For the first couple of days of the week, I obsessively checked the weather forecast every couple of hours, rooting for it to improve. Instead, it seemed like every time I visited the forecast, it got worse. By Wednesday morning, I still held out hope that we might have a few dry hours for our track meet that afternoon in Worcester. Instead, a half hour before the first event, a bone-chilling rain began falling, and it lingered through the first hour of the competition. Kids who hadn’t brought enough warm clothes (pretty much all of them) huddled together in clumps like sorrowful cattle in a muddy field, or took refuge under the small, inadequate tent that we had brought with us, or snuck off to hide in the bus.
Upon arrival, we had been told that the jumping events would all be canceled because the “all-weather” surface used for the high jump apron and long/triple jump runways had become slick and oily. But the rest of the meet was on, including the throwing events even though teenage hands were too cold to grip the implements properly and throws fell far short of personal bests. On the track, kids “warmed up,” but some were still shivering as they took their positions in starting blocks or at starting lines of the distance events. As any coach would do, I pretended to a cheerfulness and enthusiasm that I didn’t really feel. I was cold, too, and the cold was exhausting physically and mentally.
Eventually the rain moved on, and we managed to finish the meet more or less on time, and then we hustled the kids back on the bus and back to school without anyone succumbing to hypothermia. As for me, I didn’t really warm up until hours later, and it took standing in a hot shower for twenty minutes.
In truth, this is a tough time of the season. Everyone is sleep-deprived and cranky with work. It’s tough to maintain focus — or have focus in the first place. The kids show up to practice complaining about their tests, their homework, their slipping grades, and general malaise. It’s hard to get their attention for more than a minute or two. They are looking for an escape, but aren’t yet able to lose themselves in drill and workouts.
And I’m cranky, too. I’ve arrived at the point of the season where I become painfully aware of all the things we won’t have a chance to do. The time seems too short, but at the same time I find myself counting the days down to the last meet. I consult the calendar and realize with a shock that commencement is exactly three weeks away, and that will be that.
It must be driving the kids crazy, too. In a normal year, the weather would be cooperating, smoothing the transition from Spring grind to Summer freedom, but we seem to be stuck in the grind cycle. And when the weather does finally turn nice, who will want to show up for track practice, run hard intervals?
A lot of people would use the marathon as a metaphor for this kind of long, drawn-out effort. And it would be tempting and familiar and a cliché to say that our season is a marathon, and we’ve hit the wall. But we don’t run marathons in high school track, we run shorter races that take only a few minutes but are no less heart-breaking for that. And therefore to me, this part of the season is like the end of the third lap in a mile.
How do you run a mile? Each of the four laps has its own distinct character, like a separate movement in a piece of music. The first lap is a bit of a lark, with everyone feeling full of energy and optimism, and the stronger runners claiming their places in the pack or at the front, according to personal preference. The second lap almost always passes without major incident, although there’s a fair amount of subtle re-positioning as the race gradually becomes more serious. The third lap — let’s come back to the third lap in a moment. The final lap is an all-out commitment to reaching a goal that has come clearly into sight. The strong runners will look haughty as they display their finishing speed, but the also-rans will run hard, too. It’s no joke, the last lap of a mile, but almost every runner manages to kick it in and make a good show of it.
But the third lap — it bears little resemblance to the high-spirited start or the dramatic finish. In the third lap the finish is a long way away, and the doubts have crept in. You slow down without realizing it. You want it (the lap, not the race) to be over. It feels like there’s no way to prepare for it; you just have to keep moving forward.
The next day, Thursday, was Cinquo de Mayo, which as we all know is a bogus holiday hyped primarily by beer companies trying to associate themselves with beach culture. Even if the patent fakeness of the so-called holiday hadn’t muted the celebrations, the persistent nasty weather would have done the job.