On Sunday morning at an hour usually reserved for deep sleep, 22 runners, 3 other coaches, and I boarded a coach bus and headed to Saxton’s River, Vermont for the New England Private School Division III Cross Country Championships.
Even at that gray hour, it was a beautiful fall day, and even past its foliage peak, Vermont is a beautiful place to be running so late in the year.
Beautiful and cruel.
As our bus pulls into the parking lot at Vermont Academy, we can clearly make out the rows of red flags heading up the ski slope, marking where the course rises from the playing fields, below. This is not going to be a track meet.
There’s something particularly final about the end of cross country that I don’t feel in any other season. Spring track seems to continue indefinitely, with plenty of post-season opportunities leading all the way into summer meets. Indoor track doesn’t really end at all, it just moves outdoor. But when cross country ends, there’s a finality and melancholy to its passing.
For me, the last week of the cross country season always seems to come both too soon and too late. Too soon, because twelve weeks is a blink of an eye for a distance runner. By the time you even figure out how to train this group of runners it’s time to taper for the last big meets. There’s never seems to be enough time to really understand your athletes (or for them to understand you) and so you have regrets about the guesses you made and the workouts you included or skipped. Too soon, too, because it’s the time of year when you really want a team to sustain you through the lean times ahead.
Too late because the team that remains after the league or conference meet is always much diminished from the team that ran together for the last two months. Now, only the top runners still come to practice, and although there are some nice things about that, there is something sad about it, too. Too late, too, because most of us are beyond tired. No one is getting enough sleep, including me. The seniors on the team are wrung out by the college application process, among their other obligations. The academic workload is peaking. Illness and injury spread through the team like bad news, and still we must train and compete.
I try to stay focused on the here and now, on this one last meet, but I can’t stop thinking back to how this season has transpired since those first sweltering days of early September. Of the 19 girls on our team, only 8 made it to the final meet. On both the boys and the girls teams, we lost top runners to injuries. We had one confirmed and two suspected stress fractures. I second-guess myself, reflecting on the possible coaching errors that led to this state of affairs.
And there is that ski slope, staring at me.
The varsity boys race first, and it becomes obvious after the first loop (including the mountain) that the course will sort the field into those who can handle the extreme climb and those who cannot. Those who can keep their legs moving up the slope and recover quickly at the top, will run “only” 30-40 seconds slower than normal; those who cannot, will sink down through the field to finish two minutes slower than their expected time.
Some of our guys do well and some struggle. I’m thrilled that we place all of our top five in the top fifty finishers. At the end of the day it will be good enough to place 7th out of 20 teams. Respectable, but missing our #1 and #4 runners kept us off the podium.
Then the varsity girls race and it’s a similar experience. We run very tough, and place well although the times are slow. It’s enough to get 6th place, but missing our #2 and #3 runners is crippling.
Our JV teams run bravely and well, and we placed five boys and one girl in the top twenty of their races. They’ll all be recognized with ribbons at the award ceremony, which is a nice thing to take from the end of the year.
And then we’re back on the bus, riding back to Concord in the late afternoon. One part of me wants to talk, and continue processing the season, but mostly I just want to wake up without feeling like I’m responsible for everything that hasn’t worked out the way we had hoped it would. There’s talk on the bus about going out for pizza, but when we arrive home, everyone has realized how close it is to Monday morning and we scatter.