This long-distance runner will never forget journey

by Denise Dykstra

It was the honking I found odd. After a full and busy weekend, I was cleaning up the last off the mess in the kitchen and people were driving by our home honking. I peeked from the curtained window to see what was going on after my neighbor mentioned signs in our yard.  And there, in the dark but under the street light, I could see the signs.

Honk to support!

Eli is going to State Finals! XC!

I don’t want to be the mom who cries at all the things, but I was very choked up as I read the signs and called Eli down to see them, too.

Ah, my senior Eli.  All year his end goal has been to make it to the state cross-country race.  He has had timed goals for himself all year long and at the beginning of the cross country year, he was knocking those goals out of the park.  He was thrilled with his times.  “On my way to state!” he would smile broad after a race, giving a fist pump in victory.

Then his times began to lag.  He pushed himself harder in practice, pushing himself to go farther and run faster.  A knee injury found him wrapping his knee and looking for the Aleve.  He would race, see his time, and be crestfallen.

Eli’s love of running began early.  I would load up all the boys for a day at the beach and the boys would play in the water and then go fish or build a moat.  But not Eli.

“Mama, can I run to that boat?” he would ask, always running back to see if he could just run a little further.  Back and forth and back and forth he would run.

In eighth grade, cross country was introduced to Martin School.  It had never been a sport offered here before and Eli signed himself right up.  He was surprised how badly he did running, until his coach realized that Eli was in eighth grade running with high schoolers.  Suddenly, cross country seemed to be a much more fun sport for him.  Eli was the lone middle school runner.

In cross country, each team has a painted on the ground box that they stand in before a race.  Schools would be crammed into their little boxes and here would be Eli, all alone, with a box all to himself.

He was often placed next to the Coloma school cross country and the team adopted Eli.  He would set pace with them and cheer the team on as they cheered him on.  Eli is in the Coloma’s cross country picture for the school yearbook, Martin maroon in a sea of Coloma green.

Our school has had some great cross country runners, regularly heading off to the state finals at Michigan International Speedway (MIS).  We had one year where there was a high school cross country team and Eli was ecstatic to think his team (meaning him) would make it to state finals.  They did not.

Last year, after Eli had run his cross country season, schools began to shut down.  He was regularly home due to being exposed to a classmate with Covid.  The back and forth was something Eli could not take and we made the very tough decision to pull him from school. My hand shook as I signed the papers, this boy who had been in our school since preschool.

He finished his junior year in his online school early and immediately enrolled again in Martin.  However, according to the MHSAA rules, Eli would not be allowed to run cross country. The athletic director pleaded Eli’s case to the MHSAA and they ruled Eli could run cross country the next year.  Eli, who has always loved running, had a whole new appreciation for a sport he already loved.

Eli wanted to leave his school cross country career with a state qualifying season.  He is very technical, figuring out the time he needs per mile and then working his way there.  He does not want any part of running for ten miles a day because he wants to keep his own knees, thank you very much, and he knows knee issues run in his family blood.  Everything Eli did was a calculated move.

And when his calculated plans weren’t working out the way he planned, his mama felt it deep in her heart.  I have planned every meal the night before a race to be pasta heavy.  I would cheer like crazy for him, I would tell him we are going to state, and he would hang his head in defeat.  My easy going, easy to smile and laugh child, was his own worst critic.

The week of the regional finals, the race to see if he would make it to state, Eli was a wreck.  He would not speak of it, but he kept pacing and was very absent minded.  If he worked late and didn’t make practice, he ran on his own anyhow.

On Friday night, the night before the race, he turned down the home playoff football game his brother was playing in, as well as the hot dinner his Oma made for him, just to stay home and get some sleep.  But sleep was hard to come by, and that cool Saturday morning found him groggy.  He forwent his beloved coffee that morning to stay fresh.  He thought through the course he had run for three years prior.  We listened to his music on the way when his dad wasn’t acting as a tour guide to fill along our route.

Our coach was as nervous as his runners. Eli had only one other runner he ran with all season, no boys’ cross country team at Martin this year!  When Eli was done running, we knew it was close.  Too close to count on anything.  I didn’t know we could hold our breath that long.

Eli made the very last spot to go to state.

I don’t think I stopped grinning for that entire week.  That weekend, the signs showed up in our yard and that entire week I think we grinned big every day as we listened to the honking.  He called me from work, “Hey, Mama, I am going to state.”

When we arrived on the frosty morning for the state competition, my husband looked around at all the cars.

“They must think it’s a football game here, there are so many cars!” he observed.

Eli answered back fast, “This is better than football, Dad.”

It was a race Eli was hoping to beat his own personal record, and he did not.  He finished 136th out of 248 runners at a time of 18:46.49.

Monday morning we sat at the table in the mostly silent way we do in the morning, drinking our coffee.

“How do you feel, now that cross country is done?  You don’t have practice today and it’s just… done.” I asked the too hard question with too little coffee in our system.

“I’m not sad,” he shook his head, “If I want to go for a run, I’ll put on my shoes and go for a run.  If I want to race, I’ll find a race to run in.  I get to do this for the rest of my life.  All I wanted was to make it to state, and I did that.”

He gave me a look as if to say “Are YOU going to be OK?”

When did my boy become such an adult?  And when will my heart stop bursting in pride and joy for him?


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