Thoughts From Three: A Head of Steam

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."

A Head of Steam

"Joy is the feeling of one's powers increasing."

Matthew B. Crawford, The World beyond Your Head

Lorna walked with me out of the stadium after the meet. She had something to tell me about her race that afternoon.

"This is really embarrassing," she said to start.

I looked at narrowed eyes behind her mask. "O.K.?"

"I thought you had to run back to where you started," she explained of her 400 hurdles race where she had started in lane 5, about fifteen meters out from the start/finish line. The stagger, I thought I had explained, compensates for the longer outside lane distances around the track. But we'd been in a hurry, with Lorna learning in two days what most others take a few weeks to master. And she had, in fact, surprised me with decent basic form and an unexpected ability to lead hurdles with either leg. Maybe the stagger thing was forgotten amid all the other instructions.

So I imagined her sailing through the finish, pushing on past the timers, not stopping. She couldn't see me smiling through my mask as I envisioned the heads of those timers and spectators swiveling, wondering if maybe she planned to tack on another lap for good measure.

"Did anyone notice?" I asked, trying to commiserate.

"Oh yeah," she said, eyes widening with recalled embarrassment. "They noticed."


I moved all the broken and dilapidated hurdles into a dark corner of our dim blockhouse underneath the stadium stands, creating a boneyard of pieces and parts. Instead of a last ride out in the garbage truck, some of those parts just might be salvaged, fitted with other refuge pieces so that junk was no longer junk but actually a resurrected hurdle that had just been granted a proper sports afterlife.


I sat the boys/girls distance crew down on the infield grass and told them I wanted to talk for a few minutes. "Do you," I started, "know what you have that most other sports don't?" I didn't expect any eager hands up and got none. So I went on. "You have moments. If you think of other sports, they don't have moments. After a long touchdown run, a football player gets called to the sideline for a rest-and everyone of course gets time between plays. A soccer player watches the ball go to the other end of the field or waits for a play to set and gets a short breather. You, on the other hand, get to that moment when moving is hard, but you don't get a break. You have to see the moment through to its end, so you make tough decisions about moving on that other athlete aren't forced to make. There is science behind your moments, both physiological and mental, but for now just appreciate that you're special."


The sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel investigated the assumptions of sacred and profane times in religions. That the typical days or times of the profane(i.e. normal) world are interspersed with temporal sacred days is a historical construct, one embraced by many, though such times are, in most cases, arbitrarily established. Nevertheless, the religious often believe that by observing and participating in their sacred times, they themselves are sanctified.

So, you put runners on a track, a group of guys from different sports who have coalesced around this idea of running 400m intervals at a demanding pace and not being strung out but tight and together, everyone breathing down each other's necks and being absolutely proud of that.

That's sacred time too.


There are coaches each season mastering the instrumentations of a laboriously and beautifully built structure, which in this case is a team sailing along with tradition and talent. Lessons can be learned from those captains. And there are also other coaches eagerly building their own ships from available parts-a new training regime here, a sports transfer there-working hard and energized by the right dreams. They may not immediately appreciate the distinct advantages of building teams rather than simply inheriting established winners, but that's all right. And then there are many others who typically weather the predictable ups and downs of coaching with a seasonally limited pool of highly qualified applicants. For all coaches, there may be advantages to rosters stocked with neophytes. Those circumstances teach the necessary humility, and they act as reminders of the best lessons in sport, which are always forward-looking, always involve struggles, and teach the satisfactions of doubt. Or, as William Stegner suggested, "starting from deprivation is spared getting bored. You may not get a good start, but you may get up a considerable head of steam."