September 25, 2016 – “Cross Country is a counter-cultural activity”
Yesterday was the Palatine Invitational. Chris Quick is the coach of the Palatine Boy’s Cross Country Team. He is also the author of “One Way Uphill Only,” the definitive book on Illinois High School Cross Country and someone I am privileged to consider a great friend. We first got to know each other back in 2011, shortly after his team had won their first state title and finished fifth at NXN. Hoping to learn from the best, I asked to meet with him, and he was incredibly gracious not only in accepting that request but in inviting me into his home and sharing many facets of his program with me. One of the most powerful ideas I learned from him is the notion that Cross Country is counter cultural. It is a sport where young people are challenged to act in a way that is contrary to prevailing norms. In an era of instant gratification where you can find information or order products with the click of a mouse, it demands patience and delayed gratification. In communities where we are surrounded by comfort and luxury, it asks us to not only learn to find discomfort, but to stay there. In a time and place where we are bombarded with all manner of visual and auditory stimuli, it is a sport which requires plenty of solitude and reflection.
In our meeting with the team after the final race and awards ceremony yesterday, I chose to focus on this idea: of cross country in its truest form being a sort of rebellion against a culture that shields us from failure by pretending it doesn’t exist. In our sport, everyone runs the race, and the results are there for all to see. There is no hiding.
We had to face up to the data: in the varsity race, we lost over 100 places from mile 1 to mile 3. In the Sophomore race, we were within a half a second of winning, but lost to New Trier on a sixth man tie-breaker. Our Freshmen ran tough in their first ever attempt at a race over 2 miles, but were not successful in their first attempt to close the gap against a very talented York class which soundly defeated us in a tri-meet this past Thursday. The JV race went a bit better, with Colin Yandel having a breakthrough performance by finishing 4th overall and six other runners (John Wheeler, Joe Glasby, Kyle Jones-Shah, Kevin Ellis, Grant Coghill, and Louis Lu) besting their PRs by over a minute; but even there, we were hampered by the absence of several athletes missing in action; each with their own reason, but ultimately adding up to an incomplete squad.
What I want for every athlete in our program is for them to feel the sense of purpose that comes with believing you are engaged in a meaningful endeavor, and the sense of pride that comes in achieving a long sought goal. Whenever we fall short of those ideals, we simply see how we might use the experience to further those aims. Part of that comes with learning to accept when your effort is not the best you know it could be and figuring out how to adjust to come closer the next time (and this is true for the coach as much as the athlete). So, here is what we can learn:
-To get out more controlled.
-That every stride counts.
-That lots of moves early in a race can cost you later.
-That even consistent training is no guarantor of a good race. One must still execute on the day.
And here is the good:
-That for those who did not race as well as we hoped, it is not for lack of effort in practice.
-That our Freshmen finished 6th, the same place as last year’s group. Steven Rakos had a breakthrough race. Carter McCarroll and Mason Steere pushed themselves harder than I know they ever have before. Aaron Lu and Chinmay Amin suffered late, but only because they tested themselves early, something many runners fear to do. Will Fahy and Charlie Brubaker are now running with consistency. These freshmen need only look to the class above them to see how much can change in a year.
-That though the Sophomores will only focus on the fact that they came achingly close to winning only to fall just short, that reality masks some real achievements. Charlie Carter feels awful because he was our 6th man and was behind New Trier’s 6th man, but, in fact, Charlie improved over a minute from the Hornet-Red Devil and has been showing a tenacity and focus in practice I’ve never seen in him before. Chris Deligiannis, Adam Bagnall, Peter Hughes, Matt Sayre, and Ryan Park all also improved their personal bests by over a minute. Despite the runner-up finish, I love the spirit of these Sophomores. They genuinely care about each other and it is evident that each man wants to do the best they can precisely for that reason.
-That on a day we were not our best, we still finished third in one of the most competitive meets in the nation. Outside of Chris Quick’s book, my next favorite book on running is “Tradition, Class, Pride” by Jim Linhares and Ben Rosario, which is about the St. Louis University High Cross Country program. I love the philosophy Coach Linhares (now retired from coaching) brought to his program, best summed up in the title he chose for the book. Here is a team that has experienced great success and has done so the right way, valuing each individual that comes through. In their quest to race the best, SLUH travels out of state to attend Palatine. And here is the tweet SLUH wrote after the meet, on their way back south: “Varsity averages under 16:00 and 1-5 split was 37 seconds. At @PalatineXC that gets you 21st place of 32! Step in the right direction.” It should tell you something about the quality of this meet that a team as good as SLUH finished that far back.
-We were the only team to finish top 6 on all levels. That is genuinely something to be proud of. It means we have the pieces in place to sustain our competitiveness, if only we are willing to continue to fight the good fight against the cultural currents pushing against us.