This is the time of year when you get all kinds of year-end retrospectives, such as RunnerSpace’s News of the Year compilation and the top ten Olympics stories of the year from SI’s Brian Cazeneuve.
My top story of the year is quite personal. It’s not about me, but it affects a circle of people not much wider than a few dozen individuals. It’s a good one, though.
Longtime readers of this blog know that I coach high school cross country. They also know that, in April of 2010, our school district cut several sports, cross country among them, to help cover a massive budget shortfall. They also know that my athletes refused to quit, formed a club, found sponsors to pay for uniforms and entry fees, and kept on going, getting into high school meets where they could (which is technically against OHSAA regulations, but some meet directors took chances to help us out).
Longtime readers also know that, much to our shock, cross country (and cross country alone) was reinstated in July of this year. We had a team again. This, however, is not the story.
The day the reinstatement was announced, all the runners were excited, but one seemed even more excited than the others. Let’s call her Heather. She was about to begin her senior year, and had run on the girls’ team as a freshman and sophomore. I’d always been a boys’ coach, but when the official program went kaput for her junior year, I allowed the few girls who wanted to keep going to run with us, and Heather was one of them. I’d been fairly hard on her about inconsistency in showing up to practice, but what I didn’t know is that it was due to what I’d have to call “family issues”.
This year, she ironed out those issues by moving in with another family member and since then she never missed a run. We met at a local park five days a week all summer long and she always got there before I did. But one day I got there first; shortly, she showed up in a van belonging to a teammate’s mother, who dropped them both off.
Me: “Oh, do you get a ride every day?”
Heather: “No, I usually walk.”
Me: “Don’t you live over by ________ ?”
Me: “Holy crap! How long does it take?”
Heather (nonchalantly): “About an hour and ten minutes.”
Each way. Five days a week. We figured out that she was walking between 35 and 40 miles a week. There is one car in her house for two working adults, and their work schedule was such that she could only get to our summer runs by hoofing it.
But, and most importantly, Heather did not think this was a big deal. She was simply excited to be a part of a team and get to run every day. Whatever it took was whatever she was going to do.
Heather is not a talented runner by any means. In the past she’d been little more than a JV runner (and on a bad team at that). This year she ended up beating her PR by over four minutes. She finished ninth in our league meet, which–for the first time ever–our girls’ team won.
I’m pretty darn sure that all the walking made her a better runner. It probably didn’t add anything to her aerobic ability, but it made her essentially indestructible from the waist down. She never had any aches or pains and never had to cut back her training due to tiredness, not even for one day. She was as tough a kid as we had.
When I told this story to a fellow teacher, her response was along the lines of “how awful that the poor girl had to walk so much”. I said you don’t get it. What other people see as a hardship was actually beneficial to her and to her team. While life in America can often be hard on our hearts and minds, our lives are far too easy for our bodies. Heather is lucky because hers is not.
In his excellent history of the Boston Marathon, Tom Derderian makes the case that while the running boom finally got big enough to be noticed in the 70s, it really started in the early 60s as a response to the challenges issued by President Kennedy.
…we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept…
Isn’t this the biggest reason why kids join their high school cross country team? Not because it is easy, but because it is hard, and a challenge they are willing to accept.