Cross country season officially began last Saturday. As a forest fire raged in the mountains above Pasadena, the first gun of the season sounded. I am always reminded of “Hollywood” from Top Gun’s comment about dogfighting when I hear that first gun. It signifies so much that feels right to the world for me. Those mid-August worries about conditioning and the administrative bugaboos and just the general feeling that there’s a lot to do and so little time in which to do it disappears. It’s all about racing.
I call this time of year “Christmas in Autumn” because I feel like I’m six again — using a ballpoint pen to circle the toys I want in the Sears catalog, waiting for Santa’s arrival. It’s special, I won’t deny it. And if you saw the euphoria on my face as my runners lit out hard once that first race began, you’d understand it. I honestly don’t think I see my annual schedule as defined completely by holidays anymore. There is cross country season, there is summer training, there are Easter and Christmas, there is the annual pub date for the new Killing book, and then there is something called "not cross country season."
And my anniversary. Can’t forget that.
The pale autumn light, the Indian summer heat waves, the smell of dust and dead leaves, and the sound of the starter’s pistol. There’s nothing in the world like cross country season.
Yet as much as I anticipate the next eleven weeks until the State Championships and the week after that for Nationals, it’s also going to be a time of heightened misery. For starters, I’ll be protecting my team. Cross country isn’t king, like football, so there will be the never-ending battle to keep from being marginalized at the school. It’s a drain to keep being a one-man bandwagon to promote my athletes, and completely frustrating to see their considerable toil and accomplishments overlooked year after year after year. But that’s reality. It's everywhere. Every year I struggle to make my peace with it. And every year, just when I’m so fed up that I swear it’s my last year of coaching, I find a way to shut out the things that don’t matter and focus on the goodness of my teams and the purity of our sport.
These next three months will also be a time of hyperfocus. Every workout from the season plan will be scrutinized again and again to make sure it’s exactly what we need now — not what we anticipated we might need three months ago. Today was supposed to be repeat 2000-1000’s with a 400 jog in between. Decided to change it to something sharper, so today is now 1200-4x800-1200-6x200. A little strength, a little speed, and probably a little less daunting.
The greater source of hyperfocus will come on Saturday afternoons and Sundays when I literally spend hours poring over results, analyzing how our performance ranks with other teams. Absolutely draining — and also absolutely addictive. A fellow coach and good friend of mine places reading stats while drinking beer right below Biblical relations as his favorite way to spend a Sunday.
I’m not making that up.
I also agree with him.
The weekly rankings, of course, will drive me crazy. I’ll fret if we’re ranked too high and fume if we’re too low. If we’re overlooked and not ranked at all, it's a certainty that my sleep patterns will be drastically altered.
And then, finally, there are the highs and lows of racing. We will have good weeks and we will have meh weeks. It is what it is. I will break them all down on Sunday, just the same, looking for the reasons and a solution to making it better next time.
All in all, this is best of times and the worst of times — and there’s no other way I’d rather spend my hours away from writing. I’ve tried gardening. I’ve tried long walks with the dog. Truth is, coaching is an avocation like no other.
Which leads me to the million dollar question: When do I hang it up?
I think never. My 85-year-old dad only recently retired from coaching, but still sneaks back out to help the new guy. So even at my lowest ebb, or my most self-pitying belief that my teams are being marginalized, the act of coaching makes me feel completely alive.
That Hollywood moment when the season’s first gun sounds is very real.