April 9, 2013

Wandering Doesn't Mean You're Lost

By Nick Pasko, a senior member of the St. Mary's College of Maryland men's cross country team

I started running at a very young age. As a kid playing multiple sports, I first discovered my love of running when our coach would have us run as a type of "punishment." Several laps later, with a smile on my face and dozens of angry looks from the kids panting behind me, I realized just how powerful running can be.

Several years later, I found myself on a three-time state champion cross country team as an all-conference runner, applying to a small liberal arts college in Southern Maryland. That was before I knew that St. Mary's College of Maryland would have a cross country program. Competitive running had become an integral part of my life, and I can honestly say that I wasn't sure where my career as a runner would go. Then I met Scott Devine and Tom Fisher on a visit to St. Mary's one day. I learned definitively that my career as a competitive runner was not over, as the athletic department was adding a varsity cross country program. That fall, I came to St. Mary's and joined in the inaugural season of the cross country team.

Here is where my experience as an NCAA Division III athlete will differ from most. I started running at St. Mary's during the first year of the program's existence. I was able to see the program grow as I grew through college. As a result, I have felt a certain tie to this team, one that I feel not many athletes get to experience. I was privileged to be there as our team placed in the top 3 for several meets my first year. I was able to lead my team to several more great finishes my sophomore year. I experienced the many different changes that come with a program's first new coach my junior year. Then, this past year I was lucky enough to be there for my team to win it's first meet. To see all of these firsts is something that I feel makes my experience as an athlete exceptionally unique. Through these experiences, I realized the true importance in competition and I learned that true victory does not always mean finishing first. Today, I find myself very proud to be a Seahawk and I am excited to see where the program goes as I move on.

J.R.R. Tolkien once said, "Not all those who wander are lost." The past four years I have spent at St. Mary's have helped me to see just how applicable that statement is. St. Mary's College of Maryland is a place for those who wander in the best way possible. Coming from Calvert Hall High School, just outside of Baltimore, I found that St. Mary's was literally in the middle of nowhere. To quote a recent article I read about my school, "St. Mary's is 20 miles past nowhere. And then you hang a right." Only in this setting would it be possible for students to truly see the beauty in wandering.

As I graduated from high school, I knew right away that I wanted to be a math and physics major – it was what I loved to do. So, this is not exactly the type of wandering that first comes to mind. However, college is about much more than just an education. There are certain things you learn that cannot be read in any textbook or quantified by any exam. St. Mary's is a place that often stresses these intangibles, whether you know it or not. And, as a result, you find yourself wandering through something much greater than an education, leading you to a far superior achievement than any degree. It is in all of this that the connection between my life at St. Mary's and my running here is the strongest.

Most runners race for the finish line. While running at the D-III level still has the same end goal as D-I or D-II (to get to the finish line first), I had the opportunity to run for much more than some place I finished. No matter how many times I have examined a course map or walked a course, there has always come a point in a race where I just wander – physically and mentally. Yes, sometimes I have strayed directly into the proverbial wall. However, I have also run through that wall. These experiences, the ones that don't happen at a starting line or finish line, are the ones I remember the most as they have taught me so much. I know that running at St. Mary's has helped to foster so many intangible experiences. It is through these experiences that I have learned where I am going.

Furthermore, through this entire experience, I have learned the true value of having a team around you. Many people will argue that cross country is not a team sport, and a few years ago I may have supported that argument. However, over the past four years, I have endured countless miles on hot asphalt, 5 AM morning workouts, 3 AM alarms on meet days, and the always repetitive, "Just one more." Through all of this, I have had an amazing team by my side every step of the way. It is through them that I often found the strength to keep going after heading straight into that wall. Especially in a program as young as ours, you learn to lean on those around you as you wear yourself down each day. I can honestly say that I would not be where I am today had it not been for my team.

For the past four years, I have grown with this team. I have lined up next to an ever-growing group of guys that I now call my brothers. I have witnessed the pain that goes into running 5 miles as fast as you can every week, and I have seen the wonderful results that come from this pain. Through all of this, I have found that somewhere between the start and the finish, as you put one foot in front of the other, winding through the trails of some remote, wooded course, you wander. And you find something more powerful than any finish line.