Thoughts From Three: Senior Speeches

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."

The last team practice of our fall cross-country season came on a Tuesday, the day after the league championship was cancelled. We called it Team Day. By good fortune, our individual awards had been ordered and received. A parent had insisted on providing pizza. The runners completed a short, final team run through the training trails still splendid with mid-Autumn. At a grass slope gathering, we presented team awards to enthusiastic applause. Then the runners gathered briefly for private boys' and girls' meetings. In their notes, both commented on the solidarity of their groups this shortened Covid season, of good times together. Both posted as goals to spend more time the following summer attending, as I called it, the Church of the Open Road. After the meetings, they sat around, ate pizza, and gabbed easily about one thing or another. Then they rose as teams and wandered over to our meeting spot beneath the middle school connecting bridge. I watched the seniors shoulder gear packs one last time from their team home and leave. That was that.

We had always intended to preserve what we could of 'normal' in our Covid season. To that end, Faith and Justin agreed to contribute the year's Senior Speeches that I would later forward to team members and parents. Those were typically delivered before an appreciative audience at our now-cancelled post-season banquet, and though the power of presentation would be missing this year, Justin and Faith were eager to convey their experiences relying only on the power of words. Sometimes, athletes discover and appreciate the value of their sports efforts and commitments only later, as though with a nod to that classic Joni Mitchell line, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." When I received their drafts, it was obvious neither would need time to reflect.

"I've run every season I possibly could throughout my high school career and enjoyed every single one," Justin wrote. "I've seen some teammates and good friends come and go from the team, but I've stuck around....Why, you might ask me? I stuck around for the love of running competitively and to make memories that I couldn't make on any other sports team, to meet some people I thought I would never talk to, and to learn life lessons that I will take with me and use long past the end of my high school running career."

Justin, truth be told, was probably not destined to stand on a State Championship podium this autumn, beaming and waiting on a medal. But what he was destined for was exactly what he had summed up. It was a reminder to the rest of us about what matters with so many of these young adults who, lacking the marquee lights and press clippings, still come to proudly call themselves runners. Everyone knows that distance running done right is hard. So it's no surprise that many would-be harriers give it a week, maybe a season, then run the calculation of effort-in versus rewards-out and disappear. The ones who don't disappear, though, are worth listening to. Those who 'stick around' tell you, by word and deed, what really matters, what makes the sport survive and thrive.

"I decided to go out for Cross Country in the 7th grade. I loved listening to my mom talk about her days as a Cross Country runner. All the benefits and rewards of this sport made me want to try it." That was the beginning for Faith. Six seasons later, she had demonstrated many times the core value of the sport. "Running for me has meant much more than how fast I can run or the competition, but as a chance to prove to myself what I am capable of doing when I gave it my all."

Faith had never been cautious. She was the one willing to take it out hard, to put herself in a place where personal excellence was possible, and then fight to make that happen. She wasn't afraid to take chances. Every event is an event of extension, Renato Canova has noted, and Faith was the example of training and striving to push a little harder for a little longer. She was also a good reminder that the cautious runner seldom discovers the joyous moments, those critical times when you cast doubt to the wind and justifiably allow desire free reign, when you do trust your training and go for it. Those moments involve pain not as an obstacle but as a measure of what you are willing to endure in pursuit of your personal excellence. Watch a runner's hard, hard practice, watch a personal record race when a personal record effort matters for self and team. Discovering there is more that you can endure is, for runners, the deepest satisfaction possible as an athlete. Everything else comes in second. Faith figured that out early.

Every year our seniors tell us what they are going to miss, and every year they are right. Covid, this Fall, merely drove home the point that the team opportunity to share one's strengths and weaknesses matters in more than the obvious ways. Weeks after season's end, I was standing on our local Erie Canal towpath with Coach O'Keefe. Coach had arranged a winter running club for our Varsity and Modified team members, and the young'uns were here that day, a gloomy, cloud-shrouded late-Fall afternoon. We watched the group pace away from us down the tow path, exclamations and silly laughter reverberating back across the still waters of the canal.

Coach O'Keefe chuckled. "They just really enjoy being out here running together again."

I nodded. I was thinking that maybe not all, but at least some of them were our future seniors who would have stories to write and memories to recall of days like this together. "Yes, they do," I agreed with Coach. "Yes, they do."