Track and Tradition (Running Times)
Navy senior James Pearson
June 8, 2012
Paul Coover's story "Track and Tradition" was first published on May 31, 2012 on RunningTimes.com. NavySports.com is pleased to present the complete and extended version of Coover's story on the 2012 Army-Navy Outdoor Star Meet. The abridged RunningTimes.com version can be accessed by clicking here.
The most contentious rivalry in track and field began its eighty-sixth edition on the afternoon of a warm and windy Spring day, under the shadow of the northern tip of the Appalachian Mountains, on the bank of the Hudson River in New York. It would become one of the closest meets ever held in the most storied rivalry in college athletics, one that would play a large part in determining the legacy of all involved, because for athletes at these two schools, the meet is the gauge by which careers are measured.
The Star Meet, the pinnacle of the track season for the athletes at the United States Military and Naval Academies, would be decided, as all truly great meets must be, by the 4x400 meter relay, and the score would be tied heading into the final event. As the third legs from the Academies sprinted down a home straightaway lined by screaming cadets and midshipmen, they ran in stride, perfectly even, and they handed their batons to the anchor runners in unison, and the anchors then accelerated, spikes biting at an angle into the red rubber track, as they leaned into the turn for the most important relay carry of the year.
With 400 meters left in the meet, only one runner -- and more importantly, only one team -- would leave the track with the letterman's star awarded the winner of the Army-Navy dual, the most coveted athletic award that exists at either school, these two men left to decide the fate of their entire teams.
But in order to understand the weight of the task the athletes had taken upon themselves, one must first understand how two races and four diminutive distance runners shaped the significance of the final event, and in so doing, understand something about the rivalry that means as much to those involved as any in sports.
So central is the rivalry to life on campus at an Academy that at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, plebes, or freshmen, are not allowed to turn corners on campus without yelling "Go Navy, Sir," or "Beat Army, Sir," as they do so. At the Military Academy in West Point, the entire roof of Gillis Field House, a veritable cathedral to modern athletic training and competition that houses the school's indoor track facility, is covered on the side of the roof facing campus with the words "Sink Navy." (On the less-viewed side facing the Hudson is the more modest "Beat Air Force," which seems included almost as an afterthought; Air Force was established in only 1954, and while winning against the Falcons is important at both Annapolis and West Point, it is far less so than winning Army- Navy.)
Army-Navy is, at its core, a football game. That game that dates back to 1890 and consistently attracts some of the country's most famous civilian, military, and political faces: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both attended the game in 2011, as did Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.
What's less well known is that the rivalry extends to all of the sports the Academies offer, with the winners claiming a star to wear with their varsity letters. Coaches at both institutions are often told up front that their job depends on one thing: winning Army-Navy.
The rivalry is particularly intense among distance runners, because the teams meet not just once or twice, as in other sports, but in cross country, indoor, and outdoor track at the Star Meets, and numerous other times at invitationals, and conference and regional championships. Cadets and Midshipmen see so much of each other on the course and track that they're able to rattle off names and credentials of their closest competitors as if they're teammates.
As soon as one meet ends, Navy head track coach Stephen Cooksey takes the results home, spreads them out on a table, and begins looking for ways to beat Army in the next one.
"It's horrible," he says. "You don't get a chance to enjoy it." In his interview for the position, he was asked what he would think of a season in which his teams lost every meet but beat Army. He replied that he wouldn't consider that year much of a success; he was quickly corrected and told that he would in fact have accomplished his assignment.
"If you haven't experienced it," says Army head track coach Troy Engle, "you can't understand the importance of it."
Nowhere -- not even at conference championships -- is the rivalry felt more than at the Star Meets. It is one of the few avenues left in collegiate track and field for true dual meet competition. Though rivalries at some places across the country still prompt coaches and athletes to engage in the high-stakes, high-accountability format -- Cal-Stanford and UCLA-USC are two of the more prominent holdouts -- no rivalry is infused with the meaning of Army-Navy. It is track and field at its most pure.
"It represents the things that our sport has gotten away from, sadly, at the intercollegiate level, the really great competitiveness of the total event rather than the competitiveness of an individual event," Engle says. "Kids are racing head to head, they're not racing against a clock. It's a spectacle."
"It hasn't crumbled," says Navy distance coach Al Cantello. "It's everything."
Neither Academy consistently attracts top-tier distance talent the way the aforementioned civilian schools do, and though Olympian Dan Browne passed through West Point and Navy's Jess Palacio, a current Olympic Trials hopeful, is in her final year at Annapolis, those athletes are the exception, not the rule. But none of that matters come Star Meet day.
At the conclusion of Army-Navy contests, both schools' alma maters are sung. The loser's is played first. A common refrain at both schools is to "sing second." No matter the outcome, Army will end its own alma mater by yelling, "Beat Navy," just as Navy will yell "Beat Army" at the conclusion of theirs. The rivalry is unrelenting, even in the minutes after games or matches or meets are finished.
Perhaps what makes Army-Navy most different from other rivalries is that the basis for their animosity stems not from how the schools are different but from how they are the same. Neither school offers athletic scholarships; life at both Academies is regimented, competitive, intellectually and physically grueling; free time is a luxury when it exists at all; the quality of academics rivals the Ivy League; and graduates from both schools owe a minimum five years to the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps. Students who attend either school understand that their rivals are their only true peers, that winning Army-Navy is the single best measure of their own success.
Jon Clemens was a two-time All-American in his time at the Naval Academy and ran the second fastest time in Navy history in the steeplechase at 8:42.42 in 1997. He mentions some of the other great rivalries in college sports: Auburn-Alabama, Michigan-Ohio State, Lehigh-Lafayette.
"All great rivalries," he says, "but I don't think that they are as bloodthirsty as Army-Navy. They lose and it's like, `It sucks we lost.' You lose at Army-Navy, it's like losing a part of your soul." Clemens, despite some sensational individual performances in races against Army, was never part of a winning team at a Star Meet.
"I'd trade one of my All-Americans," he says now, "for a f------ star."
This happened first.
A train rolled south along the Hudson River, a relic of bygone days. As it did so, six women ran toward it to open the 2012 Army-Navy outdoor Star Meet, six women chasing team points in a dual meet format that is itself an echo of the past.
The runners circled the oval once at the picturesque West Point facility, bunched closely together before they crashed through the first water jump in the steeplechase. Teammates in the midst of warmups for races of their own yelled encouragement. The bleachers on the west side of the track were almost empty; the trees beyond clearly visible in early stages of bloom; the campus above, all brick and stone, a reminder of the history and the tradition of the school and, inextricably, this rivalry.
The first hint of what Army-Navy meant to the runners at the two academies that day came not in the first men's event, or even in an event that had anything to do with the final men's score. No, the first hint of what Army-Navy meant came hours earlier, at the end of the women's contest -- a kind of affront to the years in which women weren't even allowed to attend the Naval or Military Academies. While the men's track meet stretches back to 1923, the women's dates to just 1987, and women were only admitted to the schools beginning in 1976.
The men's meet will be remembered for years to come, for the drama that resulted in a team competition that was contested to the final strides of the final event. In that memory, the women's meet -- less heated, without the weight of history behind it -- will be overlooked. But that's unfair, both to the integrity of the memory and to the women who helped create it.
It's important: this happened first.
Because after Dayna Cline of Army became a surprise winner in the steeplechase, after Navy answered by winning the day's opening relay, after the Midshipmen pulled away with dominating performances in the sprints and middle distances, two women lined up for the final distance event of the day and demonstrated what the rivalry means to the female athletes in it. And they did so after the victor had already been decided, racing for nothing but pride.
Heading into the 5K, the meet was over but for the formalities, with Navy winning convincingly. When the six women stood on the starting line for the penultimate running event of the first half of the day's action, the race could have seemed insignificant. It didn't, because no race between these two schools ever is. What no one knew until afterwards was that the way the women would run this race would also foreshadow the men's equivalent to follow.
At the gun, Navy's Brigid Byrne, a junior leader poised to be named captain next year, moved right to the lead. Two Army athletes, Lisa Junta and Liz O'Donnell, immediately tucked in close. The early going was measured, steady. The three runners circled the track, again and again, separating themselves from their pursuers with every step, slowly chipping away at the distance still to run. The two from West Point were young -- Junta a freshman, O'Donnell a sophomore -- and Byrne, the veteran of the trio, led defiantly, refusing to accept what was beginning to seem, as the race went on and Junta and O'Donnell refused to fade, a more and more certain fate. A kilometer went by this way, then two, and still Byrne pressed on.
With two kilometers remaining, the lead pack remained unchanged. Byrne pressed on.
This was no way to win a race, not really, and from the very first steps the junior Midshipman knew she was beaten. Byrne pressed on anyway. Junta, only a freshman and so quick to jump into the lead herself only months earlier, when she would tear off on her own only to be run down later, had matured as a runner and developed a kicker's stalking instinct too quickly; when Byrne needed another runner to take a turn at the front muscling through an unforgiving wind coming off the river, Junta instead sat back, waiting for her cue patiently, clinically. Were it another meet -- a mid-season invitational, say, or a dual against anyone but Army -- and Byrne may have slowed, may have allowed her tactical mistake to become an excuse for easing up and letting someone else take the pace. On this day, she did not.
Byrne's stride was uneven and, as the lap counter called out smaller and smaller numbers, increasingly frantic. Her left arm swung wide, her right bounced across her body. Her hair, pulled into a loose ponytail, whipped around in the breeze. All of this contrasted with Junta's expressionless, emotionless chase. Junta's stride was compact and efficient, her hair braided tight, her eyes staring ahead, unwavering. If Byrne was the characteristic Academy runner -- blessed with mediocre talent but an otherworldly desire to succeed -- Junta was a new version that blended the unrelenting work ethic so elemental to West Point and Annapolis with stoicism and a sleek exterior well-suited to competing at some of the sport's higher levels.
The runners circled the oval twice more. With three laps to go, Byrne still clung to her lead.
Army-Navy has been a part of Byrne's life since birth. Her father was a three-time letterwinner on the Navy football team and was co-captain his senior year. Her mother was a four-time letterwinner in cross country for the Midshipmen. Her uncle is an alum. So is her grandfather.
She initially rebelled against attending the Naval Academy, wanting to stake out her own path, and she imagined she was applying only to appease her parents. Her other top choice was UC Santa Barbara, a school about as far geographically and socially from military life as a university can be. But something happened when she got her nomination to Annapolis. She knew that if she turned it down, she'd never again be allowed to apply, and she knew she would always wonder if she could have made it through. Soon thereafter she was on her way to Plebe Summer, the grueling introduction to Navy life.
"Best decision I ever made," she says now.
More than anything, it was the challenge that appealed to her. She was always the type to want to test herself, to improve, and the Naval Academy attracts a lot of students with the same attitude. She struggled through her first year with homesickness, with being yelled at by mids not much older than she, with the adjustment to taking care of herself. She stuck through it, she thinks now, out of simple stubbornness.
One challenge she didn't anticipate, though, was running at a Division I level. She was a good high school runner -- she ran a modest 5:15 for the 1600m, 11:10 for 3200m -- but she was far from elite and she'd never dedicated herself to the sport completely. She even lettered twice in swimming at James Madison High School in Virginia.
But Navy head cross country coach Karen Boyle did a little bit of recruiting and then gave Byrne a chance to run for Navy once she came on campus. It was all she needed by then.
"I'm really thankful to her," Byrne says. "Maybe she saw something in me I didn't see in myself."
Indeed. What was more like a hobby in high school became a serious pursuit, until she began to become a competitive collegiate runner and the type of athlete her younger teammates hoped to emulate. They voted her captain for the 2012 cross country season, partly because of her ability as a runner but mostly because, to a person, those around the program marvel at her attitude and kindness. She is the kind of leader who will pull a plebe teammate aside just to ask her how she's doing, just to make sure she's okay.
At Navy, breakfast is served at 7:05 a.m. Missing it isn't an option. So Byrne is up an hour before then, out the door for a morning run, then in uniform to begin a day that won't end until practice lets out before dinner, 12 hours later. Then the homework begins, and there's always plenty. That completed, she could finally go to bed. She should go to bed. She won't, though, not until she makes sure her younger teammates have gotten a chance to talk if they need to, until she makes a phone call home, until she's sure she's done everything she can to make the lives of those around her better, because she wants to be the type of upperclassman she wishes she'd had when she was a plebe.
"I've never once gotten in bed at night and thought, `Man, I'm really glad I'm in bed early and I finished all my homework,'" Byrne says. "I've never thought that. But if I sit and talk to my little sister on the phone, or make sure that my roommates are all okay before I go to bed, I feel like I can sleep more easily at night knowing that I did right by all the people in my life rather than by what my grades or what my running times tell me."
The weight of the Army-Navy rivalry sunk in for Byrne after she first lost to Army in cross country at West Point her freshman year.
"I experienced that heartbreak," she says. "No one spoke the whole way back."
She still feels it.
"I don't think I'm naturally a really competitive person," she says. But growing up Navy, something is different about those races.
"When I see an Army jersey," she says, "all I want to do is come out ahead."
Navy's Byrne leading Army's Junta late in the race
Heading into this race, with the team battle locked up, Byrne was riding a streak of five consecutive team wins over the Black Knights, dating back to her sophomore year in cross country. The freshmen on the team now, inheriting a dominance Byrne was instrumental in creating, speak of trying to win 12 straight.
But Byrne wanted to win this race, too, not only the team battle. It was a matter of intense pride for a runner with Navy in her blood. If she could just shake the two youngsters behind her. After all, she'd beaten them both in cross country, hadn't she? At that Star Meet, Byrne was second only to senior teammate Jess Palacio, one of the great runners to ever pass through Annapolis. O'Donnell was third in that cross country race, Junta a well-beaten 11th. Could Byrne summon that strength one more time?
The Midshipman pressed on as ever. But as the laps went on, she couldn't help but feel a sense of impending defeat gradually get stronger.
Junta just would not go away.
Slowly, nearly imperceptibly, Brigid Byrne began to succumb to the incredible toll she had paid.
With one kilometer left in the race Army head coach Troy Engle stood near the track and quietly told Junta to take the lead. The response was as immediate as it was devastating. Junta unleashed a kick that left Byrne reeling, unable to respond. Byrne slipped to second, and quickly into third as O'Donnell, too, went by. Byrne tried to hang on, but had nothing left, and it was all she could do to keep from slipping farther. Up ahead, Junta's lead was expanding. The little freshman looked callous as she dug the knife deeper, pulling away and putting almost nine seconds on O'Donnell, almost 24 on Byrne. Junta, the lithe, precocious plebe, crossed the line without any display of emotion.
In the stands, a Navy teammate named James Pearson was watching, mentally preparing to run a 5K of his own. He could not have known how Byrne's race would be such a symbolic precursor to his, but he admired her effort, the gutsy way she was willing to take control of the race although the team had already won. And he knew that the way she lost didn't seem right. James Pearson's parents both describe how he grew up with an intense sense of justice, how he joined the Navy not just to go to war, necessarily, but to make things right with the world.
"It would have made me upset if someone had just sat on my shoulder for the first two and a half miles on a windy day like that and then kicked," Pearson said.
He didn't see what happened next.
As the women's meet concluded, James Pearson was deep into his pre-race build-up. He was well prepared for it; his coach, Al Cantello, has been at Navy 49 years, and in that time, the Army-Navy battles in track and field and in cross country have meant more to him than to perhaps anyone else alive.
On one of the few vacations he's taken since getting the job, Cantello visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome with his wife. "We are looking at basically immortality," he begins. He takes a long pause to remember. "And I'm looking up and I'm thinking, `Army's one, we're two...'."
Beneath one of the most famous works of art ever created, Coach Cantello was figuring out ways to win the Army-Navy meet in the upcoming cross country season.
Cantello talks about what is required to succeed at Navy, about how runners learn to be a part of something greater than themselves. "We make it significant," he says, "for that kid to want to sacrifice."
"Army-Navy is a big deal as soon as you step in the door," Pearson says. "The Army-Navy rivalry is so ingrained in everybody here that you almost reach a legendary status if you take part in a competition that gets you a victory over Army."
In the week leading up to the meet at West Point, Pearson settled into a routine he had perfected over his four years of Army-Navy contests. He slept more, paid attention to details like hydration and nutrition, prepared himself mentally for an all-out effort. Everything he did that week pointed in one direction: beating Army. He was heading into his final Star Meet, had been both a winner and a loser in previous editions, and had no interest in losing again. Along with fellow senior Cody Rome, who had developed into a runner who almost couldn't lose in the middle distance races against Army, Pearson hoped to be central to a Navy distance squad that would anchor the entire team.
James Pearson knew for years he wanted to go to Navy, unlike many Midshipman athletes who only seriously consider the school during the recruiting process. His mother is a dental hygenist, and his father works in finance; but growing up, he always knew he wanted to be a pilot. When he was in fourth grade, Pearson told his parents he wanted to fly, and they didn't think much of it -- except that his father mentioned that the military was the best training for pilots, and James latched onto this, and never let it go, even when he started wearing glasses and everyone told him that pilots have to have perfect vision. His family told James someone would probably invent a vision surgery by the time James was ready to fly, and James kept his faith. Amazingly that vision surgery arrived, and James was able to prove everyone wrong, because he never gave up. James' grandfather had taken him on a trip to Annapolis when he was young, and when James was in seventh grade, he began calling around about the congressional nominations required to gain admittance to the school, all on his own. One office of a congressman even responded. When they found out he wasn't even in high school, they laughed and told him to keep doing what he was doing, and he did. Years later, he got that commission and early admission to the United States Naval Academy.
His development as a runner was less linear.
Pearson entered University of Detroit Jesuit High School as a soccer player. He didn't even make the team his freshman year, so he moved to running, where he was similarly unspectacular -- but at least he didn't get cut. So he stuck with it, kept training, kept improving, never thinking he'd be able to run in college. If anything, he just got better because that's what happens when you work so hard. He never quit. His mother says that even in kindergarten, James hated losing.
His senior year, the work paid off. He was sixth in the state meet in cross country, which gave him the confidence to walk on to the cross country team once he arrived at Annapolis, an anonymous face in a crowd of hopeful plebes. There were thirty or so to start, and then the attrition began, Cantello's relentless training and expectations taking their toll. Consider: at a school that attracts only the most driven, talented students from around the country, aspiring runners were cutting themselves because the work was simply too much. Pearson didn't quit. He never even ran a race as a plebe, but he didn't quit.
As a sophomore, that attitude paid off just as it had in high school and he was, suddenly, very good. He was All-Region in a race where he didn't even know the accolade existed. He just ran the race as hard as he could, and that was where he ended up.
But he couldn't keep the momentum going. He got the laser eye surgery so he could chase his goal of becoming a pilot, which set him back in his training. Then he got hit with a bacterial infection that left him lethargic and relegated him to last Midshipman at regionals after being 23rd overall the year before. He took six weeks off, which seemed to help. He was just beginning to recover his form when he jumped in a hard workout with the team; trying to make up for lost time, he ran faster than his body was ready to handle, and hurt his hip so badly he couldn't run for four months. His work ethic, his greatest strength, was also proving his undoing.
Often, a guy at Annapolis will get injured and he will begin to disappear. He will miss a cross training session, and then another, and maybe he won't be around the guys on the team as often as he once was, and eventually he will be gone for good. The progression is understandable. For midshipmen who are in uniform and in formation before civilian students are even awake; who are expected not only to excel at one of the country's premier academic institutions, but also take up to 20 credit hours per semester; who simultaneously prepare to become officers in the Navy or Marine Corps; who use summers not for beach vacations but for extended training in various military jobs, easing the demand by giving less to Division I athletics seems not only forgivable, but reasonable. Instead, Pearson rehabbed, got his treatments, watched his teammates run on the track and told himself, "I want to get back there. I'll do anything I can do to get back there."
Over the summer heading into his senior year, he worked with a helicopter squadron in Florida, and in the heat and humidity his training suffered badly. One more setback. But he was able to head to Navy's team camp in Vermont after his time flying, and had two great weeks of running, after which he felt like he belonged once more. He was ready to race. And nothing would mean as much to him as his final series of Army-Navy Star Meets. Navy won both cross country and indoors his senior year.
"It's the best feeling in sports," he says of beating the Black Knights.
But he had never been on a Navy team that had won an outdoor Star Meet. He had only one more chance to try.
James Pearson will quit running in a matter of weeks, will shift his focus entirely to becoming a pilot and a Naval officer. He'd like to fly fighter jets -- but so does almost everyone else who wants to fly in the military, so he'll fly whatever the Navy thinks is best. He'd love to fly humanitarian missions so he can help people. He likes the idea of being responsible for the lives in his aircraft and saving lives on the ground.
But first he had a race to run.
On the day of his final meet at West Point, James Pearson watched the women's 5K and steadied himself for a fight.
Ricardo Galindo wasn't looking for Pearson to get off the bus.
He was looking, hopefully, for another of Navy's 5000m runners, Christopher Burns, whom he had raced indoors and narrowly beaten at the Patriot League Championships and again at the IC4A Championships just a few weeks later. Instead, he got Pearson -- a runner he knew well, and a runner he'd never beaten.
Galindo, like Pearson, was bound for an Academy from an early age. For some students at Academies, joining the military is the bargain they make in order to receive a world-class education. But West Point or not, Ricardo Galindo was headed for the Army. He got ROTC scholarships to the University of Michigan and Notre Dame. He turned them both down when he got his letter of approval to West Point, where both of his parents are alums, even though they never pushed him in that direction. He simply felt a need to serve his country.
Also like Pearson, Galindo's path to his race on this day at West Point was an unlikely one. In fact, the similarities between the two athletes are uncanny. Galindo also went to high school in Michigan, also started as a soccer player and was cut from his high school team before moving to distance running. Galindo and Pearson even competed in the same Catholic high school league.
Once he quit soccer for good after his sophomore year in high school, his running began to improve dramatically. The runner who hadn't been able to make the varsity squad his first two years in the sport finished in the top ten in the state championships in the 3200m his junior year, was regional champ in cross country the following season, and third in the ensuing state meet. He finished a 9:24 performer over 3200m and endured six hellish weeks in Beast Barracks heading into his first year at West Point with an eye on making the traveling squad, which he did by finishing as the team's twelfth runner at the first home cross country meet.
Galindo muscled through his first races and into the top seven who would race in the legendary dual, and in the Fall of his first year at West Point he readied himself for the race everyone told him was the only one that matters. But midway through the week leading up to it, he felt a strange twinge in his hip on a run. The next day, he could hardly walk. He missed the season's biggest race, which his team then lost.
Indoors, then. There would be indoors, certainly. Galindo had some good races, was his team's third or fourth best guy on any given day over 3000m, and three can run each event in dual meet competition. But come the Navy meet he was passed up for senior Barrett LeHardy, a more consistent performer. Army won the meet, but it was painful for Galindo to be on the sidelines. So he prepared for outdoors. In his first race, he was fourth on the team in what was becoming a familiar and disheartening trend. He was so close, and yet for the third Star Meet in a row his freshman year, Ricardo Galindo sat out as his teammates raced.
His sophomore year he redoubled his efforts. He woke up and was running before 6 a.m., attended classes all day and headed to practices that lasted for three hours, and then hit homework that often kept him awake late into the night. He became one of the best runners on the team this way, but he still lost to Navy as a team in cross country, where he was fifth to Pearson's second. Lost to Navy again indoors, when he finished third in the 3000m in a race Pearson won. His first year, he never even got a chance to run Army-Navy; his second year, he simply couldn't win.
Ricardo Galindo wants to be an Army doctor. He could make far more money practicing in the civilian world, he knows. But he wants to save soldiers. When he graduates, he will put running aside, and give up any dreams he ever had about running in an Olympics, or an Olympic Trials, or even of setting personal bests after college.
"I didn't come here to run," he says. "I came here to be an officer in the United States Army."
Which makes his next seven Star Meets, the meets that will collectively make up the story of his career as a runner, all the more important.
Had Pearson visited West Point instead of Annapolis as a young boy, or had Galindo's parents been sailors instead of soldiers, the two runners might have been teammates and friends. Instead, they found themselves on opposite sides of a bitter divide.
As the women raced the 5k, the men began making their way to the track to begin their pre-meet rituals. Drills, stretching, strides, a prayer. Each had his own routine; each his own reason he was there. Everyone knew the meet was important, and everyone knew it would be close. No one knew just how close.
What played out was a dramatic seesaw in which the teams were never more than a few points apart at any point in the meet. When Navy would go up, Army would answer, and back and forth it went. Navy had an ace in hand in the distance events with Rome, their elite senior who was almost certain to win either the 1500 or the 5000. Cantello entered him in both, just in case. Rome won the 1500 easily, according to plan, and kept his eye on the scoreboard on the far side of the field in case he was needed to double back in the longer event. Everyone on the Navy staff hoped it wouldn't come down to that.
But when Army took the 200m, and went up 3 points in the process, it became clear it would.
Well into his warmup, Rome already knew he had to win when Cantello told him he was racing for sure. Though his legs hadn't felt as good as he'd hoped they would in the shorter race, few doubted his ability to again be the best runner in the field.
But a larger battle soon materialized as coaches began to do the math. If Rome could win the 5k, as he should, a second place finish from Navy would ensure at least a tie in the meet. If Army was second, the Black Knights could win the meet in the 4x400.
James Pearson looked at the scoreboard and did the math. He couldn't believe his eyes.
He thought back to the year before, when Army had won the meet in the relay, and how he had to listen to the cadets yell "Beat Navy" at the conclusion of their alma mater, which played second, the offending words echoing through Annapolis. He thought about how he had never won an outdoor Star Meet.
Ricardo Galindo, too, knew the score.
He had to be second. There was no other option.
Standing next to Cody Rome on the starting line were two men who would decide how the meet would end. The man from Army fought to keep his team alive. The man from Navy fought to ensure team couldn't lose.
Ricardo Galindo and James Pearson stood tall in the late afternoon sun, ready for a race they'd each remember for the rest of their lives.
A single shot fired. They began to run.
Rome moves into the lead as Galindo tucks in behind Pearson
Pearson and Galindo moved toward the front of the race while Cody Rome checked his stride, tucked in behind a few teammates and rivals, and commenced easy running in back. Army's Kevin Russell, acting as something of a martyr, took care of the early pacing duties. A mile into the race, Rome took a few quick strides, stepped around the runners ahead of him, and took off for the finish, ratcheting up the tempo to the point where the race began to string out, single file. He wasn't about to leave the win to a kick if he could help it, especially running on tired legs. Behind him, teammates James Pearson and John Satterwhite strained to keep up.
Rome kept his foot on the gas through the middle mile, dropping Army's Russell and Kendall Ward. He couldn't, however, get rid of Galindo. If Army was going to get that second spot and give its relay team a chance to win the meet, it would be solely up to him. Galindo positioned himself in between Pearson and Satterwhite and tried to stay calm as the fatigue began to set in.
The race was a grind. Rome's frame was too slight to provide any sort of windblock, the competitors too few to allow for a lapse in focus. Pearson found himself towing Galindo around the track, both athletes beginning to feel the strain of their effort. Despite a slow opening mile, the tempo was ever-increasing, and approaching the personal bests of both runners. The strain was evident only when watching Satterwhite, who would momentarily fall off the pace only to fight to get back in contact with the race for second. With a mile remaining, Pearson stared at the back of Rome, who seemed to be running effortlessly ahead, and began to wonder if he could hang on. He didn't know it then, but that thought -- a thought with which every runner is familiar, a doubt about whether he can reach the finish line at the pace he's running -- was the first of two critical mistakes he'd make.
If he could just have hung on for one more lap. He might have broken clear of Galindo then, might have faded later, sure, but by then maybe he would have been far enough out front to have given himself a cushion. Looking back, he's sure it was the right move -- but he didn't make it. Rome opened up a sizeable lead, and James Pearson found himself alone, with young, hungry Ricardo Galindo behind him, who had the added benefit of the home crowd urging him on down every straightaway.
Watching, Brigid Byrne wanted to share with Pearson the oldest truth in the sport, a truth of which she had been reminded even that day: It's better to be the hunter than the hunted. Don't do it, she thought to herself as she saw him fight to stay ahead of Galindo. Lisa Junta was running back and forth across the field, cheering the Army runner on.
Pearson knew his mistake already, but there was nothing he could do then. He pressed on. He made it another lap like that, leading Galindo, and though Satterwhite hung tough, he had begun to labor, and it was clear it was down to two for the critical second spot. Up ahead, Rome wasn't giving up anything. Pearson never looked back, but he could sense his rival was close, had the added benefit of not having faced the wind for even a step of the race. Pearson pressed on anyway. With a kilometer remaining, at the spot on the track where Byrne had finally ceded the lead for good, Pearson held on, the crowd really into it now, Midshipmen and Black Knights right up on the inside of the track as the runners circled, shouting encouragement, everyone having done the simple math, understanding what second place in this race meant for their teams. Two laps remained.
Then, the break.
Navy head coach Stephen Cooksey saw Galindo look over and give Pearson a long look before he went by with 700m left to run, a sort of taunting glance and accompanying acceleration down the West Point backstretch as Cadets exploded into cheers. What Cooksey didn't know was that the two had a history dating back to long forgotten races in Detroit, that Galindo had never beaten Pearson even then, that Pearson had in fact trounced the then-high-school-sophomore at the league championships his senior year in the 3200m, that the two runners who epitomized midwestern, blue-collar work ethic were so very similar in so many ways, principal among them their desire to succeed. It's the same desire that propels one to become a pilot and the other a doctor, that called them to service when less stressful civilian schools would have been an easier path. As Ricardo Galindo led down the backstretch of the penultimate lap of his first outdoor Star Meet, James Pearson labored behind him in his last, and would not give up.
Around the turn they ran and then into the home straight and wait, what was happening? Perhaps Pearson wasn't finished after all. The Navy man sprinted back into second, reached down to find another gear and another acceleration until only one lap remained. Someone rang a bell, which was muffled amidst the cheers of two groups of teammates, sprinters and jumpers and throwers losing their voices for these distance runners they hardly knew, on whose shoulders so much rested.
And here was Pearson's second, final mistake. He waited to kick, and he waited too long. Down the backstretch Galindo pulled back to even. Pearson could have perhaps began his kick from 300m out, or even earlier when he'd heard the bell. He didn't. He waited, instead, for the final turn, which came violently as both runners switched to their highest gear heading into the race's final half-lap with brutal, acid-inducing suddenness. Galindo, caught on the outside, was forced to run wide. The runners entered the home straight perfectly even, ears full of teammates' shouting, and with one wide-open straightaway left to run, pumped their arms and dug down for everything they had left.
Galindo passes Pearson on the homestretch
Ricardo Galindo felt the separation with fifty meters remaining, felt himself slowly pulling away, heard the crowd react even as he could no longer feel his own body or clearly hear his own thoughts. He ran all the way through the line and beat Pearson by a second and a half. He staggered over to some friends, who were still shouting and overcome with pride, for their friend and for their team. On the track, Army's favored relay team, a team that had run 3:13 indoors to Navy's 3:16, was preparing to finish what Galindo had started. Cadets were going crazy.
And then the final event on the track was underway.
James Pearson couldn't even bring himself to watch the first three legs of the relay. All down the final straightaway he'd given everything he had. He just didn't have enough.
So he couldn't watch as the race unfolded closer than anyone could have predicted. He didn't see that his Midshipmen teammates were having career days and running even with a team that many believed simply had too much talent to be beaten in a dual meet like this one, didn't see that the handoffs were simultaneous with 400m left in the meet. When he did look up, he saw that anchor Lucas Connelly had the inside position heading into the first turn, and was able to create some separation down the backstretch. Was it possible? Could they still ... win? He almost didn't dare to hope. But Connelly's lead was real. James Pearson, seeing this, headed across the track to the home straight and began to feel tears of relief and joy well up in his eyes. Yes. They were going to win after all.
Connelly crossed the finish line first, and immediately a huge swarm of Midshipmen hoisted the anchor runner on their shoulders, Connelly still clutching the baton, as if to hold on to the moment forever. And James Pearson, who had given so much to this team, who was a victor in his final Star Meet, finally let go.
He joined the celebration, wrapped his arms around his friends, and buried his head amidst the bodies of his teammates. He hid his face so no one could see his eyes as he began to cry.
An hour after the meet ended, the track was empty, as if the meet had never happened at all. The week after the meet, the memory was more distant still.
Ricardo Galindo cruised through a favorite run with friends on an easy day, laughing and joking and remembering hijinks of days past, thinking of all the races yet to run. After the Star Meet relay, the relay team came up to him and collectively thanked him for giving them the chance to run for the win. That was enough for him. On the first day after the loss, Coach Engle told the entire West Point team, men and women, that he'd never been as proud of a team as he was of this one.
James Pearson relaxed in a conference room in Navy's indoor track facility in between classes, in his crisp black uniform and carefully shined shoes and the three bars on his collar that denote team captains and leaders of companies. He was quick to smile and to remember the day at West Point. Galindo will have more chances to take aim at Navy, but for Pearson, the rivalry is over. He'll head out soon to continue his pilot training, and competitive running will be nothing more than a memory. He's happy he'll have a good one to look back on.
"It would have been an unmitigated disaster," he says, thinking back to what would have been had the Navy relay team lost. "I would have taken that personally upon myself." He harbors no ill-will toward Galindo. "He ran a very tactical, very smart race," Pearson says. "I can't belittle him at all, because he's a good guy and he's a really good competitor. He's got a bright future ahead of him." Pearson is delaying flight school so he can work with the team over the summer, so he can have just a little longer with the program that means so much to him. True to his character, he just wants to give something back.
Brigid Byrne was all smiles after her loss to Junta, her mood possible only because her team had won, her friends had run well, and because she still has all of next year to race Army. As she ran a long, hard workout on the Annapolis track in the days between Army-Navy and her next big race at the Mt. SAC Relays, she alternated seriousness with playfulness, leading every rep but stopping in between to check on teammates, joke with her coaches, talk to a reporter who was following her around. Even in her state of fatigue her energy was boundless, her positivity unrelenting. She would travel to Mt. SAC without the team, an opportunity to run pressure-free, away from the Army-Navy grind, just for herself. She deserved it. There, she would run late into the night on a warm California night and get the rare chance to race in front of her father, still a Captain in the Navy. Her father wouldn't be able to stop smiling as he watched his daughter compete.
"She's awesome," he would say, simply, as she circled the track. He would search for more words to describe his daughter, and, unable to come up with many more, he would go back to just watching as Byrne ran a personal best and one of the top five times by a Navy runner, ever.
And Lisa Junta, the future of the rivalry, the youngest of the group of four 5K runners who carved their names into Army-Navy history on that day at West Point, turns out to be perhaps most gracious of all.
She is quiet, but she is bracingly honest when she opens up about her beliefs. She enrolled at West Point only after turning down an acceptance to MIT, because she wants to be a doctor who supports the men and women who are prepared to give their lives for their country. She began chasing that goal immediately upon arrival, skipping social activities so she could devote herself to her classes, working hard to progress as a runner at practice, staying up late to finish all her homework. West Point ranks cadets on a scale that combines athletic, military, and academic performance, and Junta was ranked third in the entire plebe class her first semester. Those who know her describe her as brilliant.
She joined the Army because she wants to be on the ground in a place where she can develop relationships with people in places who need it most. For that reason she isn't much for competition, even in running. She would prefer to chase the clock, and to help others run well as she does so, even if that means that she doesn't win.
"I'd like to think that my working hard -- my talents with running, my talents with academics -- I'd like to think that it's not just for myself," she says. Her older brother David, a West Point senior, will come check on his little sister from time to time. Almost always, he'll find her not working on her own homework, but helping someone else with theirs. He often hears about her races only when others mention them to him; Lisa is too humble to say anything.
"Is being a doctor in line with Lisa's character?" he asks. "I would say one-hundred-percent."
It does not take long for him to describe his little sister.
"Lisa is all about helping other people," he says. "It's unbelievable."
She used to worry about running, to let it stress her to the point where she couldn't perform to her abilities. But as she grew, she began to see running not as a calling but as a form of expression. Now, if she has a bad race, she doesn't care. Running is simply an extension of her desire to serve.
"The pressure for me comes when I feel like I'm competing against somebody," she says. "Like some Army-Navy meets when they talk about beating the guts out of Navy on the last stretch, all of a sudden on the last stretch I'm like, `I don't know if I want to beat them.'"
"This weekend, even if it looked like I was running to beat her" -- she's talking about Byrne -- "in my mind I wasn't thinking about beating her, I was thinking about having a good race." She smiles to explain. "The girl that I beat is very, very nice."
She knows this because of what happened after her race, the scene Pearson missed.
Brigid Byrne approached a shy Lisa Junta, who was standing near the finish line, talking to her brother. Byrne sensed that Junta was uncomfortable with the way the race had played out, was shy and seemingly emotionless in part because perhaps she felt guilty for allowing the older runner to do all the work only to reap the benefit of that labor at the finish line.
Byrne, the daughter of two Annapolis alums, the older sister to a brother who hopes to join the Navy as well, the role model to underclass teammates who already want nothing more than to Beat Army, Sir, approached her rival, smiled, and told the younger runner that there were no hard feelings. She said someone had to win. It was a move of forgiveness, of kindness, of mentorship, expressed to the one person she was supposed to have resented most, and instead did not resent at all, not at all.
Lisa Junta says if she had finished second to Brigid Byrne, and they had both given their best effort, she would not have minded at all. Not at all.
On a cool day on the same track on which she'd won two days earlier, Junta runs a workout. Her coach, Jennifer DeRego, cautions the group not to go too hard too early -- and pushes her sunglasses up to look directly at Junta as she says it. On the first rep, Junta hears DeRego calling out times and slams on the breaks a few meters from the finish so she is sure to hit the prescribed splits. Junta doesn't like running with such restraint, but she is learning. She stays near the front throughout, her stride characteristically smooth and unadorned, the others unable to maintain the same composure as she, which is the only indication of the workout's difficulty. They're to run six 800m reps, and with two remaining, DeRego gives Junta the go-ahead to run as she feels.
Finally, Junta is in her element. She looks more comfortable running from the front, unrestrained, and she is dropping her teammates now, running away from them not out of malice but as a young team leader. Coach Engle, watching, turns to DeRego and asks, "You let the reigns out a little, Jenn?"
"Yeah," DeRego says as Junta accelerates down the backstretch, "but I said only a little."
A little is all Junta needs.
She runs into the turn and then into the straightaway and there is open track ahead of her, and she is running free now, the way she wants to run, pulling away, and up ahead she can see an American flag, under which the midshipmen and cadets gathered days before at the conclusion of their competition, sailors and soldiers of different races and social classes and genders all standing at attention through both alma maters, divided in some ways and united in far more, young men and women all committed to a life of service.
A higher calling. That's all that Army-Navy is about, in the end, and it's something all of the athletes commit to from the moment they arrive on campus. They will all owe five years to their country after graduation. Doctors, pilots -- they'll owe more, and it is a debt paid willingly. The running is just what happens in the meantime.
Junta runs down the home straightaway, legs churning, arms pumping, giving her best effort, running toward the finish line, running right on toward the mountains beyond.