Track had always come easy for Dylan Servis.
A star high school mid-distance runner, Dylan had dominated Berks County throughout his senior season. He broke the vaunted 1:55 barrier in the 800, setting a few school records along the way. And colleges took notice of how easy track came for him: He was committed to run D1 for La Salle University.
But this? This didn’t come easy.
The chocolate milk mile, an annual event hosted by neighboring runners from Wyomissing, seemed within Dylan’s wheelhouse. Sure, he got queasy after races, sometimes letting his lunch come back up after a difficult race. Chocolate milk surely wouldn’t help that.
Nonetheless, it was still a race, and Dylan could run with the best of them.
So, that picturesque June night, he toed the line with a red solo cup of chocolate milk in his hand and some of Pennsylvania’s best runners on either side of him. 32 ounces of chocolate milk and 1609 meters separated him from not only finishing, but potentially stealing a win. He rationalized his upcoming challenge to himself: It’s not that much on paper, right?
Sadly, track races aren’t run on paper.
One lap to go, Dylan told himself. His competitors downed their chocolate milks at staggering paces, a final challenge before their last laps. The thought of any more of the heavy liquid in his stomach was revolting. Yet, he downed it.
Who cares about throwing up? Runners finish.
With that, he entered his final lap. Runners passed Dylan as he felt like he was moving in slow-motion. But runners finish. And Dylan was a fearless competitor; he wasn’t going to let anything, much less 32 ounces of whole fat chocolate milk, stop him from crossing that finish line.
With 100 meters to go Dylan was lumbering down the final straightaway, despite the hurricane occurring within his stomach. And yet, runners finish, so Dylan did.
However, just as surely as he finished he threw up, ending his rebellion against his body’s will.
That night a little over a year ago remains one of my fondest memories. As one of the meet organizers and founders of the Wyomissing Chocolate Milk Mile, any year without our marquee event — yes, I’ll admit, I’m a little biased — was bound to feel a bit empty. The race is off for this year; we wouldn’t want to contribute to worsening COVID conditions, especially with our fall seasons on the line.
Nevertheless, we tend to want what we can’t have, and I really, really want the Milk Mile back.
Why? Simply, I miss the social aspect of running.
Not to say I don’t miss the competitive aspect of the Chocolate Milk Mile — nothing beats stumbling down the straightaway with choccy milk regurgitating in your stomach — but the conversations I shared with my friends and competitors always brightened my day, even though I’ve shared millions of conversations with my teammates. We became rather good at shooting the shit:
No conversation was normal, much less boring, as we kept ourselves on our toes — pun fully intended — by finding new topics to discuss.
The chocolate milk mile was a birthchild of one such conservation. Oftentimes, we spent disproportionate amounts of time engaging in the most absurd debates: How would we cast our team if we were to remake Star Wars? I was Yoda, which I hope is more for my admittedly limited wisdom than my short stature. Is Joe really adopted? We never let my teammate Thomas know the truth, cruelly gaslighting him into believing whatever we felt that day.
One day, my teammate Ryan Vargo posited the question: Would you ever want to run a chocolate milk mile? This argument featured the usual diverse array of opinions, with everything from “Let’s do it, it would be hilarious watching everyone barf” to “God no, I hate chocolate milk.”
But though this argument was expectedly animated, it stuck around far longer than our other conversations. Slowly, questions about why we would ever want to run a chocolate milk mile turned into ideas about how we could host our own.
Thus, began the Wyomissing Chocolate Milk Mile.
That first Wyomissing Chocolate Milk Mile was an exercise in poor planning. We didn’t take the event seriously, because why should we? It’s a few local runners sprinting around the track in between servings of chocolate milk. Thrown together haphazardly, the race managed to get a few of our friendly rivals from neighboring schools, and a few of our guys raced of course. Our friends Christian McComb and Todd Barton from Boyertown thought it was taking place on a different day, which is a testament to my poor organization more than anything.
Two or three guys ran the race seriously, and I managed to emerge victorious four cups of chocolate milk later.
With a depressing side note, that might’ve been my last good race for two years.
Small field aside, we had a blast. Guys came, hucked some disc, shared some laughs and downed some chocolate milks. It was a good night with good people, the kind I hold close to my heart.
January 2nd, 2018. The second day of the new year and my mom’s birthday, but those occurrences were soon to be irrelevant. The news hit our local running community like a truck: Todd unexpectedly passed away. Todd was the kind of guy who you met once and knew you had a friend for life. We had only shared a few days together, but I’ll never forget when he came alone to hang out with me and my Wyomissing teammates the previous summer.
Here he was, a total stranger from thirty minutes away who only knew me and a couple other guys. Yet within minutes, he was the life of the party.
Everyone gravitated to him; he exuded a certain friendliness and warmth that were hard to come by.
Certainly, everyone on the Wyomissing team was emotionally wrecked by the news. Todd was our friend, and he was just gone. But we realized how relatively insignificant our pain was.
There were his teammates, who would never get the chance to run alongside or laugh with their brother again.
There was his younger brother, who lost his big brother and role model.
And then there were his parents. No parent should ever have to go through the pain of putting a child to rest, but there they were in perhaps the most unenviable position on Earth.
But in the sadness of all this, I noticed one beautiful thing. At his viewing, I saw so many runners representing so many different schools. His teammates, competitors at rival schools, runners from half an hour away, it didn’t matter. They were all there to pay respect to their fellow competitor and friend.
That’s when it struck me: This is all so much bigger than running.
Sure, we all might represent different schools on our singlets. We might have different team cultures, inside jokes, and mindsets to the sport. But at the end of the day, we’re all runners. Those personal inclinations that make us go out every day and run unite us as a common breed, one that celebrates each other’s successes and cares for each other when we’re at our weakest.
Fast forward a couple years after that first Chocolate Milk Mile to 2019, when we had our most competitive one yet: Dylan was on the ground barfing, and pandemonium surrounded him. Jake Underwood of nearby Wilson had launched a bold start to his race to try to ward off the competition, but it wasn’t enough. Tyler Shue, the recently crowned 800-meter national champion, kicked him down to drop a blistering 4:50. Meanwhile, Todd’s teammate Christian McComb ran his own gutsy race to slide into an impressive third-place finish. I fell in right behind him with a 4:53, an acknowledgment of the depth in that year’s field as much as anything.
Our chocolate milk mile had grown, emerging into an elite event (at least as far as Pennsylvania chocolate milk miles go). 26 racers toed the line that night, many of whom classified as elite high school and college runners.
What I was most glad about, however, is it retained the same sense of community as our first little Wyomissing Chocolate Milk Mile.
Runners greeted each other as they finished their races, exchanging hugs and high fives — assuming they weren’t posted by the trash can. No matter whether they were hobbling to the finish line at the back of the slow heat or leading the fast heat, racers were cheered on but the small but dedicated contingent of fans and their fellow competitors.
All this chaos surrounded Dylan as he was at his lowest moment, and yet he couldn’t help but have fun. As soon as his stomach recuperated, he joined his fellow runners for a cooldown. Everyone had different backgrounds: There were the Berks County kids, the Lancaster runners, Todd’s teammates from Boyertown, and even my friend (and fellow contributor on The Oval) Tyler Adams from the Coal Region. We all exchanged funny stories and horror tales, bonding in the masochism of our latest feat.
Our participants came from all over Pennsylvania, and many of us hadn’t met before. Yet that night, running made quick friends of total strangers.
The Wyomissing Chocolate Milk Mile showed the power of running. It was a night for competition, for running’s ability to push people to superhuman achievements in the spirit of friendly one-upmanship. It was a night for camaraderie, for running’s ability to bring people together under the common roof of a sport we all love.
Most importantly, it was a night for Todd. For the sport he loved and the memories and friendships he loved creating with his fellow runners.
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