Ten days until the first cross country practice.
After that it's another 154 days to the State Meet, and another seven after that to Nike Cross Nationals — but only if we’re very, very good. In all, it's a twenty-three-week commitment, six days a week, twice a day. There will be intense heat, dust, altitude, moments of complete despair, a little rage, and hopefully the enormous highs that come with great practices and outstanding races. It doesn't happen by accident. My season plan is still in flux, but it involves a whole lot more than just running — weights, plyos, core, HIIT drills. At this time of year it’s the planning that makes the season interesting. By the end of November the plan will have run its course and the focus will be championship racing. Those are both great components, but none of it matters without the athletes.
When I come home from practice each day my wife knows there will be a series of short vignettes about what the runners were doing that day. Not just the miles or intensity, but the hard work of getting to know one another and come together as a team. None of my elaborate workouts matter if we don’t develop a relationship. I spend more time with my runners than any of their teachers — and in some cases, their parents — so the banter and yelling that come part and parcel with cross country practice actually mold them as human beings. I like it when my runners show how tough they are. I like when they fart, spit and swear under their breath — even the girls, as the social compact of team building supersedes niceties of etiquette. And I like when they do something special, like setting a personal best or beating someone once considered unstoppable.
But I should also add that I take a quiet bit of pride in their ability to read my emotions. I’m not necessarily a volatile person, but my temper has its moments. Until recently, I had no idea my teams knew that if my face simply looked solemn, it was more than likely they were doing everything right and I wouldn’t stop the team to correct them. However, it was pointed out that if I set my jaw just so and walked very quickly in the direction of the team . . . well, then there might be some fireworks. I’ve also been told that I had a heretofore unknown ability to be compassionate and sarcastic in the same sentence — although now that I think about, that was the result of a long ago coach named Tom Messina, one of the quiet geniuses who molded me as a young man.
So the vacation has just ten days to go. I can sleep in for another week, watch late night television, and spend my afternoons reading. All of which is wonderful. For a guy who doesn’t do vacation very well, I seem to be enjoying myself a great deal.
But I am ready for the intensity of cross country season. I am ready for the sense of family that envelops the team. I am bracing myself for the ebbs and flows of a season that will inevitably be filled with laughter and tears. And through it all I must find a way to motivate and inspire. So for some strange reason having to do with the grieving process deciding it was time to deal with some old pain, I am dedicating this season to the memory of my late sister, Monique, a great runner in her own right who died too young from pancreatic cancer.
Q was kick-ass, inspiring me at a time in my life where I was a sloppy mess of potential gone to waste. She once wrote me a letter as I prepared to compete in the Raid Gauloises adventure race, a two-week competition that showed me anything in this world is possible if you keep putting one foot in front of the other. I had failed in a previous attempt at the Raid and was filled with self-doubt.
“I know you’ll do great because you have, and always have had, what it takes to be great,” wrote Monique. She used a red pen. Her handwriting, unlike mine, is neat and precise. It’s really all I have of hers and I cherish it.
I carried that letter throughout the Raid, wrapping it in a Ziploc and reading it in times of doubt, such as when my teammates were forced to retire from the event after flipping a raft in Class V whitewater. This forced me to finish the final two days of the race on my own. Alone in the wilds of Lesotho, the solace from Q’s letter gave me the gumption not to quit.
I plan on reading that letter to my team at some point in the season. Sure, it’s cheap motivation but it’s also a reminder of what we can all do when someone believes in us.
"I know you’ll do great,” I plan on telling my teams as we begin the inexorable march toward November — and one and all will know that I mean it.
“Because you have, and always have had, what it takes to be great.”