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Rites of Passage: From Competitor to Coach

September 6, 2010

(This essay originally appeared in the Sept. 2010 issue of the Greater Evansville Running and Walking Club newsletter)

There are certain rites of passage in a running career that are so special that you want to take the day, or the experience, and store it in your mind and heart forever. One such rite of passage came for me in late July, when I joined eight of my runners from Union County (KY) High School at the Otters 5K. It was my first race since hurting my IT band in December, and with that and other health matters over the winter and spring, I was out of shape — cause for great consternation in another day. Now, though, all I cared about was shepherding my middle school and high school runners through the experience of road racing, since several had never tried it.
The eight kids ranged in age from 12 to 17. We had our top two girls, Morgan Belt and Anessa Brosman, and our top two boys, Seth Burnette and Sam Sheffer. All are veteran cross-country and road racers, and state-caliber competitors. Anessa has been to the state championships twice. Then we had four runners who had never road raced before — Mary Lou Loxley, Damian Cleek, Jarrett Seay and Lexi Moore. As we warmed up and discussed pacing, the lay of the course, and how to account for the searing heat, I felt this great sense of joy in my heart. I’ve crossed the line very strongly in three Boston Marathons, have a couple hundred medals, taken lots of age groups and even won some races outright (at ages 48 and 49, which I’m really proud of), but never have I felt better than seeing these kids enter Bosse Field and start the race.
Our races were pretty successful; six of us walked away with age-group trophies, and Morgan came close to winning the open women’s division. Mary Lou won the 12-and-unders in her first-ever road race. I spent as much time pacing and cheering on the kids as I did actually racing, then got a nice assist from Tim Roman to finish strongly. We spent the time between the end of race and awards eating, talking about the run (and heat), and just enjoying how much fun our day was.
But to see the looks on the parents’ faces when these kids got their awards took me to the best of all places – deepest gratitude, for having the great fortune to be able to join my kids in a city where I’ve been a serious racer for five years. It was a new way of showing up before my racing peers and rivals — as a coach, rather than a competitor. What a pleasure to be able to take all the strategy and knowledge about running, conditioning and racing learned over all these years and impart it to eager young men and women. And what luck to be able to still race with them, which leads to something every young athlete truly covets — a coach that puts down the clipboard and whistle, gets out there and sweats and breathes hard as well. You want a kid to listen to what you’re saying? Join them in their world.
Truly, it was a rite of passage for me. I’m not racing much anymore, but coaching is another matter. Whether I see kids at practice or hear from my former runners through Facebook or other means, I am tickled and delighted that they would want to seek my advice and counsel — and it means a lot to me. So I give them everything I’ve got to answer their question or situation, just the way any adult should be with any kid who’s trying to learn.
When we do that with running, we can literally change lives and make the world a healthier place. Take some kids to a race, and be there for them. It’s an amazing experience. And, believe me, it will change you inside in some small way.

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