watched thousands of scantily clad youngsters chase each other over grass, track and
trail. One lovely September afternoon nineteen years ago, when I began coaching a high
school girls cross country team, I was confident I knew the rules.
Until my Oak Knoll Royals gathered at the starting line for their first race of the season in my
first race as their coach.
“No hats, no watches, no jewelry.”
Fine, nothing my girls wore threatened their competitors, I thought. But as the other teams
began discarding the offending items, one of my runners pointed anxiously to the tightly knotted cord
around her neck.
“What’s that on your neck? Get it off.”
courses, volunteering at the local Senior Center, teaching English as a second language,
and a boon companion to her dog, had around her neck, a forbidden item, a waxed leather necklace.
will commit a felony by starting the cross country race with that performance-enhancing device.
I rush to the starting line to remove the offending item,but my fumbling fingers fail the challenge.
Earlier, at home, competitor Curmi decided she would look even more chic if she trimmed the edges
of the knot, improving an already model-like fuselage.
but now he looks as if he himself had just journeyed five thousand meters.
He can’t get the bloody thing unknotted.
Coach very, very carefully slips the jack knife’s blade between Lauren’s pulsing neck
and the proscribed jewelry. As the knife edges forward, the athlete stands still as she
wisely determines her life may depend on it. Finally, standing watch, Lauren’s father
applauds as I slice through the cord. She’s ready to start, and the gun fires. A few minutes
later we chase 145 teenagers around the course as Oak Knoll wins the Newark Academy
Invitational with 41 points. Lauren has been our TK runner, one of our top five.
and off the cross country course, I can well imagine that today she is a tenured professor
of law at Berkeley, summers in Montreaux, and is short-listed for the Booker. And all
because Coach was steady in a pinch, though now he carefully studies the directions
when advanced technology enters the home.
My entry into the coaching corps began after I retired.
That summer of ’97, I began to think I could have a new way to keep close to the
sport I treasured for decades. I knew Oak Knoll School in Summit, New Jersey had once
visited the school’s athletic director, and said I would be interested in resurrecting the
sport. Sure, he said, as long as you can persuade seven girls to join up. We did better
than that. We brought fifteen girls and one rookie coach together.
One thing I learned from coaching a cross country team for the first time is that you don’t
Your girls walk up to the starting line, you caution them not to start before the gun sounds,
and please make their way around without threatening to sue the girl running next to them
because she planted an elbow in your ribs. And the athlete who detours the course as if she
were bee lining to the last supermarket parking space, will not amuse the crusty folks who
manage the race. Running the full distance is not only sporting, it’s preferred. Finally, cross
the finish line, ideally without crawling on all fours, maintaining your poise. Before the
race, tell your team to relish the personal fulfillment that comes from completing the task
Because the ability to perform depends on accumulating strength, much of the training
involves running miles. But the coach’s art is mixing the right ingredients of mileage,
speed, repetitions and terrain.
Cross country scoring is simple. The first five on the team count, and you add up their
finishing places. Like golf, low score wins. A perfect score in golf would be an improbable 18,
a hole-in-one every hole. A perfect cross country score is 15, which recognizes that your
team’s scoring five finished in the first five positions. That achievement happens
infrequently, but Oak Knoll was perfect in a dual meet against a traditional rival.
There were any number of sad, funny, tense and elegiac moments.
I remember the day when one of my backbenchers—the lesser performing lasses-- was
running along in a race at Newark’s Warinanco Park. A girl from another team passed
her, gave her an elbow. My harrier decided she’d had enough, stops running, and cries.
No coach’s rulebook prepares you for this.
And to underscore the limited power of the coach over his independent charges, Megan
so a mishap might be avoided. She knew she’d get to it in due course, or was Megan
remembering the time she and her teammates played strip poker with a group of boy
runners at a summer running camp? Her mind on other things, perhaps, this race day she
turned an ankle in her warm-up and was listed on the results sheet as DNS. Did-Not-Start.
Later that season she paid closer attention to her Nikes, and became the conference
at Holmdel Park, the Carnegie Hall of the state cross country landscape. That would have
placed us among the top twenty or so teams in New Jersey, but we were never able to
qualify. I did have several runners who were outstanding: one qualified for the Meet of
Champions as a freshman.
They, in turn, mostly felt that cross-country would be an entry on their college resume.
They were well away from those athletes who wanted to establish themselves through
the sport, or even earn a college scholarship from running.
dozen girls each year, a couple of “transfers” from other school teams when they were
downsized. But no one gets booted off a cross-country team, even if we had to wait until
dark for her to finish a workout.
It’s a sport with great returns for those who train and compete. You get rewarded based
on your own contribution and the team gets rewarded. You don’t have to worry about
whether the coach will put you in the game. No bench, everybody’s on the first team.
You don’t need to be fast, just committed. The honors and medals go to the strong, the
resolute. A good coach can help you get to your own finish line, a winner.
The sport, which began formally in England in the early nineteen hundreds, is well titled.
Runners traverse the land, usually on grass, or trails, in parks or campuses. Often with
hills to provide additional tests.
I loved coaching cross country.
Most of us enjoy the movies, and if you happen to like classic films as I do, perhaps you’ve
seen the best ballet movie of all time, The Red Shoes.
In that film there’s a very romantic scene with a young couple in the back of a horse-drawn
moves slowly along the road, their heads become one. He turns to her and whispers:
Will we ever be as happy as this again in our lives?
Flash forward to a real life transportation scene in the late 1990s.
back a dozen Oak Knoll girls are singing Madonna’s Like a Prayer, at the top of their
Not the school’s alma mater, to be sure, but the team’s theme song.
Holy Madonna. They’re on their way to a cross country meet. They’re fifteen, sixteen,
seventeen years old, intelligent, pretty and fit.
Will they ever be as happy as this again in their lives?
journalist. After a career in corporate communications he coached a high school girls’ cross country
team and was a long-time contributor to Cross Country Journal and Athletics, the Canadian publication.
He now writes for Once Upon a Time in the Vest from his home in northern Virginia, and can be reached