By Jim Eakin
Another wave of snow and sleet started up again, but all I could think about was where was Cate; where was Cate Brown? Minutes earlier (3k into the race), I was cheering for her and her teammate, Beth Taylor, while simultaneously looking up at the jumbo video screen showing the racers jumping hay bales. Updated team scores were scrolling along the bottom of the screen; I had to look twice, but there it was: Hanover in 2nd place. But now, as the muddied and water logged field spread out and came around for another loop , there was no Cate. Georgia and Heidi were solidly in the top ten, followed by Bridgette, with Beth right behind her, then Grace, and Meg, but no Cate. All season long, she had been next to Bridgette and Beth. Just recently running 19:06 at the MOC, and 19:30 at the New Englands.
Running to the other side of the Portland Meadows infield, (yes, a horse track that was converted into a championship cross country race featuring the top 22 teams in the nation, who had to qualify by racing in one of nine regional races a week earlier), I saw Cate’s father and asked him if he had seen Cate.
“No,” he said with a puzzled look on his face. “I don’t know where she is.”
I ran over to the medical tent, and as I went through the opening, I saw some medical staff in the far corner of the tent, attending to one of the competitors. Sitting on a table with a space blanket wrapped around her, the trainers were wiping off the mud and blood from her lower leg. It was not Cate. My fear of this being one race too many came flooding into my mind.
I had had my reservations about extending the season (the New Englands itself can usually be a race too many) after our dominant performance on a cold windy day at the New Englands in Maine. First of all, our training was not geared to continue on indefinitely. Though the team had stayed in shape during the summer, I was only in touch with a couple of them, and only ran with them five or six times. Plus, my wife and I took off for Europe the 1st of August and did not come back until the first day of practice. Our biggest challenge for the regular season was to run at the Manhattan Invitational, where we subsequently did very well. The only plan for extending the season beyond the New Englands was for Georgia and perhaps Bridgette to run Foot Locker. And of course, we all needed a rest from it all. I was a full-time teacher at Hanover High, and lest we forget, these were students taking demanding courses.
Secondly, I was not a fan of competing in a team championship sponsored by Nike, Foot Locker, or any corporation. These companies are not the Salvation Army or some altruistic organization, they are there to make money. Other than racing, I wondered what else we were expected to do while in Portland, Oregon.
Thirdly, we were running around a horse track. There were no hills, just hay bales, and the course would be watered down, thus, forming ankle deep miniature ponds, and of course tons of mud. But the kicker was that if one were spiked, there could be repercussions such as infections, because being a horse track, it was a breeding ground for bacteria.
However, I was persuaded to go to Nike Regionals, but only after our meeting the Monday after the New Englands. My decision was bolstered after looking at the morning paper and reading about tears flowing, and comments like this was their last time together. They were genuinely sorry to see the season end. As Bridgette was quoted, “We’ve had so many good times together.” Meg added, “I’ll never be part of a team like this, ever again.” And then finally Georgia stating, “This one was harder emotionally because this is our last race together and knowing we’d be saying goodbye after this.”
I told them at the meeting that if we ALL agreed to extend the season, then we would continue, but that we will have to make practice every day and go for at least another two more weeks. Though they did not need to be reminded, I mentioned that the weather was going to get colder, darker and wetter, and the practices will be a mostly similar to what we have done all season: varied, demanding, and mostly fun. I was certainly correct about the weather, it got colder with a few days of sleet, snow, wind, and a cold, cold rain. Even when the sun came out, it was windy and cold, but no one complained. For the next two weeks we did something like this:
Monday: (5 easy miles with the boys joining us) were fun and storied filled followed by 10 striders;
Tuesday: Longer run 7 miles over hills with striders and accelerators at the end (yoga);
Wednesday: good warm-up, 1 mile over hills at 5k race pace 3-4 minute rest. 2 x1000 meters at a slightly faster than race pace 2-3 minute rest. 4 x400 meters 80 sec. Jog 50 meters then all out for 50 meters. 1 minute rest. Long easy walk/run warmdown. Light yoga;
Thursday: Easy run 20 minutes. Yoga/ light dumbells;
Friday: 7 mile easy run, get ice cream;
Sat: Pool or Fartlek;
The next week leading up to Nike Regionals was different in that the challenging workout was on Tuesday: 2mile warm up. Lt. Stretch Pick up for 5minutes easy jog for 5 minutes then a 5×400 relay style. Long pick up 5-6 minutes. 5X 200 accelerations. Unfortunately, the 3 inches of snow on the ground altered the planned workout considerably. Pool Wednesday.
The Nike Regional was held the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Wappingers Falls, NY. It was a typical cold, windy, sunny November day. Georgia won, and Heidi placed 6th but the rest were just a bit off resulting in 3rd place, thus we would not be guaranteed a spot to go to Portland, Oregon. If we made it, it would be as an At Large team. The ride home was quiet, everyone was tired and a bit depressed. I asked myself, why did I agree to continue after the festive New England Championship, though one of the coaches from New Jersey told me we would definitely be chosen, I was not so sanguine. We were tired, and I remembered what Heidi had said to the reporter after the New Englands, “I was kind of burnt out at the end of a long season, but I pushed it.”
Sunday afternoon I was informed that we were going to Portland, Oregon. All accommodations paid for by Nike. We would not be saying goodbye for another week.
As I ran from the tent, my biggest fear was coming to fruition. We had run one too many “championship races,” and some of us were burnt out. The tank was empty and the running gods were coming to get us. However, there was still a race going on. Running down the infield toward the finish line with 600 meters to go before the finish, I saw that Georgia was fading and just holding on, she did not look like the Stanford-bound Georgia Griffin: 3xNH State Champion, 2xNew England Champion, Northeast Regional Champion the preceding week. But sophomore phenom, Heidi Caldwell was closing hard into the top ten, along with a determined Beth Taylor, who made up so much ground that day and became without a doubt the “unsung hero”. Next came 4xAll-New England Bridgette Black, and the all important 5th runner, Grace Rodriquez, who was followed by the senior and one of the captains, Meg Donohue. But still, no Cate Brown. The finish line became bedlam with the competitors collapsing right and left into the chute. I could not get to any of my runners. Walking through the crowd, trying to get back to our prerace tent, I could hear low voices, mixed with loud cheers, laughter, sobbing, then space blankets everywhere being thrown over the runners as the mixture of snow, sleet, and rain started coming down harder. Finally making back to our tent, I saw the girls, along with Cate, all standing together.
Looking at Cate with a sense of relief, I asked, “Cate, are you ok, I didn’t see you?” She just nodded, her eyes closing, but still a faint smile appeared. Unbeknownst to me until days later, she had finished the race but had placed last. I went around padding them on the head, giving a hug, not saying much, except the usual, “How are you doing, ok? Great job, great job.” As I continued to check on everyone, the results were being announced, but everyone, wrapped in space blankets, was so drained that no one really perked up. Not until we heard, “4th place, Hanover RC!!!!” We were 4th in the Nation! Everyone just came together for a last group hug.
My reservations about extending the season were mostly allayed. Nike treated us very well. The organization and variety of activities were excellent. The course held up and no one was injured. Although some were spiked, no infections were incurred. However, the season was too long, but we more than just survived. Which begs the question, “Why did we do so well?”
Needless to say, discipline, hard work, maturation, patience, intelligence, time and modesty, all helped their talents flourish. In addition, the girls had great support from the boys’ team, highly supportive and nurturing parents, and the coaching staff (Eric Picconi, Stan Crane, and I). But, it became a team, a team of five seniors in particular, who were helped mightily via clutch performances by a sophomore and a junior. It was most satisfying to see the five senior girls put a dent in the prevailing view that senior girls do not get faster. Well, the team from Hanover proved that wrong. Like any successful team, the girls also put away any petty jealousies or personal goals, to be together. Yes, Georgia could have said, “I want to run Foot Locker instead of going for the Nike team competition.” The four xc skiers could have changed their minds after New Englands, and said they needed to rest and get ready for the season. It came down to the simple fact that they wanted to continue to be a team and have one more good time, and that, they accomplished.
Finally, though it was best summed up in an essay Cate Brown wrote weeks later about her experience at the Nike Team Nationals. She ended the essay with these words, “I learned an important lesson, it came down to something deep inside, true strength comes from the heart.”
Bridgette Black, Cate Brown, Heidi Caldwell, Meg Donohue, Georgia Griffin, Grace Rodriquez, and Beth Taylor all showed heart…brave hearts.