Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lion wins again

"Coach. You nervous?" she asked. Hum. I really hadn't thought much about it but maybe I was. Maybe that uneasy feeling, that desire for the sun to set and the day to be behind, was nervousness. I wasn't the one who had to run. But I was the one who had to watch the day unfold.

As the wheels on the bus went round and round, I stared out the window, the fall foliage a bit dull under cloudy skies. I thought about yesterday's conversation with my upcoming star, Noel. A quiet, reserved eighth grader, this first-year runner has no idea how good she is. She runs free and naturally, effortlessly even. There appears to be no straining, yet she runs easily with the older, more experienced runners, often outpacing them. Sometimes her age prevents her from running varsity races. But those she enters, she runs well despite lack of 5K experience. She finishes close to the front but I know she can be the front.

So we have the talk. "Noel, no pressure here. But you need to know that it's okay to pass the older girls. Pace off of them for the first mile or so and then just run. Run how you feel. Run with courage." She said little but offered a cautious and momentary smile.

But on the ride to the meet, a conversation starts up with Abby and Ashley, captains and top runners. They are excited about the race. They embrace the challenge and have high hopes for their individual and team performances. A mind game ensues. "Now girls, I want you to know I've encouraged Noel to pass you if she can." Eyes wide open and perhaps a little surprised, they nodded their heads and waited for me to continue. "I have to encourage her to run her best even if that means beating you. But here's what I'm saying. Don't let her pass. Work hard to stay out front. This is a race, ya know." They smiled and I turned back to window gazing, hoping my words would bring out the best in all three.

It was time for me to address the whole team as we pulled into the parking lot. Me, the emotional wimp, got a little teary as I asked them to run with heart and soul; as I asked them to be "peculiar," leaving the sweet scent of the Savior behind. I felt like the team was ready to run for the conference championships. But I wasn't prepared for what I saw in the girls' race.

Sure enough,coming up on the mile mark, the three LCA runners were in a pack, pursuing the leaders. They all looked strong, determined, and in control. By the time a mile and a half came around, Noel had taken a slight lead over Abby and Ashley. At two miles, Noel was in a tight race for second and third place overall, her teammates following closely behind. Across the field, through the woods, around the lake, and back up the hill to the waiting crowd. Noel maintained her position and grabbed bronze. Ashley and Abby each battled competitors shoulder-to-shoulder in the homestretch, striving to gain position. Never had they run that hard, that focused. They joined Noel in all-conference honors by taking 7th and 9th places. They had done all they could to help the team. Now it was up to the the other four runners.

Our girls wear red and we saw lots of it on the course. Unfortunately, it wasn't all ours. The girls from the strong Northcross team also wore red and jockeyed with our girls on the course. It was going to be a very tight team race. I still couldn't predict the outcome when our 4th and 5th place runners, Hannah and Jami, nearly fell across the line in 12th and 14th place, exhausted by the battle. But then my attention turned to freshman Kate. The red uniform of a Northcross runner was five yards in front of her with fifty yards to go. She had to pass her. Had to. Spectators lining the finish chute let out a roar as Kate began to close the gap. For a moment, they were side-by-side. And then, in an answer to the crowd's roar, the lioness overcame her prey and put an end to the hunt. I'm not sure I've ever seen such a wild sprint and courageous finish.

Kate could barely stand, sobbing to let the hurt, the pain, the anguish escape. Family members held her limp, shaking body, trying to console. When I embraced her, all she could say was "I wanted 10th. I wanted 10th." Instead, she had captured the 15th position despite the heroic finish. But I was shocked. Kate, a vibrant, energetic freshman was never serious, always laughing, joking, singing. This was a side of her I had never seen. Now I was crying. I realized I had witnessed the transformation of a runner to a competitor; a team member to a team leader. She was a focused, relentless predator who willingly ran down her prey to the point of exhaustion. I was so proud. She continued to sob.

Kate, in the orange hat, holds the championship plaque
Then I turned my attention to the  card given to the coaches as a backup to the electronic scoring. Cross country meets are decided by the top five runners. Their places of finish are added together and the lowest sum wins. Our score? 45. Northcross' score? 45. Now the race would be determined by the 6th place runners. In this case, our fate had been placed squarely in Kate's hand, our 6th place finisher. Good thing.

It all came down to Kate's performance. She had battled as never before. She had reached deep into her soul. She chose to run past the pain, the agony, the retching of her gut, the screams of her muscles and heaving lungs asking her to quit. Kate became a runner and the school became champions.

Well done, Kate. Well done.

1 comment:

Kim said...

Well done indeed Kate. Congratulations!!!!