A Cross-Country Coach Remembered
A Cross-Country Coach RememberedErik Deckers
Laughing Stalk syndicate
I'm not a young man anymore. I got a harsh reminder last week when my family and I went for a walk in our local park. As we walked back to the car, we got separated; my two youngest were with me, my oldest daughter and wife were a couple hundred yards ahead.
"Let's catch up with them," I said.
"How? They're so far," said my kids, so I started running. "Hey!"
Clearly they weren't expecting this. Or prepared for it, since they stopped after we had covered half the distance. My wife and oldest daughter spotted us and took off, so I kept running after them, the two youngest complaining about "all this running." Eventually, our eldest dropped off, and I chased my wife all the way back to the car.
"Come on, Erik, catch that guy," shouted my cross-country coach, Joe Rogers. "He's the only one between us and the championship!"
It was 1981, and I was 13 years old, running in the 8th grade cross-country regional championships in Richmond, Indiana. A mile and a half of a bunch of skinny, gangly 13-year-olds chasing each other through a park.
"Go, Erik! Go, Erik!" I could still hear him, nearly 28 years later, as I chased down the runner in front of me.
Mr. Rogers was the cross-country coach and a science teacher at McKinley Middle School in Muncie, Indiana. He been a runner for years, in a time when running was just for getting into shape for other sports, and for criminals.
Don't get me wrong, Joe Rogers was a great coach. We wanted to run for this crazy little man who had taken to running like a duck takes to water. A cannonball-calfed, endorphin addicted duck.
I ran because my dad was a runner. He started running around the time he got married, but I figured he couldn't have been too good at it, since my mom managed to catch him and bring him back home each night.
When I started 7th grade, Mr. Rogers introduced himself and said, "I know your dad. Are you a runner like him? Why don't you try out for cross-country?" I said okay, since I didn't know 1) anyone else, or 2) any better.
Turns out, I didn't enjoy running. It hurt, it was hard, and we had to do it every day. I was the slowest guy on the 7th grade team, and Sean Harshey was the slowest guy on the 8th grade team. We didn't care, we were the best joggers in town. Nobody could jog as thoroughly as we could.
While the rest of my teammates were turning in sub-6 minute miles, we were planted firmly in the 8-minute mark. While some of our teammates would make fun of us, we enjoyed ourselves. However, my 8th grade year was a different story.
"I'm tired of being last," I told myself. "I'm not going to be the slowest guy on the team anymore." And during our first practice of the year, I ran harder than I had ever run before. I still remember it. It was a half-mile heat (we ran about five miles that day), and I finished fifth out of the 15 guys who had showed up for our first practice.
"Wow, what happened to you, Erik? You were the slowest guy last year," said Mr. Rogers, stunned.
"I'm not going to do that anymore," I said.
"Great. I knew you had it in you."
That year, I never jogged again, I ran. Only the top five finishers from each team count in a race, and I never missed a top five finish that season. And in Richmond that fall, heading for the finish, I had 10th place sewn up. A guaranteed placement, but Mr. Rogers was yelling at me to chase the guy down, and beat him at the line.
"He's the only one between us and the championship!" he hollered. "Go, Erik! Go, Erik!"
I squeezed out the little I had left in the tank, passed him, and reached the finish.
"You're out of breath, old man," said my wife.
"You sound a little shaky yourself there," I said. We wandered slowly around the car, hands on our hips, trying not to show the other we were out of breath. A sweaty victory hug, a short wait for the kids to show up, and we were back in the car, headed for home.
With the smug satisfaction that comes from knowing that while we were much older, we were still faster than our kids.
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