Thoughts From Three: Championship Miles

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."

"....all previous miles have gone to create some single moment...."

                                                                                 William Least Heat Moon, Roads to Quoz

6:18am. Two miles down Rt. 2 from our out-of-the-way lodging for the New York Cross-Country State Championship, Peter asks, "Was I supposed to turn in our room key?" The North Hero House inn on a Lake Champlain island uses those old-fashioned, weighty room keys, the kind never meant to become souvenirs or wallet stuffers. And one of them is in Peter's pocket. Matt, slumping next to him, says nothing. He's already delivered his surprise, informing me as we loaded the car that he was in the bathroom at 2a.m. throwing up.  Something he ate, he claims. It's not a good start to his state championship day. We are 0 for 2 so far, and now I'm waiting for a third shoe to drop. I turn around on the deserted dark road. The morning is brittle, a chilling 12o.  When Matt races at 9a.m., it's supposed to have crept up to 18o, but that's not a given. We have a ferry to catch, so when we pull back into the inn, I bark at Peter, Matt's travel buddy on this trip, to put the key on his room's dresser-and fast.  He hustles in and back. We point ourselves south again. Farmhouses hunch in the dark as we bridge over to Grand Island, then turn right into the ferry port with just enough time. We are the third car onto the 6:45 to New York's Cumberland Point. As the props churn us away from the dock, dawn has begun to gather, announced as a pale pink above the distant Adirondack peaks. A slight breeze slices unrestricted across the open water, and no one is coming out of cars to wander deck-side for the view, though it's starkly beautiful.  We cross the steel-blue waters in silence.

At the race site, the parking attendant, bundled and hunched, sees my athletes in the back seat and waves us into the lot. Meet management, bowing to the cold, has opened the field house to athletes and coaches-a welcomed arrangement.  Each section has its own marked table for the athletes and gear, an indoor team tent area of sorts. The course problem has not been so easily solved. Snow and mud had forced multiple re-routings the day before while athletes previewed the course. And later that evening, finding the new configuration violated the state's 5k limit, a loop was eliminated. That wouldn't be the end of renovations. A half hour before Matt's first race, the final shovel strokes would be creating yet another alteration, this one only a few hundred meters from the start. Leonetiming puts the course at 3.0, but the true distance is anyone's guess. 

With ten minutes to go and temperatures in the mid-teens, I walk Matt off the start line for a quick chat. It's about his choices. Either he allows his intestinal problems to pull him down or he shoves that malady as far into the back of his mind as possible and just goes at the race. "This is states, Matt," I remind him. He nods, I wish him luck and jog to a position out on the course already populated by coaches, official and spectators. 

The course is an amalgam of surfaces-grass, mud, macadam, stone-that twists around campus buildings and athletic fields. Spike choices bewilder some, and I leave that up to Matt. Meet management has fought to clear the course into championship shape, and the battles they've lost are evident. The clichés hold true, though: everyone runs the same course; everyone races the same weather. From the backside by the tennis courts, I hear the gun and then, across the parking lot, can spy the front phalanx of Class A racers turn and dip down the newest course modification. They disappear around the back of the field house but soon come charging up the sidewalk toward us. Matt's lodged in a thicket of racers, somewhere between number 30 and 40, and I can only shout and then wonder, as they veer hard left into the back loops, what kind of day, what level of effort, he's chosen. The minutes pass as officials try to guide people back off the course they are now standing on. There's no line to mark it and not enough cones to set boundaries, and I'm probably not the only one worrying about the nightmare scenario of a tired runner plowing into an errant spectator. 

Though windless, it's still bitter cold. People stamp their feet, cinch up collars. Soon, shouts declare the return of the front runners, and when they pass, I start counting. Matt flashes by. He's moved into the upper twenties. Going left down a gravel service road, he circles the field that holds the tennis courts and heads back to our pinch point. I count again. "23 Matt!" I boom, "23!" The finish is not far off, so time and distance are running out on a hoped-for top-20 medal effort. Once he and the others disappear back down the walkway, there's nothing to do but return to our Section III table in the field house and wait.



Unlike my solo drive to meet athletes and parents at the State Championship, for this Federation Championship venture I have company. Aidan, Matt and I are off from the high school by 10:45am. "About three hours forty minutes," I tell them. We are going down via the Thruway for the convenience of rest stops. Matt's in the car because he finished 22nd at states and 43rd in the 476-runner total state merge, good enough for a Federations individual qualification. We have also swapped out Peter for Aidan as a trip buddy. That's good because, unlike senior Matt, Peter and Aidan return next year, and if both get to stand trailside and wide-eyed at the concentration of talent in these championships, so much the better for next summer's training. 

With the usual stop at the Guilderland rest area, we do indeed pull into Bowdoin just about on time. The temperature from Syracuse to Poughkeepsie has risen about ten degrees. It is brisk, but pleasant enough at 47o. Aidan and Matt set out on their course preview while I check in for Matt's bib number, participation sheet and a complimentary water bottle. I walk up the access road to watch them head into and out of the hill section, then catch them coming off the back field and headed along the long start-field loop before the finish line. They complete strides and sprints on the start field while I chat with a sectional colleague. He tells me the story of a rest stop for his girls' team and a chance encounter with the college coach of a former team member of mine. That runner has left the team and given up on competitive running-at least for the time being. I tell my colleague what I'd decided after the runner's final season-that this person would either blossom in college with new opportunities or throw in the towel. There just seemed no reasonable middle ground. And so I was right, though on the wrong side of the possibilities, and there is no satisfaction in that, just a shake of the head at the limits of coaching. Matt and Aidan finish up their preview, and as a northern passenger train rumbles past the park toward Albany, we leave for the hotel. 

No pre-dawn drive is necessary for this race. At breakfast, I share a table with Jack and Tracey, two other colleagues at the hotel with their athletes.  It's a lively conversation covering a host to run-related topics. Both of them, in different ways, are hard drivers and accomplished coaches, a not uncommon combination for successful programs. Jack, though, as it turns out, yearly spends his own money on things needed for his runners. And it's a fair amount. "You do what you gotta do," he explains. 

Matt texts about leaving for Bowdoin a little earlier than planned, and we settle on 10:45am. A week earlier, his race by that point was history.  I wait in the lobby chair, thinking about the basic competitive desire that drives not only runners but coaches. Qualify it any way you want, but that's what is primary and marks the difference between sports and educational caretaking. My former co-coach once told me something. "I know you," Coach Delsole said, "You might not expect to often win championships or have individual champions, but you always want to be in the hunt." He was right. Once the competitive desire is gone-or even once it begins to ebb-that's when you have to ask the face in the mirror the important question. Desire lives in the future, so once you are no longer excited to imagine-and then fashion--the next incarnation of your runners, it's probably time to turn elsewhere. Me-I am nervous but excited about the day ahead. The sun is shining; the wind, a desultory 3-4 mph, is barely noticeable, and, following that frigid state championship at SUNY Plattsburgh, it was almost cause for celebration as Jack declared at breakfast, "no frost on the windshields this morning."  When Matt and Aidan step off the elevator, and Matt announces he's slept well this time and feels good, the ingredients for a top-notch competitive day are assembled. 

Hours later, standing in sunshine where the Bowdoin course loops beside the park playground before rising into the back field, the muffled sound of the start gun reaches me. They are off. Aidan had gone with Matt to the start line while I jogged to a vantage point where I can catch the racers passing four times. He needs to know where he's positioned, so when they follow the pace cart toward me, I first locate him in the mass of runners, then start estimating. It's somewhere around forty this time, so that's what I shout, then turn and hustle up to the park road they'll ascend to the hill loop. The mass has strung out by the time they reach the waiting coaches and spectators, and Matt's in the low thirties when he powers by and up out of sight. Another wait, then the cart is barreling back down the gravel road, the leaders right behind, churning up the distance. Matt comes through in the mid-twenties, so I tell myself it's happening, that good day. I hustle back toward the playground area to catch him a last time, hoping he has held his position. But he hasn't. He comes by in 13th. I call out the number, shout him down the trail, turn and jog toward the finish. 

Later, after he's called down to the awards stand to accept his 10th place medal, the family and I get him off to the side and snap the requisite photos. We've created the visual posterity, but we've also reinforced the false notion of a singular moment. There are none of those in this sport. Only the disingenuous or needy coach discounts the tedium's and the laments, the disappointments and the boredoms along the way to hard-earned highlights.  You can never tell a true story without those.  And for Matt, a guy who for years and seasons has struggled to finish races strong, now, by dint of perseverance, he can usually count that a strength. A simple smile reflects the long distances to that achievement, even if only a few of us appreciate the mileage.  It's a sure bet, however, he will enjoy the long ride home. 


I'm in the car early again, and alone again, this time pointed south down I81. I am meeting Matt, Aidan, Peter and families at Bowdoin for the Nike New York Regional. They arrived the previous day, but with my relatives from near and far in for the Thanksgiving holiday, this is the acceptable compromise. It's chillier than the previous Saturday at 'Feds,' but clear again. Nothing has fallen from the sky for any of our November championships, a significant celestial favor.  I meet the three a few minutes before they jog to the start line and then take up my familiar viewing spot near the playground. Kids are noisy on the slides and swings across the course loop. Spectators, coaches and girls' teams warming up for their championship race busy the place as I wait. Which is not for long. A faint gun shot, some muffled announcer words, and soon the front phalanx of the boys' championship race charges up past the playground along the course now roped off with Nike banners. Matt, in his hard to distinguish "Genesee" blue singlet, comes through somewhere around forty. Peter and Aidan are further back as the mass of runners streams into the deep autumn browns of the back field. Doubling back along the rising gravel road, Matt has risen into the low thirties, with his teammates back in the pack. Matt comes off the hill having picked off another ten or twelve runners. Déjà vu. Reversing through the back field, he picks up several more places, but this is not Feds. The stakes are higher, the demands greater. Only five individuals fly west for nationals, once the teams are determined. Only five. Matt disappears from sight down toward the bridge and the final loop behind the start area. I sense he's in his last high school cross-country mile, and I hope it's a strong one. 

When Aidan comes out of the finish paddock, he smiles weakly and admits, "not my best race." Peter has more to say as he approaches, tired but optimistic: "I know what I have to do for next year, coach," he tells me. So do I, but I just congratulate him instead. And Matt stands quietly nearby, bothered by a small cramp in his left calf. I congratulate him also on his 19th place, nothing to hang the head about in this strong field. I don't tell him there will be other cross-country races for other coaches, that this only seems like an end but in fact he's just getting started. 

After we've talked and taken the pictures, the separate families go their ways with their athletes. I drive back into the afternoon sun and do the calculation: seven-plus hours of driving for 16-19 minutes of racing. An interesting ratio that seems a lot like the sport itself. I leave the radio off and instead enjoy the natural cinematography of mountain valleys and streams that, framed by the car windows, slip by on Rt. 17. I should make it home before dinner, a little after sunset. Jack, it turns out, is half right. Yes, you do what you gotta do, but even the runners would remind you that it's always by choice.