A cross-country season to remember

We were a motley crew — two kids from Ethiopia, an autistic boy, two freshmen boys, a volleyball refugee, a third-generation cowgirl, and an English teacher from Ohio. Perhaps the biggest misfit was me, the first-year head cross-country coach trying to find his own stride with this band of free spirits.

I had no idea they would teach me more about running than I’d learned over 40 years in the sport.

I’d inherited the team at Custer County High School in Westcliffe, Colorado, from coach Jesse Taylor, who moved to take a minister’s job in South Dakota, and also took our No. 2 runner, his son Jeremiah, with him. Our top runner Micah had moved to Wyoming to live with his sister. At base level it appeared I would be coaching three boys, one being my son Harrison, AKA “The Blur,” and the other two being Jonah and Joey who were moving up as freshmen from the middle school team, and maybe one girl, Kyleigh, known to ride bucking bovines in the local rodeo.

Harrison himself, now a sophomore, presented the biggest wildcard. As his father I had been there as a volunteer coach for four years as he found his stride in competition. He was one of the few autistic varsity runners in the entire state and had become fairly well known regionally. He had recently appeared in Apple’s Face-to-Face presentation presentation for using the watch and music headphones to stay on task during competition. Over Harrison’s running career there had been countless meltdowns, victories and defeats. Now as the head coach of the entire team I was taking a leap of faith that he would mature into needing less help from me. I needed to be present for the other athletes as equally as possible. What I found was that the other kids were actually there for me, stepping up to help out with Harrison, something that spoke volumes about the role sports can play in developing a sense of humanity.

I was contacted early on by Micah’s older brother, Elias, who wanted to be involved with the team. Elias had been home-schooled and graduated a year early. He had been a standout on the cross-country team before opting to play football in what proved to be his senior year. Now he wanted to get back involved with running. He was preparing to enter the Army and then study at University of Colorado–Colorado Springs with the goal of becoming a physical therapist. He also was interested in coaching running at some point in his future.

A little research revealed that Elias could not run on the team since had accepted a high-school diploma. He also could not sign on as my assistant coach because he was only 17. So Elias opted to volunteer as an assistant coach. 

Elias and Micah are Ethiopian. They were adopted from an orphanage and brought to Custer County by their adoptive parents, Andrew and BethAnn Zeller. Starved and weak the two boys arrived in their new home in Colorado; Elias weighed 17 pounds at three years old. Micah weighed only 14 pounds at two years old. Micah had been given the generic name “Abush” reserved for children not expected to survive.

We started in August with voluntary “open runs” which typically were attended by myself, Harrison and Elias. Along the way Jonah joined us. Then Joey.

Official practices began with just two weeks before the first meet on Aug. 24. There was a lot of confusion because the school opening had been delayed due to remodeling. Some families had scheduled vacations late because of this and some kids had jobs. When practice officially started I had the three boys, and one girl, Grace, a senior who had moved over from the volleyball team. Kyleigh, who had been a friend of Harrison’s since they were three, was planning to run but needed a doctor’s clearance because of a foot injury caused by a steer stepping on her. Kyleigh was a known quantity and a state-qualifier the previous year, but injuries made her a question mark. Besides, it was August, and Kyleigh, ever the cowgirl, was real busy helping her grandpa get his hay put up.

I was able to get the school’s language arts teacher, Whitney Day, to be our assistant coach. Besides being very well-read, Whitney also had an athletic background in baseball, softball and soccer. In hindsight I could not have asked for a better supporting coach. Her good energy and popularity with the kids proved to play a major role in the team’s cohesiveness throughout the season.

Grace brought over a contagious good energy and enthusiasm. And between her and Coach Day, they formed the glue for the little team of kids who manufactured a sense of something larger. That something grew considerably the second week of practices, when Elias nonchalantly told me that Micah would be moving back from Wyoming and at practice next week.

Micah was indeed there the next Monday. Our first meet was that Friday and there was no possibility for him to get in the required five practices before he was eligible to compete. He said he’d not been running much since the previous track season in Wyoming but did not appear to have lost much fitness. I was concerned about him starting out with too rigorous a training program.

We headed to Colorado Springs for that first meet with more coaches than runners. Only Jonah and Harrison were eligible to run, but Micah and Joey were there to cheer them on. Jonah finished about a minute ahead of Harrison, who overcame a serious case of stage fright. And with “all both” of my runners doing well, I now had my first meet as head coach under my belt.

The next week’s meet was in Leadville on Colorado Mountain College’s cross-country ski trails. It would be the most difficult course of the nine-race season at over 10,000 feet elevation and on rugged terrain. I’m certain it is the highest high school cross-country meet in the nation. That week in practice Micah mentioned a pain in his calf. Grace was back from vacation and ready for her first meet, and Joey was now eligible. Micah ended up sitting it out, with Jonah, Harrison and Joey finishing in that order, and Grace finishing her first cross-country meet on this challenging course. 

That following Monday Kyleigh showed up in her cowboy boots with a doctor’s note cleared to run. But clearly she was not intending to practice. We had a talk. It was Monday and the next meet was that Saturday. If she wanted to run that weekend, she needed five practices. We found some gear in the uniform room and I had her run laps on the track in order to have five practices for that following Saturday

That week we were at Alamosa for the Joe Vigil Open. This would be the biggest and most competitive meet of the regular season in terms of numbers of competitors, with teams from throughout Colorado and New Mexico. Micah finally seemed on track and we had all six members of the team. Also, I had volunteered to drive the small activities bus, and this was my first long over-the-road trip with the “mini.”

We maybe should have left a little earlier. We got there and found a chaotic scene and long lines for the not-nearly-enough porta-potties. In the confusion I left the race numbers at our tent, and a last-minute sprint by Elias saved the day. We pinned the numbers on the four boys and they rushed to the start. They’d barely lined up when the gun went off and 376 runners vanished in a cloud of dust. In this deep field, Micah finished 10th overall, placing just a few seconds ahead of his 2A rival, Noel Lopez of Rocky Ford. With Jonah, Harrison, Joey, Kyleigh and Grace also running strong races I felt like we now had a real team. Moreover, the boys had shown a lot of poise in the face of adversity in dealing with the bib-number snafu right before the start.

The next week’s meet was at Gunnison, the Cowboy-Mountaineer Invite hosted by Western State University. In addition to middle- and high-school events there’s also a college race at this meet. I’ve been known to explore the rules, and wondered if it might be possible for Elias to run in the college event. After all, he had graduated from high school and was accepted to UCCS. There was only the small matter of Basic Training and Medic School between him and actual enrollment. I called the race organizer and explained the situation. She agreed that Elias could enter as an “unattached” runner in the college race.

So with Elias entered in this thing, the biggest question was, “What to wear?” It needed to look official but obviously not a high-school inform. At last I came up with the idea of cutting off the sleeves from a previous year’s T-shirt that said “Bobcat XC” on the front. It looked great and I told Elias if anyone asked to just say he was from Bobcat University.

By the time we arrived in Gunnison, we were a tiny squad. Jonah had a commitment with band, and Kyleigh had a date with an owl at the U.S. Olympic Training Center as part of her volunteer work at the area raptor center. Micah’s calf issue had flared up again. He warmed up then decided to bail. We left there that day with Harrison as our top-finishing runner and Joey finishing behind him. Grace was our only finishing girl. Elias had competed in his first college meet, meaning I had just coached my first and likely only-ever collegiate athlete.

We were now nearing the halfway point in the season and the next two meets would be closer to home, in Pueblo and Salida. Pueblo was somewhat of a low-point. Micah took a lead early, then placed third with his rival Noel coming on strong at the end and winning. Harrison had a horrible side cramp and though he managed to finish it was his worst race of the season. Kyleigh seemed to be running in pain. Grace developed a knee problem in the race and finished disappointed. Though Jonah and Joey both ran PRs, it seemed we’d just been handed a small dose of reality.

The next week in Salida, however, we had a rebound. Micah ran an incredible race, placing third behind two strong runners from bigger 3A and 4A schools — and outrunning Noel. Kyleigh ran a determined race. While Jonah sat it out with an ankle issue, Harrison was our No. 2 finisher and Joey No. 3.

The idyllic Westcliffe fall unfolded like a dream, with long evening practices around town, and trips to the nearby Rainbow Trail for training runs. We had team dinners during the week. I began teaching a short yoga progression as a cool-down and the kids responded enthusiastically. The days of meets were an endurance test for me as well. I am not a morning person. Many of our competitions were two to three hours away, which meant early starts. Somehow I got Harrison ready and loaded up, made the 15-mile drive to town to fire up the “mini,” loaded up the runners and their gear, and then drove away to the meet often before sunrise. After driving there, getting the coach’s packet and getting everyone lined out in their events, we would typically preview the course by walking it.

Then during the races I would bolt back and forth to certain points, shouting encouragement or tactics, and taking pictures. Usually, I would rack up more than twice the distance of my runners, some of it walking and some of it sprinting. And when it was over, we would load up and make the trip home, often with a long debate on where to stop to eat. Harrison figured a way to jury-rig the bus’ sound system to phones so we shared music along the way. We had become a family of sorts.

Something about the Salida meet seemed to get everyone back on track. Grace transitioned from athlete to team manager, continuing to practice but opting to not compete. She was a tremendous help with the race numbers, uniforms and helping to keep track of various outerwear jettisoned at the starting line. Suddenly everyone seemed healthy again. But there were now three meets scheduled in eight days.

Micah won them all handily.

Following his first win at an afternoon meet in Rye where he destroyed the entire field by 26 seconds, a man, an older white guy from another school, asked in front of the entire team, “Where did you get that one?”

There was a brief silence as if everyone was shocked at the apparently racist comment.

It was Elias who came up with the best answer. He looked at the man and deadpanned: “Africa.”

Unfortunately, I was not present for this exchange but heard about it from Whitney later over dinner. I could not have been more proud. Elias’ answer was true. It was smart, poised and mannerly. It put the guy in his place and left no room for a response. And it was just one word. I wish I’d experienced this in person, but then I may have well spoiled it with a much longer and less eloquent response.

Also following his finishing the race at Rye, Harrison had a terrible meltdown over not running as well as he had wished due to side-stitch cramps. He ran through the finish line and then continued on to a nearby field where he ran screaming around and around in circles for a long time, silhouetted in the evening sunset. This continued on through the awards ceremony and even after we loaded up and drove away. His teammates handled the tantrum all in stride.

After this there seemed a renewed energy with everyone having more fun while getting stronger and faster, and Kyleigh beginning to set her sights on qualifying for state. During our course preview at the Fountain meet I had a serious coaching moment with Kyleigh, and something seemed to sink in about strategy. I simply wanted her to start off slower, then position herself to be in the top 15 by the finish. This was the tactic I would need her to adopt. At the regional meet coming up in two weeks, the top 15 runners go to state. She responded by running to 12th pace in tough field, while Micah ran away with the boys race.

Then it was on to Monte Vista where Micah made it three in a row with a gutsy run in a chilly breeze to be crowned the Southern Peaks League Champion. I realized on the way home that I was reliving my own high school sports experience vicariously through these young runners. I had been a mediocre football player at a good football school, and never really had the experience these athletes were having. Moreover, the opportunity to work with neurotypical youth alongside Harrison was even more rewarding than all the little victories I’d experienced with him in five years of volunteer coaching.

After the Monte Vista meet I took the team to the Hooper Pool in the San Luis Valley as a team-bonding activity and to celebrate. Only Harrison had ever been there, and the others seemed taken by the hot water that gushes up from two miles below the earth, and the setting with the Great Sand Dunes and un-ending views of the same mountain range they are so familiar with from the other side. Suddenly my athletes were just kids again, bobbing around in the warm water, laughing, playing and having fun. I sat back in the sunshine and felt like I had helped create something that went beyond mere running or competition.

The regional meet in Rocky Ford was the next week and I had high hopes that Micah might win it, and then be in the position to win state 2A as well. But the universe had other plans. When Micah showed up for practice the following Monday he had the cold that was making its rounds at the school. This in turn caused him some complications with asthma that he’d had since he was a child. I had him sit out workouts or walk.

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He made a valiant effort in a crazy wind at the regional meet only to finish second on Noel’s home course. Kyleigh, meanwhile ran her best race of the season, positioning herself perfectly early on, then picking off other girls to finish 11th and qualify for state. Jonah and Joey both ran personal records. Jonah, in fact, had run a PR every meet he ran. Harrison ran his season’s best time and also was the only team member to run all nine regular-season meets. Because of his autism, he qualified for the state Unified Race, which is a division for those with disabilities. So as a first-year head coach I would be taking three runners in three races to the state championships. Considering that I had only six runners total on the team I thought this to be a pretty good percentage.

After the regional meet Noel’s coach and I compared notes. I related to him how I’ve been continuously adapting our training programs as the season progressed, trying to adjust to fitness levels, injuries and illness, and the sensibilities of each individual runner. He said: “It’s like doing art.” And then it sunk in: “Yes, it’s a lot like art!”

And so it was. Our season had been a rollercoaster and now I was heading to state with a microcosm of what our team really was: an elite runner from Africa, a native cowgirl from Westcliffe and my own autistic son who often fires from another realm altogether. The entire team turned out in support to practice that week before state though three of them were not competing. 

The Colorado State Championships is a huge event, with a lot of frenetic activity. It was a big deal for these athletes to travel to the event and walk the course a day ahead, spend a night in a hotel, go to a movie, then run the next day. Micah was still not 100 percent healthy, and I had by now let go of any expectations, other than that we had come a long way and were just there to have fun and do our best. I know from my own athletic background that your best is always going to change moment to moment, and under different circumstances. And I really needed to focus on doing my own best as I had one athlete in each of three races — something probably no other coach in the meet had. Also, Harrison ran last and was now on his 10th race of the season — something none of his teammates had done. I figured if I got through that without an issue or some sort of meltdown I would declare the entire season a victory.

And when it was all said and done they all ran great — their places and times were fine, but really not important in the big scheme of things. What would endure is that they all ran their best that day. It was all I could ever ask of them. They each made me really proud.

Two days later, Elias would ship out for basic training. The rest of the runners would get back to their normal lives, their other activities, their academic work, their friends and families. Micah would be named to the 2A Boys All State Cross-Country First Team. We would turn in the uniforms and have a end-of-the-year awards dinner. And begin to look forward to the next season.

It had been like doing art, and I would be forever grateful to have been a co-creator of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.