Sometimes truly inspired athletic experiences come out of nowhere and hit you right between the eyes.
On Friday night at a low-key track meet at Rockville High School, the eyes belonged to a little girl who came up to me on the infield of the track and whispered my name just 15 minutes before my race. I was not particularly looking forward to running the Midsummer Night’s Mile because I had not been running inspiring times in the mile all summer.
In an instant, my outlook on my running career changed.
Although I did not know this girl, her eyes seemed strangely familiar. I locked eyes with her for a moment until it finally dawned on me: 27 years ago … high school track … teammate Tony Baugh.
And at the instant I made the connection, I looked up and there he was, father of the girl.
It was by total coincidence Tony was there because he was not running, sidelined by a back injury sustained when his car was rear-ended 16 months ago. I had not seen Tony in several years.
We chatted as I continued to warm up for the eighth and final heat of the mile. It was as if we had been sent back nearly three decades to the glory days of our senior year, at a time when we could do no wrong. Nearly every cross country and track meet was a victory, and those memories from so long ago were so fresh in my mind Friday night that I could taste them.
We talked track, just as we did as prep runners. We kept switching back and forth from races of the past to races of the present, until that huge gap in time was no gap at all. It was most exciting.
I explained to Tony that I had lost the mental capacity to race a strong mile — just didn’t have the head for it anymore. The killer instinct I developed in high school and kept until a few years ago had disappeared. When the pain became overwhelming in the last 600 meters of a race, I backed off instead of pushing harder.
Tony truly seemed to understand.
Before I knew it, my race was on the line, and more than a dozen of us — prep runners, college kids, guys in their 20s and 30s and masters athletes — took off around the track on a beautifully dry, calm evening.
The first two laps felt like any other race as I tried to maintain position behind rivals aged 23, 22 and 17. I felt relaxed and strong, but I knew that was not going to last. The pain would set in with 600 meters to go and I would falter.
Instead, with 600 meters remaining, I thought a million thoughts. Most of those thoughts were about the glory years 27 years ago. With every step I felt a burst of energy. Then I heard my former teammate cheering as I began the last lap, the final 400 meters, and I was back on our high school track again.
Suddenly, the usual thoughts of negativity I experience at the onset of intense pain were replaced by that old killer instinct. Up the backstretch, I ran hard without worrying about the last 200 meters. Down the last straightaway, I ran like it mattered — like back in high school when each race was run like it was the very last one.
I saw the clock for a split second as I crossed the line, eight seconds faster than I had been running this year. I quickly moved off the track onto the infield and found Tony, who flashed that familiar broad smile and those familiar bright eyes as he had many times in high school.
Then he handed me his cell phone and the voice on the other end was Tony’s older brother, Mickey, our mentor in high school. He sounded exactly the same as he did three decades ago when he would put his arm around me after a fantastic workout or a great meet and talk me up.
I was stuck in a time warp — 1978 — and it felt like a wonderful dream that you never want to wake from.
Results from the meet: The 23-year-old was Matias Palavecino of Gaithersburg, who led approximately 150 competitors in 4:30.89. Paris Caballero, 22, of Gaithersburg was second in 4:32.54 and 17-year-old Tarik Aougab of Potomac was third in 4:33.85.
The top woman was 24-year-old Sarah Spalding of the District in 5:16.89. Fifth behind her was 11-year-old Anna Bosse of Rockville in an impressive 6:20.42.
The Montgomery County Road Runners have been organizing the meet for about 10 years, according to Dan Lawson, who has been race director for the past two years. Lawson, an accomplished competitor just shy of his 50th birthday, said he ran 4:45 here two years ago before he was asked to direct the race.
“It was kind of a situation where I had mixed feelings because I came from a track background, and I wanted to compete,” said Lawson, who said he thinks there is a county prohibition against a race director competing in the same event. “This club is great. I’ve run for 30 something years, and to give back to the club is great.”