Will it play in Peoria?

The hardest blogs to write are after disappointing races.  I do so now with certain intentions: to role model resiliency and self-reflection, to help myself and our team process our performance, and to contribute to the wider mission of promoting the sport of Cross Country by providing readers with my perspective on what unfolded this afternoon at fabled Detweiller Park during the 3A boys race.

Let us begin by situating the race in time and place.  It is 2016, an election year, and, not unrelated, a day before the 15th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American History.  It is poignant to consider that I now for the first time coach athletes who were not even born when that happened.  Even our seniors were then only three, and yet, now, some of them are old enough to vote.  In fact, many of the miles run together by our team this season have been spent debating the merits of the candidates.  It is one of the virtues of team sport that it can bring together people who politically could not be more different, which certainly is true of this year’s group.  I used my precious moments in the team huddle before the race to ask each boy to take a moment for reflecting on our peculiar historical moment: to feel grateful to be healthy and strong, gifted with the opportunity to attempt to maximize the talents they’d been born with against worthy competitors and under giant blue skies.

And, also, above, across, and through mud.  Let us begin our discussion of place by zeroing in on the puddles of muck that had begun pooling up the day preceding, precipitation cycling through phases of drizzle and storm as we carried out our pre-meet workout.  A short while earlier, as our minibus approached closer to our destination, Blake Evertsen had called up from the backseat, “Coach, how close are we to the course?” I smiled as I turned back from the front seat and replied, “Blake, this is the seventh time you’ve done this trip, don’t you know by now?”  It is the ritualistic aspects of the Peoria journey that render it most meaningful.  I’ve never been to this most quintessential of Midwestern cities for any other reason than to run, watch, or coach a Cross Country meet, but I’d venture I’ve done that over twenty times now in my life.  Over the last several years, it’s become a twice yearly pilgrimage that now has familiar and predictable qualities like running into New Trier’s team at dinner or seeing St. Ignatius at our hotel, which is located on the banks of the Illinois River and offers the view of the occasional passing barge.  There are the familiar landmarks: a pawn shop, transit station, minor league baseball stadium and convention center.  There is grime and there is beauty; graffiti painted on the concrete pillars of a bridge within sight of farmers at the weekly fall market shopping their wares.  I pass all these on my early morning run, a specific route I’ve charted for myself which I complete a circuit of each time we come down.

There is, always, the slightly tense feeling of making the slow bus ride through the crowded back road as we wind our way to our pre-established team area which we establish in a moderately secluded shaded patch west of the course grounds.  And the inevitable repinning of bibs to jerseys after meeting with officials before the race.  And, too, the sense of possibility as I leave the team huddle, turning away as our boys hits their final stride before the firing of the starters’ pistol.

A less comforting but no less significant aspect of the ritual is the revelation of where your team stands on that particular day.  One reality of competing at Detweiller (shared by its sibling, the track at Eastern Illinois), is that one rarely leaves feeling contented.  Detweiller draws the best, and so there is no hiding – you leave knowing exactly where you stand.  Save a few shining exceptions, I’ve usually left feeling resolve more than satisfaction, and today’s performance was more consistent with that norm.  Like last week, our final result was fair, but our effort below the standard we’d set for ourselves.

What we learned: that we must tip our hat to DGN, who ran with passion and purpose, and also to Lyons Township, our other west suburban rival, who also demonstrated they are a better team than us at this point of the season.  Our athletes are well aware of the times and places we’ve run here in the previous few years, of the long road ahead.  To a man, we were flat, not one of our runners placing where we believed we should have.  When one of ten athletes does not run well, that is mainly on the athlete.  When all ten don’t run well, that is on the coaches.  No single factors explains why we were not at our best, but there are several I can identify, many of which can and will be addressed at upcoming practices.

The presence of two of our most distinguished alums, Zach Withall and Billy Fayette, helped put the results in a more proper perspective.  Zach and Billy carpooled down together to watch the race, as Zach is in town for a short time before resuming his studies for structural engineering (he is working towards his PhD at UC-San Diego) and so was able to join Billy, who works for an insurance company in Chicago, for a trip down south which I’m sure was tinged with nostalgia.  When both were seniors, we’d finished 6th at the ‘First to the Finish’ Invite (then known as the Woodruff Invite) and left feeling great.  In that year, there was no talk of trophies, with the goal simply being to get to state and finish in the top half.  It is perhaps unfair that all HC teams are now judged by the standard of the 2013 and 2014 teams.  Zach and Billy ran simply to be the best they could.  That is all any of us should aim to do.  And it is by that standard only that today’s race results seemed so difficult to swallow.

Listen, it’s a great group of guys.  Their personalities can be told, in part, by what reading material they brought with them: “The Wall Street Journal” for Ryan Doorhy, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” for Neil Cumberland.  Alec Hill brought homework assigned by his social studies teacher, Mr. Lawrence.  And Sean O’Connell brought “The Great Gatsby.”  One phrase from the famous final passage strikes a chord: “so we beat on, boats against the current…”  But not to the past.  Not us.  We’ll row harder.  We’ll get in sync.  We’ll move forward.

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