[Thanks to Salomon for supporting Dakota Jones’s column on iRunFar.]
[Author’s Note: This is fall, and that means it’s cross-country season for high schoolers all over the country. I’ve been running occasionally with the Durango XC team and have enjoyed it so much that in a fit of nostalgia I wrote this short memoir of my own senior year in 2008. I’ve decided that it will be part of the autobiography I’m going to publish when I turn 55 that will almost certainly be titled something like, The NeverOverAchiever: Running Far, Dancing Badly, and Blustering About Speed Records At Potlucks: How One Man Reinvented Himself By Lowering His Standards to Something Achievable. Yeah, that sounds about right…]
My high-school cross-country coach was terrible with people and failed more or less utterly to create any kind of connection with his runners. But in a perverse way he actually did a great job in bringing us together as a team; his inconsistency, unpredictability, and the general outrages he inflicted upon us actually became a sort of adhesive among the team–we bonded against him. We were still mostly vulnerable to his, I’ll say wildly misdirected, wrath, but we made a habit of loudly complaining about our misfortunes and then snobbily and self-righteously cutting him down during our long runs (and before and after school and between classes), which helped a lot. Our coach–let’s call him Roger–was perhaps bad with people. But he had the redeeming merit of being bad with all people, therefore allowing us to find an unlooked-for team spirit in resistance.
To be honest, Roger’s shortcomings were mostly just things that were easy to make fun of, like the time we were running repeats on the golf course at the college. We were well into the season by this point and had been surprisingly successful. The state championship was within sight. Between repeats the team would mill around in a jumbled group, and Roger often gave us advice or coached us on technique at these times. Right before the last one, while we were all standing on the line ready to go, Roger looked at us all sternly and said: “Okay, last one now! It should hurt! But just remember all the work you’ve done this season and know that this is one more piece of gas in the tank.”
We all nodded vaguely and furrowed our brows, confused by something that didn’t immediately coalesce. Roger kept pacing in front of us, looking eagerly at our faces for the fire of inspiration he sought to kindle. We kind of slumped our shoulders and looked around at each other until someone in the back finally figured out what we were all thinking and said:
“Right, Roger, because you buy gas in pieces.”
We held it in for about two seconds before bursting into wild fits of laughter that echoed across the course. Our next repeat was pathetic because we were breathing too hard from laughing so much, and this didn’t sit very well with Roger, who decided to make us run even more repeats as punishment. And this exact approach to coaching turned out later to be a pretty crucial turning point in my perception of training. He used running as punishment, so we came to dread it. But he also urged us to demand more training than he was already giving us. This created a dichotomy between what we wanted to do and what we had to do, which is the kind of thing that totally screws with the brains of kids who are trying to figure out what they like. The turning point for me came during another repeat session late in the season.
We did something like eight 800-meter repeats. We ran them all as a team and at the end were glad to be done because that’s a pretty solid workout. We were laughing and joking after the last one, glad to be done but proud of the workout, but Roger must have gravely misinterpreted our joking as latent energy that could only have remained because we hadn’t worked hard enough during the repeats. He interrupted our banter and rounded on us with unconcealed fury.
“This isn’t a joke, guys. This isn’t a game,” he said, pacing and looking at each of us in turn. “You’re supposed to be athletes and athletes work hard. You’re not dedicated. You’re happy to be done, but the best athletes always ask for more.” And on and on for an interminable lecture. But I stopped listening at the last line. The best athletes always ask for more. I couldn’t speak for anyone else, but I liked cross country. I was dedicated. I wanted to do well, and the reason I was on the team was not just because of the team spirit and camaraderie (although that was an undeniable factor) but because cross country offered a structure and a route to be my best. My coach was supposed to be someone I could trust to provide me with the exact training plan which would maximize my ability, but now here he was saying that the best athletes always ask for more. This was to imply that he wasn’t already giving us the best training plan possible, that if we were really dedicated, if we really cared about cross country we would be running some indeterminate more. I felt betrayed, and I was pissed, and after that my faith in him deteriorated rapidly. I stopped trusting him and, now that I think about it, ironically sort of took his words to heart, to the detriment of the team’s success. If more is always better, dickhead, then.
The men’s varsity team started out seriously good my senior year. This was a product of general improvement on the parts of all seven runners, but I think I can honestly boast the most-improved record that year. Earlier that summer I had volunteered at the Hardrock 100, an event that literally changed my life and set me on the course I’m still taking today. As a result of being at Hardrock and being inspired to an otherworldly level, I subsequently ran a lot that summer. And in a turn of events that surprised the hell out of me at the time but seems starkly obvious in retrospect, I got a lot better at running. Before the cross-country season even started I dropped my 5k PR by a minute, and suddenly I was the second-fastest guy on the team. Great! The rest of the guys were close, though, and we spent the first half of the season annihilating the team competitions at every meet.
My newfound enthusiasm was more than intense, but for the first part of the season I reined it in and focused on cross country. After my falling out with Roger, though, I felt no sense of responsibility to the team or to my coach, so I threw prudence out the window and signed up for my first 50k race that fall, to take place about two weeks after the state championship. I wanted desperately to run an ultra, so the motivation for that was pure, but the timing was purely cynical, almost calculated to flip off the team. Because if I had a 50k to run, I needed to train for it. And 50k training is a lot different than 5k training. Thus, I proceeded to essentially double my cross-country training. I ran in the mornings, then ran practices in the afternoons, and then ran long on the weekends. In the process I got really fit, but I also sacrificed about all the pep and speed I might have gotten from Roger’s 5k workouts. In one and a half months I went from running faster than ever to slower than before. This began to show in our team rankings.
Conveniently for my reputation, I wasn’t alone. Somehow just about everyone else on the team also managed to crater themselves by mid-season. Justin was repeatedly unable to maintain a salient grade point average and was often barred from competing. Pete had some pretty serious personal issues that made his moods erratic and unpredictable. Matt’s knees just refused to hold up to training after September. At the regionals meet in Colorado Springs, Colorado (where one month prior our team had unleashed a storm of PR performances that crushed the whole field), I suffered across the finish line a full minute back of my PR and promptly threw up everywhere (something I had never done before and haven’t since), which misfortune earned me exactly zero sympathy because all my friends and family were at that moment watching in horror as Ty heroically martyred himself over the race’s final 100 meters in a display of truly epic fortitude. He must have been sick, because he ran so hard that he nearly killed himself. He passed out at least three times in the final stretch, only to resurrect his quaking body each time and stand back up. After collapsing for the third time within feet of the finish he raised himself to hands and knees and literally crawled across the finish line before collapsing again and being bound up by trained professionals, put on a stretcher, and shipped off somewhere with lots of machines and blinking lights and men in white coats.
I never did quite figure out what exactly happened to him. He was just sick, I guess. But he had impeccable timing; he fell apart at the same time we all did, which seems like an incredible coincidence but must surely have been related to something in common. At any rate, for a host of different reasons that can essentially be chalked up to bad timing, the varsity team went from state-contending athletes to a blown-out, disjointed group of teenagers in less than a month.
So perhaps I can understand why Roger wasn’t all that happy with us. He probably watched all this take place with a sense of powerless predictability. If he expressed his disappointment in a way that alienated his team, he probably wasn’t any more to blame for that than I was for giving up on my team mid-season. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t overtrained and run that 50k; I could easily have waited just a few months to run an ultra and then I would have still been able to run well in cross country. But I didn’t, and that’s just the way it is, I guess. We all have to grow up sometime.
Hopefully that’ll happen sometime soon…
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Fond memories of fall cross-country season, let’s hear them. Yours, those of your kids, memorable and impactful moments, hilarity, difficult workouts, leave a comment to share your cross-country story!