Voss feature


Mourning run
Voss overcomes personal loss, emerges a champion
News Sports Reporter

The Ann Arbor News, Nov. 7, 2003 

Up until Aug. 4, Dustin Voss' head was filled with all kinds of questions related to running.

Could the 18-year-old Saline senior become the very best prep cross country runner in Michigan, not just one of the best? Could he improve on a successful junior year where he finished runner-up at the Division 1 meet and first in the 3,200 meters at the May state outdoor track meet? Would he wind up with an athletic scholarship at the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Missouri or Notre Dame?

With one phone call that day, all those questions became irrelevant.

Running became the least of Dustin Voss' concerns.

• • •

Bonnie Voss was a constant presence in her son's life. She was a stay-at-home mom who was always there to greet Dustin and his older brother, Bryan, when they got home from school. She used to host annual pre-race pasta dinners for Dustin and the rest of Saline's runners.

Whenever Dustin would compete, no matter how large or noisy the crowd was, he could always hear his mom's loud and distinctive shouts of "Go Dus!"

"A lot of people ask me after a race whether I can hear them, and I'll usually say 'uh, no,' " Dustin said. "But I could definitely hear my mom. She definitely knew how to use her voice."

But the same cheerful woman who brought the team post-race bagels or purchased whatever discount coupon books that the runners were selling lived with demons. For most of her life, Bonnie Voss battled alcoholism, a disease that hit her side of the family particularly hard. While Dustin was growing up, his mother checked herself in and out of rehab several times.

On Aug. 4, Dustin was returning from a fishing trip to Alpena with his grandfather and his cousin when he got a phone call. Bonnie Voss had been found unconscious on her bedroom floor and taken to the emergency room of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. It soon became clear how serious her condition was. Bonnie Voss' body was starting to shut down. Her liver was failing. A section of her bowel wasn't getting enough blood. And she began to hallucinate when Dustin and the rest of the family rushed to her bedside.

"She didn't know who I was or who my brother was," Dustin said. "She kept calling for her dad."

The Voss family prayed a lot and stayed at her bedside. For a while, Bonnie seemed to get better. Doctors were even talking about discharging her at one point.

But that was the last glimmer of hope that Bonnie Voss' loved ones would ever see. In the early morning hours of Aug. 13, she died, nine days after she was rushed to the hospital and nine days after her 52nd birthday.

The second day of practice for Saline's cross country team had just taken place. Dustin Voss wouldn't be there on the third day. In fact, his friends and teammates weren't sure when and if he would ever be back.

• • •

On the way back from visiting his mother at the hospital one day, Dustin bought himself a new pair of spikes.

But after his mother died, running was set aside. There was a funeral to be planned. There were the responsibilities of being a gracious host to the steady stream of visitors to the Voss household, offering their condolences. And there was an 18-year-old struggling with his feelings.

"At first, I didn't know what happened," Voss said. "I mean, you know what happened. But it's hard to believe. It's like a bad dream where you wake up and she's there."

But she wasn't. Instead, Voss was left to watch TV with his brother, a Michigan State student, and wander around the empty house. Each picture of his mother seemed to unleash a painful memory. One day, Dustin burned a CD with her favorite song "That's What Friends Are For," which they played at her funeral.

Nothing else. Just that same song, 16 times.

• • •

Lee Brown, Dustin's best friend on the team, would take him to lunch and have him tag along on errands, just to get him out of the house. He also convinced Voss to make a brief cameo appearance at the cross country team's practice run on the day of his mother's funeral.

Voss otherwise mostly kept to himself. One, two weeks passed without any signs of Voss, not only the cross country team's best runner but its emotional leader.

Voss's friends and teammates were suffering with him.

"Cross country seemed joyless for a while," Brown said. "It seemed like hard work."

• • •

Eventually, Dustin Voss had an epiphany. The best way to cope with his grief was to go back to his normal routine.

"I wanted to get back to running," he said. "I thought it would help keep my mind off things, keep me busy. I don't have as much time to think about her."

He told Brown that he was probably going to attend practice on the Friday before the start of school. Maybe.

He did. The collective weight on the team seemed to lift. There were lots of smiles, expressions of relief and even a few jokes tossed around that day.

"I was nervous," Brown said. "But I was kind of happy."

A few days later, Brown received a further clue that his friend was getting back to normal.

"We were making small talk," Brown recalled. "And he said 'yeah, I'm going to be the state champ.' He still knew he had a job to do."

• • •

Running, indeed, became a refuge from Voss' grief.

That said, memories of his mother became integrated into his competitive life. His mother's wedding ring was worn like a pendant on Voss' beaded necklace when he wasn't competing. When he was racing, and he had to remove his jewelry, the ring was tied and sometimes taped to the shoelaces on his spikes so that a part of her could be with him.

"I talk to her before a race," said Voss, who likes to imagine his mother cheering as he approaches the finish line. "But I don't block her out of my life."

The only time his mother's death intruded on Voss' ability to run was the Midwest Meet of Champions in early September, where Voss finished a disappointing fifth. The big reason: Fellow competitors came up to him before the race to express their sympathy.

"They meant well," said Voss, who was running with tears in his eyes. "It's not good to be emotional before a race. You lose focus."

Other than that one race, Voss was nearly unbeatable this fall. The kid who once wondered whether he would ever race again seemed to be poised to win his first state cross country championship.

• • •

Fast forward to the end of the Division 1 race at the grounds of Michigan International Speedway this past Saturday. Bunched together, Voss, Huron's Frank Tinney and Neal Naughton of Walled Lake Western were vying for the state title as they entered the racetrack, about 1,000
meters from the finish.

Imagining his mother's cries of "Go Dus!" in his head, Voss reached inside himself.

"I took off," said Voss, who received a standing ovation as he approached the grandstand. "It was all or nothing."

It wasn't nothing. Voss finished 13 seconds ahead of runner-up Tinney.

A limousine took Voss and his teammates back to Saline. He went home, took a shower and then got into his car, the one with a picture of Bonnie Voss on the dashboard. And, on the way to a friend's house, he stopped at his mother's grave in Lodi Cemetery off Textile Road.

He talked to his mother's grave marker. He took out his medal. He was filled with a sense of pride. And inner peace.

Somewhere, he knew, someone he loved had a smile on her face.

Rob Hoffman can be reached at (734) 994-6814 or rhoffman@annarbornews.com