There may not be a more agonizing visual in sports than watching a distance runner completely fall apart while leading in the final stages of a big race. Of course, there may be no more compelling images either.
The most iconic was probably the televised collapse of Julie Moss in the final 100 yards. of the 1982 Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. The incredible determination but ultimate downfall of Moss was so captivating it proved to be an interest-driving turning point for a niche sport, that is now mainstream and a staple of the Olympic Games.
At this year’s San Diego CIF Track & Field Championships, La Costa Canyon senior Jessica Riedman experienced her own version of Moss’s nightmare. The defending champion at 800m and previous year’s runner-up at 1,600m, she came into her two races as the presumptive favorite based on her prelim marks, season-long consistency and veteran status.
Heading into the May 18 Championships, Riedman owned an impeccable resume, one that included top five CIF finishes in both the 800m and 1,600m in each of her first three years and a trio of top five individual finishes at the CIF Cross Country Championships as a key member of an LCC squad that captured the section team title in each of those seasons.
Her afternoon started with the 1,600m and, as was her style, Riedman moved quickly to the lead, pushing the tempo through the opening quarter mile. As it turned out, she pushed a little too hard. Her blazing 67-second first lap split was definitely not what she had in mind.
“I didn’t know I was going to go out in 67 but once I was there, it was like ‘I can’t do anything about it, I might as well try to keep that pace going,” she said a few minutes after the race concluded. “If it turned out well, I could get the leading time in the state.
“But I flew too close to the sun and exploded — in retrospect, I probably should have eased off a bit.”
Riedman, known for her bulldog toughness, rolled through the first three laps in good form and with about 200 meters remaining seemed to be on cruise control with a 50-meter advantage over her closest challenger. That was when the wheels started coming off.
“I had a lot of different emotions,” recalled Riedman. “It didn’t really hit me how fast I was going because I was doing so well and felt like nothing could stop me.
“All of the sudden, though, my legs started feeling like the turnover slowed down so much. I didn’t even know where everyone else was and I was just wondering how I could even reach the finish line.”
She desperately held on down the home stretch but was ultimately passed by three runners and fell to third place in the Division I individual standings, clocking 4:58.30 (roughly five seconds slower than her runner- up time of the year before). Weeks later, it still felt like Riedman was in a bit of a daze trying to explain that final phase of the race.
“I’ve always prided myself on being able to power through the last part of any race but I knew I wasn’t going to be powering through anything at that time,” she said. “I could hear the announcer, knew others were closing ground and it felt like I was running from a bear or something. It wasn’t about winning anymore, just about getting there.”
Riedman was in the medical tent for 30-40 minutes after the 1,600, totally spent with an elevated heart rate. The prevailing opinion was that she would step out of the 800m but after discussing the options with her father and relying on her own intuition, Riedman’s decision was to show up at the starting line.
“I was feeling kind of hopeless in that moment but thought ‘I’ve got to go for it and see it through to the end,’ “ she said. “I knew the 800m was going to be harder, and it was rough, but I’d dug deep so many times before — I mean I thought there was no way in last year’s 800 but I somehow got there first. I believed I could do it.”
This time, there was no fairy tale ending. Following a storyline somewhat similar to the 1,600m, Riedman ran near the front of the group early but had no reserve to fall back on when the situation demanded it. She again wound up third. The pair of bronzes that would have been a career achievement for most of the runners in the stadium, left the perpetually cheery Maverick standout searching for answers.
“I didn’t really pace myself right in that one either and basically just ran out of energy,” admitted Riedman, whose system had simply been depleted by the exhaustive 1,600 effort. “I think I ran that race (800m) more for my future than anything else. I knew it was going to hurt but I didn’t want to be looking back at what I did and knowing that I didn’t go for it.
“In those moments between the races, it would have been easy to drop out, what did I have to lose? But I also thought about so many people who were in so much worse situations and no matter what happened, I would know that I had pushed myself to give all I had — that’s all that mattered in that moment.”
In the end, the circumstances of the day were that Riedman was left physically and mentally drained, did not win either of her two championship races, failed to qualify for the CIF State Championship meet and was faced with the sudden, unexpected end of her prep career.
There are a variety of maxims that focus on not letting disappointments define you. Some stress the notion that the real definition of a person is not the part about falling short but the response to the disappointment. In the case of the 18-year-old Riedman, the latter began taking shape with clarity before she even left the stadium on May 17.
In an amazing display of self-awareness, positivity and forward thinking her post-meet comments and those that followed in the next few weeks painted a picture of an accomplished young woman, strong enough to deal with misfortune and ready to use it to fuel her future.
Instead of leaving the competition site following her final event, Riedman elected to stick around and savor the environment. In the process of doing that, she was taken aback by the volume of encouragement that came her way.
“After that last race, I was kind of surprised because a lot of people there were really, really supportive,” said Riedman. “So many people were so kind — old teammates, coaches, people from other teams. I was glad that over the years I had gotten to know so many people and I enjoyed being around those people at that time.
“Everyone felt bad for me, I did something so immensely stupid. I kind of felt bad for my parents who have been there all the way, doing everything parents do — they’d seen everything I’d put into it.
“When we finally walked out, I was thinking about how when you’re all in something like this, surrounded by it, you can sometimes take for granted how much the setting we’re in helps us succeed. It’s definitely played a significant role for me.
“We talked about the bright side and I kept repeating a quote that I like, ‘becoming is better than being.’ Sometimes it doesn’t really feel like there’s an end game in the sport — there’s always another race, always new competitors. The progressions are really what you value and in anything like this, it’s the people that are the most important.”
One person who’s been instrumental in Riedman’s athletic development has been LCC Head Coach Bill Vice and while sorting out answers post-event, she also gravitated to one of his regular mantras. In good times and bad, he had always trained his runners that “20 minutes after a race they should be moving on.”
Almost immediately after her life as a high school runner and student was culminated, her attention turned to a new “adventure” staring at her from more than 2,500 miles across the country. A 4.38 GPA (weighted) student at LCC, Riedman began preparing in earnest for the next phase of her life, one that will see her attending University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business next fall in Philadelphia. She’ll also be competing for the Penn cross country and reigning Ivy League champion track & field squad.
Considering how central running had been during her four years at La Costa Canyon, Riedman said she was “amazed at how easy it actually was to ‘move on.’
“Now, I’m so invested in my upcoming college season that I’m not putting much on those two races.” She began identifying other silver linings in her ill-fated prep swan song.
Two weeks after the CIF meet while watching the NCAA Division I Championships, she noticed that the lead runners in the 1,600m came through the third lap in about the same time she had. While they clearly finished in a different fashion, it provided Riedman with something else to build on.
“It was great thinking ‘Hey, I was running that fast.’ It gave me confidence that maybe I could stick with those type of girls and if I can learn how to finish the final 300, it could be exciting.
“Even though it didn’t end well, it was good to know that mentally I was able to get to that point and that mentally, I was ready to run those times. I think that type of experience will help for college.”
There was also the good schooling it offered for the inevitable ups-and-downs one is thrown in life.
“I didn’t get to go to the state meet and that’s tough, but I haven’t had that sort of failure yet,” theorized Riedman. “It wasn’t really a failure but for me it kind of felt like that and, in a way, I’m sort of glad.
“Honestly, I don’t have a lot of adversity in my life, so it’s alright—it might as well happen now. Besides the fact that I completely ran out of steam in the final 200 meters, it was kind of a brave race and looking back, I was happy about that.”