June 22, 2020, 9:15 a.m.: I am driving home from our first XC practice since the March shutdown put an abrupt end to our track season. I have to acknowledge that a few hot tears had already run down my face that day. A combination of fear of the unknown, and the overwhelming joy that came with getting to do the thing that I have dreamed of being able to do again since the world shut down.
For our community the 2020 cross country season was one that was simultaneously stressful and overwhelmingly joyful. We asked our community to make a ton of sacrifices to keep the team able to meet and the season going. On a personal level, as the parent of two very young children living in a two educator home, our kids had to be Covid-tested a combined nine times between June and the state meet in order to know it was safe for me to leave the house. Such is the nature of boogerey noses and people who are not fully capable of describing how they are feeling.
Driving home from the state meet sipping a smoothie with my close friend and co-coach Terry, I found myself in a place of deep gratitude that the season was able to happen. The world has changed so much this year, it was wonderful to get to do one thing that felt a little bit closer to normal. After endless hours of zoom teaching and late nights grading and prepping while also teaching my own kids, I was so happy to get to go spend a couple of hours a day coaching and filling athletes lives with something good.
Being a naturally reflective person, and knowing that I was coaching through a hopefully once in a lifetime moment, I found myself often this season thinking through what I would want to keep from the 2020 season, and what I would want to abandon. Here for your consideration is what I would keep and toss from the 2020 season:
5 Things To Keep
1. Small Meets - Coming of age and racing in the late 90s in Jefferson County, and being a mostly JV athlete during a lot of high school meant getting to run in a lot of three team track meets at Jeffco stadium on weekday afternoons. I loved the atmosphere at Jeffco Stadium. The same people were always there. The same meet officials would start the races for us. Mrs. Hasenkamp my 7th grade P.E. teacher would always be at the start line and always wished me luck. I loved sitting in the stands on a warm afternoon doing my math homework and watching my friends compete until it was time to warm up for the 3200. This fall I felt like I found the cross-country version of this atmosphere. It was nice to have more personal feeling meets with less infrastructure, people and lines at the port a potties. I also loved that generally a meet could now be accomplished in around the same amount of time that it takes to conduct a practice which meant getting kids home to their families and school work quicker.
2. The Wave start - Initially I thought I was going to hate this, but about ten minutes into the first meet, I quickly fell in love. Usually coaching at a meet looks like this: athletes get warmed up, I jog over to the start line for last minute high fives and coaching, gun goes off, I sprint to the mile marker waiting for a sea of humanity to come teeming past me, and that cycle repeats itself several more times until the meet is over. With the wave start I felt like I got a much better coaching experience because I could make coaching contacts with my athletes two at a time and actually see how the race was developing for them around similarly abilitied athletes from other teams. I also thought that from an athlete's perspective it would be a lot easier to focus with a smaller group of people around you. "Win the pack" became a mantra for our athletes this season. It really added a lot of intrigue and entertainment to our league meet where we all got to name our two athletes per wave
3. Not coming to practice when you are sick. I have actually always been pretty big on this one, especially since I became a parent. I don't think you can make much hay as a coach without a pretty firm belief that hard work is a key to personal success or raising up successful athletes. That said, somewhere in our ethos there is a toxic thought that we cannot miss things when we are under the weather. I have gone on many runs while battling a head cold, but me choosing to step out the door solo is different than a sick teenager coming and breathing all over their teammates. Actually making it a rule to not come to practice if you don't feel good I felt made for a healthier team this fall. The flip side of this is of course that it would appear that many of us no longer have the same robust immune systems we used to.
4. Quirky meet names. With all due respect to all of the "Significant Figure in the History of Our School Invitationals" and the "Name of our City" Invites, I loved seeing some new stuff on the schedule this fall. Some personal favorites were the Beet Juice Invite, The Durden Invite, the Quagmire, and my personal favorite, the Jefferson Academy Half-10 Invite.
5. Not having to compete with Ball sports for attention or athletes - I think on some level, every running coach at a minimum is annoyed by, and at a maximum resents the presence of ball sports in our culture. For one glorious fall, it was wonderful to only have to share the spotlight with the golf team. Our school does not have football or softball, so we had the opportunity to pick up a few bonus athletes and capture the athletic attention of our community. It was like living in an alternate dream world. What XC coach has not dreamed of a world where their sport has the attention of the whole school. I will gladly welcome everyone back next fall, but it was fun while it lasted.
5 Things To Toss
As an important addendum to my thoughts here, I am not criticizing any person or idea by discussing these things. I am more than aware that in this season we were all doing the absolute best we could to get our teams across the finish line of completing the season in one piece.
1. The Pulse Start - As much as I loved the coachability of the wave start, I detested the pulse start. After the first five minutes of the meet I had no capacity to be able to keep track of whether or not an athlete was having a bad day, good day, or anything in between. I mean, I could see if my #3 was behind my #6, but since kids were going off at a non exact time in between each other, and I am already bad at math, I found this pretty challenging. There are modifications to this that I could see that would make it work, but I was generally not a fan. Bigger minds that mine can probably do a better job of understanding what is happening in front of them with a pulse start than I am.
2. Hodge-Podge local rules - This is probably a one year thing, but I was not a fan of changing conditions every week for crowd control and Covid mitigation. I am all in on virus mitigation, but the virus doesn't care if I am in Broomfield County or El Paso County. It is the same everywhere. Alternating local measures were hard to keep track of this fall. The community that I coach in was more than happy to follow the rules, but I was just having a hard time tracking with who was banning spectators from week to week. I also found myself ramming my head against the wall trying to host a meet. Our campus sits in the middle of an office park, so a home campus meet was out. I spent hours developing race courses and safety plans with one municipality, only to be shut down. Then a neighboring town five minutes away approved everything with no safety plan and they gave us a course map to set up.
3. Banned Spectators - Ok, I admit it, I am not a crowds person. At church I like to sit in the balcony. I do all my Holiday shopping online because retail feels like the 8th circle of Hades to me. The first 45 minutes I was at the first meet of the season, I kind of enjoyed not having to dodge a crowd to get around. But then at the start of the race the gun went off and it was eerily quiet. The socially distanced one spectator per athlete quietly withdrew. Our team won the meet, and I gave everyone air fives before they went to the car. It just wasn't the same to not have the throngs of people around. I occasionally wish it were easier to create boundaries at meets between athletes and community, but I missed getting to celebrate. The meets with no spectators were even weirder. It became oddly lonely. I did not get into this business to be lonely, so this can go ahead and not come back.
4. Only racing your league - On some level it felt like a lot of non-cross country people were making cross country decisions this year. While I am sure that intentions were great, I found it wildly frustrating to not be able to get into a myriad of meets that were not full within a 20 minute drive of our school due to our league affiliation. I imagine that I was not the only coach who faced these scheduling difficulties. I realize that the coaches in your league are going to be some of the coaches you know the best, and that we all leveraged relationships this fall to put together a schedule. I also imagine that there are only so many times an athlete can race the same pack of kids in the same league before they start to wonder what the point of all of this is.
5. Running with Masks - To be clear, I am not anti mask. I am very pro-mask, especially if they helped us have our fall season and keep our community safe. I am just not especially fond of having to wear one as a pre-cursor to running. I have run hundreds of miles this year with a mask over my nose and mouth or around my neck once clear of others. Once this is over, I intend to burn them all. For now, I am happy to be Mr. Masky McMaskerson
Ben Hershelman coaches cross country and track at Jefferson Academy High School in Broomfield, Co. JA is a 3A school that competes in the Metro League.