I started my coaching life in what must have been a spring season in the early 1990s when I was an assistant for my daughter’s one season on a tee ball team. Not long afterwards I began a longer career as an American Youth Soccer Organization coach, rising up the ranks to become a clinic instructor and head of all the coaches for our Region 751 in Hyde Park.
As a tee ball and soccer coach, I watched one very successful coach for many years. From his sideline position—and with a loud voice—he carefully directed the actions of his tee ball and soccer players, play by play. His kids listened carefully and performed well. They did what he told them to do.
But it never seemed like the right way to teach kids how to play on their own. It always seemed to me that you have to let kids make some mistakes so that they learn the right way to do things.
We have some rules that we teach our distance runners. Run in lane one. Don’t waste energy in a race; sit still if you can. When you decide to pass someone, do it convincingly—and keep going. We prefer even pacing—and negative splitting. It takes a lot of energy to lead a race for a long time; it is better to have the lead at the end. Make sure you run all the way through the finish line.
We have race plans that we talk about with our boys. We ask them to participate in making those plans.
But we know that the boys are not going to learn our rules without making mistakes and breaking them. And we know that on the track, the boys have to learn how to make their own decisions. They have to be their own race strategists, too.
Our kids are smart. They learn their lessons—and they run their own races.
On Saturday his coaches sent Wolfpack runner Chris Korabik onto the race track at Eastern Illinois University for the 3A IHSA state championship 1600-meters with three different race plans. But it was up to Korabik to make his own decisions and execute the race as he thought best.
Korabik was one of just four runners in the race who had not run an earlier race that day—along with York’s Alex Bashqawi, Yorkville’s Jake Hoffert, and Downers Grove North’s Ryan Clevenger. So race plan number one was to make sure the race was fast enough from the start. A tactical race would allow the runners doubling back from the 4×800, 3200, or 800 a chance to conserve energy for a big finish—particularly dangerous, it would seem, in the case of Danville’s Johnny Leverenz, who had run 1 minute and 52.0 seconds to win the 800. Korabik would push on the first turn to put himself in position near the front of the race, and he was prepared to take the lead on the first lap if necessary to make the pace honest. He would give it up once the race was rolling.
As it turned out, Hoffert seemed to have an even more aggressive race plan—and he took the lead and pushed the pace right away, opening a significant ten-meter gap on the field from the start. Korabik slid easily into second place at the front of the chasers. Hoffert reached 200 meters in 28 seconds, with Korabik at 30.4. In fact, just after the 200, first O’Fallon’s Patrick Perrier and then more aggressively Downers Grove North’s Zack Smith stepped into the space between Korabik and Hoffert—and closed the gap down quickly. The race, it seemed clear already, would not be slow and tactical.
Smith, in fact, kept running right past Hoffert and into the lead as the runners came past the 400-meter mark. Korabik, running in lane one, had already slid back to sixth, with 3200-meter winner Jessie Reiser from McHenry pushing past him in chase of Smith and then Clevenger, too, passing him outside his shoulder on the straightaway. Korabik’s split was 62.4.
Korabik never left his position in lane one, and he never accelerated. He patiently kept his spot in the line. Around the curve, Reiser pushed back into lane one as Korabik gave way, but Clevenger stayed outside in lane 2. On the straightaway and then around the turn the group was still in a line behind Smith—Perrier, Hoffert, Reiser, Korabik, with Clevenger still on Korabik’s shoulder outside. Korabik was 1:33.6 at 600 meters.
Race plan number two was my plan. It was not going to be a slow tactical race. But Korabik, we knew, was not the fastest sprint finisher in the field. In fact, he had been beaten in a sprint finish—off a slow tactical pace—just two weeks before in the Chicago Catholic League championship 1600-meter run by Fenwick’s Sal Flight, who had a personal best almost ten seconds slower. Korabik knew he would have to run 60-seconds on the final lap of the state race. But off an honest but not fast pace, he would also have to take the finishing kick out of some of the others—or have a lead he could hold onto. The plan was the one Hicham El Guerrouj used to beat Bernard Lagat in the 2004 Athens Olympics 1500. From about 800 meters out, Korabik would take the lead—and then carefully wind up the race. He would apply more and more pressure at the front of the race, never pushing too far into the red, but never letting anyone pass him, either. It would be Korabik’s decision, though, to decide if it was developing into a kicker’s race in which he would have to wind up the pace.
Coming into the home straightaway, Korabik positioned himself for a move off the curve. Then down the straightaway he moved from lane one into lane two and was in position to move all the way around the group now bunching behind Smith. He went smoothly by Reiser, then Clevenger. He pulled up along side Hoffert. Smith and Perrier were side by side in the lead just another step away.
Here was a moment of decision. Before the race, in the EIU indoor track, we had laid out all Korabik’s options. He is a 4.0 student at Ignatius. He is a senior who has run many races. He could understand complicated options. With 800 to go, he would have to assess the race. Was it fast enough? Who was still in it? Could he get to the lead efficiently and easily enough without anyone fighting him? What did he have in his tank?
He had moved to put himself in position to try the El Guerrouj. But then he made his choice. He would wait. His split at 800-meters was 2:06.3. The race was moving fast enough; the kickers would be tired at the end, too. He was still close to the front.
Korabik pushed his way back into lane one around the curve, in front of Clevenger and behind Hoffert, in fourth. Reiser responded by moving around Korabik again on the outside. Clevenger pulled up on his shoulder again. At 1000-meters he was in sixth again at 2:38.4. For a third lap it was still an honest and even fast pace. He had made a good decision.
Around the curve, Smith was still in the lead, with Perrier on his shoulder. Then Hoffert held on behind Smith, with Reiser behind him on the outside. Then Korabik, with Clevenger beside him.
Plan number three came from our assistant coach Steven Bugarin, with an assist from assistant coach Nate McPherson. They had worried the El Guerrouj plan would force Korabik to move too early and drain him for the last lap. He should wait until 500 to go, they thought—and then move to the lead.
As the runners neared the 500-meter mark, we watched carefully, waiting to see what Korabik would do. There might be a problem. We weren’t sitting together, but talking after the race, we had all noticed the same thing: Korabik looked like he was boxed in.
But the other runners no doubt had last lap plans, as well. Off the main grandstand curve the front group was moving quickly. Down the straightaway Reiser moved closer to Perrier on the outside. It was not quite three abreast—Smith, Perrier, Reiser, with Hoffert crowding behind Smith looking for a place to go.
Korabik inched forward as Reiser did so—and Clevenger, perhaps thinking Reiser would move out to Perrier’s shoulder, moved out a bit wider out to lane three.
And then Korabik struck. He went past Clevenger on the inside, with perhaps a brush of arms between the two. He moved past Reiser to his inside. And then he accelerated past Perrier and Smith.
Perrier made his own move a split second later to step ahead of Smith. The others followed—Hoffert still chasing, then Reiser, then Clevenger, with Conant’s Zach Dale following and Smith fading quickly.
But Korabik had the jump, and he got to the lead and back into lane one all on the straightaway. He went by 1200 in first at 3:10.4. Perrier and the others were sorting things out behind him. Korabik accelerated around the curve. Perrier still followed closely, but a gap opened behind Perrier back to Hoffert. Three meters, four meters, five meters—the gap widened as Korabik accelerated, Perrier chasing close and the others falling back.
Later another coach told us that Korabik’s courageous move had brought tears to his eyes. It was the kind of move coaches want their boys to make–and train them to make. As we sometimes still say, he was Prefontaine-ing the race. He didn’t hold back and try to run for second or third. He made a move to win the race. If it cost him in the end, so be it. He was trying to win the race with a long 400-meter dash to the finish.
Korabik covered the 200 meters in right about 30 seconds. He had dropped the pack, but he couldn’t drop Perrier. At the 200 mark, which comes early on the EIU track with another 15 meters to the curve, Perrier accelerated into the lead.
But Korabik did not give up. He doggedly took up the chase. Around the curve, Perrier’s lead grew to a second step, then a third. Korabik was losing ground, but he was still moving quickly. The wheels were still moving.
Behind Korabik, the others had begun to chase. Conant’s Zach Dale was catching up. With 90 meters to go, Perrier was well ahead, but Korabik seemed to find another burst of energy. Perrier was no longer gaining, and Korabik was holding Dale off down the straightaway. From behind Dale, then, came Clevenger moving faster than all the others.
Perrier won with his arms upraised. Then the next three reached the finish line almost simultaneously, three across the track. Korabik leaned in lane one. Dale was beside him, more upright. Clevenger actually seemed ready to go by them both, but he eased up at the finish line, standing straight upright.
Clevenger’s leg may have crossed in front of Korabik’s, but with his lean Korabik’s shoulder had beaten Clevenger’s chest to the line.
Officially Perrier was timed in 4:10.34. Korabik’s time was 4:11.194—more than a three-second personal best–with Clevenger third in 4:11.199. Dale fourth in 4:11.28, and then Hoffert made it four runners in the 4:11s, 4:11.71.
Korabik’s last lap had been a tick over 60 seconds. If he had run 59 seconds, he might have been closer to winning the race. But it had been a really smart final lap—and he won second place by running the fastest last 500 meters of the race.
He had run virtually the entire race in lane one. He had stayed calm and still in the pack, moving only to take position when he needed to do so. When he made his move, he did it with conviction and commitment.
He also won second place with his lean.
The night before Korabik and his teammates Chris Hawkins and Conor Dunham visited the O’Brien track dressed in caps and gowns, while junior teammate Andy Weber followed them with an Ipad and a speaker playing the “Pomp and Circumstance” graduation march. Back in Chicago, their classmates were graduating in the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum.
“They’re up to the P-s,” Dunham informed me, looking at his mobile phone. Apparently he was getting alert texts from the seniors in Chicago.
The boys took some photos on the awards stand. They took photos in front of the IHSA banner. And then they took some photos running in their caps and gowns—finish line photos.
The evening light was challenging for photographs, and it took several tries for assistant coach and team photographer Bugarin to get a focused version of the group. Once, twice, three times—the boys ran past the finish line. You can see one photo on the previous blog post; here’s another.
Korabik leaned every time.
It turned out to be good practice.