Two of my three kids love to run.
This fall, one of the first items on the chopping block for local schools was middle school sports.
My wife, Angie, is the Clinton Middle School cross country coach.
For the last few seasons I’ve been her nominal assistant, mainly doing the administrative stuff she doesn’t want to and screaming at kids to run faster on race day.
It’s a role that suits me.
I’ve coached four different youth sports, and cross country is, by far, my favorite.
There is no such thing as playing time to distribute.
There is no ball that must be shared equally in order to avoid hurt feelings.
There is only a stopwatch, a start line and a finish line.
Parents really have to use their imagination to blame any struggles their children might have on you.
And let’s move to the athletes themselves. The idea that their sport is your sport’s punishment is a source of pride for them. And the mental toughness it takes to succeed in cross country rivals that of any other sports.
When it became clear the schools had no time for sports, it became obvious that we would need to blaze our own trail and create a running club.
Culling from the faithful members of our also-newly-formed summer running group, we spread the word on our fledgling club.
Amazingly, people responded. When the summer runs began, I expected a group of five kids, two of those being mine.
When we showed up the first morning, 11 tweens showed up for some reason. As the summer wore on, the runs got hotter, longer and more challenging. And still they came, sometimes up to 20 of them.
My expectations were similarly low for the club: 10 kids, maybe 15. Nope. The final count was 27, the vast majority of which were at every practice, Monday through Friday, and all seven of our scheduled meets.
It was incredible to see.
My primary goal in starting the club with Angie, and the aspect which I thought would bring me the most joy, was watching my two kids have success doing something they love.
And while that part was great, I found myself enjoying all the little things that involve shepherding two dozen middle schoolers through an unprecedented season.
The Friday afternoon day-before-race touch football games (my skills as an all-time quarterback are beyond question). The team handshakes and requisite superstitious application at the starting line before each race.
The inside jokes that formed, the goofy manner of kids of that particular age, and most importantly the opportunity to pour into their lives and offer encouragement when I can.
It was all so enjoyable.
We had a very young girls team with nary an eighth-grader to be found. The team results went about as expected for a team that lacks experience. But there was significant individual improvement to be proud of, and a group of delightful girls that made me laugh and made me proud to be their coach.
The boys side was different. They are an uber-competitive bunch that fared well in every meet they entered. Cross country is an ultimate individual sport, but it was great to see these guys rooting for each other, pushing each other in practice to be their best.
And of course, acting like 13-year-ols. Laughing too loud. Telling jokes that straddle the line of appropriate. Occasional tears when things get too personal. Middle-school stuff.
When the boys team finished second at its final meet of the season, there was a big kid, making the most noise and starting a mini mosh pit at the awards ceremony.
Because sometimes, it’s better to be 13 than 42.