This past weekend, I ran my final cross-country race with the Albion men’s cross country team at the NCAA DIII Great Lakes Regional Championships. After falling in love with the sport 10 years ago as a seventh-grader, I crossed a long, grassy finish line one last time. It was exhausting, and I loved every second. However, as with most things in life, there’s a kicker. This came in the form of the NCAA DIII National Championship selections being released the day after the race, which found my team as one of the first to not receive an at-large bid, — placing fifth out of 38 teams, and myself being one place and one second away from qualifying individually, being 21st out of 265 individuals.
One measly second. So much can happen in that span of time. Had I known that I was that close, maybe I could’ve milked out a final push to get to the line before the guy in front of me. But maybe I couldn’t. Maybe I was truly as spent as I felt, and there was nothing more I could do for myself or the team. At the end of the day, I still would’ve been the same exhausted runner laying in the grass with spit and snot tacking onto his face against the harsh winds.
As a team, Nationals was our ultimate goal. When my class came in as first-years, we were told that if we put in the necessary work in and out of practice, we would become a championship team. Each year, we saw our hard work manifest in the results, moving from the 19th-placed team in the region my first year to fifth place in 2017 and 2018. We made waves, but the ripple effect just wasn’t able to reach the surface of qualifying for Nationals.
Words can’t dignify the emotional magnitude of that final race. I didn’t realize it at the time, but about halfway through the race, we were in third place as a team. My teammates gave it their all, and to dissect that statement any further would turn me into a verklempt mess.
So many close friends and family have reached out to me to congratulate me on my season and running career, and it meant the absolute world. Perhaps the most unprecedented words of wisdom, though, came not from close friend or family member, but instead from a rapper from Compton, California.
“I Remember You Was Conflicted”
In 2015, Kendrick Lamar released “To Pimp A Butterfly,” a critically acclaimed record that explores the ideas of identity and self-worth in the height of one’s career. While I was aware of the album upon its release, it took some time before I fully grasped the deep lyricism and themes and how, in many ways, they spoke to me.
The closing track on the album is titled “Mortal Man,” and while I was already familiar with the song, it came to me again at perhaps the most opportune time: During my first run after the Regional race. A lot of reflection was had throughout those seven miles but having “Mortal Man” pop up on my daily Spotify playlist completely changed the tone.
Lamar’s rhymes on this track are a reflection on his career at that point in time and how, in light of triumph and turmoil, he wants to know whether or not his loved ones will stick by him. He also compares himself, in many ways, to his idols, such as Nelson Mandela and Michael Jackson, highlighting how people stood by them even in their darkest times. “When sh*t hits the fan, is you still a fan?” he says.
I left Saturday’s race in a state of worry, with a majority of my thoughts revolving around whether or not I disappointed those I loved by not getting to represent Albion on the national stage. It seems so irreverent to believe that a “bad” performance on that day would stain the perceptions of me as a person and runner held by those close to me but it was on my mind. In the track, Lamar begs this almost hysterically, saying “Do you believe in me? Are you deceiving me? / Could I let you down easily, is your heart where it need to be?”
This portion of the song is very representative of the first 24 hours after the race, in which I found myself swimming in a conflicted pool of thoughts (two Lamar references there, for all you hip-hop heads). Would my loved ones forgive me if I failed? Could I even forgive myself if I failed?
Obviously, these immediate worries were eventually put to rest. There still is a part of me that hears myself within Kendrick’s bars. What if things went worse? What if sh*t really did hit the fan?
In the refrain of his song, Lamar discusses “leaving room for mistakes and depression” and acknowledging that, despite his worry, perfection wasn’t always the answer in life. That’s something I needed to hear. While there were many positives that can be taken away from Saturday, one of the most valuable was the realization that, yes, sh*t can and will hit the fan, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be there for yourself when it’s over.
“Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant”
The latter half of this 12-minute track usually throws first-time listeners for a loop. After Lamar’s existential questioning of his worth, he finishes by reciting a poem that is teased throughout the album, and it is revealed that he is reading it directly to the now-deceased Tupac Shakur. Shakur gives Lamar his thoughts on the poem, and the two have an in-depth, coffee shop-style discussion about society and hip-hop. Lamar essentially has the conversation that he always wanted to with the fellow West Coast rapper.
One of the more dramatic moments of my collegiate running career was the loss of my Uncle Bob. Ever since I began the sport, he was one of my biggest supporters and rarely missed a meet. He always considered me to be the son he was never able to have. During the two summers after his death, in the midst of preparing for junior-year XC season, I would visit his grave often and, every time before leaving, promise him that I would make the NCAA Championships. I failed to do that this past weekend, and if there’s any single person that I felt as though I let down, it’s him.
Lamar wanted to know what the future would look like for him from Shakur’s perspective, and how he was able to do what he did despite the mistakes he made in life. My Uncle Bob prided himself on his sporting knowledge, and was always quick to provide words of wisdom after a race. When I heard this portion of the song during my run, I could hear a similar conversation with Uncle Bob playing out in my head.
“Where do I go from here, Uncle Bob?”
“What did you learn from your hardest times, Uncle Bob?”
“Do you forgive me for not fulfilling that promise?”
I don’t want this piece to portray my experience at Regionals as negative or a nightmare. The truth is, we performed well. It just wasn’t the result we desired. I’m confident that I will be able to look back on my and my team’s performance that day with positive reflection, especially given that my collegiate running career is far from over — time for some oval running.
Lamar’s poem portrays two opposing identities, the caterpillar and the butterfly, representing the identity changes that can occur from that natural metamorphosis. Although the caterpillar struggles with its self-perception, the butterfly represents the eventual spreading of wings and the development of keen perception of past experiences.
When I started cross country, I was that same self-doubting caterpillar, and while the metamorphosis had its ups and downs, it made me recognize that pursuing what we love can make help us spread our own wings and fly.
Onto track season. For now, it’s a great day to be a Brit.