Once upon a time, there was a young and successful cross country coach. She was intelligent and energetic. She devised training plans that challenged and developed her athletes. She was up on the latest trends in using strength workouts to enhance running performance. This coach had a reputation as being tough, but only in the interests of pushing her athletes to be their best. Not surprisingly, her teams were perpetual contenders for league and regional championships.
But in spite of her apparent success, the coach felt like something was missing. Many of the kids who showed up on the first day of cross country ended up dropping out. Maybe that was for the best, since these were kids who didn’t seem particularly well-suited to running, or who had failed to prepare by running on their own over the summer. Still, the coach wondered whether there was some way to reach those kids, and whether she was really that successful if only the stronger runners survived and prospered.
Like any good coach, this young woman was open to learning, so she began asking other coaches what they did to incorporate new kids and weaker runners into their programs. Was it possible to maintain a competitive team if you were spending your time on kids who, through lack of ability or preparation, couldn’t run a mile without walking? And if you did accommodate those kids, would it ruin it for the stronger runners?
The coach got a lot of good and practical advice, ranging from suggestions for creating a JV program to establishing training-age based mileage progressions, to team building activities. The coach wrote all this down and knew it would help, but it felt as though no one had answered her deepest questions about her responsibilities, and how to balance being inclusive and being competitive.
Finally the coach got around to asking the oldest coach in the league. No one knew exactly how old he was, but with his white hair and slow walk, he seemed well past normal retirement age. The younger coaches didn’t mind him, but in their view, he was a little out-of-date. It probably didn’t help that his teams wore uniforms that could have come out of the 1980s, and that they didn’t know the latest dynamic drills. But you couldn’t help noticing that his teams were very large for a small school, with a wide range of slow and fast runners. Those teams didn’t always win, but they always seemed to be competitive, and if you looked more closely, you realized that the runners smiled a lot more, both before and after races, than the runners from other teams.
So without expecting much, the young coach decided to ask the old coach how he planned his season and ran his practices to accommodate such a wide range of abilities.
It was about a half hour after a meet, and the teams were cooling down. The young coach walked up to the old coach, offered congratulations of the races that had just taken place, and then asked her question. The old coach paused, and then replied with a question of his own:
“When you host a meet, who marks the course?”
Taken aback, the young coach said that she assigned that job to her assistant coach, who managed a small crew of maintenance folks who put placed stakes and flags, marked turns with spray paint, and set up tables and tents. The old coach shook his head and said, “I always mark the course. It’s too important a job to leave to anyone else.”
The young coach was more than surprised, and she went away feeling as though either the old coach hadn’t understood the question, or she hadn’t understood his answer. But she kept thinking about it, and when it came time to host the next meet, she told her assistant that he would be supervising the team’s warmup, and she would mark the course.
And so she went out early, with stakes, flags, and spray paint. It was an overcast day, and the young coach began to think about the parts of the course that would become slippery if the sprinkles she was feeling developed into a steady rain. She started placing the flags, and as she marked a particularly sharp turn, she started imagining how her runners would approach the turn, whether they would slow down, whether they would go wide or cut it close.
A hundred meters later there was a hill, and there were acorns all over the trail. Runners might slip on those acorns, and she made a mental note to get someone out to rake them off the middle of the trail. The hill went on for a while, and as she trudged up it to place another flag at the top, she couldn’t help remember the first hill workout her team had done that season, and about the new girl who had looked promising as she hung on to faster, more experienced runners, and about how she had complained of calf pain for the next week, and had been ruled out of the next two meets by the trainer.
And as she continued, every detail of the course — every turn, every rise, every fall, every pavement crossing, every spot where hopes were raised or fears were confronted — reminded her of one or another runner on her team, or of runners whom she had coached in previous years. She felt, or anticipated their footsteps on the rough and plain surfaces that constituted the five kilometers of distance that they all had to cover, quickly or slowly.
And with every mark she put down, with every rock or branch she picked up and threw to the side, she understood her team better.
When it was time for the meet, the coach was happy that the races went well, with the usual mix of successes and flame-outs. Not much changed, at least not that day. But at every home meet the coach now marked the course, and at away meets, the coach walked the course with her team, occasionally stopping to grab a loose rock and fling it into the woods to remove it from the path of her runners.
Over the next few years, the team grew. More runners of average ability and motivation stuck it out and became, strangely, the bedrock for future teams. The coach continued to have success, and continued to learn from other coaches, but now she also learned more from her own runners.
When the old coach finally retired, the young coach surprised herself by writing a heartfelt note of congratulations and thanks. And a few years later when another coach, even younger, asked her for advice about managing such a large team, she smiled and asked “who marks your course?”