A Champion of Sportsmanship as well

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

May 14, 2012

While his teammates ran against White Lake Lakeland last Tuesday, Devin Kimberlin was inside Walled Lake Northern High School studying for an Advanced Placement exam. He had about 10 minutes to spare to run one race – and hoped Garret Zuk would help him make it worthwhile.

It’s not that the Knights sophomore thought he could beat Zuk, a senior who is the reigning Division 1 cross country champion and will run at Michigan State University this fall. But Kimberlin was coming off a career-best 10:02 in the 3,200 meters, and knew chasing Zuk would be a prime opportunity to break the 10-minute plateau.

He was right. In fact, Zuk recognized the situation, and after a short conversation during the second lap, offered to pace his opponent the rest of the way. Kimberlin finishing in 9:58.

“At that point, something clicked in my head; I can help him out,” Zuk said. “It was kind of a selfish thing, because it gave me something to do for that race. I was a little worried that my coach would care. But I said to myself, the meet is over, there’s no reason he would care. At that point, I made my decision.”

Opponents from rival schools working together for a common goal makes this a feel-good story. But another selfless act by Zuk at the end made this race one of the most memorable in Michigan this spring.

The 3,200 is the longest high school race in MHSAA competition, measuring eight laps. As Tuesday’s race neared its end, the story picked up speed as well.

Pre-Race Prep

The two didn’t know each other before Tuesday. Kimberlin certainly knew about Zuk, who on top of the cross country championship has since run the 3,200 in 9:09 – which would’ve won last season’s Division 1 track and field final by 11 seconds. Zuk also this winter was named an MHSAA Scholar-Athlete Award winner, one of only 32 from across the state, and is co-salutatorian of his class.

Zuk had recognized Kimberlin from other events over the year, although it was only a chance set of circumstances that led Kimberlin to running at all. He was a soccer player when his family moved back from London last fall. But he ran in a Walled Lake Northern alumni cross country race for fun, and coach Jeff McNeil noticed his raw talent – and convinced Kimberlin to join the cross country team as well in the fall. Kimberlin just missed making the Cross Country Finals with a personal record of 16:01. He then came out for track this spring and had showed lots of potential over the season’s first month. 

Laps 1 and 2

The 3,200 is the third-to-last event. With Lakeland already trailing by too many points to win the meet, Zuk wasn’t sure if he should go after a fast time or simply cruise through. He’d been breaking 10 minutes in the 3,200 since his freshman year, and would’ve had little problem winning this race.

Kimberlin hoped for the former.

A pack of three or four runners, including Zuk and Kimberlin, led into the second lap. Kimberlin couldn’t figure out why Zuk was hanging back. So Kimberlin took off.

His charge was fast – but not fast enough. As that lap ended, McNeil ran to Kimberlin and yelled to him his pace was about five seconds too slow to break 10 minutes.

Lap 3

Zuk overheard something in that conversation about “pace.” At the start of the third lap, he came even with Kimberlin and then pulled a bit in front of him.

“He looks over his right shoulder, and he said, ‘Just draft off me for a couple of seconds here.’ I was like, ‘All right,’” Kimberlin said. “He turned around again and asked what time I was going for. I said I wanted to break 10, and he said, ‘All right. Stick with me and we’ll do it.’”

In the stands, Walled Lake Northern fans were trying to make out what was going on below. Some thought Zuk might be taunting their runner. But parent Dave Routledge, whose son was a Knights standout last season, told those around him that Zuk wasn’t that kind of guy. Kimberlin wasn’t sure how to answer Zuk at first either, but decided to latch on for the ride.

At the top curve of the back stretch, Zuk and Kimberlin started lapping runners, with Zuk encouraging them as they ran by. The race – and the 10-minute pace – was on.

“What Garret did … caught me off-guard at first. I had watched him do that for different kids on our team all year. (But) that’s the type of leader that he is,” Lakeland coach Dave Browne said. “Garret is a tremendous leader and one of the best motivators by example that I have ever coached. I’m not sure MSU fully understands the tremendous individual that they are inheriting from us.”

Laps 4-7

Instead of getting slower, Kimberlin’s lap times sped up as he chased Zuk around the track. And now everyone had joined the effort.

McNeil, of course, was cheering on his runner to keep the pace. Sometime during the fifth or sixth lap, Brown pulled close to Zuk and cheered him to pull Kimberlin through.

Those in the stands had figured things out as well. Some were close to tears. All were cheering loudly as the 10-minute goal began to look possible.

Lap 8 – Home Stretch

Zuk continued about five meters in front of Kimberlin, who usually has a strong kick at the end – but clearly did not have as much left as usual.

Zuk did. And that would be enough for both of them.

“There wasn’t really a whole lot of planning to any of this. I was trying to figure out how to push him, and I knew we had to be quicker on that last lap,” Zuk said. “I knew he would get that last little bit of adrenaline (trying) to go ahead and catch me. With as much effort as I knew he’d put into that race, he deserved to pass me and win.”

Zuk had won every race but a few this season, when he let younger teammates go ahead of him. This time, it was an opponent following him -- but Lakeland no longer could win the meet. With about 10 meters left, he cooled his jets again and let Kimberlin charge through the finish line first.

It must’ve caught the officials off-guard as well – one gave Kimberlin the second-place stick and the first to Zuk. But Zuk grabbed the second and gave Kimberlin the first, and, as McNeil remembered, said with a smile on his face, “He beat me. He got me at the line. He deserves the first-place stick.”

“I couldn’t believe he was going to let me win,” Kimberlin said. “After the race, I walked up and gave him a hug and said, ‘Thank you so much.’ He was just like, ‘No problem.’”

“I wrote Garret an email that his character means more than it means (to be an elite) runner. And his character now shows even more,” McNeil said. “His running alone is obviously awesome. He’s just great. But he’s also got a great attitude, and I wanted to reinforce to him: Please don’t change.”

Zuk’s effort has been the talk at school, and Lakeland athletic director Greg Michaels said he was told the same is true at Walled Lake Northern. Michaels lives in South Lyon, and his neighbor, a high school runner, also had heard the story from his coach. On Thursday, Zuk was recognized by the Huron Valley Schools Board of Education.

Routledge wrote a letter to the Lakeland athletic department that quickly circulated around the school and included this excerpt:

“I watched this performance and was astonished.  To say that I was, once again, impressed by Lakeland’s Garret Zuk would be an understatement,” Routledge wrote. “Somewhere in his young life he has learned the value of humility, sacrifice, and deferential character. He understands that as a champion he is a role model and mentor.  He was a hero on this day to one young runner from Walled Lake Northern. And perhaps to all who watched.”

Kimberlin’s English teacher read the letter in class the next day. It nearly brought the runner to tears.

“It’s a great example. It’s something, down the line, I’d like to do some time,” Kimberlin said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be as good as him. But he’ll definitely be a great inspiration along the way.”

PHOTOS: (Top) White Lake Lakeland's Garret Zuk finishes off his Division 1 championship run at the MHSAA Cross Country Finals in the fall at Michigan International Speedway. (Middle) Walled Lake Northern's Devin Kimberlin races during a track meet earlier this season. (Top photo courtesy of High School Sports Scene. Middle photo is courtesy of Walled Lake Northern.)

Hastings Relays Reigns as State's Oldest Continuous Track & Field Meet

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

April 10, 2024

Bob Branch remembers dabbling in other sports, but his first love was always running.

Mid-MichiganThe Hastings High School graduate admits he could never hit a baseball, football didn't especially appeal to him and basketball was just another way to spend time with friends. But for Branch, now 93, there was always track. That's the sport where his fondest and sharpest memories remain. And if you're talking track, many of his favorite memories come from participation in the state's oldest continuous track meet, the Hastings Relays.

Always held in early April, the meet dates back to 1937 – a bygone time that saw the first hostilities of World War II, gas at 20 cents a gallon and a loaf of bread selling for a dime.

And at a dusty old track surrounding the county fairgrounds in Hastings, a small relay event that included a scattering of participants from a dozen high schools was taking its first tentative steps.

Branch recalls a time when kids would run home after track practice because there were no buses, inexperienced young coaches had little actual knowledge of running fundamentals, and athletes looked at the sport as an afterthought after spending most of their high school days playing football and basketball.

The author wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Relays for the Hastings Banner nearly 40 years ago.For Branch, the relays were the ideal way to ease into the track season.

"I just liked to run," said Branch. "I remember I anchored a relay with my brother, and it always seemed cold when we had that meet. I remember teams would come from all over and you saw a lot of good athletes. Everybody seemed to have someone who was really good. Track wasn't very popular at that time, but I have a lot of good memories from running."

The Hastings Relays, which has changed formats and even names during its nearly nine-decade history, would traditionally kick off the track season. The meet was originally held at a makeshift quarter-mile track which surrounded the town's fairgrounds and was part of the city's annual Hastings Carnival – the track would become the midway during fair time.

The meet eventually moved to Johnson Field when the football field was dedicated in 1949 and ballooned to as many as 50 teams at its peak in 1957. For more than seven decades it was known as the Hastings Relays and then the Hastings Co-Ed relays before becoming the current Hastings Invitational, with the latest edition scheduled for Friday.

Johnson Field had a cinder track before it became an all-weather surface in the 1980s. During a time long before computers would be used to organize meet heats in mere minutes, Hastings coaches of all sports – defined as "volunteers" by the athletic department – would meet on the Friday before competition to hash out events.

People associated with the meet still recall the camaraderie built on those long Friday nights, followed by working what would often become 10-hour meets. Steve Hoke has been involved since watching his father, Jack, who coached teams at 15 of the meets beginning in 1951 and also had run in the first Hastings Relays. Steve Hoke later competed in the Relays as well during the early 1970s before becoming an assistant track coach, later the Hastings athletic director and now a volunteer worker.

"It was always a huge deal," said Hoke, who said the meet began as a pure relay event before transitioning to its current team format in the 1990s. "I remember we'd line the track the night before, and all the coaches would come to the house to organize everything. There was a brotherhood.”

Past athlete, coach and athletic director Steve Hoke shows some of the Relays awards from the 1930s.If you quiz many of the fleet of volunteers who've worked the relays over the years, each has a different memory from the meet. While Hoke describes the brotherhood and Branch the outstanding competition, others remember weather and the time a thunderstorm wiped out the line markings on the cinder track, or waking up to find three inches of snow that caused a rare cancellation of the meet. Others recall the shock of moving from the cinder to all-weather track or using the meet as an early measuring stick of what it would take to qualify for the state meet. The real old-timers remember the meet disappearing for three years during World War II.

Hastings native and Western Michigan grad Tom Duits was the state’s second collegian to break the four-minute mile when he ran a 3:59.2 at a meet in Philadelphia in 1978. Duits, who ran in three Hastings Relays, was in line to join the U.S. Olympic team in 1980 before the United States pulled out of the games due to tension with Russia.

Duits has his own memories of the meet and the competition he faced there.

"I remember sunshine and being excited to be competing again. There were all these athletes swarming around; it was an awesome display of talent," he said. "It was always one of the best meets we'd be in. You could pretty much see the level of runners who would be at state, which made it a big deal. It was always early, but you could tell where you stood. It was great exposure."

Hastings track star Wayne Oom competed in four Hastings Relays from 1984-87. One of his sharpest memories was the difference between running on a raw cinder track versus the far more comfortable all-weather surface.

"Those cinders would grind into your skin," said Oom, part of the Hastings school record in the two-mile relay. "But I think it helped us because when we'd go to other tracks, it seemed we would run faster. I remember how competitive it was, especially in the distances. There were some great runners."

While participants have their unique memories, so do coaches. Former Saxons coach Paul Fulmer remembers 2008 when his team finished first on the boys side of the meet while his wife, Grand Haven coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer, saw her girls team win the championship.

Tom Duits was one of the state’s biggest track stars of the 1970s and ran in three Hastings Relays."I knew we were one of the favorites to win because we were usually near the top of our conference and Regional," he said. "But then Katie's team was pretty good, and it was cool for them to win too."

Fulmer, who coached Hastings from 1978-81 and then 1985-2010, said at least part of the meet's popularity was derived from a unique way of scoring. Instead of individuals earning points solo, participants worked in pairs. For instance, two athletes would combine their shot put or long jump scores. New events such as the 1,500 relay and sprint medley were added.

"We had a tradition of being the state's oldest meet, and that was a big deal," Fulmer said. "And we ran a good relay; that attracted teams too. We took a lot of pride in that.

"And we'd get quite a lot of people to come to the meet. We'd set up until like 9 or 10 p.m., and then we'd have a party with all the coaches on Friday night."

While the meet has stretched 87 years, Branch said early participants and current runners have one thing in common: a drive to win. Branch ran in an era when the popularity of high school track was in its infancy. Today some of the best all-around athletes at a school are involved in the track program. The relays span the nearly nine decades in between.

"The quality of teams has gotten better and better," said Branch, the 1947 Lower Peninsula Class B Finals champ in the 220. "And this has made for a better meet. We would get guys who played football or baseball kind of drift into track, and that made the sport better. I think people began to appreciate track because we'd get teams from all over.

"We went from not really knowing what we were doing to track being a good sport. Even then, I'm not sure we appreciated what we had. We really liked the Hastings Relays and always wanted to do well there. It became popular and quite an honor to do well. Those are the kind of things I remember."

PHOTOS (Top) Racers run at the Hastings Relays, with several more awaiting their turns to compete at the longtime meet. (2) The author wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Relays for the Hastings Banner nearly 40 years ago. (3) Past athlete, coach and athletic director Steve Hoke shows some of the Relays awards from the 1930s. (4) Tom Duits was one of the state’s biggest track stars of the 1970s and ran in three Hastings Relays. (Top photo by Dan Goggins, Hoke photo provided by Steve Hoke and Duits photos provided by Tom Duits.)