The gun fired for the start of his cross-country career, and, internally, Patrick Holland grappled with a number of questions.
Is that hill up ahead climbable?
I’ve never been a competitive runner before. What exactly is going to happen?
It was September 2011, the first season that Wheelock College had male runners competing cross-country, in large part spearheaded by the interest and commitment of Holland, a sophomore from Reading.
But now reality was coming into focus in the 8K race at Elms College in Chicopee: a hill that looked ominous up ahead, a path filled with layers of mud from a previous night’s downpour, and unseasonably hot temperatures. Holland watched as veteran runners slipped and slid ahead.
“I was just thinking, ‘Please let me get through this,’ ” recalled Holland, now a 22-year-old senior.
Exerting every ounce of his lung power as a new runner, Holland finished the race. As a participant, Holland wasn’t an ex-high school runner, nor was he a Wheelock student-athlete looking for an offseason workout outlet.
It was a commitment honored, a common component of Holland’s steadfast work ethic.
His focus in the classroom (he currently carries a 3.75 grade point average), absorption of running techniques at daily 6:15 a.m. practices, and status as a vocal leader and team co-captain are made more impressive when considering his challenges. Holland was diagnosed as a youth as being in the autistic spectrum.
First-year Wheelock coach Wole Oke is impressed by Holland on an almost daily basis. In many respects, Holland has been his assistant coach.
“As a captain this year, he and I talked about what his role would be,” Oke said. “I said, ‘I need you to be a leader, and a point person. I want people to work as hard as you, and to take things as seriously as you.’ Patrick took that and brought it to another level.”
Holland, who is studying developmental psychology and education with plans to become a preschool teacher, was a member of the Century (Top 100 Students) Club and Community Service Club at Reading High, and has also been a participant in Wheelock’s Service in Action program.
“I’ve had years to work on my communications skills, and by the time I came to Wheelock, I had made improvements,” said Holland.
“Once I got used to my environment and got to know everybody, it was pretty easy. I’ve been told constantly throughout my life’’ that autism doesn’t define him. “People respect hard work, that’s the thing I found throughout my years growing up.”
Holland’s status as a student-athlete on the Fenway campus came after a chance encounter in a campus building.
In the summer of 2011, he was participating in Wheelock’s Summer Bridge Program as a transfer student from Middlesex Community College. Kristin Murphy, then the women’s cross-country coach, spotted Holland at a computer.
“She bumped into me, and essentially told me that she was looking for male runners” — Wheelock’s enrollment is 88 percent women — “and wanted to know if I was interested,” Holland said.
“She followed up with an e-mail a couple of weeks later. I figured, ‘Why not?’ ”
That first season, Holland’s cross-country orientation involved the weekly challenges of new courses and competition. Athletes are used to entering college campuses with a program history, a set schedule, and a routine marked by years of experience. Not so for Holland.
The hard work paid off. His 5-mile time improved by over nine minutes from his first meet to his last, and he placed 35th overall at the New England Collegiate Conference Championship (46:54).
The last two seasons, the early wake-up calls and intense runs transitioned from new territory to an extension of Holland’s lifestyle. Oke’s debut as coach led to morning practice along the Riverway, the Charles, and other routes.
As a sophomore and junior, Holland was just one of two male runners. But this fall, he ran alongside six teammates, the first season in which Wheelock could score points as a full team.
His crowning achievement came Saturday at the NCAA Division III 8K Regional Championships in Gorham, Maine. For Oke, there was never a question as to whether Holland would receive the invitation to participate in the race.
“It was never about his race time,” Oke said. “This is the guy who’s been here for three years. He deserved to run in that race, and deserved to end his career as a Wheelock cross-country runner at the New England regionals.”
And minus his determination, Wheelock might have had one less runner compete. Co-captain Alexander Kriz, a sophomore from Northborough, had thrown out his back earlier in the week. He did not wear his uniform and did not plan to run.
But Holland, who had sprained his ankle earlier in the season, prompted him to change his mind.
“I looked over and saw how pumped Patrick was getting,” said Kriz, who ended the race as the team’s top finisher at 34:36.24. “He said, ‘If I can run with a sprained ankle, then you can run with a hurt back.”
The bus ride back to Boston consisted of the usual routine – Holland firing off one-liners, and congratulating each member of the team. Relishing his last day as a member of the squad, he was able to wrap up his career the right way.
“I tell people all the time, it really did start with Patrick. He started the men’s program,” Oke said. “And that’s why I want his legacy to be that he passed on the torch to the team’s other runners.”Jeff Powalisz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.