I wonder if as he went through the familiar pre-race motions in Lane 1, Dentarus Locke felt an incongruous shiver in the warm Caribbean night. I wonder if he reflected at all on the journey that had brought him to this moment — the career that encompassed two high school national championships, a collegiate All-American, and in 2013, a sixth-place finish at the U.S. Outdoor Championships that earned him a spot in the relay pool for the World Championships. In the end, he didn’t compete in Moscow, and so missed out on the opportunity to represent his country at the highest level, but his performances that summer were good enough to get him into a Diamond League meet, where he ran his personal best 100m time of 9.96.
Now he was one of seven sprinters whose names were lost in the excitement surrounding the name of the runner settling into the blocks in Lane 4, the greatest sprinter of all time and the most famous track and field athlete in the world, Usain Bolt.
The six-time Olympic gold medalist had chosen to open what he said would be his final outdoor season with this low-key meet in George Town at the Cayman Islands Invitational. He was expected to win. And he hoped to run under 10 seconds. The crowd eagerly awaited the start of the race, awash in the thrill of anticipation at seeing the great man consume meters of track with his super-human stride.
In all the other Lanes, the other runners tried to focus on their own preparations, hoping for a good start and a decent time. In Lane 1, Locke was like all the others, a name on the start list, with maybe a coach or a couple of friends there to see him race.
At the gun, it was a fair and fairly even start. Bolt was out pretty well, unwinding his 6′ 5″ frame with smooth and well-practiced acceleration. Locke was also out well, and as the runners gradually came upright, he had the lead. At fifty meters, there seemed to be a chance that the unheralded American might hold off the immortal Jamaican. And then, gradually with Bolt gaining inches with every stride, the chance slipped away into the Cayman evening.
Bolt won in 10.05 to the delight of the crowd and to the evident relief of the great man himself. He was sufficiently ahead of Locke (10.12) in second and the rest of the field to ensure that their names were unlikely to appear in accounts of the race. But I couldn’t help but think, what if Bolt hadn’t been quite in form yet? What if Locke had been able to reach the line first? It might have been worrisome for the Bolt camp and certainly would have disappointed the crowd, but imagine how Locke would have felt as he took the victory lap that some must have felt was the rightful property of another? This of how he would have headed home with a story that he would tell for the rest of his life, a story about the ten seconds when he beat the greatest sprinter in history.
He would have been the career minor leaguer up for a cup of coffee with the major league team who homered off Nolan Ryan in one of his few at-bats before being sent back to obscurity. He would have been the local expert chess player who defeated Bobby Fischer in a club tournament. He would have been the reserve forward who dunked on Michael Jordan that one time. All of the years of toil and all the ups and downs trying to make it would be more-or-less forgotten, and that one moment would stand out — the day good encountered great and good won.
Alas, it didn’t happen. Locke’s torso crossed the finish line seven-hundredths of a second too late to . But maybe that will be a story, too. Maybe there was a slight flaw in his start, imperceptible to everyone else, and but for that one flaw, he would have gotten to the line first. Maybe that’s the story… a near miss at an achievement to be remembered forever.
I don’t look at such a near-miss as something tragic. It reminded me that I had a couple of near-misses in my running life. Obviously, it’s not the same since I was never a national-class runner. But all the same, I had this sense of being close to accomplishing something I’d remember forever, even though in each case, there was a good excuse for why a scrub like me was so close to an elite runner. There was the one time I raced a seven-time member of the U.S. National Cross Country team in an indoor mile and lost by less than two seconds. And there was other time I ran a 5K cross country race and finished three seconds behind an Olympic bronze medalist. Both times, I felt excited to have been so close — and I came away with an appreciation for just how hard it is to be the guy that everybody wants to beat at least once. Those guys are special, and they actually share their special-ness with their competitors every time they lace up the spikes.
So to Dentarus Locke, I say good race! You earned the right to be there, you ran a good race, and came darned close to making Saturday night a memorable one for you, and a disappointment for everyone else in that stadium. It would have been a sweet story, but maybe it will be a sweet story anyway. It all depends on how you decide to tell it.