The stories that stick with us: How a last-place runner inspired inspired a passion for track and field

  • It can get pretty hot at Eastern Illinois University's O'Brien Field for the state finals in track and field. And sometimes that heat gets the best of the best of athletes.

    It can get pretty hot at Eastern Illinois University's O'Brien Field for the state finals in track and field. And sometimes that heat gets the best of the best of athletes. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Dave Oberhelman

    Dave Oberhelman

 
 
Updated 10/4/2021 8:17 AM

I had not been long on the track and field beat. The sport -- really, the character of track athletes, coaches, parents -- had not yet fully revealed itself to me.

That changed in one of the many Illinois High School Association boys track state finals I've covered for the Daily Herald.

 

The specific event did not make my article for the day, nor do I even remember the athlete's name or school, for he was not from a place the Daily Herald covered.

It did, however, leave a lasting impression.

It gets hot at Eastern Illinois University's O'Brien Field over Memorial Day Weekend. Hot enough in Charleston to make dehydrated prep superstars crash and burn. And this was a hot one.

I had no real horse in the race for the Class A 3,200-meter title, or if I did he'd long crossed the finish line.

But far, far in the rear, a runner struggled to finish.

He was the only boy left on the track. Out of the final turn, with about 110 meters left, he fell. He got up, took several faltering strides and fell again.

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Four times over those last 110 meters the boy collapsed, the last with about 15 meters left.

Each time he got up and pressed on until he'd crossed the finish line.

Yes, it's customary for those in the stands to cheer a runner struggling gamely to the end. This, though, was special.

As the boy repeatedly fell, got up and ran to the line, fans stood and applauded. And cheered.

It started on the far side of the stadium grandstand, near the final turn. As the runner continued, so did the salute, like "the Wave," extending from right to left with the runner's slow progress, as I watched from the infield's hot artificial surface.

As the boy finally finished his race, the full capacity of fans in the home grandstand, some 8,000 of them, were on their feet applauding.

They'd honored the slowest athlete who ran that day in the state finals. They'd recognized that this runner's motivation was no medal -- it was to somehow finish what he'd started. To simply not quit.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Tears came to my eyes.

I was hooked.

• Staff Writer Dave Oberhelman has worked for the Daily Herald since 1999.

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