GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It is the pinnacle of high school cross-country in Michigan: the final stretch of the 3.1 miles of the state championships, sprinting down the straightaway at the Michigan International Speedway, the grandstands loud with families cheering, precious seconds ticking as runners fight for their place.
It’s where Maggie Duba found herself Friday afternoon.
The Grand Rapids West Catholic junior had started the race hoping for a fourth straight personal best. She ran her best race in regionals and had shaved a minute off her time since her sophomore year. At the state finals, she was aiming for her first sub-19-minute finish.
“You just feel really proud and you feel like you can do it again,” Duba said of her personal records. “You think, like, that wasn’t that hard once you finally hit what you’ve been shooting for.”
Duba was the only one from her team at the start line. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, teammates not competing couldn’t even be on the infield. It unsettled Duba and she couldn’t shake it.
“Honestly, on Friday, I felt like tired and like, not that into it,” she said.
Her feelings were reflected in her opening times.
“When Maggie didn’t show up at the 1.5-mile point on her time, I really started panicking,” Noreen Duba, Maggie Duba’s mom and coach, said. “You question yourself as a coach: Did I coach something wrong? Did we overdo it, have we underdone it? You know, what’s going on? Why is she not hitting her time here?”
Maggie Duba had a cramp, which she said she let get her head out of the race. An early setback like that is hard to overcome. An 18-minute time wasn’t in the legs. But she was going to finish, she decided.
“I knew I wasn’t going to run a PR, but I still, I didn’t want to be mad at myself at the end of the race,” she said.
Then, at the end of the race, something remarkable happened.
About 75 yards from the finish line, Duba noticed a competing runner on the ground. She watched as the racers ahead of her ran past the fallen runner, Chippewa Hills junior Sarah Storey.
In her own delirious state of exhaustion, Maggie says she acted on instinct, without thought and bent over to help the runner up.
“I was like, you got to get her up, like she’s got to finish. This is also like way too close for her” not to finish, Duba said. “I wanted her to be able to finish, so I just, I kind of grabbed her and talked to her a little bit and was like, ‘You can’t not finish,’ just kind of putting that into her mind.”
Arms locked and Duba carrying Storey’s weight, the two raced on. For about 15 yards, the two strangers and competitors were one, side by side, stride for stride.
Then Duba let go and finished with Storey right behind her.
“That race was not going my way and I didn’t really have that much more to lose,” Duba said. “So if I could help someone else do well, then I think that’s more important.”
Noreen Duba could hear the crowd begin to cheer the two on. She knew that both could have been disqualified, but she was overcome with pride because her daughter did exactly what she would’ve wanted her to do, both as a coach and mother: She showed compassion to someone who had fallen.
That’s also when Noreen Duba realized why her star runner wasn’t having her best race.
“I thought, you know really, I really think God put her there. She had that type of a day for a reason so that she would be in that spot at that time to help Sarah,” Noreen Duba said.
Noreen Duba says her daughter lost anywhere between 10 to 20 spots in the standings, but gained something more.
“They’ve become friends. We’re hoping to race for this spring in track and hopefully next year, the two of them as seniors are toeing the line at the state meet and running together and can have an actual race,” Noreen Duba said with a smile.
For a runner who measures her success in time and distance, Maggie Duba showed that sometimes a personal best comes from a helping hand.
“I’m sure she would’ve done the same thing for me, too. So I have no regrets,” she said.