Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Thanks, Coach!

This past weekend was the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati.  I had the joy and privilege of running the 26th Mile with my 7-year old daughter. Never heard of the 26th Mile?  Don't worry, I'm a newbie too.  She joined the Running Club at school and "ran" 25 miles with them this spring.  The last mile was run through the streets of Cincinnati and we crossed the finish line of the real marathon.  It was a great experience, even if we were drenched and cold with rain by the time it was over.

Oh! The memories this brought up!

I was a cross country runner in a former life. I started in 7th grade and ran right through college.  Maybe I should rephrase that.  I was on a cross country team when I was younger.  Maybe that's more accurate.

As much as I enjoyed the time running with my daughter, there was a lot of frustration as well. While I attempted to act only positive and encouraging on the outside, on the inside I was constantly thinking things like, "Why on earth do you need to stop and catch your breath after 10 steps?" "I can see the finish line! Why are we stopping? SPRINT!" Our practice sessions were just as frustrating...

And I couldn't help to feel a bit like Mr. Preston must have when I was a part of his cross country team as a teenager.

My first memories of running for Coach were from seventh grade. My older brother had been on the high school team, but Coach wanted some middle schoolers to round out a freshman invitational team.  I joined up and had no idea what I was doing.  But I was quickly acquainted with Mr. Preston's competitive nature when I heard him yell, "Go Blue!" from across a lake.  (Yes, we wore blue outfits.) I couldn't help wondering how the guy could even see me from so far away.

I was not what one might call an avid runner. In fact, I was a very stupid runner.  I spent all summer working at camp, chowing on unhealthy camp food, and getting fat.  Then, I would go to cross country camp with a big gut and try to run 100 miles a week in August heat and humidity.  I would be slow and hampered with shin splints and knee problems. Needless to say, my race times were abysmal. By the time I shed the weight and started to run competitive times, the season would be winding down, and another season would be lost to a summer of bad self-discipline.

But, Coach never gave up on me. He was always patient with me.  And he always pushed me to be my best.

A miracle happened in my sophomore year.  I did well enough at the end of the season to land the 8th position on our state championship team, which is fancy for saying I was the alternate to state. I got to spend an extra week running with the varsity team while my other friends were home watching Spider Man reruns.  (Literally.  One of my friends told me, "Have fun sucker. I'll be home watching Spidey.") I remember one practice while I was huffing and puffing trying to stay up with the other seven guys and coach running alongside me talking to me about dedication.  One thing has stuck with me for the past 30 years.

"Those kids who you work with at camp. What would they think if you told them you were only half dedicated to running?" 

Coach, I'm sorry I never applied this thinking to running, but it has become a life mission to be hyper focused and do my best at everything I do.  As a teacher the past 22 years I have felt those eyes watching every move and want to be the positive example they need.

Speaking of examples, we knew we had a great coach because he ran with us.  No matter the workout, we knew he was out there working along with us, sweating and hurting just like we were. (Well, maybe he didn't hurt like me since he was always in running shape.) If I ever picked up "leading by example" as a leadership style, I can give Mr. Preston credit for that.

Coach didn't settle for anything but excellence.  Remember my sophomore year?  That was a rebuilding year, and the worst state finish I can remember.  I rounded out my high school career soundly embedded on the JV team as my fast friends won states the next two years.  In fact, Coach Preston and Council Rock went on to win (I think) five out of the next seven Pennsylvania State Championships.  That's incredible!

Mr. Preston wasn't just a cross country coach, but he was also my Algebra 2 teacher. I don't remember a lot about Algebra 2, but I do remember his undying passion for math.  I learned a lot from him that year and loved math class.  In fact, I graduated from high school wanting to become a math teacher.  (I got sidetracked from that dream, but that doesn't discredit the initial dream).

Coach was tough -- as a coach and a teacher.  But I always knew he cared.  I went to a small college in the area and got this harebrained idea of becoming a hurdler for our track team.  I called up Coach Preston and asked him to teach a friend and me how to hurdle. He gave up a Saturday morning to spend time with a former runner and his goofy friend to teach us a new skill.  My father was in a serious accident the day before our session, and I remember asking him to pray for Dad, which of course he promised to do.

Now that I am well into my adult years, no one will ever mistake me as a runner.  However, I hope they do see in me a work ethic and enthusiasm that I picked up from Mr. Preston so many decades ago.

Mr. Preston, as I enjoy my Teacher Appreciation Week, I wanted you to know that I am forever thankful for the life lessons you taught me sweating and gasping through the trails of Tyler Park.  Thanks for not giving up on this kid who looked like he swallowed watermelon seeds.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week, Coach!

I have no idea why I don't look happier in this picture, but it's the best I have. 

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