Thoughts From Three: The Hills of October

After the success of Jim Vermeulen's XC Journal in the many falls of Cross Country, we've asked again for him to provide some news and notes once a month. Think of these as the thoughts that cross the mind of your average coach. Up from Section 3, we present you with "Thoughts From Three."

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"A sport is not about winning. It's about performing."

                                                                                  Bob Marks, West Genesee Swimming Coach

Down I81 south of Cortland, where it contours hills above the Tioughnioga River, we rounded a corner to confront a dense bank of morning fog that filled the valley below, like cotton puffs in a bowl. Poking above the fog, the surrounding hills wore the quilt colors of mid-autumn, patched forests interspersed with still-green fields.  Plunging into the fog, I directed the bus driver down the exit ramp and into the hunched buildings of Marathon where a signature sculpture reared in front of the Three Bear Inn. We turned left back under the interstate, then took another left at the cemetery and climbed Albro Road to Abbyby Elementary, the site of the Marathon 5k racecourse. 

As we unloaded, figures moved to and fro in the dense mist. Our group tramped the team tent through the wet grass and set up along one wing of the building. Modified runners, their first races imminent, jogged upward toward the invisible start line, fading into the morning fog like ghosts. A gun sounded in the watery silence, and the first race of the day was off, though we couldn't see it. Our boys modified race would come next. Coach Wojtaszek and Coach O'Keefe had pulled out of West Genesee Middle School with their boys' and girls' teams at a bleary-eyed 6:15a.m. to ensure an adequate warm-up and some semblance of course previews for the new runners. Another race day in the hills of Marathon was underway, my 17th. 

With our tent crew expertly completing its job, with the bib numbers pinned and race squads organized, Coach Gangemi and I started around the school track to find our boys modified start. A coach hurriedly jogged by with a delinquent young charge in tow, urging him, "Hurry up! You only have four minutes." Coach G. glanced at his watch "Actually, three," he said, shaking his head. "That dude's not going to make it." We never found out, but soon the boys large schools modified runners were charging from their mist-obscured start down the long slant, their race day already on full throttle. They disappeared into fog and trees below, circled and headed right back up that same long tilt toward us, already strung out. Charlie was fighting for the front and would finish third to lead the boy's team to a strong second-place finish. Watching them pass, I wondered how long the fog would resist this weaker autumnal sun. I wanted our runners racing a course they could see rather than just remember. 

Soon enough though, with the girls modified races, the fog began to melt, and we could see most of Claire's start-to-finish out-in-front race and the rest of the team placing six runners in the top-20 to win. At least one school highlight was already in the bank, and it was a well-deserved season finale for a team of hardworking young ladies. Some would be listening to Coach G. and I exhort them through 5k courses the next fall, and we were already looking forward to that. 

Perched high above the town and river valley, the school grounds and its racecourse only grudgingly yield snips of level terrain, much of that engineered for playing fields. Most of the place-and the course--is on a tilt. As a racer, you spend a lot of your course time gradually going up, or gradually coming down. Throw in a few short steep rises, plus the twists and turns of the lower trails, and the course can only be graded as tough. The racers are guaranteed a lot of gear changes-and ample opportunities to battle mind games as much as competitors. Not many come there wishing anything better than a course PR. A wet, muddy day elevates everything to a whole other level of demanding. Gutsy, challenge-oriented racers naturally love the place. 

We first trekked to the hills of Marathon in 1997, eight years behind their inaugural race but well before any of the present runners were born. The boys that year clawed their way to a 4th place team finish, led by Chris Dankiw, while the girls grabbed second behind Morgan Doherty. Morgan had to fight hard for a 4th place, Chris even harder for a 7th in strong fields, but both would eventually work their ways to XC state championships in their high school careers. For a variety of reasons, we did not return to Marathon regularly until 2007, but then quickly developed an affinity for both the place and its calendar location. We began constructing our own obscure history of Marathon. In 2010, the boy's team did not win, but the same scoring five went on to place third at the Federation Championship.  Race victories at Marathon were always hard to come by, but the boys managed one in their seeded race in 2013. Will, David, Jack, Nate and Sean all eventually became college runners-one of them is coaching today. The girls had a good run going from '13' to '16,' never placing lower than 2nd. Carly won the individual race in '14,' then again the next year while leading a team victory. They won again in '16,' but this time it was Mia up front with the individual victory. Emily closed that string of strong individual races with her own win in '17.' 

Most coaches choose their invitationals strategically, changing meets year to year as the developmental and competitive needs of their squads require. The big regional or national meets are, of course, planned for and regularly attended, annual pilgrimages that wed tradition and the desire to race your best among the best. Other invitationals can sometimes become a matter of convenience due to time or distance or the policies of the school district. Some invitationals, though, just grow on coaches and athletes for no definitive reason-or, more accurately, for a host of reasons. For us, ending a full-team season on the hills of Marathon had come to seem not only natural but fitting. 

I trudged up the slant to the start line box for our boys unseeded varsity race. The sun was doing its work, and it would just be a matter of time before the fog gave us back the course and the valley vistas beyond. Two of our top-7 runners were elsewhere taking PSAT's, so others had been moved up to this race, meaning JV runners were also resituated in the unseeded varsity race. A domino effect of sorts. Added to that, our numbers were down this year partly because defections were up, team members deciding they could no longer justify the efforts and expectations. As a result of it all, several squads would be competing with the bare minimum of five. They would hear me remind them, "Everyone's critical; there's no margin for error."  As the unseeded squad of five surged out on warm-up strides, Zach shuffled up, looking awful. Without telling me, he'd roused himself from bed, curled in a back seat all the way to the racecourse, then attempted the warm-up for the boys' varsity race coming up next at eleven. He'd basically forced himself to prove he could not possibly race-and he'd proved himself right. Still, he wore a look of dejection. I gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Zach, if you have a ride, you should just get yourself home. Feel better." He nodded and shuffled off, creating one more group with no margin for error.

In short order, the unseeded squad was off, signaling the start of our team day. As instructed, they resisted the urge to blast the opening descent, settled into their races, fought individual battles and finished mid-pack. Four of the five ran seasonal PR's. Connor's was by an impressive twenty seconds.  Justin created the second-fastest 5k that had ever passed beneath his feet. 

Up next came the PSAT short-handed boys seeded group. Step-up opportunities for others were available and expected. And there was, of course, no margin for error. Following a good starting loop, Peter settled in for a top-6 battle while Matt churned up front, shadowed closely by a Watkins Glen competitor. Down through the lower trails, back up around the finish and along the track, Matt was locked in with his shadow until he relinquished the lead up behind the start-line. Charging down the final long descent and passing me at the eight-hundred-to-go mark, the slight deficit had swelled, with Matt in danger of being significantly gapped. "This is it, Matt!" I yelled. "You have it in you. Go!" They disappeared into the final twist through trees, and I turned to wait for the others to pass. A few minutes later, with a little time before start-line duties in the next race, I jogged down to the finish paddock where the boy's team, their day's effort complete, was still sitting, removing timing chips and munching apples in bright sunshine. Ryan, an accomplished swimmer turned senior-neophyte runner for the fall season, had provided the team's critical 5th man time despite sore shins. He was already considering outdoor to make himself a three-sport athlete.  Joe, as 4th man, came in only a few seconds off his seasonal best. Stepping up to score third for the team was Ewan, a freshman new to the running game. He'd just clocked his third straight 5k PR, this one by almost thirty seconds. Peter, our #2, was smiling. "What place?" I asked, remembering the guy he was battling for a spot on the podium. Peter held up six fingers. "I was a little behind in the trails, but I said, 'no way' and went."  He received the fastest freshman award for boys. 

Matt, meanwhile, sat nearby with tired satisfaction. He caught my eye and flipped over his place card to reveal a #1. "But you were almost ten meters back going into the trees," I said, and he nodded. "Then what about coming out?" 

Matt smiled. "About ten meters ahead." 

"So you raced the corners, didn't you?" 

"Yeah. Hard." 

The boys didn't come close to winning the race. They just raced their best for the day. They performed.

The girls finished fourth in their seeded race and had to run incomplete in JV. Their efforts, though, were similar to the boys-all out. Half ran seasonal PR's on the slanted hills of Marathon.

Mid-afternoon I stood beside our school bus in the upper parking lot while two team members hefted tent bags into the back.  This was, now by tradition, the end of our full-team season, and only a shrunken group was riding the bus home instead of with parents. Regardless, it was evident we had curiously arrived--though late and not without significant difficulties--at a confident place where, if the athletes did not necessarily enjoy equal talent, they shared a persistent willingness to make daily hard efforts together as teams. The last runners scrambled aboard. I took one more glance back down over the sloping schoolgrounds course and the hills beyond, still lit up in afternoon sunshine. Well, not bad, I thought, not bad at all.