It is only July, and yet I am already feeling the nerves of November. My cross country team just finished its fourth week of training. These summer workouts are when the championships of autumn are won. I normally coast through summer, cursing the twelve weeks between the first day of training and our first September meet. But this season is different. I am approaching each workout with a sense of urgency. There is a ticking bomb sensation to this process, for I am determined to wring every last bit of emotion out of the next twenty weeks, knowing that euphoria may possibly await — but that melancholy will most certainly make an appearance.
Each summer I ask myself if this will be my last cross country season. And every year the answer is the same: I will wait until December to decide.
But that is not the reason for my urgency. I have four seniors on my varsity boys team and four on my girls squad. We have watched each other grow since they were freshmen. The boys who weren't quite five feet tall now tower over me. The girls, once so silly in that freshmen sort of way, are all poise and sophistication. They talk about the world as if it were theirs for the taking – which, in many ways, is true. But this is our last year together and I want to make it great. I mean, really great. I have never truly pushed their limits the way I am this year — and in the process, pushing my own. We are tough, but we need to callous our bodies and minds to become stone cold steel. The workouts I have deliberately withheld until I knew they were truly ready are now — finally — happening.
I am tempted to write a book about this season. But no one else will want to read this book but me. I write better than I interact, which is why my wife is demanding that I be more direct in my speech when it comes to business relationships. But when I write I sort things out, judging my words and actions as I put them on the page, and in the process learning truths about myself and the people who surround me. In this way, writing a book about my team would really be an examination of what motivates me to coach and why I need to be with my team like I need to breathe and eat. So a book would be a selfish enterprise. Calene points out it should be the other way around: I should be more giving of myself this year, because the team gives me so much more than I give back. To which I replied incredulously that my well is empty. I finish each day emotionally spent. What else can I give?
But she is right. I've been taking from my athletes for years. My need for a competitive outlet is fulfilled. My need to be around others after hours alone in my office is met. The awareness that I am still young even as I age comes true each day as I deal with teenagers — many times on an equal level. The ultimate reason, deep down inside, is that my athletes make me feel understood. They do not mock me for my lack of administrative skills. They listen as I describe a workout, no matter how difficult, then actually go out and complete it, trusting completely that I will never ask more of them than they are capable. They know my happy walk, my angry walk, my victory dance, my solitary way of walking off away from the crowd in those moments when despair of defeat crushes me.
I tear up easily around those I love. Which is why my team has seen me cry on many occasions. If they think it's silly, they certainly don't say so. In fact, it's become something of a contest for them to say something that touches my heart and makes me weep.
So I owe them a great season. A phenomenal season. A window of time that touches a void in their souls, and maintains a special place within them for the rest of their lives. Selfishly, I'd like them all to look back on these coming autumn months and remember them as a major positive milestone. But I would settle for the knowledge that they did their best.
A book? Maybe.
A season where we break through the mediocrity, bullshit, ambivalence, snarkiness, and petty behavior that surrounds us? Hopefully.
I don't know if this will be my last season coaching. Most likely not.
However, this is definitely my last cross country season coaching Pete, Matt, Luc, Jack, Izzy, Emilie, Maddie, and Nadia. They coach me every damn day. I owe them my everything. So it is my pledge that they will get nothing less than my very best.