The first week of cross country season is almost at an end. Just the Saturday long run and we’ll be good to go. My team is the smallest I’ve ever coached, a combined thirty boys and girls at this point. I don’t know whether to blame this on potential athletes being spread too thin with other commitments or family vacations, but I really don’t care. The kids that have chosen to run are special to me. I plan to push them very hard and get the most out of their potential. We’d all like to qualify for Nike Cross Nationals, but that’s twenty-two weeks away. Better to savor each daily workout and take things as they come.
Today was a recovery day. Just five aerobic miles to flush the legs after yesterday’s grass workout. Afterward, I brought them all inside the team area and used a white board to explain the specific purpose of our training paces and the importance of hitting set targets to accomplish the greatest results. I wrote their paces on a white board and walked through the physiology of it all, pulling nuggets of information gleaned from the dozens of coaching books that fill my office at home. I’m not the teaching sort, and I’ve never done a little mini-clinic like that before, but the majority of the runners have been with me for the entire breadth of their high school careers. I know them to be smart and inquisitive, so it made sense to attempt in some small way why we do what we do.
Frankly, I thought they’d lose interest. It’s the last Friday before a holiday weekend and they’d just completed a 90-minute workout (we threw some core and plyos at them in addition to the run). But they listened, not chatting among themselves or checking out. I talked about ATP and mitochondria and the importance of running economy, wandering off topic a couple times to make jokes about our rivals and remind them all that running below a certain percentage of their max accomplishes almost nothing at all.
I think they got it. At least I like to think they absorbed everything I had to say. They’re runners but they’re not automatons. I want them to know these little bits of information so they can question me about this workout or that when the time comes. There’s a moment as a coach when you sometimes realize that you want to win more than your team wants to win. It’s a horrible realization because it means I haven’t done my job by motivating them and making them fully aware of the importance of our goals. I’ve had teams like that in the past and all I can say is that they made me want to give up coaching. I’m a coach through and through for the same reason I’m a writer — they’re the only jobs for which I’m suited. So when it comes to a point that I think of giving up coaching, it means I’ve plumbed some new depth of despair.
My teams this year — boys and girls — want to win more than I do. They’re focused. They care about each other. They run hard. Rather than making me want to quit, they inspire me to read more, think more clearly about the season’s strategy, and basically become worthy of their excellence.
I closed my little meeting by reading a poem written by one of my runners. It was a school assignment that talked obliquely about the lessons this athlete had learned from being a runner. My favorite part was the line about “getting comfortable being uncomfortable,” a direct quote from something I say at practice now and again.
I read the team this poem to inspire them. I didn’t have my glasses with me so I had to squint at the small letters on my phone. But soon I realize the font was not the problem — it was me. I was squinting because I was trying not to cry. My throat was catching and I had to fight to speak clearly. I didn’t see any of that coming. My team knows of my emotions and are used to seeing me choke up, but this came out of nowhere. It was the words on the page combined with the respect I have for my runners and the absolute pride I take in watching them get better each and every day. Plus, there's the fact that I love these kids. I know their mannerisms and jokes and weaknesses and awesomeness, and each in their own unique way is such a wonderful person.
I don’t know what the next twenty-two weeks hold, but I pray that it’s something great. I pray for a season without illness or injury or a dissolution of the bond that now holds us all together. I pray for Nationals. But most of all I pray that my runners keep wanting those championships more than I do.