It’s hard to believe that it’s been over forty years since that late summer day when I took a chance and traveled far from home to run with the Mohawk Cross Country team at one of their pre-season practices. I’ve written about that day before, but recently felt motivated to tell the story again, filling in a few more details. I hope you enjoy it!
Another summer has passed by, and another September finds me preaching daily moderate runs to restless high school students. It’s a little overwhelming, to be sure, trying to learn all the new names and the stories that go with those names, but I’m not complaining. I love this time of year -– the excitement of new beginnings, the splendid afternoons running through still-green woods, the post-run stretching on well-tended lawns or playing fields – and I find it hard to imagine that in a couple of months this motley collection of new and returning runners will be huddled together for warmth on some distant starting line, scandalously under-dressed, but – if I do my job – not under-prepared for what awaits them.
It has been said many times by many people, that here in New England, cross country begins in the heat of late summer, and ends in the mud and frost of November. It is a semester-long course in adapting to the changing seasons, as well as to the daily training and, all-too soon, the races. In a typical season, we’ll have at least one meet that feels like a sauna, one with gale-force winds, and one with weather so raw that no amount of layering will keep away the chill.
I get nostalgic sometimes, usually just before the first practices with the new team, thinking about my own experience running cross country in high school. Once the season starts, I’m far too busy herding this year’s team to think much about the past. After a week, I can barely remember last year’s group, let alone spare a thought for the smart-alecky kid who ran for Amherst High School forty-something years ago.
A couple of weeks ago – before the local public school had started – I was driving in Newton when I saw a large pack of young runners making their way up Commonwealth Avenue. As I was traveling in the same direction, I passed the single stragglers first, and then the main herd, and finally a much smaller group of faster runners cruising along at a pace that would bring them back to the school well before their teammates. Something about that the scene took me back in time, to those first days of high school cross country when I ran with a kind of haughty confidence, and an optimism that anything I attempted would come out alright. And that made me think of an August morning many years earlier when I drove the 30 miles from Amherst to Buckland, to crash the pre-season cross-country practice of our bitter rivals, Mohawk Regional Trail High School.
To begin with, in those days Mohawk was only one school in our league that could compete with us in cross country. Amherst had a long tradition of strong cross country teams, and guided by our coach, Randy Crowley, we were always one of the top schools in Western Massachusetts. As a large school, we would compete with the likes of Springfield Cathedral at the Wester Mass championships, and then race the powerhouse schools of Eastern and Central Mass at the State Championships.
But before those mighty efforts, our first goal was always to win our league championship by going undefeated against the mostly much smaller schools that comprised the Pioneer Valley league. The only school that always gave us trouble was Mohawk Trail Regional High School, serving rural communities North and West of Greenfield, including the town of Shelburne Falls. Mohawk, under Coach Connie Putnam, also had a long and impressive tradition of running excellence. Meets between the two schools were intense and typically decided by the narrowest of margins. Because it was high school, and we were high school boys, my teammates and I built up this rivalry to the point where we would say that we hated Mohawk, and we were sure that they hated us back.
When we hosted Mohawk at our home course for a dual meet my junior year, our attitude towards our guests was rude, if not overtly hostile. I remember that race well, and remember how our team stepped up to win all the individual battles. We won the meet, and our little victory made us feel superior to them.
Of course, we didn’t know anything about Mohawk’s runners except their names and the times on a yellow score sheet, but we weren’t curious to know anything more.
One of my other hobbies in high school was folk dancing. In the summers, there was a weekly dance party on the campus of UMass, and it was there that I met Amy and Becky Ashenden, sisters who lived in Shelburne Falls and would drive to Amherst and back for the dances. At some point during the summer between my junior and senior year, I had a conversation with Becky, who was a sophomore at Mohawk, about cross country and the rivalry between our two schools.
Becky thought the rivalry between Amherst and Mohawk was ridiculous. I don’t know if she used the word “juvenile,” but she made me feel juvenile about the whole thing.
It turned out that Becky was friends with one of the runners on the Mohawk team, and not just any runner but Dave McMullin, the younger of two brothers who were – by far — the two best runners at the school, and this stunned me. It wasn’t that it wouldn’t be natural for her to make friends with a classmate, but I had never really considered the fact that the McMullins were real human beings who went to classes, had nice friends, and lived normal lives when they weren’t challenging our perch at the top of the league cross country standings.
Becky then made a brash suggestion: why shouldn’t I come up to Shelburne Falls to meet Dave? Becky was sure we would like each other; after all, we had a lot in common, right? We were both runners. I suppose it was because I wanted Becky to think that I was a nicer person than I really was, or maybe because it just seemed crazy and unexpected — and that appealed to the rebellious streak in me, but I agreed. I would drive up to Shelburne Falls and meet with Dave McMullin. But when and how?
I no longer remember why it seemed like a good idea to show up unannounced at one of Mohawk’s pre-season cross country practice, but at the time it seemed like a good prank. And perhaps I reasoned that the best way to meet another runner would be to run with him, assuming their coach didn’t throw me off school property. Knowing the seventeen-year-old me, I’m pretty sure I didn’t think it through. In any case, Becky found out for me when and where Mohawk’s cross country try-outs would take place, and on a warm morning in late August, I borrowed my Mom’s car and headed North intent on visiting the enemy’s stronghold.
Mohawk Trail Regional H.S. (Buckland, Mass.)
When I pulled into the parking lot in front of the high school, I remember having second thoughts. Other than Becky, I hadn’t told anyone about what I was up to, not my coach, not Mohawk’s coach, not my friends on the Amherst team, and certainly not the runners I was about to meet.
I got out of my car and saw a small group of kids gathered at the edge of one of the fields, and so I walked over and asked them if this was where cross country would meet. They said yes, but the coach wasn’t there yet. Neither were the McMullins or any of the other varsity runners that might have recognized me. To explain my presence, I told an outright lie and said that I was thinking of going out for the team. As I tell it now, I’m surprised that in a small school they wouldn’t see through that fiction, but maybe they thought I was a new kid. In any case, they were very friendly, and encouraged me about joining the team. The nicer they were, the more I felt like a jerk.
Finally, Coach Putnam showed up, and shortly after, the McMullin brothers. Coach Putnam recognized me immediately, but seemed puzzled rather than angry. So while my new “teammates” tried to figure out what was happening and slowly realized that they had a foreign spy in their midst, I explained that I was a friend of Becky’s and that hoped that I could join his team for a run that morning.
It would have taken only a word from Coach Putnam to banish me from that practice, and sent me home in embarrassment and shame. In today’s high school athletics environment, no coach in his right mind would allow a kid from another school to participate in an organized school activity. There would be a hundred bureaucratic reasons, and issues of liability would rule the day, but it was a different era in the mid- 1970s. Kids wandered the world with less supervision, and the rules must have been looser, because Coach Putnam smiled and welcomed me to the team for the day, and then proceeded to carry on with giving his team instructions for the run.
I have never felt so relieved to be starting a run as I did that morning, setting out with the Mohawk varsity to run an 8-mile loop that they warned me, “had a few hills.”
We all ran comfortably together for a few miles, making conversation as runners do, and I became more and more relaxed. This was working out far better than I had expected. And then, on a particularly steep uphill, the McMullin brothers suddenly dropped the hammer, taking off at an unmatchable pace.
In a few moments, they were twenty meters ahead of the pack and pulling away. Everyone else tried to respond, with varying degrees of success. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but the McMullins were gone, and I struggled just to stay with the second pack. Soon all conversation ceased, as we all labored at what had become a much harder effort than a normal pre-season over-distance run.
When we finally returned to the school, the brothers McMullin were there, and were all smiles. They were obviously pleased at having dropped me on the rugged hills of our “easy” 8-mile run. I bore them no grudge. I felt that I had deserved it.
After saying my good-byes, and thanking them for the run, I returned to Amherst feeling more than a little humbled.
That Fall, Amherst would travel as a team to Buckland to run against Mohawk on their home course. In a thrilling race, the McMullin brothers would take the top two spots and lead their team to victory, ending Amherst’s long dual meet win streak. If memory serves, Fritz, the older brother set a course record that day. After the race, they were gracious in victory. They said they would never have run such fast times if we hadn’t pushed them so hard. We all shook hands and wished each other well in the upcoming Western Mass meet.
And that’s most of the story.
Thanks to Becky, I had the good fortune of meeting my hated rivals and discovering that they were a lot like me… although slightly better on hills.
The following spring, I got to race the McMullins again, running the anchor leg on a distance medley relay team that beat Mohawk in another great race. At the end of my senior season, at the State T&F championships, I ran into Coach Putnam an hour before my race, and he was very supportive and encouraging. He gave me some advice that helped me relax and run especially well that day. I learned that encouragement and support can come from unlikely places.
Now, more than forty years later, I shake off the nostalgia and watch my new team of cross country runners taking their first tentative steps into the sport that I have loved, and I wonder whether I’ll ever tell them this story. I’m not sure what lesson it would have for them.
But for me, the lesson was clear. My rivals weren’t my enemies, after all; they were worthy opponents who respected me enough to welcome me when I was a stranger in their town, and then teach me to respect them on an 8-mile run. We didn’t become great friends after that, but there was no more hating each other.
On that day, I realized that although Amherst has a fine high school and is a wonderful place to enjoy being a kid, if you want to grow up, you might just need to leave your pleasant valley and go where the hills are steeper and your rivals are waiting.