Brandt Cole can't stand the thought of running.
For much of his young life, he's liked even less the prospect of healthy eating.
Yet for at least a short period, Cole was eating well, and as a result he ran well enough to earn a state medal in cross country last fall.
But he admits that neither running nor eating well is a passion. So his experience with both might also have ended.
Cole, who graduated from Rock Falls High School last month, is an example of just how difficult it can be for young athletes to adopt healthy eating as a lifestyle, even when there are rewards for doing so. Maintaining that diet gets even harder when the athlete feels burnt out on his sport.
Cole has fallen off the healthy wagon. And, though he should have started weeks ago, he hasn't yet started to train to run for Sauk Valley Community College as he'd planned.
He's considering passing on the requirements of his full-ride scholarship to Sauk.
"To be honest, I've never liked running. I absolutely hate running," Cole said. "I'm seriously considering just paying cash for college and pay for it outright.
"That's how bad I don't wanna run."
As much as Cole hates running, he has equal disdain for fruits and vegetables.
Still, he decided to overhaul his diet to reach a higher level and faster times in cross country. He did so after narrowly missing out on a medal at the state cross country meet his junior year.
His efforts at better eating seemed to have worked. His 15th-place showing at the state meet in October in Peoria earned him the right to be adorned with the precious medal.
Cole is quick to acknowledge the benefits of running and, yes, fruits and vegetables. Running, he says, whets his insatiable appetite for competition.
He admits his energy spiked when he "forced" himself to shift from his diet of doughnuts and pop to steak, chicken and salad.
And he says today that he misses the extra energy.
But even reaching that point didn't happen quickly.
"There were times my freshman and sophomore years, that I'd say, 'All right, I'm gonna eat healthy and just do it instantly,' " Cole said. "But I couldn't do that. I had to gradually switch over to eating healthy. Slowly but surely, I would take myself away from the Diet Mountain Dew."
That meant going from putting away four or five cans of the stuff a day to being soda-free by the start of the cross country campaign.
Until the light went on his junior year, Cole drew the ire of his coaches, Mark Truesdell and Mindy Porter, even eating packs of Starburst before running the mile.
"He was trying to take pride in it that he was going to prove us wrong," Truesdell said. "A lot of kids have to learn the hard way."
Looking for an edge
Cole once told an SVM reporter that among his goals was beating 2012 Bureau Valley graduate Derrick Johnson.
Johnson considered that a sign of respect. Truesdell remembers Cole searching for a way to close the gap.
"He would say [to Johnson], 'Man, you eat a lot better than me. I better give this a try,' " Truesdell said.
Cole enlisted his mother, Brandi Hendrix, an exceptional cook, to help. He says she can make anything, but took his orders to the letter when he admitted he had to change his diet.
"She pretty much made everything for me," Cole said. "I don't cook. I don't even know how to use the oven."
In 2012, Johnson placed 14th at the 1A cross-country meet with a time of 15 minutes, 24 seconds. A year later, Cole completed the course in 15:13.
Johnson admired Cole for seeking, and finding, an edge.
"That's an athlete deciding, 'I want to be better, and that's how I can get better,'" Johnson said.
Johnson admits his diet wasn't exemplary in high school, either. While running track and cross country at Eastern Illinois University, however, he's taken it to another level.
That doesn't mean tracking calories. But in the line at the dining hall, Johnson is making sure he gets some spinach leaves, grapes, or something of the like on his plate.
"You have to look at every aspect of how you can be a better runner," Johnson said. "How do I work harder and train harder? How do I get better?"
Was it not enough?
Though Cole found satisfaction in having more energy and focus, sleeping better, and posting a faster time than Johnson, none of it offset the hollow feeling of not being the very best.
"I put everything into my senior year that I had," Cole said, his voice nearly hushed, "and it still wasn't enough. Yeah, I got a medal at state, but I didn't win nearly as many races as I wanted to. I couldn't compete with the guys I wanted to compete with.
"I should've trained longer and harder. I'm never satisfied until I'm the best of the best."
It's frustrating for Truesdell to know that Cole understands what it takes but can't find passion to maintain fitness. He last saw Cole at his graduation party. Hearing that Cole is back to eating poorly and not training makes the coach feel like he's "pushing sand uphill."
"I just don't understand why you'd want to go back to that," Truesdell said. "But we see it all the time. When you're in-season, you know what's expected of you and what it takes. When the season's over, a lot of kids fall off the wagon."
Now, Cole is more focused on a true passion – building and racing stock cars on dirt tracks all over the Midwest with the Young and Fearless Racing team formed by him and his friends.
Cole says that, while there's competition on the dirt tracks three times a week, the races are won in the garage. Without the maintenance and tune-ups, skill simply doesn't have a vehicle.
"He had discipline, and he wants to be the best, but it goes in streaks," Truesdell said. "I know whatever he does, he's gonna be good at."
And Johnson understands that Cole's calling isn't running. It doesn't speak to the young man's soul. Thus, he was able to look at the news that his former rival had fallen off the wagon, pragmatically.
"Aww, man. … A while ago, I would tell you that's a waste of talent and stuff like that," Johnson said. "But if you don't enjoy doing something – and I know he's into the late-model dirt-track racing; that's his thing – you shouldn't do it. He's his own guy. He's gotta do what makes him happy."