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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

100-milers, crazy days, and peculiar teams

The days are crazy. Insane. Ludicrous. Why?, I ask myself. I'm too old for this. Why start a new profession at 55?

I have this habit of biting off really big pieces. Sometimes it's cake. Sometimes it's life. I'm pretty sure the cake bites are easier to swallow.

My days start at 4:55 a.m.. My desk at school is my home from 5:45 a.m. until the bell rings in the start of a new day. Then it's a whirlwind of teaching the specifics of protein synthesis and DNA replication. My planning period serves only as a time to shove my fruit and yogurt down the hatch as I furiously prepare for the afternoon and upcoming lessons. Then it's time to teach again until the final bell. But it's not over then.

The kids on my beloved cross country team come streaming into my room. They are usually excited and noisy. Me? Sometimes I have to work on the excitement part. I am tired. I love these kids but I can't say I am always enthusiastic about the coming workout. Still, I do it because I need to set the example. I need to persevere. I need to show them that sometimes it's mind over matter-and most of the time, it is. At least those days of running make my quest for running 365 days in a row a little easier.

Then there are my outside responsibilities. Home. Church. Hospitality. Small group. Then add pacing the back fifty of 100-milers in the middle of the night. I love these things, every last one, but I could use a few more hours every day; Especially weekend days.

Weekends in the fall are an an endless stream (no, make that rushing torrents) of cross country meets. I wish I could sleep in. I wish I could go for a long run in the mountains. I wish I could be like normal people and simply tidy my house and scrub the dull porcelain of our old claw-foot tub. But I can't. Those things will have to wait for another day. Perhaps another season.

But then comes Team Peculiar Day. I explain to the kids that God calls us to be set apart, a chosen people, peculiar, even. We discuss how long it should take for other teams to recognize our peculiarity (in a good sense). And then I look around the room and smile. What my eyes see is a swarm of costumes, clashing outfits, tiaras, masks, and feather boas. There's even one kid with his head in a box and one on his back. I think it's a nod to astronauts. But it's all a perfect illustration of an important principle.

We take to the streets, this odd, boisterous crowd. They wave at passing cars and catch the attention of passengers on crowded buses. They revel in being odd, yelling and screaming the whole way. One fella bends a flower into the shape of a ring, and on one knee "proposes" to an unsuspecting college coed. The team looks on as the blushing girl's friend snaps pictures to record the event. We all laugh before proceeding toward more adventurous shenanigans. We continue on, practicing group "freezes" in the midst of crowded student centers. We delight in the stares and baffled comments.

It's easy to be goofy in a large group. What is it that they say? "Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups." But to be odd, peculiar, on your own. . .well, that takes courage. However, when God calls us out, he always equips us for the task. We need not fear rebuke or ridicule when we behave and speak as God requires. It all comes down to this: "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).

It's not all that popular to live as Micah writes. But do it anyway. Please God. Be peculiar.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Super Surprise

I wanted to cry out "SUR-prise. SUR-prise. SUR-prise!", channeling the best Gomer Pyle I could muster. It was hard to keep it in. But I had to keep running. The shouting would have to wait.

A year ago on this weekend, all I wanted to cry out was tears. I hated every step, every cruel foot plant in the popular Virgina Ten-Miler. I entered only because I coached a team of energetic, motivated kids who embraced the concept of chasing each other on this rock'n, roll'n road course. I, however, did not embrace those ten miles. My running was lack-luster. Every workout during practice was so difficult, almost tortuous. I walked uphill often under the guise of waiting for lagging runners. I assigned my other coaches to run with the faster groups. Me? I often chose the novice runners because I could at least keep up with them. Most of the time I  put on a hopeful face, but it was a masquerade. Something was wrong and I doubted a road race was going to help. Still, I threw my name in the hat because I need to be an example. I think I ended up that year as the third grandmasters woman (ages 50-59) but was not pleased with the agonizing moments it took to complete the course. Besides, it was slower than the year before which was ten minutes slower than my fastest time a dozen or so years before. It was demoralizing (although not unanticipated) to be faced with declining performances.


But this year something was different. I'm not saying I cheerfully sent in my registration money. (I would rather spend it on a trail race.) Still, I signed up early enough to have assigned the least expensive fee. I even did so before being pressured by the kids. As a coach, maybe I was growing into these shorter racing distances.

The team practices had been going well. We had added a key weekly workout that I hoped would build that deep-down toughness: mental and physical. We also ran lengthy workouts over the miles of rock-strewn ribbons of trails that wait patiently on the mountain above the school. On more than one occasion, I arrived home excited to tell Gary that I ran every step and felt good, perhaps even strong. I didn't know why. What could account for me running better than I had in years?

On race day for the Ten Miler, I dutifully journeyed into town and found a parking spot. Oddly, I wasn't that anxious. Rather, I felt a kind of calm though I had no realistic expectations of running any faster then 82 or 83 minutes. I wandered around, ran a warm-up on some quiet side streets and then made my way to the start, along with the 1298 other runners in the 10-mile race and the 1113 4-mile race runners.

The gun sounded, sending the masses down Langhorne road. Though many zoomed passed me, I chose to run conservatively. I think the first mile (mostly downhill), was checked off in about 7:10. Not blistering, by any standard.

Then came the lengthy climb up to Rivermont Avenue. In loathed this hill in previous races. But on this particular Saturday, I looked forward to it. I downshifted into my granny gear and chugged my way up the hill. My breathing was strong, not labored. My legs felt able. I passed many who struggled against the incline. I wondered when the race would become more difficult. Wow, I marveled. I think I'm running smart but I never expected to feel this good and in control.

Continuing to pass people right and left, my pace remained oddly consistent. The timing clocks at each mile marker told an unfamiliar story. I was running an average pace of right under 7:30 miles; perhaps 7:28 or 7:29. Could it be? My mind leaped and twirled in mental gymnastics. How is it that I could be on track to run 75 minutes? Could all the clocks be wrong? Were my calculations off? But when I passed the 5-mile clock in a little over 37 minutes, the reality of my race began to sink in.

Strong and steady. Be smart. Push it on the downhill. Goodness. I just passed Lindsey. Oh my. I'm in front of Cecil and I'm running with the lead runners from our team. Hum. How old is the girl right in front of me? I don't think she's in my age group but she sure is popular. Everyone keeps calling her name. I can't believe I feel this much in control. Yep. Still on pace. Maybe I can even get in under 75. Oh my. Am I dreaming?

No. I wasn't dreaming. The big push up Farm Basket Hill got a little harder as I watched my two runners gain ground in front of me. Still, I was making good time and passing people on the climb. As I closed in on the finish, the crowds grew and the cheers became loud and boisterous. My official time was 74:51. I was delighted.

Delighted, that is, until a woman approached and asked me my age. Shoot. I really thought I had grabbed the overall Grand Masters title. But alas, a woman less than a minute in front of me had just turned 50. I had to settle for a 55-59 age group win. Still, before the race I thought it unrealistic to ever run under 80 minutes. I was the 26th woman out of 551 and 159th out of the 1299 ten-mile runners. Not a bad day.

But the question remains: why? How did this happen? Is it the iron and general nutrition plan I started back in February? Is it the 7-day-a week running? Is it training with my team? The answer? Who knows? But then again, who cares? I'll take it any way I can get it.