Xander Ostaffe just finished his senior season running cross country and track at Maple Grove High School, where he competed in both sports for two years. He owns personal bests of 16:48 in the 5k, 4:36.78 in the 1600m, and 2:01.36 in the 800m.
When the topic of cross country ever comes up, or if I ever see it on social media, all I can think about is one thing: the story of how I dealt with an absolutely devastating injury. Overcoming this obstacle is one of the greatest feelings I have ever felt, and the final result was only a piece of it. Through this I learned a lot not only about myself, but about life.
Coming into my senior year, I had struggled with knee problems, most specifically my IT band, but was finally experiencing good health at the beginning of the 2018 season. Things were going well, and I was hopeful my knee pain was all behind me. But on August 22nd, 2018, I was working in my backyard with my brother, removing grass and dirt so we could create space for a patio. When we finished, I pushed the heavy wheelbarrow to my driveway, which had a trailer full of dirt we previously loaded onto it. However, it was still attached to our car, which we needed to use in order to get to senior year orientation at Maple Grove Senior High. There was no one home except for my brother, sister, and I, so I decided to try and take the trailer off the hitch by myself, not knowing how heavy it was. On that day, at about 11:00am, I dropped a 1500-pound trailer on my left foot.
It is all a blur now, but I remember a blood-curdling scream, hopping on one foot into my house, and blood dripping everywhere. To this day, I do not know how I got my foot out from underneath that trailer. I was taken to the emergency room by my dad, but all I could think about at the time was if I would be able to run. I was positive that several bones in my foot had been crushed, and that running may not even be a possibility. At best, I was thinking that I would still be able to run track in the spring. But while I was in the hospital listening to the doctor explaining my X-rays, I was incredibly surprised and relieved to hear that I had not broken a single bone. I had significant swelling as well as three stitches to close the wound. The possibility of a stress fracture from the trailer existed in the area I hurt my foot, but this was at least some good news for a relatively dismal day for me so far. The doctor then told me I would not be able to run until early-October at the earliest. While it was significantly better than I thought, it was still very hard to hear.
On the way home, I began to cry. I had not cried all morning, not even about my injury. I was crying because I had been waiting all summer to be able to run again after my knee injury, only for this to occur. I was dreaming for a breakout year; I had just had a pretty good year with track, so I was devastated. I was only in my second year of cross country, but had fallen in love with the sport. By not running, I became very irritable at times because I used running as a way to relieve stress before my injuries, and I felt an emptiness that wasn't there before.
Even though I could not run, I was still a part of the team and contributed as much as I possibly could. I attended practices and meets to encourage my teammates and to remain involved. I also went to nearly every pasta party too! There, I was able to make good memories and have fun, even though I was unable to race at meets. I even became good friends with my coach Matt Gifford's sons Paul and Emmett (who were 2 and 1 at the time). Going to every meet allowed me to still cheer on my teammates and to see all of their hard work pay off. There was not a single time I ever thought about not going to a meet. These boys were, and still are, some of my best friends. Still, seeing everyone run while I couldn't do anything but watch was excruciating, and I am sure that many of those around me could see it in me. I was especially disappointed about not being able to run at the Roy Griak Invitational, as this would have been the only opportunity in my career to run there. When the boys saw that we were racing there, we were excited because of the history and the amount of elite runners there. We even got to see Maple Grove alums Alex Miley, Blake Iverson, and Gabbie Bolcer, who were competing in NCAA races. It was tough to see my best friends out there racing their hearts out, but I cheered them on until my voice was too hoarse to talk.
Things became easier for me once I was able to start physical activity again in mid-September. Before this, I had done some different abdominal exercises, but that was about it. I could not do any other physical activity according to my doctor. But starting that first day back, I worked that stationary bike harder than I ever had before! I biked as hard as I could for different time intervals depending on the day, but all I knew was that it still was not enough. I wanted to get back to running. When the boys would do workouts next to the school, I encouraged them and cheered them on. After all, mile repeats are no easy task. I wanted to be out there in the rain doing mile repeats too (crazy as it sounds). I wanted to be out there grinding every single day with them. I watched them run for about four more weeks. Fortunately for me, I was cleared to run on October 8th, which was the week of the Northwest Suburban Conference Championships. Although I did not compete, it was nice to know I could finally run again.
I was told by my doctor and by Coach Gifford that I had to keep the mileage down so that my foot did not hurt. However, they never said anything about intensity. A few days after the NWSC meet, I had the most incredible workout. That day, I ran 3 miles, but a lot faster than I would have thought possible given where I was coming from. I ran those three miles in 18:29 seconds with big negative splits - my first mile was 6:38, my second mile was 6:12, and my third mile was 5:38! Initially, I was simply supposed to run three miles at an easy pace, but I guess I felt really good and decided to go faster. I was very excited for the next two weeks. Another great workout the next week (1200m repeats at 5:40 pace) only increased my confidence. Until then, I was just hoping to be able to race at all my senior year, but this showed that I might have a little bit more to give.
The next week, Maple Grove competed in the Dundee Invitational. At this race, our top five runners pace our JV boys to what they would like their PR to be. The six-through-twelve runners compete at the varsity level, which included me. It's a tough course that features an steep hill that we have to run up and down three times, so times are rarely very good, but that did not matter to me. I just wanted to finish strong. This course is not fun, but it was the perfect challenge for me in my first race back: it would test how mentally strong I still was after not racing all season. I raced pretty well, as I got third place with a time of 19:01. My PR at this point was a 17:50, but after this race was happier than if I would have broken my personal record by several minutes. I felt on top of the world. I knew that the most important race would be the next week, but I tried to enjoy the moment because I had just finished my first race better than I could have ever hoped for after everything I'd been though. Our JV and Varsity boys won the meet, so we all went home happy, but no one was happier than me.
A few days after Dundee, we went to the Section 5AA Championships course at Anoka High School to get a feel for it and complete a workout. I had to run three mile repeats at goal race pace, but I was struggling to hit my times, which made me worried. I was concerned that I was burning out because of the high intensity running that I had been doing in the past week and a half. I just had to stay strong for Sections the next week, where Maple Grove and Saint Michael-Albertville were expected to have a very close battle to be the second qualifying team behind Mounds View. We had a very strong top few guys that included Charlie Caven, CJ Young, and Patrick McLean, but our times fell off a bit to our fourth and fifth guys.
The day of the meet was very stressful for me as I put all of the pressure of making it to State as a team on myself. After crunching some numbers, we figured we needed our fifth runner to finish at 17:30 for our team to even be competitive with STMA. The whole day, people were asking me if I was ready or if I was excited, and depending on the time you asked me, I had different answers. I was definitely excited. However, I did not know if I was ready. Gifford talked to me before and told me to race my absolute best because this was my senior year and could possibly be my last race. I also spoke with Luke Iverson, who graduated in 2011 and still helps out with the team. Luke gave me some incredibly inspiring words, tellingme that running fast does not just go away. It may be harder to do and require more work mentally, but that my body would still be able to do it. I took that to heart. As I stepped up to the start line, that was all I could think about.
The first 200 meters after the gun fired was a chaotic frenzy, but eventually I began to run with my teammate Juma Nyabwari. He was much faster than me at that point in the season, but I had already decided that I was not going to lose him. We crossed the first mile at 5:14, to which he and I looked at each other with big, incredulous eyes. But we kept running. At no point were either of us more than a second or two from each other. "Just stay with him" was all I was thinking the entire race. With 400 meters to go, Juma and I began to kick it in hard, as did the boys around us. This could be my final XC race, after all. Before I knoew it, I crossed the finish line just a few seconds behind Juma. My time was 16:48, and I had placed 23rd overall. In my only real race of the season, I had just set my PR by over a whole minute!
After I finished, Charlie Caven and CJ Young had already finished before me. Charlie found me afterwards and gave me a huge hug and was really excited for me, as was everyone else that knew of my situation. Ultimately, STMA had edged us out by just seven points for the second State qualifying position, and I competed in my last race as a member of the Maple Grove Cross Country team. But I was disappointed for not making it to State, I could not have been more happy my effort to help us try to get there.
To this day, I can't help but think about all the "what if's." Had I been healthy the whole year, maybe I could've been faster. Maybe we would've even made it to State. That is something I will have to live with. However, I am content; I know that I gave as much as I could have.
I share this story because I know that everyone can relate to overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It truly shows that if you set your mind to something, you can do it. Though I know that many people won't relate to this exact situation, that remains true is that working hard for something with consistent dedication will produce results. Perseverance is key, and when adversity comes, one has to stand up no matter how many times they fall down. These are the lessons I've learned not only about myself, but also about life.