COLUMBIA — One day last spring, Sam Masters was surprised to find that one of his friends had brought a Rubik’s Cube to the lunch table at Hickman High. Intrigued by the complexity of the puzzle, he purchased one for himself with the ultimate goal of someday figuring out the right combination of moves to complete it.
“I used to watch him and wish I could do it,” Masters said. “So I just got one and went after it.”
Masters solved the puzzle for the first time less than a day after he bought his own. The Hickman senior says he has an ability to set aside other distractions and stay focused on a goal until he completes it.
This skill became important to Masters early in the 2007 cross country season when he was physically unable to complete a 5K race one weekend and had to concentrate on getting his body back in shape for the next meet.
Solving a Rubik’s Cube is now a way for Masters to relax and relieve stress. He spends time each day trying to solve the puzzle in new and interesting patterns. While most cross country runners have a prerace routine that focuses on eating the right foods, listening to specific songs, and stretching muscles in a certain order, Masters’ routine also involves relaxing with the colorful cube.
“What I like to do before a race is stay quiet and just hang out with myself, and it helps me do that,” said Masters, who takes his Rubik’s Cube with him to out-of-town meets to take the stress of the upcoming race off his mind.
After a second-place showing in the 3200-meter run at the state meet during track season and two consecutive appearances in the state cross country meet, Masters was expected to do well at the Missouri Cross Country Challenge on Sept. 8. However, leg problems and some severe personal stress at practice that week combined to force Masters into a condition that left him unable to finish the race.
The leg injury had thrown Masters off his typical practice routine leading up to the Missouri Cross Country Challenge, and the added pressure of collegiate coaches scouting and running in front of a local crowd took a toll on his body that was too much to handle.
“He’s usually not the type of person to start something and not finish it,” said Hickman cross country coach Steve Kissane.
Running in the lead pack for most of the race, Masters’ stress levels caused what he calls a “physical breakdown,” and he dropped out of the race with a little over half a mile left in the 5K race.
“My legs were not wanting to go faster, and that’s just a time when you listen to your body and you just stop,” Masters said. “My body forced me to stop, my legs just wouldn’t hold me any longer.”
With Masters out of the race, the responsibility to lead the Kewpies fell on senior Joey Walls and junior Jordan Fleming. Both Walls and Fleming responded well, placing second and sixth and leading the Kewpies to a third place team finish.
Kissane encouraged Masters to forget about the race and look forward to what he could still accomplish with the rest of the season. The next week of practice stressed moving on to the next meet, the Hazelwood Central Invitational on Saturday Sept. 15, and taking the rest of the season one race at a time.
“We don’t want to spend forever dwelling on that,” said Kissane said. “We’ll just put it as far in the rear-view mirror as we can and move on.”
Much like when he learned to solve the Rubik’s Cube for the first time, Masters eliminated the distraction of the previous race and set his sights on placing well at Hazelwood Central.
“I just took it one day at a time,” Masters said. “The only thing I worried about on Monday was what I was running on Monday.”
The plan worked. Masters won the race, and the Kewpies won the team competition. Walls finished fourth, and Fleming was fifth.
“One of the plusses that came out of the Missouri Cross Country Challenge is that everyone else ran great,” Kissane said. “That gave them the confidence that they could perform as well.”
Masters and the Kewpies are proud of the success they had last weekend, but understand that most important successes will come in the meets at the end of the season.
“We’ve had a good start to things here,” Kissane said. “But we need to keep focused on what’s ahead of us.”