SI Vault
Rob Eaton
November 14, 1983
Cross-country is a reservoir of memory and sensation. It is the sound of labored breathing, the smell of analgesic, crude jokes, bright autumn mornings, teammates, laughter, sweat and spit, pain, disappointment, the devotion of a coach. This is the story of one season.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 14, 1983

The Cross-country Team Was So-so, But The Coach's Mark Was Indelible

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

We are driving back from a meet in Tuscaloosa. Ala. Jeff and I are sitting in the cargo seal of the rented station wagon. Coach is driving and lecturing extemporaneously, oblivious of everything except the point he's trying to make. We hear a loud pop, and the car veers toward the right shoulder of the interstate. Coach doesn't notice at first, then comments that the car doesn't seem to steer very well. We are quiet for a minute before Jeff offers. "Coach, I think we just had a blowout."

Nov. 9, 1974. We are at a thoroughbred farm outside Lexington, Ky. for the conference meet. The air is warm and dense, and dew soaks our feet and soft ground dampens our steps as we follow a white lime stripe across grassy pastures. An hour before race time a large crowd is already milling around the finish line. We decide to jog the course to see the terrain, avoid the people and compose ourselves for the race.

We had driven to Lexington the day before by ourselves. Coach made the motel reservations, gave us travel money, and told us he'd be up as soon as he could get away. He still isn't here. We're beginning to think he won't show up, but we don't talk about it. We need to do well today. A team's reputation is based in no small measure on its performance in the conference meet. Teams that do well here are respected; teams that do poorly are snickered at. We have a respectable team and have done well in our dual meets, but the last two years we have bombed in the conference, and we want to make amends for that today.

We discuss strategy. Those of us who have no hope of going out with the elite front-runners and staying with them have two options: We can go out at the front of the main pack and hope we can hang onto our places during the last half of the race; or we can go out at the back of the main pack and hope we can move up steadily after the first mile. None of us expects to finish in the top 10 today and, except for Monster, who always goes out last, we all favor running from the back.

We head toward the starting line. In the distance a man announces over a P.A. system that we have 15 minutes until the start. As we pass the finish area a man calls to us. It is Coach. As soon as I see him I feel a surge of adrenaline. Les asks him why he's late and his answer implies he drove up last night, stayed at the same motel where we stayed, but didn't try to contact us. We wait for him to explain, but he says nothing. His reticence troubles me. (I believe now he avoided us deliberately. He knew then, although we didn't, that this would be our last race with him as our coach. In his own peculiar way he was preparing us for the separation.) He accompanies us to the starting line, a quarter-mile away. My arms and legs feel heavy, but I tell myself they'll lighten with the start. Through a megaphone the starter asks us to report to the area assigned to our team. We strip off our sweats and go to the line. We are on our own now. We stride out on the course 40 yards—a mock start—then regroup behind the line and, to reassure ourselves, shake hands touch and wish each other heartfelt good luck

"C'mon Robbie, let's run tough."

"Yeah, you too, Lester."

"Let's do it, Monster."

The starter calls us to the mark. We take a stance. He calls, "Runners set." We lean forward, poised. Then he fires the gun and we're off.

The start is idiotically fast. The early leader, who is almost never the winner, goes through the first mile in about 4:30 I try to control my pace, to just hang onto the main pack. My legs are still heavy and my arms tight, and the humidity bothers me. I go through the first mile in 5:07, when the effort feels like 4:50. I'm exactly where I want to be, at the back of the main pack, but I no longer feel confident about moving up. During the second mile I have to start making my move, but my legs are tight and my arms tingle with fatigue. The main pack begins to pull away. I curse myself. At the three-mile mark, when the split time doesn't register in my head (so different is it from what I expected), I give up the chase. Nevertheless I refuse to drop out. Even if I walk I'm determined to finish, to cross the line.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7