By Mike Smith
They say you always remember your first…
When I inherited the cross country team here at Mascenic, 20 plus years ago, Ryan was not on the team. He was a bench player in soccer and basketball as his size didn’t provide much opportunity for him to be a starter. I was familiar with him, as he was in 10th grade, the same as my brother in law, but there was nothing he did as a sophomore or junior that led me to believe he’d be the guy to get the ball rolling with regard to Mascenic distance. He came out for track his sophomore year, dabbled in the 800 and 1600, and that was about it.
Actually that’s not entirely true. I distinctly remember that in the early days of his sophomore spring track season, he missed practice for the second time inside of the first month. While not entirely uncommon within the framework of Mascenic Track and Field at the time, I was working hard to instill commitment. When I found out it was to play diplomacy with some friends and the soccer coach, the next day when I saw him in the hallway I calmly asked him to turn in his uniform at his convenience.
Later that day, as he came into class, he pulled me aside and asked if he were to not skip anymore practices could he remain on the team. That’s really where our story begins.
After that, his commitment to the sport would never need to be questioned. Always at practice, always grinding as hard as anyone, he slowly began making up for his lack of genetic skills by simply putting in the work day in, day out.
We were both learning at that point, him about himself and me about what the high school athlete could handle. In his junior track season, he came to me and asked to run harder workouts the day before a meet as he always seemed stale when we tapered for a meet rather than just train through. Hard workouts before meets does not fit the training methodology, but I honored his request by creating a “workout” that simulated a hard day. We would sometimes run a broken 1600 or 800, with the first 500 smooth, the second quick, the next 300 coast, and the last 300 solid. For 800s it was 300 smooth, 300 quick, 100 coast, 100 finish, and we still use this workout to this day.
He became one of our steady competitors on the distance team, gravitating towards the longer distances. But even through hard work, he found in each of his events, the 800, 1600 and 3200, he was our second or third best guy. More concerned about improving, he toiled on in pursuit of his best performance.
I have no problem with athletes playing two sports; however, as a distance runner specifically, I won’t allow an athlete to compete unless I have a handle on their training. During his senior year in 2001 we had a rare opportunity where his “off” block and my prep block coincided and he would come to me during that time, get his workout and then report back to me when he was done. We had a deal that he would attend all soccer games and soccer practices except for cross country meets. The arrangement worked pretty well and we found our team knocking on the door for an MOC berth with him running as our #2 guy.
At Divisionals he just bombed. He should have run 17 high or 18 low and came across the line in 22 mid. He was disgusted with himself, mad at the world, swore out loud, but to himself and got DQ’d by the official that overheard him. With only five runners, we didn’t even score.
During indoor he doubled in track and basketball. On the shorter side, Ryan didn’t see a lot of playing time, coming into the game either when they were far enough ahead or plenty behind and would serve as a three point specialist. His performance in indoor however was pretty good, qualifying in the 3000 for the D2 SCs. Determined to make up for the terrible finish to his cross country season, he went out at the back of the pack and it never got better than that. As the laps accumulated and he drifted further and further from the person in front of him, he was repeatedly warned for stepping on the inside line in an effort to get DQ’d and put himself out of his misery.
Spring track saw some very solid improvements and by the end of the season he seemed poised to do something big. He qualified in the 800, 1600 and 3200 but elected to put all his eggs in the 3200 meter basket as that is truly where his skill set lay. I was certainly nervous for him, as being the last individual event and all day to sit around thinking about it. I was concerned he’d over think it and doom himself once again. I had asked around to other coaches and asked how they dealt with kids that tended to torpedo their own performances by putting too much pressure on themselves. Different people, different answers. I stayed track side figuring if he needed something it might be best for him to come to me.
When the gun went off, Ryan slid right to the back of the pack. I was OK with that as the early moments of a race with that many laps are easily made up. But by 400 meters he was 10 meters off the back and I began thinking, “Here we go again.” Last race of his high school career, planning to run cross country at Seton Hall and here he’s bombing the last race of the season. Ranked 10th going in, now in 16th and off the back, it wasn’t looking good.
From his workouts, I thought he was in sub 10:40 shape, which usually would have put him in the top half of the field. As the gap to 15th seemingly grew, my anxiety about his performance did the same.
Thankfully for the watch. As he approached the 400, I yelled encouragement and looked at the time. He rolled through in 80 seconds, three seconds down on 15th but headed for a 10:40 race. He wasn’t blowing up, he was running smart. A lap later he was on the back of the pack, ripping another 80 and moving up. He hit the 1600 at 5:20 on the nose and started chasing for a top six spot. Zach Emerson of Hillsboro Deering was at the front pushing to go sub 10 and was the only one other than Ryan running away from their competitors. As he ran by two in the last lap and closed in on fifth place, he crossed the line stopping the clock at 10:26.41, a 30 second PR, closing with a 5:06 last mile.
After the dust settled, a few weeks down the road, I asked him what was different about this race, different from the implosions in cross country and indoor. I figured he’d either be cagey about it and say things just finally clicked or that he really wouldn’t have thought much about it. But instead, without hesitating, he said, “I believe in the training and I believe in myself.” Caught off guard and slightly stunned I recognized the truths in both parts of that statement. With regard to the training, I had finally knitted together both the workouts and philosophy that guides our program today. He played a big part in that, by investing in himself and testing himself and the process soundly and without question. And the results showed that.
And on the second part, in his belief for himself, I saw the change in him over that senior year, from an outwardly cocky, but inwardly self conscious individual, to someone willing to lay himself bare, leaving it all on the track for everyone, and more importantly himself to see. There was a big change in his persona over those ten months of senior year, and he’d need that for his time at Seton Hall.
Ryan would go on to have an enjoyable career at Seton Hall, a distance runner at a school that is known to focus on sprints. I wouldn’t say he flourished, but at the same time he had the tools to take his running in a direction that allowed him to enjoy it. Our paths have crossed a number of times since then, less frequently as time has passed.
Two days ago I was informed he passed away at the age of 35. In the time that’s passed I haven’t heard anything more other than to substantiate his passing. Over time, I’m sure more information will find its way around, and the circumstances of his death will become known.
Quite frankly, very little of that matters. Ryan was a quiet, unassuming individual that while seemingly gruff on the exterior, there was a compassion for others, especially those that were going through rough patches like he had. He was really good at letting people know that indeed, times do get tough, but there is always light at the end of the tunnel.
Ryan just finished his last lap. He’s crossed the line. And while not victorious, he is in no way a loser either. The Mascenic program is a testimony to that, and the strength of the program is built on people with the heart and soul the same as Ryan.
There is light at the end of that tunnel. God speed.