My running friends will be happy to know that I no longer have any excuse to skip mid-week track workouts, tempo runs, and hill repeats. Saturday was the last meet for the Concord Academy team, and so, as of this week, there will be no more practices that end in darkness, no more bus rides to far away campuses in Connecticut, no more attendance sheets for tracking wayward adolescents. In a few days, I’ll be almost completely free of coaching responsibilities, for this year, anyway.
But before moving on, it’s worth savoring the end of the season one more time.
Saturday’s meet — the New England Private School Division III Championships on November 14th — was a high point for the team, a day when the kids worked together as well as at any time this year, when almost everyone ran well. In the end, that translated into podium finishes for both the girls and boys, and proud moments when they were handed two surprisingly heavy plaques to take home with them to Concord.
As you can imagine, it was exciting for me, but my elation was muted… literally. I had been suffering with a cold for a couple of days and had almost completely lost my voice. All day Saturday I did my best to communicate instructions and encouragement with whispers and gestures. When I did forget myself and try to cheer, the sound that came out was a more-or-less inarticulate rasp, not unlike the sound sandpaper makes when you drag it across corrugated metal.
(Disclosure: I’ve actually never tried dragging sandpaper across corrugated metal; coaching has left me little time for such jolly pursuits.)
At the ceremony, before presenting the medals, ribbons, and plaques, the race director thanked everyone for coming out to celebrate “this beautiful sport.” The phrase stuck in my mind, because it seemed like an apt description, but hard to explain. Is cross country beautiful because it is, at least in theory, a sport that takes place in nature? If so, then is it more beautiful on beautiful fall days like this one, and less beautiful in scorching heat or on days when rains and a thousand spiked shoes churn the course into mud?
It has a cruel side, too, this beautiful sport… hills that break one’s spirit, and pelting rain that saps one’s resolve. Unlike in Europe and most of the world, in the U.S. we begin cross country in the heat of late summer, and finish in the cold and bleak days of late November. Keeping in mind approaching winter, every year I preach to the team the importance of group survival, of being a good pack when the weather turns nasty. I was reminded of this on Saturday as I watched our runners strip down to their skimpy uniforms and huddle together to stay warm. With four separate races taking place over several hours, runners on the team who had run already or had yet to run were able to support those about to run. At one point, we had two dozen kids surrounding our seven shivering varsity runners, shielding them from the wind and cold like a flock of penguins shielding each other from sub-zero Antarctic blasts.
Cross country can be hard, and until it gets really hard, you don’t really know that it’s a team sport at all.
In the course of a season, I’ll be asked how our team is doing. I always answer honestly that I don’t know, because it isn’t until the hard meets at the end that you find out whether the relationships on the team are strong enough to survive the adversity of the final weeks, or whether you’ll crumble — every runner (and coach) for himself or herself. “It’s the hard that makes it great,” but unlike in baseball and other sports, it’s not a matter of skill, only, or mental focus, it’s a matter of enduring together as a group when the winter closes in.
Much later, after a three-hour bus ride back to campus, about half the team is still hanging out amidst empty pizza boxes, all of us tired, but still reluctant to depart too quickly. Some kids are still reliving their races, thinking about the moments when they were able to find some small reserve of energy or will that they didn’t know they had. Others have already moved on, and are either talking about something else entirely, or perhaps thinking ahead to next season, wanting to know what kind of training can help them move up to the next level. And others, including me, are struggling with our feelings at this moment, profoundly glad it’s over because we need to rest, but equally sorry that it’s over, and that this particular group won’t be together again. One of the girls, perhaps referring to our high finishes and those plaques that we haven’t let out of our sight since we first took possession of them several hours ago, asks me whether I’m happy.
The question catches me a little off-guard, and I have to pause and reflect for a moment before I reply that what I feel most is a sense of gratitude. For all the hassle, for all the time it takes and for how thoroughly it wrecks my fall training, for all the days when I just want to worry about myself and not have the responsibility of worrying about sixty kids who want me to have all the answers, what remains is a sense of gratitude. I GET to do this. I get to have these bittersweet moments, surrounded by young people who have somehow managed to evolve from normal people to runners, and are still in shock at having come so far, from those sweltering days in September when they couldn’t finish a three-mile run, to today’s championship races.
Over the next few days, everything about the team will shift to the past tense. I’ll be busy writing comments for parents, participating in post-season meetings with the school Athletic Department, and answering questions about off-season training. I hope I’ll be able to catch up on sleep, and turn my attention back to my own running routine to sustain me through the months ahead.
This beautiful sport.
By the time next September rolls around, I’ll have forgotten what that phrase means. Every year I have to learn it again with a new group and a new set of challenges. And with that thought, I turn the lights out in the now empty room, and head out into the chilly night.