The Agony of Defeat

In my nearly 25 years of competing and coaching, I’ve experienced my share of both triumph and despair, but three moments in particular stand out as being particularly agonizing.  All three involved falls.


In 1997, during the state cross country championships of my senior year of high school, my twin brother collapsed short of the finish line, his body succumbing to hypoglycemia.  He ultimately managed to crawl on his hand and knees the rest of the way, but ended third from last.  The final results showed us a single point behind Lockport Township for the state title, which would have been Mr. Newton’s twentieth.


In 2011, during the state cross country meet, a sort of déjà vu occurred, as our lead runner Jack Feldman’s legs gave out on him at almost the exact same spot on the course as they had for my brother 14 years earlier.  His dreams of all-state collapsed when his body did, and with it our hopes of a top-eight finish, which at that point had been a major goal for our team.


(The one time we qualified for Nike Nationals, our top runner Billy Magnesen took a fall 800 meters into the race and was unable to get back up, which caused us to finish dead last in the team standing.  However, the burn of that race was significantly mitigated due to the fact that we were still coming off the high of having won our programs first ever state championship a few weeks earlier).


The third moment came this past weekend, during the state finals of the 4*800.  We’d run a smartly executed race in prelims to set ourselves up well for the final, having run a measured 7:52.09, a season’s best for us up to that point.  We had a veteran group of athletes who’d been steady all-season.  Some guys you coach are up and down – you’re never sure they’ll be ready on race day.  I never worried about that with this group.  I was confident that they’d run smart and would not be rattled by the pressure of running in state finals.  The year before, we’d dropped 4 seconds off our time between prelims and finals, and I knew that we could do it again.  If so, we’d have a school record and definitely be in the hunt for a top 3 finish.  Anything better than 7th would be the top finish for our team since Coach Westphal and I started coaching back in 2005 (only the 1997 and 1998 teams have done better).


After careful deliberation, we had chosen Colin Yandel to run lead for us.  This was to be the culminating race of an astonishing senior year, one marked by stratospheric improvement.   In Cross Country, as we are now fond of saying, he went from “16th in JV Conference as a junior to 16th in state as a senior.”  He carried on this improvement in Track and Field, running PRs of 4:18 and 9:21 outdoors. Despite having a legitimate chance to earn all-state in the 3200, he’d selflessly decided to run the 4*800, choosing to help his teammates rather than seek individual glory.  Almost comically, he had finished his junior year of Track having run 2:20.6 in our JV conference track meet.  Guys like that don’t run in the 4*800 state finals.

JV conf

Yet, 51 weeks later, he was clocking 1:58.0 at Sectionals, and his body, now Kenyan-like with long skinny legs and short waist, was ready to carry him even faster.  He’d been unflappable on meet day all season long, and we knew he’d position us well.


The gun was fired and the race began with the normal jockeying for position.    The pack was tight through the first lap, with all 12 athletes coming through the 400 within a second of each other.  Colin was right in the middle, and I worried about him being boxed in.

4 by 8 pack

The pack came through lap one with all 12 teams together, in roughly 57 seconds.

About halfway down the backstretch, Colin finally found an opening and started motoring towards the front of the group.  Beginning the final turn, he’d moved up to fifth, and seemed about to close the gap on the front four when disaster struck:

yandel tri fold

Three freeze frames showing the moments right before, during, and after Colin’s fall.  It’s impossible to know exactly what happened, but the end result was the shattering of a season long goal held by Colin, Alec, Neil, and Sean.

When you get knocked down, the best of us get right back up.  Colin, acting on instinct, rose shakily to his feet, retrieved the baton which had rolled away after his face plant, and gamely hobbled towards the finish line.  By the time he passed off to Alec Hill, we were 75 meters behind everyone, an impossible gap to make up in a race like this.  Alec, Neil, and Sean did the best they could, but the air had been let out of the balloon.  The Track Gods would go on to claim two more victims in this race, with a Danville runner going down around the same spot as Colin did a lap later, and a Metea runner having to step off the Track on the final leg due to massive leg cramping.  We ended 10th place, one spot away from all-state.

Here is the foursome after the race.  Notice the blue Track residue on Colin’s jersey.  He has been instructed not to wash his singlet, but rather to bring it with him to college and to pin it to the door of his dorm room, as both reminder and motivator.

What hurt the most was that this was a group who did everything right.  They worked hard, listened to their coaches, displayed no arrogance, and had fostered an inclusive and welcoming team atmosphere.  They’d all bought into the concept of team, choosing to scratch their individual events in order to give our relay the best possible chance of doing well (Neil Cumberland had qualified in the 800 with the 9th best seed time, and Yandel and O’Connell had both qualified in the 1600, with Colin seeded 9th and Sean 15th).  And they were rounding into shape at the right time.  Neil ran a 2-second PR at Conference to drop his 800 best to 1:57.5, then dropped again down to 1:56.2 at Sectionals, repeating that performance in Prelims.  Sean O’Connell had run 1:57.5 in both Conference and Sectionals before throwing down a 1:55.9 in Prelims.  And “little” Alec Hill had become a consistent sub-2 guy, running a PR of 1:59.5 in Sectionals and repeating the effort in prelims.  Added together, their PRs equated to a sub 7:50, so we knew that if we simply ran what we were capable of, we’d be in the mix.  As it turned out, a sub-7:50 would have been good enough for third.  I’d also note that by qualifying for state in the event, we joined Sandburg and Neuqua Valley as the only schools to earn a birth to state in the 4*8 for 8 years straight.  Not coincidentally, those two programs have finished top 2 in this event each of the past two years.



As a coach, when something like this happens, there is not much you can do.  You don’t get a redo.  Sometimes the Track Gods just don’t favor you.  You get dealt a bad hand.  I briefly saw Coach O’Malley outside the Track exits’ gate, and he tempered his joy to take a moment to offer comfort, remarking “all you can do is tell them you love them.”


True.  But, there is one other thing I can do.  I can tell the story of their race.  I can give context to the results, so when people read “Hinsdale Central – 10th – 8:08” they will understand what it means.  I can tell everyone that Sean ranks 4th in the “Westphal/Lawrence era” for the 800 and 3200 runs, and 7th in 1600 and is as focused a competitor as I’ve ever coached.  That Colin Yandel ranks 6th in the 1600 and 5th in the 3200 and underwent shocking improvement in his time with us.  That Neil Cumberland ranks as our 8th best miler and 6th best half miler, and after three years of struggling with being ready on race day put together a beautiful senior year where he came through in every single high pressure situation.  That Alec Hill is the most even-tempered and mature junior I’ve ever coached.


It seems crazy to me that Sean O’Connell and Neil Cumberland will graduate without any state medals.  They led the team to a surprise fourth place finish in XC, one place out of the medals, and finished 10th in the state 4*8, once again one place out of the medals.  However, I take solace in the fact that the two HC athletes ever to earn All-American status in college, Neil Pedersen and Nathan Hill, were never all-state in high school.


Nathan Hill, older brother of Alec, also raced on Saturday.  His race was the antidote to ours.  As a senior in high school, Nathan had a disappointing state Track meet, failing to advance beyond the prelims in both the 4*800 and open 800, despite a PR of 1:55.  Yet, two years later he was waiting for us when we arrived back in Hinsdale, having just finished third in the nation at Division 3 Nationals in the 800, with a time under 1:51.  Nathan, incidentally, has fallen in races more than any athlete I’ve ever coached.  But his story reminds us that, no matter the disappointments of high school, new promises await for those who choose to keep competing.


I, too, know from experience that nothing motivates quite like disappointment, that out of the embers of this stillborn 4*800 will be constituted successes yet unimaginable.  A stinging 1-point loss at the 1997 state meet led me towards a career of teaching and coaching, and filled me with a desire to motivate others the way my coach had motivated me.

The pain I felt after watching Jack Feldman’s fall in 2011 spurred me to go on a quest to meet with as many great coaches as would agree to see me (Chris Quick, Paul Vandersteen, Charlie Kern, Jason Crowe) to learn about the shared habits of top quality programs.  I credit both low points for setting me on the long path towards a state championship, which, when achieved, was all the sweeter owing to the knowledge of all that came before it.


So, to Colin, Neil, and Sean – and to the teams at Danville and Metea Valley and Downers Grove North (who would have been 4*800 favorites if not for an untimely injury to their top middle distance runner Brendan Lockerby) – be proud of what you accomplished, know that you were trailblazers, and use the pain of this moment to inspire you to achieve whatever goals you set next.


A Tribute to Mr. Newton

How do you measure the worth of a man’s life?  If it is by the number of other people whose lives that man has touched personally, and in a positive way, a strong argument can be made that few people will ever match the impact made by my high school coach, Mr. Newton (he’d never accept any other form of address from his athletes) who passed away yesterday at the age of 88.  His genius was in forcing people to do what they did not think they were capable of, by setting extremely high expectations and stubbornly refusing to waver from them.  He did this for, I am sure, tens of thousands of individuals.  And this accounts for only those he coached directly.  It does not include fellow coaches who learned from coaching against him, from reading his books, from hearing him speak at clinics.  It does not include all the athletes who were coached by a York alum, or by a Coach who studied York’s program in order to improve their own.

My own story is simultaneously unique to me and the most quintessential of all cross country personal narratives: I entered high school desperately wanting to be recognized for being good at something in the realm of athletics, since, at under 5 feet and less than 90 pounds, I’d yet to make any team that had cuts and was routinely last picked for the pickup basketball and playground football games.  I wasn’t a great middle school cross country or track athlete either (working my way up to 7th man on my 8th grade team and finishing middle school with PRs of 2:40 and 6:06 – yes, I still remember).  Most of the six guys in front of me (all except my twin brother) left running to pursue more glorious sports at high school (to bust another misconception, even at York, Cross Country did not offer status even close to the same level of the traditional glory sports of football and soccer).  I joined the summer running program before my freshmen season, and that made a big difference.  I found myself as the #4 freshmen on the team, getting to represent the frosh squad in a few of the invites we attended that had a freshmen level.  And our team would win!  Having a taste of that success during the insecure first months of high school was enough to convince me that the pain of workouts and the grogginess of early mornings was worth it.  Still, after my first XC season, I nearly was convinced by a very persuasive wresting coach to try out for that sport in the winter (they needed someone for the 100 and under division who would win half the time by disqualification since many schools couldn’t fill that role).  As my Hinsdale guys know (I’ve told the story lots) what prevented me from doing so was fear of Mr. Newton.  I went into his office to tell him of my intended plans, but before I could say anything he looked at me and said, “Twin – 45 minute run today.”  And I said, “uh…OK, thanks, Mr. Newton” and left his office with the dawning realization that I’d just resigned myself to 3 and a half more years of that tough, tough sport of distance running.

By then, some of the upperclassmen on the team started to adopt me, and the newfound popularity of getting invited to hang out with older teammates was another factor motivating me to stick with it.  My sophomore year, a foreign exchange student from Norway named Marius Bakken came to attend York and run with our team.  He lived with a family whose home was 3 blocks from mine and which I passed each day on the walk to school, so my brother and I got the unique privilege of walking home from practice most days with a guy who went on to become one of the greatest distance runners in York, Illinois, and Norwegian history.  My own confidence grew.  I remember how proud I felt when I first made the top 12 sophomore year and was issued a “York top 12” shirt –I could not wait to go to school the next day and walk around the halls showing it off.  Mr. Newton very carefully designed a system which promoted competition within the ranks.  The top 7 guys were anointed ‘group 1’ and given matching shirts.  The next 7 guys were group 2 and had a different shirt, while #15-21 were called ‘the emerging 7’ and got yet another shirt.  If you missed a practice or bombed a meet, you had to give up your shirt to the guy who was replacing you.  There were also the ‘1000 mile club’ turtlenecks given to guys who could show documentation of having run the full millennium between the start of summer running and labor day, along with the even more prestigious 2000 and 3000 mile versions (for doing it again junior and senior year).

For the parents reading this, I think it is important to acknowledge this, too: Mr. Newton’s rules were ironclad.  Most parents of his runners were not thrilled with the sacrifices he demanded of his athletes.  York runners did not go on spring break.   Practice was mandatory, at 7:00 am every day of break except Sunday.  College visits were not excused absences.  I remember how frustrated my parents were when Mr. Newton informed them that he would not permit us to miss both a Friday and a Saturday to visit a college – doing so would constitute two unexcused absences and result in removal from the team, no matter that this was two of his top seven athletes.  He could also be incredibly harsh in dressing down athletes, sometimes in front of their peers.  If you let the team down, he was going to let you hear about it, and often in front of the whole team such that we’d all draw the lesson.

I share this not as criticism but in an attempt to capture Mr. Newton in all his complexity, and to remind us all that to have a remarkable record like York many difficult choices had to be made.  No, you could not leave practice early for a band concert.  Decide which of the two was more important to you.  You’d better not be late.  The only excuse was if you were stopped by the train, which Mr. Newton claimed he would verify.  You got one tardy.  On the second, you were out.

And the workouts and mileage!  I know many people who did not run for York have seen the film “The Long Green Line” and while that documentary does a great job of capturing how charismatic and motivational Mr. Newton was, my one critique is that the movie never really delved into just how hard the training was.  I sometimes wonder how I managed.  At Hinsdale Central, our long run is 90 minutes, which is one of the more challenging workouts we do.  At York, if I heard 45-30-15 announced as the workout, I would feel a wave of relief.  That was our easy day.  There were several summer days where I ran over 20 miles.  One week I ran over 120 miles.  pic for identity blog 2Amazingly, aside from a minor injury that sidelined me for a few weeks after the Conference XC Championships my sophomore year, I managed to remain healthy.  I don’t recall rates of injury being any higher than they are for our team currently, despite running crazy high mileage.  My theory is that injuries were not discussed (we did not roll, take ice baths, use bands, do general strength workouts, take cross training days, or even do much static stretching) – it was just assumed you could do the mileage and so since we believed it could be done, it was done.  We ran 25*400 with one minute rest every Monday all summer.  We did 12*800, 30*200, the ‘hour continual run’ (see how far you can run in an hour).  Our labor day weekend consisted of a Friday workout of 1*1600, 10*400, 10*200 followed by the annual intrasquad meet on Saturday and then the fabled 2-man 10-mile relay on Monday (you and your partner trade off running 400s until you’ve each done twenty – proud to say my brother and I defeated the sophomore team of Don Sage and Pete Cioni when we were seniors!)

Netwon photo

Heading to the starting line of the 1997 Illinois State Cross Country meet. I am sure that I’d never felt a greater sense of purpose up to that point in my life.

In my case, I did all that hard work and ended up with the most heartbreaking outcome imaginable, a one-point loss in the 1997 state XC meet my senior year.  But that did not mean it wasn’t worth it – far from it, in fact.  Here is what I wrote back then, as an earnest seventeen-year-old:


Netwon letter 1

Newton letter 2

Like most York guys, though, time and experience has allowed me to more deeply appreciate what a true gift it was to be able to run for Mr. Newton.  The payoff could be quite tangible – I’m pretty sure having ‘Captain-York Cross Country’ on my resume got me my interview at Hinsdale Central – but more significant has been the sense of self Mr. Newton helped me and so many others cultivate.  He would often promote “commitment to excellence” as a guiding virtue, and would encourage us never to settle for average in any endeavor we’d go on to pursue.  He helped me develop a work ethic and a belief in my own abilities that helped me get to where I am today –a high school teacher and cross country/track coach, the surest evidence of all of how significant Mr. Newton has been to my life.


This would prove to be the last time I ever talked with Mr. Newton.  I am so grateful the moment was documented.  I told him how grateful I was to him and how I hoped to help carry on his legacy.  He patted me on the back and told me he was sure I would.  I am proud and honored to take on that responsibility.

State 2017

This was not the most talented group we’ve ever coached.  We returned only our #2 and #7 from last year’s 6th place team.  Based upon returning 3200 meter times, we were beginning the season from a weaker point than any of the past four years.  Since last year, we knew that for the team to be successful we’d have to depend on factors other than talent: hard work, integrity, humility, cohesiveness.  In January, I had a meeting with Alec Hill, Sam Schiavitti, Sean O’Connell, and Neil Cumberland.  I read them passages from “The Boys in the Boat.” Winter break usually affords me the opportunity to read a book, something I usually can’t manage during season, and my selection that December was this non-fiction work about the 1936 University of Washington rowing team, first  recommended to me by Kevin Gummerson, head coach of Minooka, and a social studies teacher like myself.  The excerpts I selected emphasized what could be accomplish when individuals sublimated their ego for the good of the team:

“What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew.”

Like a well rowed boat,   these 2017 varsity team was steady all year: 2nd at Hornet- Red, 2nd at First to the Finish, 3rd at Palatine, 4th at Twilight, 3rd at Conference, 3rd at Sectionals.  We entered the week of state with the goal of running the best we were capable of on the day.  We knew we could not control how anyone else did.  We also knew, though, that a top three finish, while unlikely, was at least within the realm of possibility.  We decided to look at that prospect as an awesome opportunity, one not often afforded.  Come what may, we wanted to know that on the day we met the challenge in front of us, did not cow in fear.

Our first advantage came from the collective wisdom from our alumni.  I specifically asked all Hinsdale Central runners from the modern era who earned all-state to share advice and encouragement with the team.  What these men shared in common is that all of them rose to the occasion in a championship situation.  I figured they more than anyone would have useful ideas for how to execute when it matters most.  Amazingly, of the 22 people who fit this criteria, fully 16 of them wrote to us – and I’ve no doubt their words helped spur us on today.  From a tactical standpoint, TJ Caveney reminded the boys:

“Get out fast.  The race gets out very fast; you’re going to here this from a lot of people.  Make sure you don’t assume it will come naturally.  I must have heard it 100 times before running my first state meet, but I ended up not getting out fast enough, which was a fatal error.  Have ‘get out fast’ going through your head all morning and as you wait for the gun to go off.  Everyone around you is also trying to get out fast, so you’re going to have to be extra fast.  I don’t believe its possible to go out too fast, as long as you’re sprinting with controlled form and breathing well.”

Josh Feldman wrote for a page and a half, covering all topics from pre-race mental preparation to every detail of the race itself, reminding our boys:

“You should want this race to be incredibly hard. Harder than mile repeats at Kenosha, than 5 x mile, than 25 x 400. You should be thinking ‘I really hope I push myself to the point where this is the hardest race of my life, because it should be.’ That should be your goal. That way, you will know that you are giving it everything you have. There’s no reason to fear the pain, because it will only last 15 minutes. You want to be in pain because you want to give it everything. Pain is the key to your dreams. Seek out the pain, embrace it.”

Kevin Haung focused more on the ‘why’ of running, imploring the boys:

“During that last mile on Saturday, when you are hurting and think you have nothing left, I want you to remember your teammates… the teammates who have run over 1000 miles with you, talked and laughed with you on a Waterfall loop, who have pushed you through every KLM repeat, cheered on your best races, and picked you back up when you had a bad one. Think about who you are running for, and who is running for you.”

And Tom O’Shea, an all-state middle distance runner for Hinsdale Central in the 1980s who went on to compete at Loyola University echoed Kevin, urging our guys to remember the power of TEAM:

“Your lungs, legs, and arms will all help you Saturday but ultimately your minds as a collective group/team is what will make Saturday successful or just another average race.”

And while it was indeed a genuine team effort, the guy that made the race for us was Neil Cumberland.  I have never seen him run so well as he did today.  Neil has not had an easy path.  He has dealt with plenty of poor races, inconsistency, and self-doubt.  He ran in state last year as a junior and succumbed to the pressure, never factoring in the team scoring and finishing well below potential.  It was a humbling but clarifying experience.  No guy on our team moved up more places in the final mile than he did (28 spots) and no team other than Downers North had a higher placing 5th man.  He was the first guy I saw coming out of the chute and I ran to him, hugged him, and shouted at him: “You did it!”

A few seconds ahead of Sean was our other returning state runner, Sean O’Connell.  I worried about Sean given that he’d come down with a cold mid-week.  He stayed inside on Thursday while the rest of the team ran their workout, started taking cold medication, and even packed a humidifier to keep in his hotel room on Friday night.  Sean ran smart, not getting out too fast, and moved up nicely in the second half of the race.  I can say with certainty that no athlete on our team worked harder in the 365 days since last state meet.  While his overall individual place today was, I know, not what he’d hoped for, our team place was.  And in the end, that is what we’ll remember the most.  Sean did his part by being a quite humble leader.  He worked hard and inspired others to do the same.  That will be his lasting legacy.

Something similar can be said about Sam Schiavitti.  Sam was our 7th man today.  Late season illness and a nagging injury prevented him from having the state race he wanted.  But, he, like Sean, worked tremendously hard to get to this point.  If Sean ran the highest mileage of anyone in our top 7, Sam was definitely in second place.  He is probably the most gregarious member of what has to be the most quiet and serious varsity group we’ve had in a long while.  When I told the team about my twins back in September, it was he who came, on behalf of his teammates, to tell me they were thinking about me.  When the race was over and we were packing up, it was Sam who stayed behind to make sure all water bottles were thrown away and that everyone had grabbed all their belongings.  The point here is that you can contribute to your team in a lot of ways, and Sam certainly enriched ours.

Our juniors, too, were steady as could be today.  Alec Hill finished 37th, pretty darn good considering he’d been 18th in conference just three weeks previous.  As they say about Rudy, the famed former Notre Dame kicker, Alec is “five foot nothing, a hundred and nothing.”  Actually, less than 100. He might be the smallest guy out there, but what a heart.  Alec broke 15:00 for the first time today and will be an unequivocal leader in the year ahead.

As will Matt Kusak, our hyper-focused fourth man.  Matt, too, struggled this season finding competitive fire for the finals stages of his race.  The transition from sophomore year to junior year is a tough one, as an athlete used to being at the front of most races usually finds themselves junior year in the uncomfortable middle.  Matt ran fairly well throughout the season, though had some races where he underperformed.  He used each subpar race as a learning experience, adjusting his strategy based on his previous performance.  By Regionals, he’d begun to gain his confidence back.  As we approached state, I knew he was ready to run well.  He finished 54th today and has a new PR to show for it.  He’ll join Alec as the beating heart’s core of next year’s team.

As a junior at state in 2012, TJ Caveney ran 15:33 and finished 126th.  As a junior at state in 2017, younger brother Keegan ran 15:33 and finished 121st.  Those who know our team’s history know how TJs senior year finished out.  As mentioned earlier, TJ wrote in his advice to the team about the importance of getting out fast.  Of all our runners, Keegan least adhered to this advice.  When I saw him after rounding the first turn, he must have been in 200th place.  From there, though, he moved up nicely and earned a big PR on an even bigger stage.  Keegan joined us as a sophomore after playing soccer freshmen year, and it is fair to say that decision has and will continue to pay huge dividends!

And what can I say about Colin Yandel?  I’ve never had an athlete improve as much in a single season as he has.  He entered the season with personal best of 2:15 in the 800, 4:45 in the 1600, and 10:03 in the 3200.  He finished 16th in JV conference as a junior and was the 12th man on our roster of 12 travelling down state.

Yandel results

Colin Yandel was 16th in JV Conference as a junior and 16th in state as a senior!

His form is gangly, he has long legs and no waist, and he was the last guy of our returning top 12 we ever expected to be leading us this season.  But lead he did.  And it was not accidental.  As he began to understand himself as an elite runner, his habits changed to match the new identity: keeping his distance from coughing teammates, packing his own healthy lunch to eat on our trip down.  Colin joins the likes of TJ Caveney, Griffin Gartner, and Josh Feldman as guys who rose up in ways no one anticipated.  I will tell his story for the rest of my coaching career.  The moral is this: you just don’t know when all your hard work will pay off.  You can put in countless miles and hard workouts and see very little payoff, but as long as you keep faith and don’t give into the frustration, the possibility remains of a breakthrough.  I promise you Colin Yandel never even dared to believe he could be all-state even as late as the Hornet-Red invite this year.  We stand in disbelief at his accomplishment.

yandel twitter

This is, by far, the most liked Tweet I’ve ever posted.

To our alternates – Piyush Mekla, Fletcher Spillers, Bradley Davis, Anshul Sankaran, and Will Ricker, you guys played your roles beautifully.  You observed, you learned, you protected our troops, and you gained inspiration that will fuel you in the years ahead.  Congratulations on a well-earned experience.  You are charged now to use it for the betterment of yourselves and teammates.

We had tremendous support from our larger team.  Jack Borys and Alex Treankler came through in the clutch to shepherd a crew of guys down state.  This crew (plus others) included John Wheeler, Brandon Belgrad, Charlie Carter, Liam ‘Ro’-Bots, Nathan Saltzman, Andy Munoz, Tom Kusak, Aaron Lu, Patrick Hsiao, Mac Anderson, Liam Walsh, and Joe Glasby.  If I could figure out how to do it, I’d mandate every guy on our team to come down state.  How could you not leave inspired?  Illinois’s state XC championship is second to none.  I know the guys who came will not for a moment regret the five hours in the car.  Thanks, you guys, for your support.  You share in this outcome 100%.

ILXCTF pre-season rankings had us ranked 14th.

ILXCTF preseason rankings

No team improved upon their pre-season ranking more than we did!

Milesplit and ITCCCA had us a little better in 7th and 9th.  I would have put us 8-10.  It was the first year in a half decade where earning a trophy was not an explicit goal of ours.  I knew we were not in the league of DGN, and that other teams had much more returning firepower than us.  In the days leading to state, I was asked often what my hopes for our team were.  My reply: 7th place would meet expectations.  Worse than 7th I’d be disappointed.  Better than 7th would exceed expectations.  So, there you have it.  The guys stepped up when it mattered, fought as hard as they could.  We didn’t trophy, but we got damn close.  We finished as the third best HCXC team in history, with only the 2013 and 2014 state champion teams doing better.  I am as proud of this team as I was of those.

Some other notes from state:

I was thrilled when I saw the results of the girls 3A state meet and noticed the LT Girls finished third and earned a trophy.  It may seem odd to hear a Hinsdale Central coach revel in a rival’s success (I was equally happy to see Grace McCabe and McKenna Revord earn all-state) but in this case I was really happy for the aptly named head Coach of the LT Girls, Alex Lyons.  I first got to know Alex when he student taught at Hinsdale Central.  He sought me out to ask some questions about coaching, and I quickly came to appreciate his passion for the sport, keen intellect, and stoic demeanor.  He has proved a quick study, leading his team to fifth place as a rookie coach and to a trophy in just his second year.  He is the guy I have run more with on Sunday more than anyone else this season (DGN state champion coach John Sipple ranks a close second) so I’ve learned of his teams’ ups and downs basically in real time.  I know his girls finished 9th place at First to the Finish in the second week of September, and that Alex had the patience and faith even then to believe they’d improve by state.  Coach Lyons has the wisdom and maturity of someone twice his age, but he may be the youngest head coach in 3A.  That should be a scary thought for coaches of girls’ teams statewide.

As we drove our minibus up the crowded road towards our team area, I looked out the window to see Sandburg’s head coach John O’Malley walking across the field, carrying a gift bag with pink tissue paper peaking out of it.  I found that to be curious.  I was amazed and virtually speechless when, a little while later, after I’d exited the bus and was standing outside our team area, John came up to give the bag to me.  It was a gift for my twin girls (who turned two months old today) along with a card from his family.  What a truly class act.  For those wondering why Sandburg has established such a strong tradition, that act of kindness  goes a long way towards explaining it.

Which leads me to DGN.  Their performance yesterday was historically good, the lowest score at state since 2007 and the lowest ever in the 3-class era.  I was not at all surprised.  I had seen their program growing for years, had been watching their dominant seniors Ridderhoff, Chudzik, Christensen, McCool, and Birkmeier since they were little freshmen.  They are a talented group for sure.  But I must share three separate anecdotes which better tell the story of how DGN became the dominant program they proved to be yesterday:

Story one – We are in the moments after the end of the 2013 state cross country 3A boys awards ceremony.  We at Hinsdale our celebrating the first championship in our program’s history.  All of the sudden, we here the booming voice of former DGN coach Will Kupish yell out, “hey Hinsdale!”  We in red turned to look, and Coach Kup proceeded to lead the entire runner-up squad from DGN in a rousing rendition of ‘for they are jolly good fellows.’

Story two – It is the night of the 2015  McCarthy Invitational, our annual home track meet.  The meet has ended, but we had planned to seize upon the opportunity of having access to the Track at night to hold a 3200 time trial for all our JV guys who did not make the invitational lineup.  The time trial began just as the last of the competing teams were leaving the track.  Coach Sipple and Buhot of DGN, realizing what is going on, turn around and return to the track.  They stay and cheer for our JV guys.

Story three – It is this past Monday.  Coach Sipple comes to my house at 8:30 pm to babysit for our daughter Clio so that Megan and I can go to the hospital to visit our twin daughters Alexis and Beatrix.  It is the five days before state and John is the head coach of the top rated team, yet he volunteers to come babysit for the coach of an opposing team.

Pretty obvious moral here – act with class, make sure you have strong values and that you live up to them, and the results will eventually take care of themselves.  Neuqua Valley is equally as good an example of this.  We tip our hat to you, DGN.  Congratulations on representing our conference so well (and to Lyons Township, York, and Glenbard West as well).  Keep it rolling through the post-season.

So wraps up the 2017 season, definitely the most personally challenging of my life.  But here it is November 5th, and the season ended pretty close to as well as I’d hoped, my twins are stable and healthier each day (now 3 pounds 5 ounces and 3 pounds 13 ounces), and I’ve never felt so fortunate.



Sometimes you can’t make it on your own

Prescript: This blog is not about Cross Country, at least not directly, but it is about my life and as such Coaching and Running are interwoven throughout the narrative.  I am hopeful that (among others) many of my current and former athletes and their families will read this.   A team value we’ve always upheld is that through challenge and tribulation comes a sense of purpose, even in situations where the outcome was not what we’d hoped.  The past few months of my life have put that premise to the ultimate test.  While the experiences I’ve had are unique to my family, I hope my reflections on those experiences contain some insights others may find valuable.


At 19 weeks, we thought we lost them.  On Saturday, July 22nd, I returned home from a run with my friend and coaching colleague John Sipple to discover the car of Sarah McCabe, wife of Girl’s Cross Country coach Mark, sitting in our driveway.  This seemed odd.  Though, Sarah had recently babysat for us (the McCabe’s live a short five minutes away) I had not expected to see her visiting on a sunny weekend morning.  I paced up our walkway wondering what brought her to our place and was met at the door by my wife Megan, who told me in a calm and steady voice: “Sarah is here to babysit Clio.  We need to go to the hospital.  I think my water broke.”  My heart dropped.  We were still weeks away from viability.

At the hospital, we were ushered into a delivery room, and the Doctors ordered some tests to determine our status.  The wait for those results were among the worst moments I can ever remember feeling.  When the Doctor came in to report that the test came back negative, relief washed over us and I came to a new realization: the only thing better than learning of good news is learning of the absence of bad news.  Nonetheless, that day will forever be etched into my memory as the day I learned what it must feel like to be met with unexpected tragic news.

Two days later, we visited our Maternal-Fetal-Medicine specialist for one of the twice weekly ultrasounds they had recommended for us, given the complications we’d experienced from early on in the pregnancy.  These regular checks were intended to pick up possible early signs of Twin-to-Twin Transfusion syndrome, a disease impacting about 10-15% of identical twin pregnancies, wherein blood from one twin is shunted to the other.  The best known treatment for TTTS is laser ablation surgery, where the blood vessels are separated so as to stop the transfer from happening.  This was the appointment where signs looked ominous enough for our Doctor to recommend we travel to Houston for consultation with specialists followed possibly by surgery.

The next day, I attended summer running, and gave a speech to the team.  The juniors and seniors would be leaving the next day for our annual team-building trip in Kenosha, and for the first time ever, I would not be able to join them.  I told a story about my first coaching job in Lamoni, Iowa, a tiny rural farm town with a high school student body of just over 100.  I took over a Track team that had not won a conference title in 30 years.  My first year, we finished 5th.  My second year, we finished 2nd, less than ten points behind the winner.  That second year, the team started experiencing success they’d never had before.  We won a meet for the first time.  It was a few days after that first victory that I had to let the guys know I would not be returning to Lamoni the following year as I’d been accepted to Graduate school at University of Iowa.   My message to them was simple: you now know what you are capable of, and you will be successful without me.  Sure enough, the next year they won the conference title by over 50 points.

I relayed this story to the present group to convey a similar point: they had within them everything they would need to be competitive.  Still, my voice cracked as I concluded, “…so, I won’t be able to come to Kenosha with you.  I have to go to Houston.  It’s the best chance my little girls have.”

The next day, the Cross Country team traveled north, while Megan and I flew in the opposite direction.  A month before the city faced the deluge from Hurricane Harvey, we arrived in Houston and met with Doctors from the Children’s Hospital.  But, they opted not to perform the surgery.  The disease had not progressed far enough to warrant an invasive surgical procedure.  It seemed we dodged another bullet.  The surgery would remain an option up until 26 weeks, after which time if signs of TTTS reappeared the only option would be to deliver the babies, as the surgery carries too great a risk in the third trimester.

Summer break ended, school started.  I was no longer able to attend each and every ultrasound appointment, owing to work obligations.  However, I requested a half day to be with Megan for our 26-week appointment on September 1st, since we’d be getting an update on the growth of the twins (these are scheduled for every two weeks).  Though we’d come to expect the unexpected, we were once again thrown off balance by learning that the TTTS was beginning to reverse, with the twin that had previously been receiving blood now in the donor role.  Our Doctor told us this could mean delivery could happen soon – perhaps within a few weeks – and ordered Megan to get steroid shots to prepare for that eventuality (the steroids help aid lung development of the babies).

So, on Saturday September 3rd I cheered on the Red Devils at our home Cross Country invite in the morning and then went off to Hinsdale Hospital later that afternoon to accompany Megan while she got her first of two shots, the other coming 24 hours later.

We spent a relatively relaxed labor day enjoying beautiful weather and the company of my brother, sister-in-law and niece.  The following day, Tuesday, September 5th, began as an ordinary day.  I went to school, taught my classes, headed off to practice.  I knew Megan had a 3:30 appointment with the Doctor for an ultrasound, and that more than the upcoming dual meet against Glenbard West occupied the majority of my thoughts during the run.  Upon returning back to campus after a six-mile loop, I took a detour down to the locker room to check my phone before rejoining the team in the weight room.  Megan had left a voicemail.  The words echo still: “The Doctor says it’s time.”  Adrenaline and fear rushed through my body.  We knew prematurity was a possibility, but only a week earlier things had seemed to be leveling out, and the hope of making it past 30 weeks seemed not just possible but likely.  In the third trimester, every single day matters, and this was way earlier than we wanted.  It meant our girls would face longer odds.  At that moment, I was terrified of what could happen just during the delivery itself.

I found Coach Westphal and relayed the news, told him I’d be out for a while and would update him when I could.  Rushed home.  Packed a bag.  Headed back to the hospital.  I met Megan and she told me surgery was scheduled for 7:00pm, as soon as the second neonatologist arrived.  Megan’s sister Liz was with her, as was our daughter Clio, who, though unable to understand exactly what was happening nonetheless sensed a great change was taking place.

What happened next I’ve recorded already, publishing a facebook post about it on September 6th.  While I know some readers of this blog are connected to me through that social network, others are not, and so here I will defer to the account I published there:


Yesterday was a momentous day in our lives. Alexis Rose Lawrence was born at 7:42pm weighing 1 pound 6 ounces. Beatrix Reid was born one minute later weighing 1 pound 10 ounces. Their birth came earlier than we had hoped (26 weeks, 4 days), but based on our Doctor’s advice, this was the best possible course of action.

These precious girls are tiny and, as with all preemies, there are a lot of risks and challenges ahead, but so far the Doctors seem pleased with their progress. We have been told to expect ups and downs, and we know we have a long road ahead.

The beautiful irony in all of this is that yesterday Megan and Liz got the results back from the DNA test they recently took to find out, finally, if they were fraternal (as they’d always thought) or identical, and the results showed a 99.9% chance they are identical. So on the day Megan learned she was an identical twin (as, most of you know, am I) she gave birth to identical twins.

Please keep Alexis and Beatrix in your thoughts and prayers as they adjust to life outside of the womb.


Megan and I spent four days in the hospital as she recovered from her c-section, and in that period we made the journey down the hallway from the maternity ward to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) roughly a dozen times.  It began to sink in how radically and irrevocably our lives had just changed, both in the short term and long.  Both babies had safely been delivered, so that hurdle had been cleared, but a new set of worries now lay before us: would our girls be OK?  To see them is to understand how incredibly tiny they are – the smallest living humans I have ever seen in my life.  To envision them as even the size of Clio when she was born – 5 pound, 14 ounces – is hard to conceive at this moment.

In addition to worrying about Alexis and Beatrix’s health, we had also to consider our own.  Megan would be recovering from surgery, must get up every three hours to pump, and faces the challenge of spending time with the twins while also caring for Clio.  I would need to find the strength to balance my work as a teacher and coach with my commitments to caring for Megan and Clio along with making daily visits to the NICU and striving to get enough rest to sustain that schedule for months. I make no claims of exhibiting courage.  You deal with a trial like this the way you deal with being thrown off a cliff.  I am still afraid to even touch our babies, fearing I’ll accidentally knock a tube or IV (Megan is doing much better, already helping out with changing diapers, taking temperatures, and holding Alexis and Beatrix).  Coming back to work in some ways feels like the easy way out – a way to keep my mind occupied on the world of teaching social studies and away from the fears that would otherwise occupy my mental space (certainly the set rhythms of the school week are a welcome contrast to the unsettling and unpredictable world of the NICU).

My weekday now looks like this: After a restless night of sleep where I get up around 2:30am to help Megan get her supplies for pumping, I wake up at 6:00am: shower and grab my lunch, wake up Clio and get her breakfast, drop her off at daycare on my way to school.  I teach and coach as I always have, though I now leave Cross Country practice earlier than I otherwise would prefer thanks to the invaluable compassion and understanding exhibited by Coaches Westphal, Kupres, and Snee – all of whom have picked up my slack over the past weeks.  I arrive home and get updates from my wife, try to play for an hour or so with Clio, then do a few chores (wash the dishes, make lunch, get my clothes and coffee ready for the next day) before drawing Clio’s bath around 8:00.  A few bedtime stories later, we lie her in her crib, and once she drifts off to sleep and our babysitter arrives, we make our now familiar 15 minute drive down Plainfield and County Line roads to Hinsdale Adventist Hospital, park, and take the elevator to the fourth floor where the labor and delivery rooms, maternity ward, and NICU are all located.

Upon arrival, the first thing you do is wash your hands.  We then walk to the southwest corner of the 1st of 3 rooms where Alexis and Beatrix lie in their incubators, tubes and IVs attached, developing in an environment that is the closest humans could come to simulating a womb.  We greet the nurses, lift the blankets draped over the incubators to simulate night, and say hello to our girls.  A typical visit includes an update from the nurse (or Doctor if he/she is there), helping with the ‘assessment’ (taking of temperature, changing of diaper, getting weighed) and giving the girls a swab with a little bit of mom’s milk.  On a really good day, Megan will get to hold Alexis or Beatrix to her chest for an hour – a practice known in the NICU as kangaroo care, which research suggests improves the baby’s health and aids in mother-child bonding.  On a tougher visit, alarms will sound almost continually, notifying the nurses that our babies aren’t getting enough oxygen, or had a dip in their heart rate, or are too cold.  On one early visit, before I learned how to interpret these alarms, I broke into tears on my way out.  I’d felt like I was in a war zone – that each alarm was a bomb going off, and after two hours of near constant beeps, my composure was shattered.   I am always anxious when I arrive (as I was during the pregnancy phase, before every ultrasound), but usually now after a few minutes go by I begin to relax a bit more.  While my emotional state these past few weeks has tended towards fear and worry for the health of Alexis and Beatrix, this has been substantially counterbalanced by feelings of gratitude: for the amazing amount of support we have been offered, for the good fortune of living close to the NICU, for the professionalism, expertise, and compassion of the nurses and Doctors who tend to Alexis and Beatrix.

The girls have had their challenges.  Both sustained infections during their second week of life; both still need help breathing.  Alexis has had to get medication for her heart, while Beatrix has had trouble gaining weight.  Two weeks after birth, both remain weeks away from weighing even two pounds.  But, their vital signs are good, the nurses and doctors assure us their progress is typical for babies of their size, and every day that goes by brings good news, as it represents another day of growth and another day for their internal systems to develop.

The Doctors do not – and, ethically cannot, make any guarantees.  As we keep being reminded, ‘you are not out of the woods.’  My greatest fear remains that Alexis and Beatrix will not survive.  I suppose, though, that this fear will never go away: not after we are discharged from the NICU, not after the girls are old enough to talk and walk, not after they begin school, nor even if they become responsible and successful adults with their own families.  I know this because I know my parents continue to worry about me.  I know from teaching for 15 years how much parents worry about their own children.  And this is, of course, the reality of love.  You cannot have love without fear and worry.  So, here, the comparisons to Cross Country (indeed team sports in general) are apt.  To be fully invested in something is to accept the hardship, frustrations, and disappointments that will invariably accompany any endeavor for which you are ‘all in’ (it is only the athletes who are NOT fully committed who avoid these challenges; but for them, glory will never be the prize).  The greater you care about something, the more you expose yourself to hurt.  But consider that equation in reverse.

The past few months have marked the hardest period of my life, but, as of this writing, my worst fears have not materialized, and it remains possible that September 5th, while the scariest day of my life, may also prove the best.  It’s been a profoundly life-changing experience, to say the least.  While sitting next to Megan in the NICU as she cradles one of our daughters to her chest, while running, while lying in bed at night, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect.  Below are some additional scattered thoughts to share:


-This challenge has reinforced how incredibly fortunate and privileged I truly am.  The question is not: why did this happen to us?  It is rather: how is it possible we’ve been so fortunate to have both girls still living and with a chance to do well?  Had this birth happened 30 years ago, it is doubtful either girl would be alive.  If it had happened in many other places in the world, the same would be true.  That we happen to live so close to excellent doctors and hospitals, that we are surrounded by people who have the means and desire to help us, that we have the insurance to cover what would otherwise be insurmountable costs – all of this is good fortune far beyond the norm.

-NICU Doctors and nurses have the most important job in the world.  Period.  Sometimes as a teacher I am lauded for choosing education as a vocation.  Teaching is important.  Not as important as what my NICU nurses do.  I once had a conversation with a man who argued that entrepreneurs were the drivers’ of America.  I respect entrepreneurs.  I don’t think they are more important than the people who work in the NICU.  NICU workers tend to literally the most vulnerable humans in existence.  They make entire lives possible.  I never previously had any clue what a NICU looked like or what employees of the NICU do.  I now understand how special a person you must be to choose to work in the NICU as your life’s’ work.

-Health care is as much art as science.  There is no prescription.  Each individual, even identical twins, is different, and has unique needs.  I’ve participated in conversations with Doctors as they’ve weighed the pros and cons of different treatment options.  In the field of health care, people take a much more collaborative approach than in other professions.  Our girls are seen by 6 main neonatologists who are in constant conversation with each other about what they are seeing and what they think the best way forward might be.  Each of these Doctors has their own network of professionals who they are in communication with, bouncing ideas off each other and inquiring about different fields of research.  They have the wisdom and experience to make educated decisions about what to do, but they can never be sure how these decisions will actually play out, since each one of us reacts differently.  Thus, it is a constant feedback loop of trying out different treatments, adjusting, and finding the best path.  Wean the oxygen a bit, and see how this impacts the heart rate.  Too much weaning?  Go back up.  Readjust the tubing.  Monitor weight.  See how much the babies are urinating.  Check their white blood cell count.  All of these markers help the doctors assess the health of our babies and inform their decision on what to do next.

I find this inspiring.  I think it is a useful model to think about coaching.  What if for each athlete we could create a network of professionals who were in constant communication about that athlete, charting a plan for them that is adjusted regularly based upon different metrics such as resting heart rate, hours of sleep, body temperature, and self-reports about physical and emotional well-being?  It’s not really possible with 100 guys on the team, but if nothing else, this experience reminds me of the importance of seeing the whole athlete and consulting with others who might see the athlete in different contexts.

-When you encounter true struggle for the first time, you learn that there are people you know who have depths of compassion that you never previously knew about.  I have discovered that I have people in my life that I did not know as well as I thought.  I never fully appreciated how amazing these people are.  The kindness others have shown to my family is beyond any I’ve ever shared with others, and makes me want to do a better job of thinking beyond myself and not being shy about giving help to people when they need it, even when they are too tired or overwhelmed to ask.  Relatedly, I’ve become more compassionate myself.  I can see strengths in people I hadn’t previously recognized.  Robert Callan is a senior on our Cross Country team.  I have had both him and his twin sister Grace as students in my East Asian Studies course.  Both were conscientious, polite, responsible and kind.  Robert is not among our faster runners.  His PR for the 1600 Sophomore year of track was 6:34.  As a junior, he improved his time to 6:04.  This year, our goal is to help him break 5:30.  Here is the amazing part: Robert’s mother gave birth to him at 24 weeks and 3 days.  He weighed barely over a pound.  One of the biggest challenges premature babies face is lung-development.  And yet, now Robert is training to be an Eagle Scout, headed to college next year, and a faster runner than 95% of his high school classmates (only a handful of non-Cross Country runners could plausibly claim to run faster).  He and his sister are living miracles, and I never appreciated that until now.

-Do your job well, honor your commitments, share your passion.  Do this because it is a fulfilling way to live life.  But a very unexpected and amazing consequence of living this way has been that during this past few weeks when my family has never had a greater need for support, we’ve discovered a huge network of people stepping in to lift us up and carry us through the challenges we’ve faced.  So many people have been there for us – our immediate and extended families, my work colleagues, the families of current and former runners, friends from all different phases of our lives-  sending well wishes, bringing food, caring for Clio while we visit the NICU.  It has genuinely been awe-inspiring, humbling, and overwhelming to accept so much help from so many caring, kind, thoughtful individuals.  To all of you, words are insufficient to express the depth of our gratitude.

We who teach, who coach, who parent, who are students – all of us have benefited from the work and care of others.  Every individual is unique and beautiful and has inherent value; but each of us as individuals cannot flourish without families, networks, teams and institutions designed to nurture us – each of those in their own way an incubator promoting growth.  God willing, Alexis and Beatrix will grow up and eventually attend school at Hinsdale South.  When they are old enough to understand, I hope I am able to convey to them how many different people are invested in their well-being and growth, how wide their network of support, how much we should be grateful for each new day.  It is a lesson I am only now fully comprehending.

Route changes

I have received three major shocks in the past five months.

The first shock came mid-April, when my wife Megan sat me down on the couch to show me her positive pregnancy test.  This was joyous but unexpected news.  It had taken us three years of trying, including rounds of fertility treatments, before we’d finally succeeded in having a baby together: Clio is now a precocious 19-month old.  This time, I just learned, no such treatments would be necessary.  Clio was going to have a younger sibling!

The second shock came a few weeks later, after Megan’s first appointment with the Doctor after learning of the pregnancy.  I was not able to attend, as I was at work.  Upon arriving home from Track practice, I was greeted with this announcement (transcribed here, word for word, with apologies for the profanity, though if ever there was an appropriate moment to let loose a swear word, this would be it):

Megan: Do you want to see the ultrasound?

Noah: Oh, yeah.  I didn’t know you got one.

Megan: Yeah.

Noah:  How’s Doctor Spencer doing?

Megan: Well, she’s as excited as I am, because we’re having twins!

Noah: No fucking way.

Megan: Yeah (laughing).  I’m not kidding.

Noah: (Incredulous) what?!

Megan:  Yeah (laughing).  Two babies!

Noah: Oh my God.

Megan:  (sighing) yeah

Noah:  (Looking at ultrasounds) I suppose this was fate.

Megan: Yes.


You must understand something.  I am a twin.  My wife is a twin.  We always joked that we were destined to be parents of twins, but in actuality the odds of twins having twins is infinitesimally small.  This new revelation filled me with equal parts wonder and trepidation.  We’re having twins!  Will I ever sleep again?!  I was soon to learn more information about our little ones: they are identical, and they are girls.  I marveled to my wife that the contours of our life together were becoming clearer – I teach high schoolers, and at their age, the future is all hope and mystery.  Can any 18-year-old truly know what their life will be like at 36 (or 37, my current age)?  When we married, we knew we wanted a family, and now that dream seemed to be becoming a reality.  So this is what life had in store for me: a job as a teacher and coach at Hinsdale Central, a home on a cul-de-sac in nearby Willowbrook, a loving wife, and three adoring daughters.  No doubt my 18-year old self would be pleased with this outcome.

Then came the third shock.  Identical twins, we were informed, carry higher risks than more conventional pregnancies.  Unlike most expectant moms, Megan was instructed to schedule more frequent ultrasounds, just so that the Doctors could keep a closer eye on the twins’ development.  At our week 16 checkup, (Thursday, June 22nd), our Doctor came in to review the ultrasound and delicately told us that they’d noticed an abnormality: one twin was growing faster than the other.  A few other data points from the ultrasound readouts concerned them.  We were told it may be possible that what they were seeing were early signs of a troubling development known as ‘Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome’ (TTTS).  A relatively new surgery (developed within the past 20 years) to treat this affliction is the best hope for addressing the problem (a shunting off of blood from one baby to the other) though success rates hovered in the 70% range.  We were told to return on Monday – if the symptoms worsened, we would need to make immediate plans to fly to Houston where some of the nation’s best maternal-fetal specialists work.

We exited the hospital in a daze.  I put my arm around Megan and whispered to her, “life has just thrown us a curve ball.”  She made it to the car before the tears came.  We sat together in our sun-baked Honda Civic in the middle of a busy hospital parking lot, Megan sobbing and me staring into space  (my own tears would come later that day, as we lay together on our bed watching a video about TTTS sent to us by our Doctors).

Monday, June 26th, the day of our 7th wedding anniversary, began for me as most summer Monday’s usually do – with a long run around Waterfall Glen.  I was grateful for the tranquility such a run provides, using it to calm my nerves.  Practice over, I hurried home, showered off, and exchanged pleasantries with the babysitter before getting into the car with Megan for the drive to our clinic in Glen Ellyn.  We spent the car ride discussing possibilities and reviewing questions we had for our Doctors.  I felt something equivalent to pre-race jitters as we entered the doctor’s office and waited to be called back to the examining room.

This time, I was more mentally prepared for the unexpected. The past few days had been tough, as we’d had to make many of the phone calls no one wants to make and hustled to put into place plans in the event we’d need to be flown to a hospital out of state.  The interregnum had allowed time for Megan and I to process what we’d been told, to research treatment options and outcomes, and to vent emotionally.  We were better positioned to learn what the fates foretold.  Which was this: it appears the condition of the twins was not, in fact, TTTS, but rather a different but related condition called ‘Selective Intrauterine Growth Restriction’ (SIUGR).  Since I am not a doctor, I will refer to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s website to explain: “Selective intrauterine growth restriction (SIUGR) occurs when there is unequal placental sharing which leads to suboptimal growth of one twin.” SIUGR evidently occurs in about 10% of identical twin pregnancies.  It can range in severity, with the worst cases resulting in the death of one fetus in utero while the best outcome to be hoped for is a birth of two babies at 34-35 weeks.  Unlike TTTS there is no treatment.  We must simply watch and wait.

Subsequent appointments have confirmed this diagnosis.  On our most recent visit, at 18 weeks, we learned one of our babies weighs about 7 ounces and the other 5.  Encouragingly, the smaller baby seems to be receiving appropriate blood flow and is growing, albeit not as quickly as her sister.  We have to hope she continues to grow and gets far enough along to be safely delivered.  If we can make it to 28 weeks, our odds improve.  If we get to 32, we are looking better still.

For the runner and the coach, exercising control over as many variables as possible is the most valuable currency we have.  Yet, here Megan and I find ourselves in a situation where we have no control.  It is a truly humbling experience, a reminder that free will is, to some degree, mere illusion.  There are forces shaping us, in utero and out, that we have no power to impact.  For once, there is no running or coaching analogue.  Hard work and determination are irrelevant to this particular situation.  Chance rules.

I often use the metaphor of the unfinished book when discussing an upcoming season with my team.  Some chapters have already been written, I tell them, but you guys get to help write the conclusion.  In the coming months, the narrative of our teams’ season will parallel the narrative of Megan’s pregnancy.  I’ll have some power to shape one outcome, but none to shape the other.  In both cases, by mid-November, the stories will likely both have officially been told.

At this time, when the ending is not yet known, I hope to live each day with gratitude: for Megan, who carries our babies and who, through the sheer force of her love would will them to health and safety, if such a thing were possible; for the doctors and nurses who have exhibited expertise, compassion and honesty in helping us understand our situation; for our family, friends, and colleagues who have formed for us a network of support that has made this episode so much more bearable; for having good health insurance(!); for the guys on my team who inspire me daily with their youthful enthusiasm and sense of purpose; and for little Clio, who reminds Megan and me always that no matter what happens, we can never say life has cheated us, and whose smile and laugh brighten even the darkest days.

So we journey on, ever forward, into the great unknown…

Why you should do Track

“Young man, walking down the hallway, you should do Track.”

“Who me?”

“Yes, you.”



1) It is pure

The oldest and purest athletic completion of all is the simple foot race.  Our sport, Track and Field, has its origins dating from even before the original Greek Olympiad.

“Victory by speed of foot is honored above all.”

– Xenophanes of Colophon (570-475 BCE)

All kids run.  Running fast is fun.  Jumping far or high is fun.  Throwing something heavy as far as you can is fun.  Haven’t you ever taken a rock and thrown it as far into a lake as you can?  Leaped off the top of a sand dune?  Raced your friend to the end of the block?  The building blocks of Track and Field are written into our DNA.  Humans were never meant to be sedentary.  Track and Field is a sport that harnesses the skills needed for every other sport: speed, strength, endurance, and coordination.

There is nothing arbitrary about who wins the race.


Matt McBrien (class of 2015) barely outkicks a competitor from Lane Tech during his Sophomore year at the Hinsdale Relays.  He would go on to be part of two state champion Cross Country teams and is now a member of the Cross Country and Track Teams at Georgia Tech University.

No judgement call from the ref will determine the outcome.  Same goes for all the other events – it’s easy to see who jumps over the bar and who doesn’t, who throws or jumps the furthest.

In soccer, football, baseball, hockey it is plausible that the team that plays better can still lose.  Sometimes it comes down to a judgement call, a penalty called or not called (ask the Fenwick Football Team).  In Track, the results are there for all to see.


Irwin Loud of Oak Park-River Forest and Blake Evertsen of Hinsdale Central battle it out down the final straightaway at the 2016 Indoor Conference Championships. Loud would best Evertsen on this particular occasion by .07 seconds. The two elite distance runners have established a fearsome but respectful rivalry since their freshman year.

You don’t need much to succeed in Track.  You don’t even need a Track.  There is one regulation Track in all of Ethiopia, a nation whose distance runners have won dozens of Olympic medals over the past two decades.  Cahokia, the best Track team in our state, has no indoor facilities.  Some sports, even swimming, are largely restricted to wealthier parts of the world.  Anyone can do Track.  You need very little equipment. A pair of trainers and a pair of spikes.  That’s it.  If you can’t afford those, we’ll help.  You don’t need to have started on your training as a little kid to be successful, as you might have in tennis, golf, swimming or wrestling.  Your talent is already there- our goal as coaches is simply to help you find and develop it.

Let me give you an example on athlete who had talent but needed help finding it.  Last year, I stopped a young man in the hallway just like I stopped you.  His name was Justin Taylor.  Another teacher had seen him shooting some hoops in the gym and was amazed at his hops, so told me about him.  I waited just outside of his 10th period Social Studies class and when he was about to enter I made my pitch.

Justin did not initially want to join Track.  He was polite but shy, and I feared he would demur and pass on my invitation.  The first day of practice went by, and he was not there.  On the second morning of practice, Justin walked in about 15 minutes after we’d started.  I walked over to him, smiled, and told him how glad I was he decided to try it out.  I walked him over to our high jump Coach Andy Antoniou, introduced him, and we tested his vertical.  It was pretty good!

Coach Antoniou is a great coach.  He took Justin, a kid who’d never tried the high jump before, and by the indoor conference meet, Justin had leaped 5’4”.  Then, after a few more months training, he cleared 5’7” at our outdoor conference Championships in mid-May, finishing third overall at the Sophomore level.  I was so proud of him.  As he improved, his confidence grew.  I saw him come out of his shell a bit, walk a little taller.  This year he will enter as a major asset for our team, no longer reluctant to join, but proud to be a part.  We want that for you, too.


I literally stopped Justin Taylor in the hallway to ask him to consider coming out for Track. Less than half a year after that conversation he finished third at the Conference championships.

2) It is measurable

Young man, one advantage of Track is we can neatly chart your progress.  We won’t have to guess if you are improving.  We can measure objectively.  We know Justin became a better high jumper by May than he was in January.  Pick some events.  We’ll see what marks you achieve in your first few attempts.  We’ll see what marks you get after weeks of practice.  Then, where you are towards the end of your first season.  And, if we are fortunate, we’ll see where you finish as a senior as compared to when you first started.  It is my coaching imperative to help you improve.  If you are willing to work at it, I am confident you will.


Technology is better now, but back in 2013 I literally used graph paper and pen to chart out the four year progression of all our distance runners in the 1600. One thing I love about Track is that every guy can have the chance to earn recognition because every guy can improve. You might not be our fastest guy, but if you work hard and get faster, we’ll be thrilled for you.

I am a Cross Country Coach in the Fall, and I love that sport, but there is no fair way to compare times from Cross Country courses: some are flat, some hilly, some just under 3.0 miles, some just over.  Terrain varies.  But in Track, you can fairly compare your mark against athletes your age across the entire nation.  We could argue endlessly about who the best high school football player or basketball player in the nation is, but there is no dispute about who is the nation’s fastest prep sprinter (last year, that would be Noah Lyles of Alexandria, Virginia, who ran 10.16!) or best triple jumper (Illinois’ own Ja’Mari Ward of Cahokia who hop, skipped, and jumped a national record 53’7.5″last season).  In fact, if you really want to see what it takes to be among the nations’ best in Track and Field, start studying here:

Or, if you just want to see what it takes to be among the best in our own high school’s history, you can look here:

In reality, the vast majority of guys who join our team won’t break any school records or be on any national lists, but the goal is the same for all of us: to get better.  There is something truly rewarding to know that you are capable today of something you were not capable of previously.  We in Track call that setting a “PR” (Personal Record).  And we celebrate every time a guy on the team sets one.

Here are a few examples of guys from last year’s team who improved throughout the season.  First up, Big Jeff Dang.  Jeff joined Track for the first time last year as a junior.  He weighs 305 pounds and could surely pick me up and throw me.  Still, he’d never picked up a shot put in his life, and would need time to learn the event.  Here was his progression:







Jeff returns this year as one of our top throwers, and for his senior he’ll be coached by a former Olympian, as Tom Putskys, America’s best Javelin thrower for most of the 1990s and 2000s joins our staff.  Under Coach Putskys’ guidance, I am confident we’ll have many more PRs this season to celebrate with Jeff.

Another guy who joined our Track team for the first time later in his career was Steven Coan, who came out last season for his senior year.  He’d played club soccer for his first three springs but since his soccer career had ended and he had friends on the team, he decided to try Track.  It took some time to figure out where he would best fit, but through trial and error, we learned he was a pretty darn good 400 meter runner.


Steven Coan (class of 2016) kicks down the final straightaway of 400 meter race at Outdoor Conference where he finished a surprising 3rd. Coan played soccer all through high school before joining us as a senior. He made incredible progress in his short time with us.

Here is how Coan improved in the 400 meter event over the course of his one season with us:





We love soccer players.  Don’t get nearly enough of them to come out, so strong is the hold of Club Soccer in our community.  But soccer athletes make great Track athletes, having a good balance of both speed and endurance thanks to the demands of their beautiful game. I know Steven feels great about his decision to join Track for his final athletic season, that he gained some memories and friends he’d not otherwise have had.  Which brings me to my next reason you should join track:

3) You’ll make lifelong friends…

My wife and I just sent our Christmas Cards.  We ordered 100.  About half went to family, the rest to friends.  Of those friends, a significant majority are former high school and college teammates (others are families of kids I coach – see #4).  Last month I flew to Seattle to visit college teammates – one lives there, one in Minneapolis, one in San Francisco.  We haven’t been on a team together since 2002, but we’ve managed to see each other 2-3 times a year since then, such is the strength of the bond we created.

Let me tell you a story about myself and our hurdles Coach, John Mariner.  We went to middle school together, than high school.  We were teammates on the Track team at York.  Here is a meet from our senior year where we both won an event:


John Marinier is our hurdles coach. In 1998, he and I were teammates at York. John was a star soccer player and also a 3-time all-state Track athlete. Our senior year he finished 4th in the 300 Intermediate Hurdles (.001 from 3rd) and was on the state runner-up 4*400. We finished 2nd in state as a team that year. He and I have the shared vision of improving upon that finish now that we are coaching together.

When we first became friends, we were 11 years old, both 6th graders on the Brian Middle School Cross Country team.  Now, we are 36, each with 1-year old daughters.  That’s a quarter-century of friendship, begun of being teammates and sealed through the bond of high school athletics.  Two other coaches on our staff, Coach Westhphal and Kupres, became friends when they were college teammates at Loyola.  They stood in each other’s weddings and remain close today.

While Track is sometimes called an individual sport in the sense we are all trying to improve upon our own best performances, at this school we will emphasize TEAM most of all.  I want you to see other kids walking through the halls wearing our “HC Track” shirts and know that those guys are your natural allies.


Then Freshman (now Sophomore) Robert Banda getting mentally prepared for his events. Banda broke our freshman indoor record in the Triple Jump last season with a mark of 38’1″. He is wearing the trademark “HC Track” shirt with a new logo that my wife, who is a graphic designer, created for our team.

I want any team victory we might be fortunate enough to earn to feel like it was earned by all of us, and celebrated as such.  There is no better feeling than celebrating TOGETHER.  Why did 5 million people feel the same impulse to get to Chicago, despite all the inconvenience they knew they’d face, to be there for the parade celebrating the World Series champion Cubs?  It is because they wanted to feel like they were a part of something amazing.  That is what I want for you, young man – to help you authentically earn that feeling.  HC has not won Varsity Conference since 2002, and has done so only once since WWII.  That is our goal for this year.  Come join us!  There is no guarantee we will achieve the goal, but we never will if we don’t try.  And if we succeed, many what an amazing feeling that will be!


Charlie Gelman (foreground) and Ben Schnieders (background, with his famous hair) are two of the best ‘team guys’ I’ve ever had the privilege of coaching. Here they are in the bleachers of York’s field house rooting hard for their teammates at the Indoor conference meet last season. We did not win, but we did improve more than any other team in our conference from the previous year.

4) …and gain lifelong mentors

As your coach, I will form a stronger bond with you than I would if I were only your teacher.  I know I am not supposed to say that, as I was once told by an administrator that I am to be a “teacher first, coach second” (I don’t think those roles can be separated).  The truth is that I teach one-semester Sophomore elective courses.  I get to know my students for half a year, then they move on.  If you come out for Track as a freshman, though, we will have four years to get to know each other.  I will invest heavily in our relationship, will strive to help you realize your true potential and to achieve feats you don’t currently think you are capable of.  Track isn’t like soccer, football or baseball.  We aren’t split up by grade level.  You won’t have a different coach as a Sophomore than you did as a Freshman, with yet another Coach assigned when you move to Varsity.  We’ll be your coaches all four years.

I take my role as your coach very seriously.  I promise not to ‘use you’ to burnish my own reputation or to take a win at all costs mentality.  My own high school coach, the legend Mr. Joe Newton, used to tell us, “if you devote yourself to me and our team, I’ll do anything for you.”


This past November, York High School held a retirement celebration for the legendary Cross Country and Track Coach Joe Newton. I had the opportunity to give thanks to Mr. Newton for all he has taught me. I hope I can come close to being as positive a mentor for young people as he was for me and the literally thousands of other athletes he coached.


I have tried to live out his words.  Just last week I was contacted by an athlete who I had not heard from in five years.  This athlete did not run all four years for us – he stopped after his junior year to focus on academics.  He will be graduating this spring from UPenn and is applying to join the Air Force, so he wrote to ask me for a letter of recommendation.  I wrote the very best letter I could.  No matter how long its been since you graduated, I will ever remain your steadfast supporter and champion.

I keep a file folder of every positive note I get from a student, teacher, or athlete. It is a small reminder to myself that there is value to what we do in athletics beyond the meet results.  I am going to share some of these notes with you, not because I am bragging, but because I want you to understand the depth of the bond that is created through years of working hard together towards common goals.

So here is Billy Fayette, the first all-state athlete I ever coached, writing to me on the eve of his high school graduation:

You have had an influence on me in a way that you do not realize.  I have learned a lot over my time as an HCXC runner and cherish all the memories I have developed…You have always pushed me to my limits…you have helped me achieve many goals that once seemed impossible and were only part of those ‘dreams’ of mine.  If it wasn’t for you I would never have turned into the runner and the person I am today.”

–Billy Fayette (May 2011)

This very afternoon, Billy and I are getting together to go for a run.  We’ll discus his new job, his family, running, coaching, politics, and any other topic that comes up.  I love winter break because it gives me time to catch up with so many of my former athletes.  Our relationships last far beyond the four years you’ll spend in high school.

Perhaps you think my bond exists only with those Track athletes who do the distance events.  So, here is Chris Kizer, a football player and sprinter, writing to share with me something he included in his college essay:

Coach Lawrence has taught me many lessons about having a true passion for what you do, very hard work, and loyalty to your teammates.  A sport that I barely liked freshman year, I have come to love, and I can honestly say Coach Lawrence has played a huge role in igniting that flame…I can honestly say I have grown from a football player who just did track to get faster, to a runner who loves his team and his sport. I hope that one day I can inspire young men to love something and work at it the way he does.

-Chris Kizer (4/12/10)

And lest you think I only focus on the best athletes on our team, here is an excerpt from a speech given at our annual Track Banquet by Sunil Dommaraju, who entered his freshman year as quite literally the slowest guy on our entire Track team:

That first day, when I walked into the health room where we would hold our daily team meetings, I introduced myself to Coach Lawrence; he immediately responded with a determined smile and welcoming body language. He didn’t look at my bigger body-type and my freshman-sized stature condescendingly. Rather, he saw within me the potential to be a great runner, hard-working athlete, and even more, a mature young man. This is a perfect example of Coach Lawrence’s genuine care not just for the top 12 runners, but for EVERYONE on the team. Some coaches in other sports programs will only care for and nurture his most valuable athletes, and naturally so. But Coach Lawrence doesn’t settle for a few great runners. He wants everyone to revel in the joys of success, personal records, and improvement…Coach has showed a genuine compassion for all athletic levels and he has made our team culture one of hard work and dedication. That first time trial my freshman year in cross country, I ran a 9:29 for the mile because I couldn’t even run the second mile, and since then, with the guidance of Coach, I have improved immensely to a PR of 5:18. Thank you Coach Lawrence for being a great mentor. I will never be able to repay you for teaching me so many life lessons. You have personally made a huge impact on my life and for that I am forever grateful.

-Sunil Dommaraju, May 2015

It’s humbling to re-read these notes, but inspiring, too.  Your four years here will go by fast, but they will be incredibly formative years in your life.  Should joining Track be part of your high school experience?  Consider discussing this tonight with your parents/guardians.  I can say with confidence that most parents of athletes who have been in our program will testify to the positive impact participation in Track had on their sons.  Here is a note from the parents of Alex Orton, one of the first athletes I coached who was involved in Football, Wrestling, Cross Country, and Track during his four years at HC:

Hi Coaches.  Now that Alex is about to graduate, we have been thinking a lot lately about how thankful we are about the 4 years he has spent at Central.  Attending Central ended up being a wonderful experience for him, and for his parents.  He has done well academically, in sports and made great friends.  Hard to beat that.  But maybe most importantly, he was mentored early and often by influential teachers and coaches.  The role that you guys have played in Alex’s development as his track and XC coaches, as teachers and for being an overall positive influence cannot be underestimated.  Please accept our sincerest gratitude for all that you have done to help shape Alex into the man he is today, and to prepare him for life after Central.

-Kathy and Tom Orton, parents of Alex (4/25/09)

I saw Alex at a team reunion last summer.  He is enrolled at Chiropractic College at National University in Lombard, an institution my own father used to teach at.  We hadn’t spoken for years, but upon seeing him again I was immediately taken back in memory to 2008 when he and his teammates, a fun-loving bunch to be sure, became our first group to qualify for the IHSA Cross Country Championships as a team.  I am honored to have played some role in Alex’s development, and hope to do the same for you.

So, you’ll have close friends and mentors, but another reason to come is

5) It is good for you

“The Stars of Track and Field are Beautiful People”

– Belle and Sebastian.

You can be Prince Fielder and still excel in baseball, or BJ Raji and still be a solid football player.  Track athletes are some of the fittest athletes you’ll ever see.


Ever see any Track and Field Olympic medalists (non-throwers) with these body types ?

There are a lot of unhealthy behaviors high school students engage in: drug and alcohol use most obviously, but also poor sleep schedules, bad nutrition habits, irregular schedules.  Track can be an anchor.  It helps you organize your day, and allows you to get in your daily exercise, helping you to feel good about yourself.

Studies show that your environment shapes your individual choices.  If most people around you smoke, you are far likelier to start smoking.  So why not surround yourself with people who are really in shape, striving to get even fitter?  Our goal is to create a supportive and healthy environment to help you flourish.

But don’t take my word for it.  Here is a former athlete of mine, Mark Gesior, who wrote me during his freshman year of college to express regret for his decision NOT to come out for Track during his senior year:

…but I realized that with other people behind you, you can tackle almost anything.  Skipping out on the track season my senior year was probably one of the worst mistakes I have made ever.  On the team, each and every single guy had my back…At the time it felt like the cool thing to do, that I…was going to go out and live my life and escape the long runs and escalations that had been making my life hell. I can honestly say that the extra semester of sleeping in on weekends, and going home right after school was not worth it at all.  Now especially, I am realizing that you are who you are because of the people you surround yourself with.  And when I was surrounded by runners, I was a runner.

I share Mark’s words with his permission, as he wrote to me that he hopes others will not follow his lead.  I am happy to say that Mark is now a senior at Marquette University and will be graduating this spring.  Our relationship remains as strong as ever.  Even if you quit while in high school, I will respect you for at least trying out.

Our group will be supportive.  It will also be composed of individuals from many different backgrounds, which leads to the final reason you should do Track:

6)  It is diverse.

Let’s talk about race.  It’s a subject that makes people uncomfortable.  I teach African American History.  I am white.  This is an issue we need to be more open about.  Diversity is a strength.  Diversity also takes hard work.  By definition, diversity means you have people with different backgrounds, experiences, and values, which means tension is almost inevitable.  One reason I love Track is that every year we have one of the most diverse teams.  In part, this is because our team is large.  In part, it is because there are so many different events to choose from, and we feed from many different sports.  What unifies people?  A common goal is a positive unifying force. Joining track will allow you to join with other boys your age who may be different than you in many respects.  We can at least start to get to know each other on the basis of equality by our shared commitment to the goal of winning Conference.


Top from Left: All-State Pole Vaulter Steven Chun (class of 2015), Hurdler Shawn Zhou (class of 2016), sprinter Trent Riggins-Walker (class of 2019). Bottom from Left: all-state 3200 runner Blake Evertsen competing here against eventual Footlocker Midwest Cross Country Champion Danny Kilrea of Lyons Township, Hinsdale South’s 1:53 800 guy Brian Jordan running against Andrew Irvine (class of 2016) at last year’s Sectional 4*800, school record holder Nick Piker (class of 2013) hurling the discus.

Now I am not naive.  I don’t think mere participation on a Track Team will salve the nations’ racial wounds.  But Track and Field has been a venue of greater equality than many other realms in American life and culture.  In a Track race, unlike life, everyone begins on the same starting line.  We all know the story of Jessie Owens’ heroics in the 1936 ‘Hitler Olympics’ where he disproved with his foot speed the lie at the heart of Nazi ideology.  Somewhat less well-known is the courage displayed by African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when both raised a fist in the black power salute while on the victory podium for their gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter dash.  Smith and Carlos hoped to draw attention to the fact that they were running for a nation which treated them as second-class citizens, and they faced intense criticism (were black-listed for jobs, too) for their actions.  This was 1968, a year even more tense than 2016, when America really was on the verge of tearing apart.  In a rare display of contrition, the USOC actually invited Smith and Carlos to join the current Olympians on their visit to the White House this past September, showing recognition at long last that their protests were, in fact, patriotic, and not anti-American as many argued at the time.  It frustrates me how many of my students have formulated opinions about a more recent controversial figure, Colin Kapernick, without ever knowing anything about Smith and Carlos.

On the Track team, we will teach you our sport’s history, one in which African Americans have played a prominent role, from Owens, Smith, and Carlos to Bob Beamon, Carl Lewis, and Alyson Felix.  Track is a sort of utopia in that it really is true that people won’t be judged on the color of their skin, but rather the results from their event – it is the ultimate meritocracy.  People will respect you for your achievements, no matter what other misconceptions or unfair judgments they might make of you.

And that ain’t much, but it is something.

Well, young man, thanks for hearing me out.  I hope you’ll join us.  The season starts January 23rd, and we’ll be meeting in the Dance Studio at 3:15.  It you’d like to learn more, take a look at our website: or come see me in room 282.  I hope to see you on the big red oval!




State Recap – 2016

The 2016 Cross Country season officially began in mid-June, and as a kick-off event we hosted a guest speaker, Donn Behnke, the former head coach of Wisconsin Stevens Points High School and author of the recent book “The Animal Keepers.”  The idea for brining Behnke in to Illinois to speak to high school cross country athletes originated with Paul Vandersteen, the wise and genial coach of Neuqua Valley.  Paul knew that I had enjoyed Behnke’s book because I’d posted a note on social media about it, and on that basis, he asked if we wanted to coordinate the event with him.

This was long before the results of today’s meet were known to anyone, and though Neuqua appeared to have many good returning runners, we’d had, at that point, no inclination of the immense success they would come to enjoy, capped off by this afternoon’s state title, their third since 2007.

The theme of Behnke’s book, though, is not about winning (not really) but rather about the power of team, the virtue of inclusion, and sport as an ennobling pursuit.  It’s a story about a misfit kid from a group home who came out for the team, how he defied his coach and teammates’ expectations by being a fearsome competitor, and about how they, in turn, rallied to provide the network of support and care that he’d been deprived of in his life to that point.

In his speech to the gathered runners (which included athletes from future trophy teams Downers Grove North, Minooka, and Neuqua, as well as many of our athletes) Behnke recalled that 1985 season, one which was also marked by the birth of his daughter.  He talked about how, in that season, he made the transition from ‘Coach as big brother’ to ‘Coach as parent.’

One year ago, as we headed to state, my wife Megan was 8.5 months pregnant.  This year, as I left the house on Friday morning, I kissed goodbye to her and our 11.5 month old daughter Clio.  Like the season Behnke documented in his book, this was my first as a parent.  And like him, I felt the transition from being viewed by the boys I coached as a cooler older sibling to being viewed more as an authority figure – by turns disciplinarian and compassionate.

This season was not an easy one, but, now that the results are known, it is one of which we can be proud.  What made this year more difficult than the last few was that, after three years of legitimately being in the trophy hunt, this year we learned through some particularly difficult lessons  that earning top three in state was not going to be a very realistic goal.  And, in truth, it was harder to stay motivated and to face the challenge of weeks of rigorous training in face of the knowledge that a trip upon the podium was not likely to be our reward.  As a consequence, our team struggled to find our footing early on.  Though our finishing places were toward the top at all meets we ran, the truth was that throughout the regular season, we did not have a single meet where we felt we’d run the best we were capable of on the varsity level.  What ultimately got us back on track was changing our focus from outward to inward.  As we approached state, we had a new and more meaningful goal: to run in a way that left us with no regrets.

No mention was made of place goals in our team meetings Friday Night and Saturday morning.  We focused instead on the process, one aspect of which was to appreciate the opportunity to run in the state championships at beautiful Detweiller Park, a place heaving with the weight of history.  Detweiller Park’s golden hued trees are an integral part of the state cross country experience.  Those leaves, Autumn’s emblem, call to mind the inevitable passage of time.  Our current top 7 were once freshmen and sophomores who came down to watch the state meet on the team fan bus.  Several of the current freshmen and sophomores came down this year, and a few of them will, in a year or two, be the new top 7.  The first year we qualified as a team during my coaching tenure, 2008, I was dating Megan but not yet engaged.  Now we are married and parents.  The first year I ran in the state meet was twenty years ago, in 1996.  My coach, Mr. Newton, was than 67 years old.  Now he is 87 and tomorrow I will attend his retirement celebration at York High School in Elmhurst.  The Cubs just won the world series.  The world turns.  A new era is upon us.

Of Mr. Newton, let it be said, that no man ever did more for the sport of Cross Country in the state of Illinois, let alone the nation.  That the Illinois State Meet has become the festive, electric, and competitive event it now is would never have been possible without him.  His success as a coach will, of course, be unmatched, but the success of our state is also to his eternal credit.

When I ran in my first state meet two decades ago, our team finished 5th, and we left the course hanging our heads, believing that we’d let down our coach and the legions of York runners who’d come before us.  Shockingly, 5th was at that point the worst York finish in 27 years.  If there is one way I depart from my old coach, it is in thinking it unfair to measure each new team I coach against all those that came before.  The only appropriate measure can be whether each group of kids became the best they, collectively and individually, could be.  So, 20 years ago, the team I ran on finished 5th and felt despondent, while today, the team I coach for finished 6th, and I feel proud, at peace with the reality that the boys I coach earned an end result that represents pretty damn near close the best finish of which we were capable.

I am proud of Blake Evertsen, who mustered every reserve he had to finish 19th in state.  I know his aspirations were higher, that he finished 4th a year ago.  But I saw him with 300 to go and it was clear his tank was empty.  I feared he would fade into the 30s or 40s, or jog in having seen his dream of a top finish elude his grasp.  Instead, he fought on.  In the end, that helped our team immensely, as the gap between 6th and 7th place was a mere 2 points.  He is the best runner I’ve ever coached.  Hell, in the first race of our season he outkicked Soren Knudsen, who today become the state champion with a blistering time of 14:02.  He is headed to Harvard next year, so it is safe to say his future is bright.  I hope he will take pride in his performance today and in his preparation this season.

I am proud of Sean O’Connell, who suffered through some very rough races in the early part of our season, but finished today as our second man in a personal best time of 15:10.  He will be a leader of our team next season, and I have total confidence in his ability to rise to that challenge.  Sean is tough, savvy, cerebral, and witty.  He is a super talented athlete and I still don’t know how we managed to be so lucky as to win him over from the baseball team, but I am grateful every day that he committed to us.

I am proud of Sam Fathizadeh, who probably had the most frustrating season of any member of the top 7, but who showed up today when it counted the most and finished as our 3rd man.  After Sectionals, we faced a very difficult decision about who would be on our top 7, and gave serious consideration to appointing Sam as our first alternate.  We ultimately decided to place our faith in him knowing he’d had a year of experience running at state and that his workouts had been strong.  Today, Sam vindicated that decision and changed the tenor of his entire season in a single race.  The stress fracture, bad races, and twisted ankles are all now in the past, road blocks overcome by a kid who never gave up.

I am proud of Ryan Doorhy, who crashed and burned in his first two meets of the season before we discovered that he was anemic, with Ferritin levels of 10 (less than 30 is considered unhealthy).  It’s been a long road back for this gritty senior.  My last observation point during the race was near the tall pine trees which mark the spot where 300 meters remains in the race.  Of everyone in our top 7, no one today was kicking harder here than Ryan.  He likely passed 20 athletes in the final stretch.  That will be my last cross country memory of him, summoning his strength to kick furiously.

I am proud of Jan Erik Naess, who finally decided to go ‘all in’ to Cross Country this season and finished as our all important 5th man.  As anyone on our team can attest, no one on our team smiles more than him (for our annual mock awards ceremony, he was presented with maple syrup to honor his Canadian heritage and toothpaste to honor his infectious grin), and his positive attitude was a good ingredient to add to our mix this season.

I am proud of Ethan Planson, who took a risk today by trying to be all-state – it cost him, but he dared to go there, which few too many athletes do.  Ethan was our 6th man – the 4th best 6th man in state.  He has trained hard for a long time, even when there were times when it was not coming easily to him.  Running is a joy for some, a chore for others.  For Ethan, I suspect, it is a bit of both, but his allegiance to his teammates is his most important value, and for them he gave his all.  We are all richer for that sacrifice.

I am proud of Neil Cumblerland, who, I know, did not have the race he wanted today, but who earned valuable experience which we will count on next season.  Neil is studious, methodical, and responsible (an eagle scout!), all virtues common to great distance runners.  He finished the entire season without injury, which in itself was a significant achievement and which has allowed him to build a foundation for future success, which I know he will have.

I am proud of Ben Schnieders, Jacob Belgrad, Sam Schiavitti, Colin Yandel, and Alec Hill.  These five composed the remaining members of the top 12 we were able to admit to the state series.  To earn that distinction was a challenging task on a team as deep as ours.  I only wish seniors Ben and Jacob had gotten a chance to run at state.  On well over half of the teams that made state, they’d have been in the top 7.  Those two did every bit as much work as our top 7, and are every bit as tough.  I will miss them both dearly next year.  As for Sam, Colin, and Alec, the talk about next year has already happened.  It’s been inspiring to watch our neighbors at DGN make a huge jump in one year (from 18th to 2nd).  These three boys will form a core along with Sean, Neil, and many others as we attempt to follow suit.

I am proud of all the HCXC runners who showed themselves to be teammates in the truest sense by making the long journey down to Peoria to watch us today.  This includes (by memory) freshmen Carter McCarroll, Mason Steere, Magnus Naess, Jack Kinsey, and Lincoln Virant, Sophomores Matt Kusak, Keegan Caveney, Brandon Belgrad, Charlie Carter, Fletcher Spillers,  Anshul Sankaran, Liam Walsh, James Giltner, and Bradley Davis, Juniors John Wheeler, Liam Bots, Jack Borys, Alex Choi, Joe Glasby, and Steven Zaher and seniors John Bynan, Michael Chadwell, Nicky Midlash, Joe Miscimarra, and Emmett Grundberg (who earns special recognition for being true to his word of supporting the team even after making the painful decision not to come out his senior year).

And I am proud (always proud) of our alumni.  Thanks to TJ Caveney, Matt Tobia, Sean O’Flaherty, and Billy Fayette for your support today.  All the guys I mentioned in the previous paragraph will eventually join your ranks.  It is such a privilege to have coached you guys, such an honor to be able to continue to coach your younger brothers, be they literal (in TJ’s case) or metaphorical.

On Tuesday, we’ll have an election, and the third of three months-long narratives will be resolved (baseball and cross country being the other two).  In this time of maximum national division, let us reflect on the power of cross country to bring us together, bound by our common quest of becoming the best we can be.