The final four

April 30, 2018

The sun was just beginning to clip the trees and illuminate the short yellow bus parked in front of the Glen Rock High School entrance. The windows of the bus are glazed with frost and a steady hum of the engine flows through the air. An occasional sniff of the nose and chirp of a bird is added to the ambient noise. A few feet from the door side of the bus are seven people huddled in a circle. All are bundled in sweatshirts and jackets.

One by one heads are picked up and watch as an orange Jeep rumbles down the road and comes to a halt in the parking lot. The door of the car opens and a man emerges. He is wearing jeans and a distinguishable neon yellow cap. Weilding a medkit in his left hand and a foldable chair in the right, he begins to walk toward the bus.

“Big day gentlemen,” he said to the group of people.

This was Coach McCarten, head coach of the Glen Rock High School track team. And today was a big day. Six out of the seven members in the group were competing in their final meet of the winter track season, State Meet of Champions. Schools from all around the state gather at Toms River and compete. But the four by eight hundred team is far more than just competing; they wish to have the four members of the team collectively run at least 8:12 to qualify for for Penn Relays in the spring. 

Senior Joe McCabe and junior Andrew Lagattuta await the boys four by eight hundred race.

McCarten points to the bus and the team begins to file in and sit down in separate seats. The two coaches, coach McCarten and coach Luckenbill, take the front two seats as they signal the bus driver and they depart. Coach McCarten turns around facing the tired but determined runners. On the right side in front sits senior Joe McCabe and behind him sits junior Andrew Stoddard. To the left is junior Andrew Lagattuta and behind him senior Jarod Forer.

With this being his last year pole vaulting in winter track, Forer has other goals on his mind. Since sophomore year he has qualified for the event and has told himself that his season is over because he’s not competitive. After improving this year, Forer plans to compete with ambition even though he  does not normally run the eight hundred meters. Toward the end of spring track in 2017 he ran an eight hundred time trial and impressed many. Since then, he has devoted training time for the eight hundred specifically for the upcoming relay.

The meet is around an hour and thirty minutes from Glen Rock without stops and traffic. At this point the sun is a quart of the way into the sky and the temperature has risen just a tad but remains cold. Seat belts dangle, making a clinking sound ever so often when the bus hits pothole. In the middle of the isle sits a long blue sleeve extending from the back to the front containing the pole vault poles.

Next to Forer rests McCabe who has been battling sickness for the past week. He had been struggling  through an important set training days, battling to perform at his best. McCabe is an essential component of the team for being the fastest member, and has a vast amount of experience running the eight hundred, his best event. 

Behind McCabe sits Stoddard, the third runner in this relay, who typically runs hurdles but has been training for the eight hundred for this relay.

In the seat following McCabe, sits Lagattuta. Lagattuta previously played basketball, yet joined track his sophomore year and enjoyed it. He began to run for cross country, winter track and spring track. During cross country he found his most success breaking the school record at both courses along with being one of the best in the county only as a junior. Although the eight hundred is not his main event in spring track, Lagattuta is a crucial part of the team because he is second best at running the event. 

The sun has almost fully risen but is dulled by a cloudy sky. The bus takes a sharp turn and begins to slow down. It stops and the ruffling of bags and jackets flows through the air. A loud “EEEEEEEEEEE” emerges from the bus as the back door is opened, allowing half of the team to exit that way, with the other half exiting through the front. The pole vault poles are carried out the back and the team begins their walk to “the bubble.”

A small breeze runs through a vacant atmosphere as the team steps onto a field of gravel, dirt and sand. Peeking behind a set of fallen pine trees stands a colossal white bubble shaped structure that dominates its surroundings. 

As the team gets closer to the bubble, teams from other schools begin to flood the field. Each team is walking in groups of ten with an occasional team member carrying a set of pole vault poles. Athletes from various schools continue to exit their buses and enter the vicinity. 

A crowd of 30 people line the concrete path that leads to a rotating door entering the bubble. As competitors entered, they displayed their track shoes so officials could check that their spike length was one-eighth of and inch. At this meet specifically, officials are more strict that usual due to the unique track surface the bubble contains.  

As the line shortens, the team eventually arrives at the revolving door. One by one each person enters as they’re greeted by an uproar of people, with their ears popping to the change in air pressure. To the right are officials selling spikes and tickets for spectators. To the left are throwers competing in the shot put. Runners are warming up around the track. Inside the track, athletes and coaches set up and rest until there events are called. The track is a two hundred meter track and is flat all the way around. On the left and right of the straight-aways are bleachers for spectators and coaches to reside.

Another line is formed leading to the spike check. One by one athletes spikes get a multicolored tag attached to their track shoes. The team gets to the front of the line and they all get their spikes checked. The coaches already made their way to the inside of the track to claim some real estate. The group of athletes find their coaches and set down their belongings. The meet begins in 45 minutes and that is when the team will run their event.

Lights hang from the ceiling and shine upon the massive crowd of people in the middle of the track. At the first curve of the track toward the back left corner stands a massive light-board giving announcements.

The four athletes meet up and make their way to the track. They run two laps as a group and jog over to an open area to dynamic stretching. They perform the same warm up they have done since the beginning of the winter season.

The sound of a mic being plugged in echoes across the structure. The national anthem plays as the entire stadium is silent and is faced toward the  enormous flag hanging from the ceiling. The anthem ends and is quickly followed by loud conversation of people.

“First call boys four by eight hundred teams to the clerking table,” the announcer said through the loud speaker. 

All members of the team grab their spike bags and carry them over to the clerking table. They all sit down and put on there spikes, meticulously making sure they are tight and comfortable.

“Final call boys four by eight,” the announcer said. 

Almost all teams competing have arrived at this point.

“Ok boys four by eight,” the official said to all the competitors. He continues to give out instructions and heat and lane assignments. The team is given heat 1 lane 6. Forer, Stoddard and Lagattuta are each given a number 6 and place is on the right of their chests. McCabe puts a 6 on his chest and his right hip.

“First legs come with me,” the official said. 

Lagattuta takes the baton and joins a group following the official. The official separates the various runners into two groups, taking one group and lining them up in lanes one to three, and Lagattuta’s group in lanes four through six. As the official finishes giving the runners instructions, he goes off into the middle of the lane, a couple feet away, and pulls out a starting pistol.

“Alright! On your mark,” he said as he raises the gun in the air and the runners move to a dotted line on the track.

BANG! He fires the gun and the race begins.

Lagattuta comes out in first leading the pack. Meanwhile the second, third and fourth legs are lined up waiting to receive the baton. He comes through the first lap running past the lined up runners. Teammates cheer and chant as they have 3 more laps to go.

“29,” and official said as Lagattuta runs through the line. 

He is right on track with time and he knows it.

Other runners right behind him are pushing him to go faster. He comes through the start line again.

“59,” coach McCarten said. 

McCarten and Luckenbill are both by the clerking table taking and writing down the four by eight’s times. Lagattutas upper body begins to tighten up and his elbows start to go outward. He continues to push himself as he comes to the last lap.

“30,” coach McCarten said. 

Once again right on pace. Lactic acid begins to build up. He continues to push. He spots Stoddard waiting to receive the baton and once he reaches him, hands the baton off.

“Get out,” coach McCarten said. 

Junior Andrew Stoddard sprints on the track as he competes in the boys four by eight hundred race.

Lagattuta runs what is expected of him; two minutes. He passed off the baton following a couple of teams, leaving Stoddard now behind the other competitors. Stoddard comes through the line.

“31,” coach McCarten said.

Stoddard is also on pace but wishes to have a time of 2:06.

Trailing runners motivate Stoddard to keep pushing himself. Conversation in the middle of the track and cheers from the stands still continue as  Stoddard approaches his third lap.

“32,” coach McCarten said.

He continues to stay on pace. This is the hardest lap. The lactic acid begins to build and burn. The lights become brighter and his head begins to pound as he comes up on his final lap.

“33,” coach McCarten said.

The hardest lap is finished now but, Stoddard has to push to the end. He must exert all of his energy with nothing left over. He comes around the final curve and spots Forer, passing the baton off to him in the chaos. Stoddard ran on target at 2:07.

Forer is a couple of meters behind a few athletes. He gets out hard and catches up with them.

“31,” coach McCarten said.

He closed the gap on the athletes in front of him. Lagattuta and Stoddard stand by the finish line waiting for their teammates to finish. Forer runs through the his second lap at 63 seconds.

He comes up on the third lap and the lactic starts to build up. He continues to push and comes up on the final lap. McCabe waits at the finish line awaiting the baton. Everything is going as plan. Forer comes around the final bend of the track and spots McCabe. He hands the baton off to McCabe, and is please by his results. Forer ran 2:06. Everything is going correctly.

McCabe gets out fast as soon as he receives the baton. He comes around his first lap at 29 seconds. The other three members of the team are standing by the finish line, cheering him on. It became harder for him to breathe as he approached the third lap yet, he was still on target with his times. McCabe began to slow down as he came through his third lap at 33 seconds. 

“You have to kick,” coaches McCarten and Luckenbill said.

He continued to push till the end and came through the line. He ran 2:07.

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