job three years ago, I was only in charge of the boys and had about 15. That year, all but one sprinter wanted to run only the 100 and 200 (some didn’t even really want to run the 200, but must have felt that they had to do more than one event). I was able to convince two or three others to run the 400 early on, and by gradually requiring all of the sprinters to be able to run multiple, moderate effort 400s in practice, had enough kids interested in the distance to run a decent novice 4×400 at the end of the season, in addition to a below-average varsity foursome.

The following season, last year, I had a good group of kids who began running the 400 the year before, and came out to spring track assuming they would continue to do so. Big step. The varsity 4×400 ran a little slower than the previous year, but decreased the average split to about 55 seconds, an improvement if compared to having one kid at 50 point and a couple well over 55. The jv team again showed the real progress by coming in fourth place at the Cherokee Novice Meet at the end of the season with a time of about 3:44.13, just three seconds slower than the varsity team’s season best of 3:41.16.

This year, it seemed that just about every boy on the team assumed he would run the 400. There were a few kids who identified as 100 meter specialists, but it was clear that a new culture was in place — one that frowned upon only running the 100 and 200, especially if one was slower than most of the distance runners on the team. Most of the jv kids had begun to understand that if they were not blessed with pure speed, they could still enjoy a sense of accomplishment (dare I say success) if they developed some endurance and ran the 400.

I am not going to claim that my 20 boy sprinters have all made this transition in their thinking, but most have, and to me that is significant. What it means is that under my influence, a group of boys have, at the very least, begun the first part of how I explained my preference for the 400. These boys have made a conscious choice to take a risk and work hard at something that previously seemed impossible. Several of them achieved the next part — during one race they dug down to a place they had never been before inside their own hearts, and as a result experienced something very rare and special.

I now have kids asking me to run the 400 on a regular basis. There were meets this season when we assembled three 4×400 teams at the same time. And at the Novice meet a week ago, the jv 4×400 team ran 3:39, better than a varsity team has run in quite a few years at West.

This culture shift, this raw example of kids getting to experience something that will help them for the rest of their lives, can only happen under the direction of dedicated, knowledgable and caring coaches within a credible athletic program. Such a program can thrive within the context of a school district that values the kind of unique experiences that I have described. It has nothing to do with the superficial aspects of sport that are usually what gets emphasized by critics and supporters of high school athletics alike. It is not about triumphantly hoisting trophies or even about learning how to respond to failure. It isn’t about physical fitness or even self confidence (trust me, a lot of the confidence exhibited by high school students is also misguided and a little scary). It definitely is not about individual success. What is truly valuable about athletics, and what should be valued by school district leaders, is that the activity allows young people to find places in their heart that they didn’t know existed, and to experience what it means to tap those places and to feel the satisfaction of knowing what it means to try as hard as possible, or even to realize true potential.

In no other sport I can think of is this concept more precise than in track and field, and in no event more poignant than the 400 meters. The depth of accomplishment I am identifying can only happen within an activity as absurd as running around a track once as fast as possible. In that context the athlete is stripped of everything but his or her own body and the fitness he or she has achieved in training. A lacrosse player can put his heart and soul into a critical moment on the field, but it just doesn’t come close to the focus, determination and decision that has to be present when the runner executes a maximum effort on the track. And perhaps the key to my distinction between running and other sports, and the value for the athlete, is the decision; the choice. I have spent a long time coming to grips myself with the reality of training, fitness and racing the 400, and I have been slow to accept what I now believe true: fitness is critical, but much less important than the simple decision to go there. To go there, to run with reckless abandon, in the face of inevitable pain and possible failure, is perhaps what will have a greater impact on a young person’s development than anything else he or she could experience in sport. The training, like education, is abstract, and really only serves the purpose of making one confident enough to make an audacious decision. The choice and decision a runner makes to lay it all on the line will leave a permanent imprint on the brain and will inspire future such decisions. And we all know that to be successful in this world we have to choose to make tough decisions to act in certain ways that we know could lead us to failure.

So maybe that is success. Having the confidence, or even the audacity, to tap our true potential. That is the 400 meters. That is track.