Thoughts From Three: Same Old Season

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."

Autumn, in the face of a COVID-altered cross-country season, was indifferent. It cared not a whit about our teeth-gnashing and compromising to make cross-country happen during its misty days. We had started this year's training in late-May, though with fewer interested runners. Some cited the pandemic as reason for not participating. Some, as the school opening loomed in early September and their summer mileage was found lacking, also begged off, but with no explanation. A few others did express reasons, but it was standard stuff, like getting a job or focusing on schoolwork, both easily translated for the truth. We did, however, add a cheerleader and a volleyball player to our girls' roster. Autumn did not ponder reasons or rosters but merely prepared to go about its business. On the first day of team practices, the day before the calendar start of Fall, Autumn had already begun tidying up for winter. Late summer had been very dry, so the playing field grass crunched under foot and some trees had willingly dropped their summer cover early. We started team practices with a dedicated core of runners who had plied the summer roads and trails--and we had others who had not. Coach G. and I tried to differentiate the workouts, and then we crossed our fingers and waited.

None of the early struggles of runners who lacked basic fitness were of any interest to Autumn, though. It was too busy browning our back fields and whistling up geese to head south. Daily, the runners arrived singularly or in small groups, masked and lined up in front of me like patient Ellis Island immigrants, waiting to hand me their Covid papers and have temperatures taken. Daily, they headed out into the back trails and did what cross-country runners do. Ever so slowly (because good things do take time) those diligent in summer were encouraged to find what they expected--speed feeling more and more comfortable. The others, too, were surprised to discover they could go faster and further than they had ever gone before. I droned on and on about the necessity of preparation, about the mastery of running as a result of mastering the process of becoming-and then being-a runner. Autumn just smiled and winked at the squirrels in the back woods while they industriously gathered their last nuts.

One of the goals of our rescued season was to preserve as much of 'normal' as possible. Some things, of course, had to go-there would be no highlight team banquet, no bus rides to anticipated invitationals, no casual and close pre-race pasta dinners. But, through modifications, other elements survived. The seniors were announced in front of appreciative spectators just before a home race, and they jogged the gauntlet of clapping teammates to join parents for the requisite photograph. Other days, they joked around as always before attendances and made efforts to look attentive during my daily "tailgate talks." During workouts, they plugged and plied their miles along the trails, pace and distance dictated by the expected work while leaves swirled in sunny breezes. Autumn barely noticed us.

We were, in fact, lucky. We at least had our rescued days-and more than a few of us regularly reminded each other of that. Some cross-country coaches in other sections with cancelled seasons were cheated of what they probably missed the most-the ordinariness of practice afternoons, of time and struggles and efforts together. Autumn, though, had no interest in sentiment. Its job had always been the perfection of losing.

What's remarkable in the end is not always immediately evident. Our teams didn't win much, but they achieved something else. Covid stripped our sport down to its essence, where private and team elements predominated even as public attention diminished. Some coaches spoke of the Fall as just an organized and prolonged training season, bemoaning by default the opportunities presented. Day after day, we noted that the young adults who really wanted to be there were, in fact, there. They dripped September sweat onto the brittle playing field grass. They traced skid marks in the October mud. They left tracks through an early November snowstorm. They were good-natured, unassuming, and hardworking, as in hard work for its own sake. And each day, they evoked the sense that no future season could ever be quite the same.

Near mid-November, a Monday found them toiling their back Inner Loop. The birch trees blazed their leaves in the angled last light. Preternatural temperatures produced sweat and T-shirts only days after white trails. Everyone was charging hard, running their best splits, bearing down with each interval. One runner, despite weariness, danced a little jig with her results. It was, we could have declared, the perfect practice. Eighteen hours later, their league championship was abruptly cancelled, and for the remaining afternoons none of us had somewhere to be. We surrendered our training trails to the shortening days, left the place to itself and declared the season, exactly because of everything, good.

Autumn, still busy with final arrangements, had no opinion on the matter.