On Friday February 7th, Peter and I were settled into a nice breakfast in Lee’s where I got to listen to his plans, hopes, and wants for the rest of the season. He laid out an incredibly intellectual, well-thought-out path that would get him to his goal. He wanted to be at Nationals in 5 weeks.
He had basically everything he needed to accomplish the feat. He didn’t need fitness, strategy, consistency, desire, or even belief. What Peter needed was to get lit on fire. So, we decided that I was to become an “arsonist.” It became my favorite role that I’ve ever played as a coach.
Please allow me to provide some backstory so that you can better understand both Peter and why we chose for me to become a fire-starter. Because none of this start on February 7th, 2020. It really began on February 18th, 2017.
That was the day that scrawny, little first-year Peter anchored our DMR in the slow heat of the New England Championships. In the best shape of his life, Peter was told that he wouldn’t be racing an individual race, instead he’d be relegated to the unseeded section of the DMR. He didn’t hesitate. The team needed it. Even more impressively, he didn’t flinch when he got the stick in complete isolation, totally alone in his first championship meet. He just starting clicking off even splits.
He soloed an amazing 1600 leg. Peter had blended patience, persistence and passion in a masterful fashion typically reserved for more experienced runners. As I stood there in the quiet moments of our 1st heat finishing and the 2nd heat stepping to the line, I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to do right by that kid.
He’d elevated for his team. He’d stepped into the faceless, nameless role of a relay leg. He’d leaned into and gave it all he had. He deserved recognition and I would do what I could to make sure that this team did right by him.
Then we noticed that after 1200m, the “fast” heat wasn’t really living up to its name. Lap after lap, they couldn’t close the gap. Granted, they weren’t really aware that there was even a gap. In my mind’s eye, Peter’s race became the imaginary line that gets put in front of swimmers on TV for World Record pace. But I was the only one who could see. They didn’t know that Peter was outkicking them. And Peter “held them off.” He and his teammates were the 2017 New England Champions.
Two weeks later we moved Peter to the 1200m leg. His steady, meticulous lead off leg would jump start a national qualifying race. Just three weeks after lining up for the slow heat at the New England Championships, Peter and the DMR crossed the finish line at Nationals as All Americans.
I don’t have a good answer for why the memory of me standing there, wanting this team to do right by Peter, came flooding back to me while I sat in Lee’s three years later. But it did. It was as if Peter had reached across the table and slapped me in the face. But, in that same instant, I realized that everything that made Peter perfect for that DMR leg was going to be exactly what kept him from going to Nationals this time around.
If you know Peter, you know he’s stoic. He’s in control of the moment. He’s actions and words are balanced and poised. But he’s incredibly passionate. Don’t think otherwise. It’s just that he likes to be in complete control of it.
Think back to that first DMR. Soloing a great effort requires a tenuous mixture of fire and control. You need the steadfast judiciousness to not let the moment take over and pull you out too hard, making you crash and burn. But you also need an intense focus and drive to maintain pace and propel yourself through the middle as fatigue begins to set in. And in order to solitarily push through the pain of the finish, you absolutely need both a connection to your purpose and a raging fire.
Peter had all these traits. It’s just that he tended towards “steadfast judiciousness” and not necessarily “raging fire.”
But we were running out of time. Nationals was 5 weeks away leaving only 1 or 2 real shots at it. It was obvious that Peter wasn’t going to think his way to Nationals. He needed to start taking chances. He needed to start risking. He needed to stoke the fire so much that he risked losing control of it. We had to admit that he might not get back to Nationals, but if not, we were damn well going to go down swinging.
So, I became a glorified hype man. And it was awesome. I got to shut my brain off because I didn’t have anything to do with his training or workouts. Peter had Dusty Lopez for the training. And they were crushing it. The training was a well-designed, thought out, intellectual masterpiece. But my role wasn’t supposed to be well-designed, intellectual, or thought out. I was the arsonist. Before every race, it was my job to light the fire.
As I type this, I realize that I may not have actually been a hype man. I may have been the devil on Peter’s shoulder. It became my job to convince Peter to be risky. To stop worrying that some things may not work out. To stop playing it safe. And now I understand why I enjoyed this arsonist role so much. Both Peter and I were stepping out of our normal shells.
We are stoics who like to control for every variable possible. We make moves once we’ve already ensured the desired outcome. The idea of diving headfirst into the unknown is not one of our baseline settings. I think it felt freeing for both of us to flip that switch temporarily.
It was an awesome ride. I got to be raw, unfiltered, chest-pounding passion; consequences be damned. I got to cut loose. And Peter got to crush some races. The arsonist debuted for the Dartmouth Invite and Peter had a great tune up 1000m. That led to a lifetime PR in the mile at BU the next weekend. Two weeks later, Peter then came back with a National qualifying mile at the New England Championships.
Peter already had the pieces. He and Dusty had built them. Peter did all the work himself. He ran every step and did every workout. But I got to be the bellows pump to stoke the flames a little hotter. I got to be the devilish one encouraging him to be a little risky. And now I get to add “Hypeman” to the resume…because, admittedly, Arsonist doesn’t look too good on a CV.
Peter Kirgis – for inspiring others through our daily grind, for your measured attack of life, for trusting me when I asked you to be a little more irresponsible, for throwing yourself fully into this team, and for always having your teammates’, and my, backs – I thank you.