Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Kick

I’ve written about my running past before.  I don’t want to beat any proverbial (or, for that matter, literal) dead horses, but now that the season is in full swing I can’t help but pontificate upon the merits of running and specifically running cross country for a minor-type person.
Bean is in her second year with the elementary team.  She came back into it having reverted to her old ways.  She’s made meager improvements and we attribute a lot of it to her attitude.  She hates practice and comes up with excuses to get out of it.  She has a lot of “headaches” and her legs seem to hurt except when she’s running around chasing her friends before and after practice.  She does seem to enjoy meets and going to practice just not running during practice.
Bean running strong last season
(I've not been taking photos this year as I am a volunteer coach)
The first couple of meets of this season she did fairly well; her times were finally starting to improve, and she was complaining less.  And then she twisted her ankle.  I saw it happen.  I saw her limping around for a few days after.  She got better and went back to running after we returned from New York.  Then she twisted it again.  I wasn’t going to let her run at Bath County last night, but she assured me that her ankle was fine.  And the coach said she was running around with the other kids at school before they got on the bus to ride over.
Less than halfway through the race she stepped in a hole and tweaked her ankle again.  I saw her limping far behind, crying, and in obvious pain.  I let her DNF.  It didn’t make sense to push her to walk to the finish.  I should have made the executive decision before the race.  Lesson learned.
So now Bean is down for a little bit.  She’s going to miss at least one meet.  And that’s okay.  I don’t want to send her down a long road of perpetual injury.  When I was a kid I was prone to ankle sprain.  I couldn’t seem to shake them.  I’ve had three pretty bad ones as an adult and a lot of minor ones that I just “walked off” as my dad used to advise.  And I agree for the very minor ones.  And walk not run.
All that said, as I stood on the side of the course cheering Bean and her teammates on it brought back all of those good feelings from when I ran cross country in the paleo-eighties.  Meets often encompass a hundred or more kids from different communities within a small region.  They have a lot in common, but they don’t share exactly the same backdrop for their lives.  It’s a good environment.  Typically everyone is supportive.  We did hear reports of some elbows being thrown. 
Anyway, the beauty of cross country is that it is a mix between an individual sport and a team sport.  There are benefits from both kinds of activities.  For the most part as a runner you are simply running against the field.  You can focus on PRs or you can focus on overall placement, but in the end no one else can do much to help you.  But on the other hand your placement as an individual contributes (or not) to the overall placement of the team.  By doing your best and beating your own times or your rival you help your team.  Your motivations don’t have to be as pure for you to be a great team player.
Some might question this as a good aspect of the sport, but being the quirky guy I am I have to acknowledge that not everyone comes from the same world  view or have the same motivations to excel in life.  And being able to tap into whatever strength a child has and foster that is truly a good thing.  Being limited to the strict confines of a certain form of participation tends to exclude the vast majority or kids.
What I loved about cross country as a runner was the support and encouragement shown for every runner on the team despite ability or performance.  We cheered the last runner over the line as hard as we cheered the star runners.  Sometimes harder.  I ran JV, but I remember the JV races were as heated and as loud as the varsity.
The thing I picked up on last night was that there is a prevailing encouragement to “kick” at the end.  When they hit that hundred yard mark, or the last turn before the finish its go, go, go.  And it doesn’t matter of that kid is running a sixteen minute mile or a forty minute 5k or it’s the two star varsity runners duking it out for first…everyone is screaming and yelling and waving them to run faster, to sprint, to finish strong.
I love that.
I wouldn’t have thought that one bit of my athletic past would have been so deeply ingrained in me.  But in subtle ways I’ve incorporated that into who I am.  I won’t say that I always finish strong in life’s endeavors, but I have at times pushed through difficulties due to that philosophy of digging deep to find the strength to run faster when you think there’s nothing left to tap into.
There was a moment during the middle school race last night where two kids who were probably 38th and 39th place took off for a sprint duel for the finish.  Those two kids raced their hearts out.  You could see as the trailing runner started to overtake the lead racer there would be a burst of speed, and a countering burst, and the leader would surge again until one of them had no power left to deliver to tired legs.
That’s primal.  That’s a hunter/prey tactics.  That’s survival instincts being stretched out and exercised.  And it was beautiful to watch over and over again as the same drama played out with each group or pair of kids, or even each individual.  Yes, even those who were separate from the field, running alone, dragging behind…you could see them kick into a different state of consciousness as well.  Run.  Sprint.  Charge to the finish.
It’s good for all of us to be so occupied with effort that we forget everything else in the universe if only for a few brief seconds.  That’s good for the soul.

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