Community 16-year-old loses 100 pounds, Becomes Track Star

    16-year-old loses 100 pounds, Becomes Track Star

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    It’s tempting to say that Richard Hong, 16, heard a call that had always been there in retrospect—quietly in the background, unnoticed, like one of those long runs he now regularly pounds out, where it’s impossible to remember when it started and where the the end is so far in the future that it doesn’t matter. Only the staccato sound of footfalls. 

    It’s tempting to say that one day Hong tuned in, heard something out there in the early going when every step was murder; that he listened and then went about the work of changing his life.

    But Hong’s not having any of it.  

    “I told myself I’m going to lose weight, and I did it. I told myself I’m going to be a great runner, and I did it. I think it’s because of all the people that told me I can’t. But instead of proving it to them I proved to myself that I can,” says Hong. “Discipline comes into this. With discipline I’m free. I didn’t want to be a slave to my moods and passions—so I did it and got it done.”

    For people who don’t know Hong it’s difficult to square this with the tall, gaunt, distance runner currently burning up the Lakefield College School trails and high school rankings. He looks the part. It’s hard also to connect Hong’s past struggle with his weight—the subsequent bullying that happened prior to attending Lakefield—to the runner who, during lockdown, consistently ran 16 kilometre loops more days than he didn’t. Hong looks like he came into the world ready-made for the sport. During the summer Hong’s running became part of his Cross-Country team’s mantra, a variation on Tom Fleming’s Boston sign he stuck on the fridge door: “Somewhere in the world, Richard Hong is running when you are not. When you race him, he will win.” None of us knew of us who coached him, and none of us who trained with him knew just how close to the truth this was.   

    Until this season Hong’s story of running, adhering to a plan, and losing weight while uncommon, valiant and even awe-inspiring, wasn’t unique.  It followed a familiar trajectory told repeatedly in books like Born to Run and films like Brittany Runs a Marathon.  For most people the healthy outcome would be the reward and where the credits would roll. But for Hong this is where the story began, not with the twelve-year-old kid weighing 220 pounds, and not with the journey of self-discovery. This was all just an overture to a larger and far more daunting realization. 

    Richard Hong was good.

    When Malcolm Gladwell first popularized the ten-thousand-hour rule, it was almost immediately misunderstood, inferring that the only quality separating elite athletes from everyone else was their capacity to put the time in. This fit conveniently with Max Weber’s turn-of-the-century Protestant work ethic, capitalism, and an idea of meritocracy based not on birthright, wealth or innate talent but on effort alone. It was an inspiring story. 

    It just wasn’t true.  

    At some point in any sport, coaching and training could reveal potential, but it could not conjure what wasn’t already there. Hong did not know that and if he did, he didn’t care.

    “I started running right when I entered high school when I was 14-years-old, 170 pounds, 5 foot 7. That’s when I met teammate Thomas [Larson]. I told myself I was going to be as good as Thomas one day,” says Hong.  

    When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile—an athletic feat no one thought possible—in the weeks and months that followed many others would do the same. Bannister had shown the impossible to be possible. For Hong, Larson wasn’t just a runner; he was possibility. Larson, since before Grade 9, understood that running wasn’t a sport. Running wasn’t a religion either, despite the fact that it had its own prayers, catechisms, bibles and pilgrimages. If anything it was a reverse sort of Buddhism where enlightenment was achieved not by detaching from suffering but actively seeking it out. Running demanded that the true believer pursue a monastic withdrawal from an idolatrous world. Running demanded a stoic response to self-inflicted suffering. And when injury struck, running also demanded not running at all. Running would never be a reason to live, but it could be a life. Where other sports required infrastructure, a rink, or a field, running simply asked that a believer show up every single day.  

    Running was a source code. It needed nothing, not even shoes; just will. The only barriers were what an athlete was willing to endure; frostbite in winter, extreme heat in summer, hard 800-meter reps at the track alone and distance runs that could last all afternoon. How far and, more importantly, how fast it could take an athlete, was one of the Faiths’ mysteries.

    “My life revolved around running, no matter how tired I was, no matter the weather, running was a priority,” says Hong. “I found joy and happiness in running because every day it was just me and my thoughts, going through everything I could have done better.”

    For most of us, sport reveals a linear, bedrock relationship between work put in and performance taken out, cause and effect, action and reaction. For most of us this is where the revelation stops.  It’s enough.  But Hong had found something on the other side of this. Running didn’t just have the ancillary benefit of weight-loss and not being winded after a flight of stairs—it started to show him what he could be

    It could make him feel he belonged.

    “Running is the one thing in my life where I gave a hundred percent and got a hundred back. It gave a sense of belonging and success. The difference between grade nine and now is the process of finding happiness in running. In grade nine, running was just to make me work and feel the pain for a feeling of accomplishment. I didn’t run during the weekends; I wasn’t committed enough to reach my destiny.” 

    Hong pauses and says: “I spent grade nine becoming the best version of myself. If there was one piece of advice, I would say this: the number one reason why people give up so fast is because they tend to look at how far they still have to go, instead of how far they’ve gotten.”

    What the future holds is clear for Hong. Simply put: he wants to run well. What this means is adhering to the plan put together by his Lakefield coach, Todd Harris. But more than that, Hong hopes to find himself within the sport and become someone that younger athletes can look up to. 

    It’s what he feels he owes the sport.

    “Running found me when I needed it the most. Running changed my life. I’m not here to win big awards or care about my placements. I am who I am because of running. It keeps me away from distractions and unhealthy habits. It keeps me true to who I am as Richard Hong.”   

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