Being a runner is not always about toeing the line. Although injuries have hindered my own fall season, it has allowed me to focus on two of my other current roles as a runner: being a teammate and a coach.
Within a of couple days of my move to Albany this summer, my Fleet Feet teammates were sending me daily text messages to make sure that I was able to coordinate runs with teammates, so that I would not be on my own to figure out new running routes. When I found furniture to fill my empty apartment, but had no means of moving it, my team captain gladly offered to help move it before he went to work one morning. When my injuries occurred, I was worried I would disappoint my new team, but they offered nothing but encouragement and support. They made it clear that I was no less a team member even though I was unable to run, and that soon I would be back out on the road with them. Thoughtful words of support, offers to help with errands, even a big tray of homemade mac n' cheese and a beautiful bouquet were sent my way, assuring me that there was nothing to fear, things would get better and they would be behind me all the way.
A couple of years ago, I set my deadline for the peak of my running career at age 28. I figured that by 28 I would be in the best shape of my life, and that would be my one shot at Olympic Trial marathon standards before other commitments and responsibilities took precedent. No longer. My teammates are extraordinary women. They have jobs, have given birth to multiple children, care for their happy families, and some are now approaching 40. Yet they still blow their competition out of the water, and they continue to get faster. What’s more, they still preserve the supportive, fun team atmosphere that I thought I said goodbye to when I graduated from college. These women love running, and they love each other.
Since I couldn’t join them on the line for the two big local fall races, I volunteered to hand out water and cheer them on from the sidelines. First was the Hudson-Mohawk Half and Full Marathon. Fleet Feet was in charge of the water station at Miles 12 and 25 for the half and full marathons. As we waited for the first runners to reach our station, I listened as the high school volunteers at the station chattered excitedly about how amazing their teacher, my teammate, Renee is.
“She’s so fast!”
“I couldn’t even run her half marathon pace for a mile!”
“I wish I could be that fast!”
We all cheered loudly as Renee ran by, close on the heels of the leading woman and looking strong. Half marathon runners continued to stream by and we waited for the rest of our teammates who were running the full marathon to arrive.
Gretchen came first, among the top five women runners and right on pace for a marathon PR and we yelled excitedly after her. Not long after, a friend arrived who wasn’t feeling so strong. Jesse had been cheering with me on the sidelines with her baby boy Everett on her back, but she and I did a baby hand-off and she was there by her side to help her push to the finish. It happened so quickly Everett hardly knew his mom was off and running. Fe and I continued to clap and cheer for the runners as they passed by and soon Jesse was back, with beads of sweat on her forehead.
“I hadn’t planned on doing any running today!”she laughed as she caught her breath. Not long after, another struggling friend reached our station, and with a smile I reached for Everett and Jesse was off running again.
The next time Jesse was able to run her own race, joining Renee and several others to compete as a team in the annual Stockade-athon. There were many of us on the sidelines as well. Gretchen asked the Fleet Feet racers where they wanted us to be so that we could cheer them through the toughest points of the course. It was a chilly day and the course is challengingly hilly but our team ran tough, resulting in 1st and 3rd place for women and men in the team competition.
Two days earlier, I had cheered the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences athletes that I coach up and down the hills of the course for the USCAA National Cross Country Championships. Large snowflakes poured down as I watched out the window of my hotel room on Friday morning. The course was already muddy, and even flooded in some spots, when the team had jogged the race course the day before. By the time we arrived at the course for the race Friday morning, the snow had stopped falling, but it had also begun melting, turning the hilly course into a slip and slide—before it was torn up by nearly 400 runners.
Everyone was frozen and mud-spattered by the end of the race, but the mood was upbeat. One of our women runners was particularly smeared with mud.
“I fell three times,’ she told me.
“And you were still tough! That was a huge PR!” I congratulated her.
“Yeah, it just made me angry!” she smiled.
Her teammates shared her determination, resulting in an outstanding race. The women’s and men’s teams placed 8th and 10th respectively, improving by 4 and 7 places from last year, despite a larger competitive field and less-than-ideal race conditions. Though not every race of the season was such a success, the runners approached each race as a fresh challenge, prepared to give their all. As a result, over 40 new PRs and four new school records in the men's 8km and women's 5km and 6km distances were achieved over the course of the season.
On my first day as the Assistant Cross Country Coach at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, I asked each runner to write down a goal for the season. Many had goal times, or simply expressed that they wanted to become faster, but their primary response was that they wanted to have fun. As a collegiate runner, I would have said that my primary goal was to run faster, to compete well. My love of running and my love for my team made fun a byproduct, rather than a goal. Though I am proud of my achievements during my collegiate career, I believe there were times when I took myself too seriously, and I could have benefited from putting fun higher up in my priorities. I was glad that these athletes saw fun as an important aspect of their participation in cross country; I hoped that practice each day would be a time for release and recreation to break up the intensity and strain of demanding studies.
Success as a runner largely depends upon personal commitment; no one can do the training for you. However, it is the coach’s responsibility to set up a framework that guides the athlete towards improvement; a carefully arranged puzzle of mileage, workouts, and mentality, unique to each athlete. The size of the puzzle pieces are ever changing according to other aspects of the athlete’s daily life: how to treat this pain, compensate for an extreme wave of stress or a flu, what to eat the morning of a race, or the night before, what to do when running just isn’t fun, or a race goes particularly poorly. My priority first and foremost as a coach is to listen, to help each athlete get what they want out of running.
What has impressed me the most about working with this team is the fact that there are no cliques, and there is not a single outsider. From the fastest to the slowest, the runners cheer each other through workouts and across each finish line. The college is striving to raise the athletics’ program to NCAA standards, and consequently runners were required to complete their first ever formalized summer training plan to prepare for the season, and once the season officially began practices were more structured and workouts were more challenging than in former seasons. Our runners embraced the changes and the challenges we presented them with, and their positivity has clearly paid off.
Despite all of the hard work they have but in, rather than be excited for well-earned time off after their championship race, the runners eagerly asked me what they can do to assure they will be in good shape for track season in the spring. When I offered to meet with them on a weekly basis for dynamic strengthening sessions, they readily agreed. Their enthusiasm is heartening, and makes it fun to design training that will keep them motivated and help them continue to improve.
Jason Benetti of ESPN was the keynote speaker at the USCAA National Cross Country Championship banquet. He closed his speech with apt advice.
“Gain perspective on what you do, what it means to you, and what it means to others, and you will love it even more.”
Running has allowed me to meet people from all walks of life, all around the world. I never cease to be impressed by their dedication to the sport, and the compassion they show for each other. Although running does not require a team, I have always found in my experiences that running fosters close-knit communities that stretch beyond training and racing. The hard work that I have observed, and the thoughtfulness that I have experienced makes me want to run my heart out for these people as an expression of my appreciation, and hopefully inspire others as they have inspired me. During the times that I am not able to run, I will be there on the sidelines cheering for them every step of the way.