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.

Lay Your Cards on the Table

“Cross Country is harder than soccer.”  This is the report sophomore Keegan Caveney gave to his parents after finishing his first ever high school race.  Caveney is fairly positioned to judge, having played ‘the beautiful game’ for both his high school and club teams last year.  Among the possible athletic challenges available to students across our nation, it is hard to argue against the looming imposition of three miles over hill and dale as the endeavor most requiring of fortitude.  As fans cheering the racers on, we have only the slightest sense of the internal battles waged in the minds of each and every harrier swiftly passing by.  The racer must contend against the elements, their opponents, and their own body’s natural tendencies.  With due respect to football and soccer players, I suspect they do not quite understand how it feels to have over 400 meters left in a race and sense a rival pull even.  Your body aches, sweat pours, breath heavy – and you must make a decision: can I summon reserves of strength to hold off this challenger?  How will I manage to hold this pace for another minute and a half?!   Wait, now it’s not enough to maintain, I have to somehow run faster?!   As all Cross Country runners know, the last two minutes of a race warps conventional notions of time, which stretches out in ways unknown to the sedentary.

Yes, Cross Country is an unforgiving sport, and our home course at KLM is particularly unforgiving. KLM exacts a yearly toll: it is a beast in search of victims.  Last year at the Hornet-Red Devil Invite, Neuqua Valley’s Scott Anderson finished an amazing fourth place after breaking his foot during the race.  At the Sectional meet two months later, Sandburg’s sophomore sensation Dylan Jacobs was the next to fall prey, sustaining a hamstring injury which prevented him from competing at full strength a week later at state for the eventual champions.  And we who call KLM our home are not immune to its proclivities.  KLM reached out its maw and took its first swipe at us the day before the Hornet-Red Devil as we were jogging the course for practice.  Nearing the creek jump (the most blatant of KLM’s many snares) senior Sam Fathizadeh took one false step and resprained an ankle he’d twisted the past summer.  He let out a yelp, and a bit of the air of confidence we’d built after an excellent week of training was released.  Sam gamely walked back to school, and after icing and meeting with the trainer, learned the injury was not severe – if he felt fine during the warm-up, he’d be cleared for competition.

So, we’d dodged that bullet, but KLM was not done with us yet.  The first race at yesterday’s Hornet-Red Devil Invite was the highly touted varsity boys race.  I had been particularly looking forward to this race, as I was anxious to see how we matched up against other teams in the state and against previous iterations of our own team in an authentic environment (only so much projection can be drawn from practice results).  This is the first weekend in Illinois of major invitationals, offering up an initial glimpse of which teams may have the pieces to contend for a trophy.  After holding cards close to their chests, many coaches throw down what they have for all to see.  After watching the varsity race, I can say this: Neuqua Valley’s top-3 national ranking is indeed merited.  The Wildcats ran a disciplined race and served notice to the rest of their state by placing four runners in the top eight without Anderson, their top returning runner from last season.  We were not in their league.

And we may not be this season.  And that may be OK.  What is not OK is racing in a way that is below our capability, which proved the case for several of our top athletes on Saturday.  Momentum builds or is lost throughout a race, and we lost ours early.  I will let Sean O’Connell explain: “well today didn’t go the way i hoped it to. Right at the start I tripped over plan (Ethan Planson) and when I tried to get back up, someone stepped on my heel and my shoe with the chip in it fell off. I stopped to see if I could get it back but there was a stampede behind me so I had no chance and getting it back on. After that, I lost all focus.”   While I believe our #2-#9 guys will be interchangeable all season, no one from that group had looked better in practices this week than Sean.  That he still managed to finish 33rd overall despite running with only one shoe speaks to his talent (big props to freshmen Magness Naess for having the presence of mind to grab Sean’s spike with attached timing chip and then tossing it to Sean right before he crossed the finishing mat!) and certainly makes me wish for a do-over, which one does not get in our sport (there are no timeouts in XC)!  I really do believe teammates feed off each other’s energy during races, and Sean’s early tribulations threw his teammates a curveball to which they had trouble adjusting.  I saw the team first at the 1000 meter mark, where we actually were in the lead, but that fast early pace took its toll, and we’d faded badly by the next time I saw the group.

Despite the frustrating results, there were some genuine highlights in the varsity race.  Blake Evertsen won a hard fought battle with Soren Knudsen to defend the individual title he earned last year.  Knudsen took the pace out hard, but Blake ran savvy, patiently running his own race.  In conversation afterwards, he acknowledged that he’d had moments of doubt during the race, but, like the championship athlete he is, he managed to keep those doubts at bay.  With around 300 meters left in the race, Blake made a strong move to pass Soren and never looked back, crossing the line in 14:48.6, the fastest time ever on the newest version of the course.  Echoing Caveney’s sentiments, he said to me “that was hard.”   Truth teller that my role requires me to be, I replied, “it’s not going to get any easier.”  Conference opponents Kern, Loud, Zona, Kilrea, and Danner await, new tests for Blake to face in the weeks ahead.

Here is another HC success story: Ben Schnieders.  Consider Ben’s performances at HRD over the past three years:

2014-17:40-17th man on team

2015-16:52-13th man on team

2016-15:48.0-4th man on team


Young runners, that is how you do it.  Methodical consistent training is what got Ben to where he is.  Some guys are talented from the get go, but others, like Ben, grind it out.  I could not be prouder of him.

Senior Jacob Belgrad had a solid race, finishing 16th overall as our second man.  His decision to start out more conservatively paid dividends for him and he hung tough.  Fellow senior Jan Erik Naess may surprise some this season.  Barely two weeks after running 10:33 as our 12th man during our early season 3200 fitness test, Jan was our 6th man today and 28th overall.  He is whipping into shape fast, and hoping to make the most of his last year with the Red Devils.

Another Solid race was also turned in by junior Neil Cumberland, who finished 20th.  I’d remind him that Keegan’s older brother TJ was 19th at the HRD as a senior, and later finished 25th at state (for that matter, Jacob Belgrad might take note that Soren Knudsen was 16th last year at the HRD and went on to finish 11th at state!)  And while KLM tried to derail the efforts of Charlie Gelman who, like O’Connell, lost his shoe during the race (Charlie opted to then take off his other shoe as well and run barefoot, Tarahumara style) it was Gelman who won the fight, running a huge PR of 18:50 while beating his 3200 PR en route.


The Sophomores

Here is the most salient fact about the Sophomore race:


2015-Freshman team results

  1. Naperville North 58, 2. Naperville Central 81, 3. Palatine 124, 4. Metea Valley 134, 5. Neuqua Valley 146, 6. New Trier 172, 7. Wheaton Warrenville South 186, 8. HINSDALE CENTRAL 216, 9. Evanston 219, 10. Highland Park 282


2016-Sophomore team results

2016 HRD soph results

From eighth to first in one year!  This is a group that has a lot to be proud of.  The pieces began falling in place this past June, with the announcement from Keegan Caveney that he’d decided to take a leap of faith and join Cross Country instead of soccer.  Keegan had just come off a very strong freshmen track campaign, where he’d bonded with his freshmen teammates and started to become aware of his ability.  It helped that he comes from a running family: Dad, older brother TJ, and older sister Molly all ran for the Red Devils.  Perhaps part of explanation for the success of this 10th grade group is that four of the top five runners have older brothers who ran for us, so XC is something they’ve long been familiar with.  Our top man yesterday was Alec Hill, whose older brother Nathan just left this past Monday for his freshmen year at Middlebury College.

Alec pic

The KLM creek tried its best to conquer young Alec Hill, but what he lacks in size, Alec makes up in stature. Like Mo Farah in the Olympic 10K, Hill got right back up and finished strong in 3rd overall, leading the Sophs to victory.  Note to AD Jones: Cross Country is NOT too fun when you are towards the end of the race – it’s really hard(!) – but it sure is fun after, especially if you have the satisfaction of doing your best.

Our #4 man was Brandon Belgrad, younger brother of Jacob.  Brandon was 70th place last year as a freshmen and 12th this year, a testament to how committed he has become to the sport.  Our #5 man was Kevin Hopkins (nicknamed “K-Hop”) whose brother Jeff is entering his junior year at Auburn.

The one athlete of that top five who does not have an older brother is Matt Kusak, who perhaps had the race of the day yesterday.  After finishing 36th his freshmen year, Matt ran a spirited race to finish 4th overall.  Since I started coaching, the only HC athletes to finish higher in the Sophomore race (aside from Alec yesterday) were Blake Evertsen and Chris Brenk, both of whom were all-state athletes.  My favorite moment from yesterday’s meet was seeing a pack of Caveney, Kusak, Belgrad, and Hopkins about 1200 meters into the race trailing only Hill and three other frontrunners.  It was the realization of a goal the Sophomore group made with each other, independent of the coaching staff: to win HRD and redefine the identity of their grade level.  The Sophomores join the 2009 team as the only other champion at that level to win.  Tom and Michael Lyons, two members of that Sophomore team, were in attendance to watch the proceedings, their first time back watching the HRD since they graduated back in 2012.  In many ways, that 2009 Sophomore group changed what we believed to be possible at Hinsdale Central.  They were the first genuine champions we’d coached.  By improving so much in a single year, this current group not only gets to savor a victory, but has provided evidence for future teams of what can be accomplished through determination, focus, and commitment to teammates.


In the week leading up to the HRD, we have been trying to teach our freshmen about the history of Illinois high school cross country and the relationship of Hinsdale Central to that history.  Historically, we have never fared particularly well at our first big meet, but we have ample examples of athletes from our program making huge leaps from their freshmen to sophomore year (see above).  That said, we presented our freshmen with the following challenge: earn top 3, and they’d be the highest placing freshmen squad for Hinsdale Central at the HRD of the new millennium.  We fell a bit short of that goal, but the freshmen had a strong debut and finished fourth overall, which ties the 2012 freshmen for the best we’ve finished in this meet since before 2000.  This group ran a tight 17 second split off their top 6 runners to best teams from such storied programs as Neuqua Valley, Palatine, and Naperville North.  Chinmay Amin and Aaron Lu, former teammates from Westview Middle School, led us in 24th and 25th, with Steven Rakos, Will Fahy, Charlie Brubaker, and Carter McCarroll close behind.  We placed 12 runners in the top 100 of a race that had 247 total athletes, which speaks to the depth of this group.  Anand Yallapragada, Addison White, and Jack Kinsey all took over TWO FULL MINUTES off the time they’d run just four days earlier at DGN – as they are learning fast how to race.  And Daniel Skora, the smallest of our dimunitive freshmen group, took on an opponent a foot taller down the final straightaway, trading places several times in the final 100 meters before eking past in the final steps, a triumph I was pleased to witness.  Training will get you so far, but at moments like that, you must also have heart, and Skora showed his in that revelatory challenge.



When evaluating the overall team performance, I must say that I am very proud of how we competed at our first major invite.  Balancing all three levels together, this is the strongest team we’ve ever had:

Historical Overview of Hinsdale Central’s performance at Hornet-Red Devil Invitational

Freshman team place Sophomore team place Varsity team place Total combined place
2001 8th 7th 4th 19
2002 6th 5th 6th 17
2003 7th 2nd 12th 21
2004 9th 6th 4th 19
2005 6th 5th 11th 22
2006 8th 6th 9th 23
2007 5th 5th 10th 20
2008 7th 8th 5th 20
2009 7th 1st 6th 14
2010 6th 5th 5th 16
2011 8th 4th 4th 16
2012 4th 3rd 4th 11
2013 7th 3rd 1st 11
2014 6th 3rd 1st 10
2015 8th N/A 2nd 10*
2016 4th 1st 2nd 7


And of the 54 athletes who competed this past Tuesday in a tri-meet against Downers North and OPRF, literally all 54 improved their times by 40 seconds or more!


Every single athlete improved their time by at least 40 seconds from Tuesday’s meet at DGN. Athletes who improved by 2 minutes or more are highlighted.

So we return to work, spirits buoyed, reserves of resolve spilling over, ready anew for the hardest fifteen minutes of high school sport.

Summer Running Review – 2016

August 3, 2016 – End of ‘Summer Running’ Review


Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a blog in which I stated the following:

               In less than two weeks, we’ll all be back at school, books stuffed into backpacks, assignments begrudgingly sketched into crisp new student planners, the carefree days of summer no more than distant memories.  Actually, though, for a runner, the summer (or any season really) can never truly be carefree, as every new days brings a new workout to manage, and those precious unscheduled hours often include rolling out or ice cupping.  The transition to the school year is thus sometimes easier to manage for us, especially as it brings the promise of the official cross country season, and thus the beginning of meets we’ve been working towards for months.  Like any transitional period, now is a good time to reflect on where we’ve come from and look ahead to where we hope to be.  

As self-appointed team statistician, I proceeded to share ‘the data’ on our summer training, as I will shortly do again here.  As HCXC alums know, in 2012 we initiated the ‘1000 mile challenge’ in an effort to incentivize better training, a solid aerobic base being a prerequisite to late season success.  The aim is to run over 1000 miles between the first day of summer running and our Conference meet.  Of the hundreds of athletes who’ve been through our program over the past half-decade (the most successful period in the history of our program) only a handful dhave achieved this distinction.   They are:


*All seniors unless otherwise noted

2012: Chris Kennedy, Jack Keller, Ryan Somerfield, Ankit Aggarwal, Emmett Scully (jr)

2013: Emmett Scully, Kevin Huang, Aria Darbandi, Billy Magnesen, Josh Feldman (jr), Andrew Irvine (so), Matt McBrien (jr)

2014:  Matt McBrien, Josh Feldman, Stefan Rosas, Alex Lambert

2015:  Blake Evertsen (jr.), Chris Brenk , Andrew Irvine, John Bynan (jr.), Ryan Doorhy (jr.), Nicky Midlash (jr.), Nathan Hill


One way to quickly compare our team this year to past seasons is to consider July mileage.  I have compiled averages for most athletes dating back to 2012.  Here is the top 30 from 2012-2016

mileage pic 1


To be on pace for joining the 1000 mile club in 2016, a runner should have logged 392 miles by this point.  As you will see, we have 5 athletes currently ahead of pace, with 5 more not far off.  Current mileage is below for the 10 athletes with the highest summer mileage at this point in the season.  For basis of comparison, I have also included their mileage from previous seasons, when that information was available.

mileage pic 2


Our final few days of summer running were spent, as they have been the previous three seasons, in Kenosha, where we stay on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside to take advantage of the solitude as well as the nationally-renowned Cross Country course and attendant monster hill.  This year, the mini-camp featured a guest speaker, Don Kopriva, a journalist (for several decades he has been a correspondent for Track and Field News) and author, most recently of the book ‘Coming Back Strong’ which features interviews with 75 of our nation’s most accomplished male distance runners on how they dealt with injuries.  In discussing the book, Don recalled a conversation with a coach he encountered while selling his book at the annual ITCCCA clinic:

Random Coach: “Oh, I don’t need that book.  My guys don’t get injured.”

Kopriva: “You’re not a very good coach, then.”

His point was that, in our sport, those who want to be the best are always walking the proverbial ‘razor’s edge’ between excellence and injury.  No runner who stays in the game long enough will walk away unscathed.

A related topic discussed in Kenosha was “Grit.”  I’ve recently finished the book with that title by the psychologist Angela Duckworth and was eager to share what I learned with the assembled crew.  In short, what Duckworth discovered is that the best predictor of who will be able to regularly accomplish truly difficult tasks in not physical ability nor intelligence but rather, simply, a ‘never-give up’ attitude.  It’s not the person who never gets knocked down but the person who, every time they do get knocked down, gets right back and keeps fighting.

The connection here is that getting injured is the most difficult test any committed runner will face (far more, I think, than regular training and racing).  The successful individual and team will be the one that has the mental fortitude to keep going through the isolating periods of cross-training that injuries force.  And, like every previous season, we face that.  We’ll see how we manage.  Of Steven Zaher and John Bynan, two of our athletes dealing with injury right now, I can say that two grittier individuals would be hard to find.  If any two runners can endure the drudgery of cross-training, it is they.  As for the tests we’ve faced collectively, our grittiness is yet to be determined.  What identity will the 2016 team assume?  That’s why we run the races…



-I am excited about our incoming freshmen.  And a special shout-out goes to Coach Josh Vance and his Westview Middle School team, the source of two of our top incoming freshmen and many other younger athletes who joined us this summer.  Aaron Lu and Chinmay Amin, a duo I last year dubbed “Chindia” (referencing both their respective ethnic backgrounds, Chinese and Indian, and the projected future dominance of that region in world economics and of these two young runners within our state) have run 3200 times this summer that rank among the fastest anyone in our program has ever run at their age.  Will Fahey, a freshman who moved with his family to Hinsdale from Arizona, looks like a young Josh Feldman.  Carter McCarroll ‘bought in’ to Cross Country within one month of joining us, and has become our most consistent freshmen on logarun.  Emmett Drew, younger brother of alum Patrick, is excited to make a name for himself.  Will Rakos is eager to mix it up.  Danny Hoffman, Tom Borys, Lorenzo Jennings, Mason Steere, and Lincoln Virant all put in quality summers and should help us have one of our stronger freshmen squads in many years.


-The Sophomores, likewise, are looking strong.  We received a huge boost in June when we learned Keegan Caveney had decided to ‘make the leap’ from soccer to Cross Country.  Keegan, who first joined us last Track season, comes from a running family (his older brother TJ was all-state for us on our 2013 championship team, his older sister is one of best runners on a strong girls’ team, and his father Andy ran for HC in the mid-80s).  His addition solidifies a squad featuring Alec Hill, Matt Kusak, Fletcher Spillers, Brandon Belgrad, Bradley Davis, Anshul Sankaran, Chris Deligiannis, Charlie Carter, Josh Terry, Jack Gerami, Matt Sayre, and newcomer James Giltner.  Watch out for Bradley Davis, who had the most consistent summer of any Sophomore (and who brought younger brother Mitchell with him) and who will no doubt be on the PR train this fall.


-This summer I also initiated the first ever HC Boy’s Summer Track camp.  We had 12 high school athletes who came for three weeks, along with 18 middle schoolers who participated for one.  Anthony Carta, Colin Jay, Alex Ritz, and Jimmy McKay emerged from the camp as senior leaders, while the hurdle crew represented particularly well, with Jay, Ritz, Colin Chval, and newcomer Andrew Novotney getting in some key technical work.  The highlight of the camp was our first ever summer Community track meet held on July 15.  I invited alumni back for the event, so many were on hand to witness the festivities, including one Ted Owens, a star on our 2011 team who I hadn’t seen in a few years.  Owens recently graduated from Dartmouth and just moved to San Francisco to start a new job doing coding.  Owens led off our last 4*800 team to make finals.  One of his teammates, Jack Feldman, could not be in attendance, but emailed me earlier in the week to say hello.  Jack just started a job in Princeton, New Jersey at Bristol-Meyers-Squib.  Amazing to think these guys are college graduates.  Jack’s younger brother Josh was on hand, and participated in an unlikely event: the 110 hurdles (he dabbled in steeple chasing this past spring).  Doube-G Griffin Gartner doubled up by running both the open 400 and the 4*400.  Maxie Maydanchik showed he still has it outkicking Ryan Doorhy to win the 800 in a very respectable 2:08.

Moving the other direction in age, we also witnessed the Track meet debut of the young Belgrad twins, age 5.  Both boys raced each other in the 60 meter mini-hurdles and later in the ‘toddler 20.’  One decade hence, they’ll be at HC, where I hope and expect to still be.  Jacob and Brandon will be the alumni then, adding length to the growing ‘red line.’


HCXC and Track, past and present, gathered for the first annual Hinsdale Central Summer Community Track Meet, held this past July 15th


-Thanks to the initiative taken by Neuqua Valley head XC coach Paul Vandersteen, our summer started off with a speech from Donn Behnke, former coach of Stevens Point (WI) high school and author of the recent (excellent) book “The Animal Keepers.”  Coach Behnke shared the story of his 1985 team, a special one due to the arrival of Scott “the animal” Longley, a student living in a group home who made up for his lack of social awareness with his fierce competitiveness and love of team.  Coach Behnke’s speech reminded us what makes Cross Country such a unique sport – by joining the team and meeting its physical demands, Scott found a sense of belonging he’d never had before; in turn, he helped his teammates achieve at a level they’d not have been able to accomplish without him.

On a personal level, Behnke’s book, as well as his speech, hit close to home.  He referred to the 1985 season as the one in which he transitioned from “Coach as big brother to Coach as parent.”  I find myself in a similar transition.  Gone are the days when I could lead every workout; gone, also, the hours of time to devote to writing blogs.  In its place, a newly earned maturity that comes with being directly responsible for another individuals’ life and well-being.  The fact of the matter is that my relationship with our current runners will likely be different than the one I have with Billy Fayette, Zach Withall, and others of their era.  I hope, though, to help each runner realize their own individual potential, the same hope I share for my daughter.


-And speaking of Neuqua Valley, a recent national ranking released by tullyrunners.com (using some kind of complex algorithm) ranks them as the #1 team in the country (we are, surprisingly, ranked #26).  With all the usual caveats about the futility and meaninglessness of pre-season rankings, I can say this with absolute certainty: Neuqua Valley will have a great team this year, as they always do.  And we get to face off against them at our first invitational of the season, the hallowed “Hornet-Red Devil Invitational” on September 3, exactly one month from today.  Let the games begin!

What I learned as a Distance Coach by working with Sprinters

This past weekend, I made my annual pilgrimage down to Charleston for the final meet of the season with my Assistant Coaches and our 10 state qualifiers.  Most of those state qualifiers were distance runners.  One was a high jumper.  None were sprinters.  That should give some context on how successful I was in my first year coaching the fast kids.  That being said, the sprint corps and I made halting progress together this year.  We succeeded in getting many of the better football players to join us, won in the sprint relays a couple of times on the lower levels, and only twice all season dropped a baton (the one measure by which we are better than the US National team).


The Track/FB connection

A far better blogger than I, Tony Holler, has written extensively about how crucial it is for Track teams to partner up with Football, and how often ego, stubbornness, and antiquated thinking prevents this from happening:  see here, here, and here.  Being well-read in the ‘Holler’ canon, as soon as I took the position of head Track Coach, I knew the very first action I needed to take was to go directly to our head football coach, Dan Hartman, to ask what I could do to earn his support.  I had a few things going for me: first, Dan is a former Track guy, a sub-40 300 hurdlers in his high school days in Indiana.  Second, we teach in the same department – in fact, in the same room (believe it or not, Hinsdale Central has inadequate facilities, so sharing of rooms is commonplace, though these unhappy circumstances proved fortuitous in my case).  Third, we have another colleague in our department, Chris Korfist, who is at the forefront of bringing Track and Football together, and who is unquestionably one of the very best sprint coaches in the nation.  Dan and I both lean heavily on Chris for advice on how to improve the speed and strength of our athletes.  And Chris, to his eternal credit, has been incredibly open to sharing ideas with us – within days of my promotion to head coach, he began feeding me journal articles and links to current research and helped me develop a training program, and throughout the season has offered encouragement and support.  That Chris, Dan, and I all teach in the same department is an unusual but happy coincidence which smoothed my path by making it easier for me to earn trust.  I’d established some credibility by helping to build up our Cross Country program and was able to gain more simply by interfacing with Chris and Dan each day, keeping them abreast of our progress and comparing notes on our shared athletes.

I was also lucky to have Christian Bobak as a senior leader.  Christian was Hinsdale Central’s star running back, and was offered a spot on University of Illinois’ roster for next season (he leaves for training camp in two weeks).  He was also a four-year track guy who was not an elite athlete from the beginning, but who became one through focus, determination, hard work, and growth.  Bobak brought instant credibility to the idea that Track and Football are complimentary.  He also proved a great role model for pushing back against the trend, all too common in our school, of seniors in their second semester dropping out of athletics.


Senior Track/Football star Christian Bobak, anchoring our 4*200 at Sectionals

So, of the 10 athletes that competed in the sprint events (100, 200, 4*100, 4*200) at the Outdoor Conference Meet, 7 were Football players.  Our two best frosh/soph horizontal jumpers (Robert Banda and Joey DiJohn) were freshmen football players.  Four of our six throwers at Conference played football (Phil Barrett, Drew Christensen, Matt Bjorson, and Owen Joyce).  On our total roster, we had 40 guys who played football: 4 hurdlers, 5 horizontal jumpers, 5 high jumpers, 10 throwers, 15 ‘pure sprinters’ and 1 guy who joined middle distance.  By comparison, we had only 6 guys on the entire team who played soccer for Hinsdale Central in the fall: Freshman hurdling sensation Ethan Ruth, freshman distance runner Keegan Caveney (whose older brother TJ was a member of our first state champion Cross Country team), sophomore middle distance runner Luca Karginov, Sophomore middle distance runner Matt Alvero, senior sprinter Matt Hillock, and senior middle distance runner Steven Coan (who came out for the first time as a senior and ended up as our top 400 runner, finishing 3rd in conference with a PR of 50.7).


Senior Stephen Coan powers home to a surprising 3rd place at Conference.  Coan was one of only six soccer players to join our team.

From the winter sports, we managed to recruit three basketball players (all of them freshmen: sprinter Charlie Lyne and high jumpers Hayden Waters and Danell Nicholson.  Nicholson finished 4th in conference at the Soph level and had a PR of 5’6”).  We had twelve wrestlers.  We had two swimmers.  Oh, and we had 63 Cross Country runners.

Of those 40 Football guys, only 3 were seniors and 7 are juniors.  The key for our team will be keeping the 30 frosh/soph guys and adding to those numbers each year, while also trying to cultivate the kind of relationship we have with the football team with the basketball and soccer programs.  If we manage that, I like our chances.


Top Speed

Here is one thing distance runners hardly ever do: see just how fast you can run.  I don’t mean see how fast you can cover 200 or 400 or even 50 meters.  I mean see what is the absolute fastest velocity you can reach in a single moment.  What is your top miles per hour you can reach?  I’d previously look at a workout like 4*10 meter flys and just not get it. How could 40 meters of work be sufficient for a workout?  Pretty much every Monday all season consisted of the same workout: a dymanic sprint warm-up with lots of bounding, spiking up, then 4 fly 10s intermixed with prime times or mini hurdles and, by outdoor, 4 block starts of 20-30 meters.  Then, a lacate workout (such as 3*150) on Wednesday and  meet Friday or Saturday.  That’s it.  The goal is to be explosive.

We did use the Freelap system, which I liked a lot.  I love the instantaneous feedback.  I took me some time in the first week to figure out how to use the system, but now I can have it set up and running within a few minutes.  I did find, though, that guys with fast fly 10s or even fast 40s did not always become our best 100 and 200 runners.  A challenge I face is figuring out how to help a kid who is fast over 10 meters carry that through the longer track sprints.  You’ll never hear of a football player rushing for a 200 yard gain.


Sophomore Garrett Oakey and Freshman Luke Skokna are both excellent Football Players who chose to come out for Track.  Skokna was also a state qualifier in wrestling.  Both contributed to successful Sophomore relays: 1st place in the 4*100 at the Bud Mohn’s Invite, 1st place in the 4*200 at the LT Relays, 2nd place in the 4*100 at Outdoor Conference. Skokna was also 3rd in the 100 and 4th in the 200 at Conference; Oakey 7th in the 100 and 5th in the 200.   


And speaking of challenges, probably the biggest adjustment for me this year has been having less time to focus on my own physical well-being, and, relatedly, a loss in the time I have to develop relationships with the athletes I coach.  For the past decade as a distance coach, I’ve run virtually every workout with the team.  Up until my daughter was born (on November 19, 2015) I’d not run less than 50 miles per week in almost four years.  By running with the distance guys on a nearly daily basis most days of the year, I got to know them very well: what makes them tick, their hopes and dreams as well as greatest fears, their personality quirks and outside interests.  You can find out a lot about someone by running alongside them for 90 minutes every Monday all summer and Fall.  Less so when they are running flys.  I tried to make sprint practices short but efficient, and thus simply had less face to face time with the athletes in that group than I do with my distance runners.  There were some opportunities to learn about their lives through informal conversations on meet days or on bus rides, but figuring out ways to develop a genuine bond will take time and creativity.  It is what I felt I had to sacrifice the most this season as I moved to coaching sprinters and also took on the many administrative responsibilities of head coach (organizing home meets, keeping track of attendance and uniforms, managing the budget, establishing and revising lineups, submitting entries, planning the team banquet, etc.)


It was also always an advantage to ask an athlete to do something that they knew you would be doing as well.  I ran 25*400 with the guys, and so when I asked the distance runners to dig deep within themselves to find the reserves to get through a tough workout, they’d respect me for doing the same myself.  I spoke their language.  With our sprinters, though, I have the challenge of bridging cultures: I am 5’7” and 120 pounds and could probably be picked up and thrown by Drew Christensen and Phil Barrett, our top discuss throwers.  I never played organized football growing up.  I don’t know Xs and Os.  My authority this year came largely due to the fact that the football players knew Coach Hartman approved of my leadership.  Trying to earn their respect on my own has not been easy.  It’s the difference between coaching a sport you played yourself versus coaching a sport you haven’t.  I can explain the theory and can administer workouts, but I don’t know the gut level feeling of what a good block start feels like, or a clean exchange. I imagine this is what many coaches struggle with – projecting confidence in an area where you know you are still a relative novice.  It’s a little like travelling in a non-English speaking foreign country.  You do the best you can, try really hard to fit in, smile and nod a lot, but deep down feel pretty self-conscious and insecure.  Feeling adequate will take a lot more time and hard work.

Year one as a head coach has been hard, as I expected it would be.  Indoors, I spent mornings before school working with the sprinters and afternoons running the workout outside in the Midwestern wintry conditions with the distance guys, taught as best I could during the day, and tried to be a supportive husband and father at night.  And Track is a very long season, so this was difficult to sustain.  By outdoors, the weather improved (somewhat) but the intensity did not abate.  Between May 4th and May 15th we competed in 5 meets (three of which we hosted), had the conference seed meeting and held our team banquet.  I owe thanks to my own cross country and track coaches for instilling me with the fortitude to manage such challenges.  Those 11 days were craziest of the season, but offered plenty of excitement which helped sustain me through, from freshmen Matt Kusak, Keegan Caveney, and Alec Hill all running 10:22 at the LT/York tri on May 4th to Jared Neumann earning the 110 Hurdle Conference title at DGN on the 13th.  One great thing about being head coach is it makes every moment of every meet meaningful, as there is always an HC athlete competing.  I not only have a newfound appreciate for sprinting, but for throwing, jumping, and hurdling as well.


Senior team MVP Jared Neumann seals victory in the Conference 110 High Hurdles

In conclusion, the year has forced me far outside my comfort zone, but that, of course, is where the most growth occurs (it’s what we’re constantly preaching to the athletes we coach).  Hinsdale Central boy’s Track has no significant legacy to speak of: one outdoor conference title (in 2004) since World War II, no state trophies, only a handful of all-state athletes over the past decades and no all-state relays yet.  There is tremendous room for growth, and I think I know the path to get there.  But knowing and executing are two very different things and in this sport you are never far away from a clipped hurdle, a step one inch beyond the line, a baton just out of grasp.  Therein lies the challenge, therein the elusive reward.


Mid-season reflections

Let me begin by offering an obvious but important personal statement: my life today is completely unrecognizable from what it was half a year ago.  You don’t know what you don’t know.  It’s a false equivalency to suggest that becoming a parent is like becoming a head Coach, but it’s fair to say that both require tremendous amounts of on-the-job learning, both can bring extreme physical exhaustion but also genuine fulfillment and sense of purpose.


I last posted a blog on January 3rd, one day before returning to Hinsdale Central for the beginning of second semester.  The absence of text here should give some indication of how busy the intervening months have been.  Yesterday was the first Monday I’ve had of 2016 where I was not struggling to keep my eyes open as the clock ticked past 9:00 p.m., mind full to bursting with the list of tasks awaiting for the morrow.  The first day of the week had heretofore started with a 5:00 a.m. wakeup call followed by morning  sprint practice at 5:45, intensely focused class and track prep work from 7:00-8:45, a full day of teaching, afternoon distance practice from 3:15-5:45, then a short and happily tired car ride home for my first chance of the day to see my wife and daughter awake.  Then dinner, usually one parent eating while the other attends to Clio, then switching roles (gone are the days of the long, relaxed meal).  By the time the dishes are loaded, floor swept, coffee made, and tomorrow’s lunch prepared we’d have perhaps an hour together before trying to go to bed, though we’d been stripped of the illusion of control we once thought we exercised over when that precise moment would be.


All athletes I coach have busy lives, their parents even more so.  I can look back to previous times in my life when I thought I was maxed out, only to realize that what I was doing then seems eminently manageable by my current standards.  I have a newfound admiration for parents with multiple children, and for single parents taking on the daunting task of providing for their children alone.  In this respect, it is a true privilege to be a coach; I am fortunate enough to have the time, even with an infant, to devote to a vocation I love.  With due respect to the administrator who told me, ‘of course, you are a teacher first and a coach second’ I don’t see those roles as distinct.  In fact, I can now confidently add parent into that identity mix – as all three titles: teacher/coach/parent have the same objective: to assist the growth and development of the young.


And no matter one’s mastery over content, the truest challenge for a teacher/coach/parent is to motivate the young, to light the flame of passion (to borrow a phase) which will help the pupil become self-directed.  And in this respect, I think our track team has made tremendous progress so far, though it may not be fully reflected yet on the results page.


If there is one accomplishment I am most proud of so far after the end of our indoor season, it is the new sense of shared mission we now have.  I have witnessed the slow process of our very large team beginning to coalesce around the idea that we are capable of contending for the top spots in the meets we participate in.  Of all the changes we made from last year, perhaps the single most significant was the institution of weekly team meetings.  We now meet every Tuesday in the Dance Studio, all 165 team members crammed together in a narrow rectangular room with wood floors and mirrored walls (magnifying our size to infinite proportions).  In this intimate space, we convene weekly to cover administrative issues such as uniform distribution or practice times but more importantly to publicly give recognition to those who earned it in the previous week’s meet and to inspire each other on to even greater achievements.  It has become a weekly ritual that we collectively value.


During these Tuesday meetings, we do our ‘shout outs’ to the athletes who shined most brightly in the week before.  This is often an athlete who scored high in their event, though sometimes it is an athlete who saw a massive improvement in their performance even if they did not place in the meet.


One of the challenges of writing about a team as large as ours is that all 165 individual athletes deserve recognition, but that is not a feasible task for a single blog post.  Instead, as a way to tell the story of our season so far, I offer a week-to-week accounting of our ‘shout outs,’ as this will offer some indication of the diversity and depth of our team (text taken verbatim from the weekly powerpoints I composed):


Week Four: Little Four Invite

Matt Cangelosi – 1st place, 400 with only one week of training; Won the frosh/soph level as a freshman in his first ever high school track race


Justin Taylor – 2nd place, Frosh/Soph High Jump; Jumped 5’4” in his first ever high school track meet; This mark would have placed him 4th in WSC Indoors last year, 3rd in 2014…and he has only been jumping for three week


Joey DiJohn-3rd in 200 (26.9); 4th in Long Jump (16’4”); Only a freshmen


Nick Biancalana-3rd in Pole Vault (6’6”); Has only been vaulting for 3 weeks; First time competing in a high school track meet


Kaidi Hu-3rd in Frosh/Soph 400 (62.5); 1st time ever running the event in an open race; Rolling 40 time indicated he might have some ability in this event


Colin Jay-Surprise winner of Varsity 400 (57.3); Also looked good in 55LH


Varsity 4*400 of Bobak, Muhammad, Carta, Hillock-Beat a DGN team that set a school record


Week Five: Proviso Quad

Owen Joyce-Wins Soph level of the Shot Put as a freshman; First time ever competing in a meet


Alec Hill-Wins Frosh/Soph 3200 by 47 seconds!  Sets a PR by 34 seconds! Had a stress fracture that prevented him from competing in Cross Country, but is now fully healthy; Going to be a huge contributor to this team


Liam Burke-3rd place in Frosh/Soph High Jump; PR of 5’2”; Only a freshmen; Ran a great 200 – almost 3 seconds faster than his time from the Little Four


Nicky Midlash-4th place in 3200; Ran a PR by 26 seconds! Also ran a PR in the 400; Missed all of his sophomore Track season due to surgery


Ben Hall-5th place in Varsity High Jump; PR of 5’8”; Missed all of Junior Year due to injury; Second PR in two weeks


Matt Ostrowski, David Vachlon, Alex Smirnov-Finished 4th, 5th, and 6th in Frosh/Soph 600; All are new to Track; Ostrowski also finished 5th in the Frosh/Soph High Jump


Week Six: Proviso West Invitational

Kareem Muhammad-4th in 55 (6.51), 4th in 200 (23.07), 6th in Triple Jump (43’4”); Ran lead leg of 6th place 4*200 (22.6 split); Earned 19 points for the team – this is more than 7 teams scored TOTAL


Sean O’Connell, Steven Zaher, Alec Hill, Neil Cumberland-Won the F/S 4*800 against several of the best distance teams in state; Less than 1 second off 24-year old school record


Cullen Fitzgerald-Wins the Soph High Jump at hugely competitive meet; Sets a PR of 6’0”; Closing in on school record (6’2”) for sophs


Phil Barrett-Sets PR by over 2 feet!  Breaks 40’ Barrier for first time; Senior leader in the throws group


Week Seven: HC Invite

Luke Skokna and Ethan Ruth-Both broke school records; Ethan’s time in 55HH (7.8) smashes the freshman indoor record and breaks the soph record; Luke’s time in the 55 breaks the frosh record; His time in the 200 was very close to breaking school record 24.7 handtime=24.96.  School record is 24.73 FAT; This was Luke’s first high school track meet


Darnell Nicholson-2nd in high jump (5’4”); Only a freshmen; 1st ever high school track meet


Brandon Belgrad and Keegan Caveney-Newest members of ‘sub 5’ club; Both ahead of the pace of their older brothers(Jacob ran 5:06 at this meet freshman year, while Brandon ran 4:53;  Keegan broke 5 in his third ever track meet – TJ, who went on to be all-state, did not break 5:00 until Sophomore year)


Jeff Dang-Finishes 2nd in Shot Put (42’3”); 3 foot PR


Long Jumpers-Every Long Jumper had a PR; Robert Banda was 2 inches from tying the freshman indoor record; Varsity goes 3-4-5, Frosh/Soph go 1-4-5-6


Frosh/Soph Team-Scored in every single event; This is the first time this season we have done that at any meet on any level; Scored over twice as many points as the second place team (195 to 87)


Week Eight: Hinsdale South and Batavia Meets

Wilson Cook – 20 second PR in the 1600


Charlie Lyne -Fastest 55, 4 lap relay split, and 200 of anyone on the team (except Zajeski & Johnson)


Chris Koldras, Donald Brorson, Ian Stevenson, Joe Glasby, Andrew Tobia – All ran PRs despite less than ideal track conditions


From Batavia – Huge 3200 PRs for Kusak, Miscimarra, and Cumberland; Huge 800 PRs for Naess, Coan, Guth, and Schiavitti; Huge 1600 PRs for Hopkins, Frank, and Zaher


Week Nine: Indoor Conference Championships

Varsity-Kareem -> 26 points, Jared Neumann -> 20 points, Blake Evertsen -> 14 points


Sophomore-Ethan Ruth -> 22 points; Robert Banda -> Breaks frosh record in the Triple Jump.  Previous record set in 1989; O’Connell/Zaher -> 17 combined points in the toughest double in Track and Field


JV and Freshmen – Charlie Lyne – wins 55 and 200; Colin Chval – wins 55 LH and 55 HH; MD3 Group – 15 of 15 guys ran PRs!



In reviewing the ‘shout out’ list, I see already the inherent limitation in the endeavor: it simply cannot do justice to all the individual highlights we’ve experienced already.  No mention got made of Garrett Oakey, a Sophomore who was moved up to Varsity for football this Fall and who has already made an impact after making a difficult but admirable decision to commit to the Track Team, qualifying for finals in both the 55 and 200 at Indoor Conference.  Chris Brenk, already an established Cross Country talent, is in the midst of a dramatic comeback from surgery that sidelined him over winter break.  Nathan Hill is emerging as one of the premier mid-distance runners in the state, running within .5 seconds of our school indoor record.  Jack Borys, an unheralded Sophomore, broke through at JV Conference shaving his 1600 PR by 25 seconds in a single race en route to a 5:07, making the 5:00 barrier his logical new goal.  Guys brand new to the sport are now point scorers at the conference level: Bernard Wong in the Long Jump, Sam Schiavitti in the 600, Jack Chen in the Triple Jump, Max Kuropas in the 4*200.


The single analytic that best tells the story of our progress so far is one I have previously shared on twitter and in our weekly team meeting: of all teams in the West-Suburban Silver division, none improved as much in a single year as us.

Most Improved – 2015 Indoor Conference to 2016 Indoor Conference


TEAM 2015 Results 2016 Results Point differential
  SOPH Varsity Combined SOPH Varsity Combined  
Hinsdale Cent. 28 60 88 78.33 77.5 155.83 +67.83
Proviso West 6 58 64 63 60 123 +59
OPRF 98 116 214 148.5 118 266.5 +52.5
Glenbard West 38 54 92 73.83 60.5 134.33 +42.33
LT 110 82 192 79 81 160 -32
DGN 137 41 178 36 80 116 -62
York 110 115 225 45.33 50 95.33 -129.67


We are at the midpoint of a season that I know I will always distinctly remember, with a very specific team goal known to all members of the team and coaching staff.  It is a goal that will not at all be easy to accomplish, but one whose pursuit will bring enough sense of pride and purpose to offset the vast amounts of physical and mental exhaustion yet to come.

New Goals for a New Year


The first blog entry I ever wrote was published on June 15, 2012.  I had decided to use the extra time afforded by the summer months to begin an on-going narrative which aimed to reflect on lessons learned from seasons’ past, chronicle the efforts of the current squad, and offer both motivation and praise to team members.  I had no expectations or grand designs, but began writing simply as an experiment, hoping that telling a story of our team in a manner different than the traditional newspaper articles might have the benefit of inspiring the individuals I coached to see their efforts as part of something bigger than themselves.  I was not sure if, or how long, the blog would continue, nor had I much inkling of what the next few years would hold in store for our program.  I did, however, have high aspirations, as that very first post, read with the benefit of hindsight, reveals:


June 15, 2012-Entry #1-Looking back, looking ahead 
As a new season of Cross Country is about to get underway, I thought it would be useful to think back on how our most recent track season ended as a way of setting the stage for the incoming group. As you all know, the last Hinsdale Central runners to feel the track beneath their feet in the 2012 season were Ted Owens, Neil Pedersen, Jack Feldman, and Mike Korompilas in the state finals of the 3200 meter relay. That race will be one I always remember and seems, in retrospect, an appropriate coda to that particular senior class, and an end to a significant chapter in the development of our program. The race contained in less than eight minutes all the elements of epic drama: underdogs doing battle against well-seasoned opponents, thrilling surges, moments of ecstasy and agony, and, ‘ultimately, a conclusion that fell just short of our dreams.  (NOTE: In the final straightaway of the second leg, Neil Pedersen pulled us into the lead, but in the end, we finished 11th, just out of the medals). Nonetheless, the four runners on that relay could leave with their heads held high, and as coaches, we could not have been prouder.


In short, I think the 2011-2012 year will be remembered as the seasons that marked our program’s arrival as one of the premier distance squads in state: we were regional champions in Cross Country, runner-up at Conference and Sectionals, and reached state for the second straight year…The challenge, then, for the 2012 XC team is to prove to the state that we are not ‘one-hit wonders’ but a perennial powerhouse. The 2010 and 2011 teams laid a solid foundation, and it is now our privilege and duty to build upon it.


As the year 2016 begins, I find myself, and our program, at another transition point.  In May of 2016 I will turn 36.  Half of that life was spent as a child and a student in grade schools.  The other half constituted college and graduate school, joining the teaching profession, getting married, buying a home, and, finally, becoming a father.  Now a third phase of life begins, marked foremost by being a parent but secondarily by taking on a new role as head Track and Field Coach.


I take over the position of head coach from Jim Kupres, who I have worked with for the past decade on both the Cross Country and Track teams.  Jim will remain on staff, assisting with the middle distance runners.  I am fortunate to be taking over a staff that he largely assembled, which is among the most competent and motivated in state.  It is my challenge to build upon the foundation he established, and it is my goal to take the team to a new level; while we’ve achieved great success with our Cross Country program over the past few years, the Track and Field team has not yet developed to the point where we can challenge perennially for the conference or sectional titles, to say nothing of contending for a trophy at state.


Part of my decision to apply for the head coach position was the opportunity to share my passion for this sport with a wider audience.  My hope is that members of the track team from events beyond distance will begin to read this blog, along with their parents (though, admittedly, now that I myself am a parent, the opportunities to write blog posts may be fewer).


In that spirit, let me offer that hoped for new audience a brief explanation of how the blog has evolved and of how I hope to use it in my new capacity as head coach.


I have several groups I hope to reach through this blog: first and foremost, current and former team members, along with their friends and family.  Secondly, the wider high school cross country and track community, including athletes and coaches from other teams.  My goals include profiling current team members, telling bits of our program’s history, offering context for meets beyond what can be read through a look at the results page, putting forth ideas about how to improve our team and our sport, educating athletes and families about the unique challenges posed by Cross Country and Track, and sharing some of my own experiences running and coaching, which have informed my approach.


If there is one major idea that animates my coaching philosophy, it is that there is a great sense of purpose one feels in working together with a group towards a common goal.  In Cross Country, our goal the past three years has been to earn a trophy at state.  In 2013 and 2014, we exceeded those goals, not just getting a trophy, but winning outright.  Those state titles will forever be two of my proudest achievements, and memories of those two November days continue to make me smile.  In 2015, we fell short of our goal, but the pursuit of it was no less purposeful.


I don’t try to sell our sport by arguing that it will be fun.  Training is not comfortable, and I don’t pretend otherwise.  However, learning how to manage that discomfort leads to growth.  Speaking personally, I rarely enjoy my runs, but I almost always feel good after finishing.  I feel accomplished and I feel fit.  The daily pain and discomfort brought on by running with the team at practice is more than offset by the fulfilling sense of identity I get as a coach for the Hinsdale Central Cross Country and Track teams.  I hope it will be so for the kids I coach as well.


As their coach, what I hope to instill is genuine confidence that comes from achieving something that seemed impossible.  The most rewarding moments of coaching come from when an athlete has that ‘breakthrough’ race and suddenly realizes they are capable of much more than they’d once believed.  Our role as coaches is to try to identify that potential in athletes before they see it in themselves, and then guide them to discovering it.


This guidance can differ depending on the particular sport, but the common elements include setting high expectations and holding student/athletes to them, pushing students to never give less than their best at practice, teaching them how to handle the pressure of major competitions, helping them see evidence of their improvement, and celebrating their accomplishments with them.  We have generally managed to uphold these values, and will continue to do so.  That part won’t change.


So what will be different in 2016 for the Hinsdale Central Track and Field team?

-We will be meeting together as a team every Monday.  This is part of our efforts to promote a greater sense of team unity, something sorely lacking in some years past.

-We welcome to our staff our new throws coach, Mr. Dan Daly.  Coach Daly spent the last 14 years as the throws coach over at Hinsdale South, where he also has served as an assistant varsity football coach.  This past fall, he helped the Hornets Football team reach the final four, their best ever finish.  Coach Daly brings a wealth of knowledge and experience, along with great enthusiasm and a refreshingly upbeat attitude.  He will be an excellent addition to our staff.

-We will have a new free lap timing system which will allow us to get accurate split times for distances as short as ten meters, which will greatly assist in our sprints training.  The ‘freelap system’ is cutting edge technology that is used by many of the best track coaches across the country.  Thanks to a generous grant from the Hinsdale Central boosters, we were able to get one for our program.

-We will have a new logo as a symbolic representation of our new identity:


This identity will be rooted in a common quest: to win a conference outdoor title, something we have achieved only once since World War II on the varsity level; and to have all team members finish the season faster and stronger than when they started.


To be a bit high minded, it is my hope that we can take the diverse and disparate parts of our track team and out of them form a whole.  We’ll have 300 pound throwers and 100 pound freshman distance runners, 9th graders and 12th graders, guys coming to us from soccer, football, and cross country (among other sports), guys of different ability levels and from different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.  It should truly be the most diverse team in the school. Heterogeneity poses challenges: how do you get people so different to find common cause?  But diversity also can be a source of strength, as creativity is fostered by the clash of different ideas.   My hope is to incubate a culture that embraces these differences while also channeling them in the same direction, towards a sense that we are all working for the same cause, like different battalions of a military all fighting, some by land, some by sea, some by air, for the same ideals.


It can sound silly, but I refuse to give up my romantic notions about sport.  Though many of the Track and Field events are much more technical skills than cross country running, it is the spirit of competition that lies at the heart of both.  Let us, HC tracksters, strive to achieve that famous Latinate trifecta: citius, altius, fortius.  So long as we join that quest together, I promise the effort will be worthwhile.

On the birth of my daughter



First, a disclaimer: I struggled with whether it would be appropriate to publish this blog, as the topic is personal more than professional, and the subject only tangentially related to running and coaching.  The name Clio comes from Greek mythology: she was a daughter of Zeus and the muse of history.  And she is my muse for this atypical post, which I am writing simply because it is my impulse, my way to process.  And because, some day, I’ll be grateful that I took time to record my thoughts – Clio will have a written record, from her father, of the day of her birth.  I have decided to share that record here because a few people asked me to do so, and because significant life events like births (and deaths, marriages, graduations) can alter one’s world view profoundly: if ever there was a time to offer insight and perspective to the young men I coach (one goal of this blog) this would seem to be it.


We’ll start the story on the night of Wednesday, November 18th.  Megan and I had planned a ‘date night,’ our weekly ritual of going out to a nice dinner, an always welcome occasion which we knew would become increasingly less frequent in the months ahead.  On a whim, we chose to go to Talley’s Kitchen and Bar in Clarendon Hills, a spot I’d passed many times but never before dined at.  We had a lovely meal: vegetable risotto and club soda with lime for Megan, steak frites with red wine for me, and talked through Christmas present ideas, little knowing how dramatically our lives would be changing within the next 24 hours (Megan’s due date was November 29th, so we both figured we had some time left).


Without going into too much detail, I can say that it was on our short walk through downtown Clarendon Hills that Megan first realized her labor was beginning, though it would be another hour before I became privy to that information.  We made one last errand on our way home, to the Verizon store on 75th and route 83 to upgrade Megan’s phone.  It was after exiting the Verizon store that Megan grabbed my arm, looked at me, and said, “I think it’s time.”


We tried to stay calm.  Went home.  Packed bags.  Megan showered and I shaved.  I contacted my Department Chair to let her know I’d need a substitute for the next few days, and hastily prepared lesson plans to give to whoever that might be (alas, I had to delegate to the substitute one of my favorite lessons, on King’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail,” one of America’s most beautifully written and righteous essays).  We completed our usual evening chores, focusing on the mundane to keep the nervousness at bay: emptied the dishwasher, filled up the coffee pot (though turned the timer off on this occasion), swept and vacuumed.  And then we loaded up the car, and off we went, fairly well-prepared all things considered (though lacking winter clothes, something we didn’t realize we’d need).


The drive from home to the hospital was surreal: we came via an unusually quiet Madison street, passing by the high school before cutting through downtown Hinsdale, where shopkeepers were just then closing down for the night.  We entered the labor and delivery wing of Adventist Hinsdale Hospital just after 10:00 p.m., got checked in, and met with the nurse on duty.  She ran a test on Megan to determine if the labor had indeed begun, and the results came back negative.  The palpable effects of adrenaline subsided immediately upon hearing this news, though the nurse told us that the doctor wanted to run one additional test, just to be sure.  As Megan and I waited for these new results, we began the process of reorienting our mental frames back to the ordinary, summoned the will to be patient just a while longer.


The nurse finally returned after an hour, even though she’d told us she’d be back in 30 minutes after she left with the test sample.  With a grin, she said: “Well, look’s like you are staying!”  Megan and I could only look at each other in wonderment.


Our nurse suggested we try to get rest, as the most difficult phases of labor would not likely begin until the next day’s sunrise.  Megan called her twin sister Liz with the news, and then we tried our best to sleep, though dreams came fitfully.


True to the nurses’ word, contractions came more regularly the following morning.  I will spare you the details, other than to note the obvious that the labor progressed as it has for time immemorial.  As the hours ticked by, we came to know our nurse better, and to meet other members of the hospital staff.  Shirley, our nurse, hailed from the Philippines, one of 11 kids.  She had two grown children, both of whom had graduated from Hinsdale South.  In a few days, she’d be hosting Thanksgiving for over 50 relatives.  She had a perfect bedside manner and a wealth of wisdom to share about birthing based on her 34 years of on the job experience.  Megan was as comfortable as it is possible to be at that stage of labor, reassured by Shirley’s competence and compassion.


Liz had arrived earlier that morning, and the two of us worked together to keep up Megan’s spirits and to keep her calm and prepared for the hardest phase of the labor soon to come.  By late afternoon, Shirley began prepping the table for the baby’s delivery.  We chatted amiably with her, excitement growing as we knew the time for meeting our baby approached ever closer.  Our genial conversation was interrupted, though, as Shirley radioed for ‘a friend’ to come assist her.  Then, chaos.


Before I could realize what was happening, there was a swarm.  Nurses and midwives rushed in.  Somebody pulled an oxygen mask from the wall, placed it over Megan’s mouth, and ordered her to breathe into it.  Plugs were yanked out of the wall by shaking hands.  The brakes on Megan’s hospital bed were released, and she was rushed out of our room, down a hallway and through double doors.  I chased after but was prevented from entering the surgical wing by a forceful but sympathetic nurse.


I was escorted back to the now eerily silent delivery room, and Liz and I looked at each other speechlessly.  Those moments of sheer panic were followed by foreboding and worry.  There was nothing to do but wait, and in those minutes I thought about how long it had taken us to conceive, how truly momentous the task of being pregnant and giving birth is (young men, you have NO IDEA how much hard work, dedication, and discipline is involved in pregnancy – our distance training, challenging though it may be, does not even begin to compare).  Should anything happen to Megan or our baby, I was not sure how either of us would ever recover from the devastation.


Mercifully, the wait for news was not long.  A midwife who was at the hospital to assist another patient had heard of our distress and came to offer the calming balm of information.  “Megan and the baby are both stable” she reported, and Liz and I both breathed sighs of relief, though we couldn’t yet let go of all fears.  Not long after, a nurse came to get me, telling me that it was now OK for me to join Megan in the surgical wing.  She brought me through the vaunted double doors, and gave me scrubs and facemask to wear.  Shakily, I put on the protective blue outer covers, and before I could even finish I heard the cries of our baby.  They brought me into the room, and the doors opened onto what will be one of the indelible images of my life: a glance first to the corner of the room where nurses were attending to our minutes old baby, and then to Megan, lying on the surgical table, who looked up at me, and, joyful and teary-eyed, said, “it’s a girl.”


Clio Delaney was born, via emergency c-section, at 5:50  p.m. on Thursday, November 19th.  She weighed 5 pounds, 14 ounces, and was 19 inches long.  For the first hours of her life, she was wide awake, with big black eyes and an astonishingly calm and gentle demeanor belying the scary circumstances of her birth.  While the doctors finished up Megan’s surgery, I was given a short time period to be alone with Clio.  I held her in my arms, looked at her, and could not stop smiling.


Megan was brought in to join us, and we became a family.  I gave Clio to Megan to hold for the first time, and euphoria swept over us, though tempered by exhaustion.  I took out my phone, and after taking a few photos, selected Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” as Clio’s first song.  Listening to music is one of the joys of being human.


In the hours ahead, we would learn what happened: a blood vessel burst where the placenta and umbilical cord connect, so the baby was not getting enough oxygen.  Our nurse, Shirley, realized something was awry when monitoring Clio’s heart rate.  Her quick thinking and expertise prevented complications in Clio’s birth that could very well have arisen had we been in less able hands.


Here is the connection to HCXC.  We speak often of cultivating a ‘culture of excellence’ within our program.  This means that each individual aspires to do the very best they can, not just for themselves but for their teammates.  It means that the team actively promotes certain values: hard work, self-discipline, an unwillingness to take short cuts, while discouraging others: negativity, mediocrity, undependability.  It means certain habits and ways of acting become so ingrained that new members of the team become seamlessly integrated, and soon start sharing and contributing to the team’s shared norms.  The best recent evidence I have that HCXC has instituted a true culture of excellence is that the freshman athletes, on their own volition, have created and implemented a training plan for their off-season conditioning, whereas in the first years I coached at Hinsdale Central, we literally had only one athlete on the team who trained regularly over the winter months (Pete Richard, who later went on to have a successful collegiate career at DePauw and who now works in Chicago and continues to train).


At its best, high school sport allows young men and women to acquire life skills and to gain valuable practice experimenting with implementing these skills in comparatively lower stakes environments.  In the ‘Labor and Delivery’ and ‘Mothers and Babies’ wings of Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, I witnessed what a culture of excellence looks like in a professional, real-world context.  In a moment of crisis, the nurses and doctors in charge of helping Megan safely deliver her baby were able to draw upon decades of training: they knew enough to identify a problem early enough to address it, remained focused in a critical and high pressure situation, and managed to expertly execute a precise surgical maneuver all the while keeping us calm and informed of what they were doing.


This culture of excellence extended far beyond the surgical team, but was evident among all staff members we encountered at our stay in the hospital, from the Doctors and Nurses, to the high school volunteers, consultants, and orderlies.  The people who attended to us were very obviously going above and beyond what their job responsibilities required.  They showed genuine interest in our well-being, patiently answered our many questions, and showered Megan and little Clio with care and affection.  To undergo an unplanned c-section can be a traumatic experience, but the staff that cared for Megan during her hospital stay did much to help her heal both physically and emotionally.  I am sure nursing has its inherent rewards, and I know also that these nurses are working in part to provide income for their own families.  But, it must be said, to exhibit such professionalism and kindness at 6:30 a.m. at the end of a 12 hour graveyard shift, and to do so day after day, year after year, sometimes for decades, requires reserves of strength and depth of character that are, simply put, uncommon.


Those two wings of the hospital are almost entirely female domains, far removed from the predominantly male realms I encounter in as my job as coach.  Clio was born in world where, in the week she was born, a terrorist attack had been committed in Paris, bombs were set off in Mali, and protests over police brutality broke out in Chicago.  But I will tell her that she was also born into a more immediate world where the people who tended to her were motivated by love, empathy, and compassion.  These individuals ensured that Clio was properly cared for and established the conditions which set her up to thrive – and they did so knowing that they’d likely never see her again after she left the hospital.  And they do this for every single baby born in that hospital, and for every wide-eyed and disoriented parent accompanying that baby.  These doctors and nurses did not become this way by accepting mediocrity.  They exhibited excellence in their job.  It is my hope that by encouraging our athletes to reach for excellence, they will come to develop the skills that our medical team had; skills which changed forever for the better little Clio’s life, to say nothing of her eternally grateful parents.