To this very day, I can vividly remember my first-ever cross country practice.
I arrived at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, Maine, on a late August day, a 14-year-old freshman who didn’t know shit about tomorrow, and I was told we were going to run the Howard Street course. We would start from the school, run down Broadway, up State Street, left onto Howard Street, left onto Stillwater Ave., left onto Broadway and back to the school.
Three miles with just one order from the coach: Don’t stop.
That was the practice for all of us. From the best runner on the boys team, a senior named Marc Chretian, to the worst runner on the girls team.
Off we went.
In four years, I can’t imagine the number of miles I put in, putting one foot in front of the other, my feet striking the pavement with just enough of a pronation that I would wear out sneakers each and every season.
I wore running shoes. I wore waffle racers. I wore spikes. It all depended on the day and the race. And, back in the day, we wore those little short shorts that all runners wore.
My best finish was a Top-10 showing at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill. My greatest race was finishing 27th in the state at Colby College in Waterville my sophomore year.
I was part of a team state championship my junior year, and a Pendale Invitational championship my senior year.
I’d say for each mile I ran, a memory was made.
• The Revenge Of The Track Rats: We had a love-hate relationship with our football team. On Saturday nights, we loved them as they represented our school, wearing the Purple and White with pride. The rest of the week, we hated them. They called us “Track Rats” and we called them a lot of things. One day, when we had finally had enough of their teasing (these days the Charmin people would call it “bullying,” we plotted our revenge. They had these huge hangers for all their pads and we decided on this particular day to throw all of them into the middle of the locker room, one of each other, in a pile. Ever try to take apart 35 coat hangers that are intermixed in a pile? It’s not easy. We caught holy hell from our coach on that one, but I seem to recall it came with a sly smile. As for our football team, “Go Crusaders!”
• Drummond Street Hill. I dare say our “hill route” was probably one of the greatest practice hills in the country for a high school cross country team. It was called Drummond Street Hill and some days we ran up , cut across Ohio Street and then ran up to the Thomas Hill Standpipe — at least a half-mile climb that would make your legs burn. Other days, we sprinted up and down Drummond Street until we puked. I think it made us perhaps the best hill running team in the state, though. No rise would intimidate us after a season of running that.
• The Run Of Unknown Destination: This came during my senior at Hampden Academy and the practice was simple. Go run for at least an hour straight. Run wherever you want. Trails, roads, hills, beaches, backyards. If we had access to treadmills back then, we could probably run on that, too. This day was actually the furthest run of my high school career — we estimated at 12 miles. It was during this run, though, where the memory was made. While running on a trail off Route 202 we came across a car sitting in the middle of woods. We all stopped at this oddity, not sure what to do, or what we would find. A dead body? An empty stolen car? Slowly, we approached. And then we found a rather amorous couple, initially not distracted by the group of runners peering in the window. Her shriek of horror sent us scampering further down the trail, but I can guarantee you no football team every came across such a memory. There again, it was usually the football stars that were in the car with the pretty girls, so I digress.
I could dig for more, no doubt, since I ran more than three miles in my cross country career, but the reason I sat down to write this is because of what I witnessed yesterday at the Connecticut State Open Championship meet at Wickham Park.
The State Open — is it’s known — is something the State of Maine never had. In Maine, we had our league meet (The Penobscot Valley Conference championship), our regional meet (The Eastern Maine championships) and a three- or four-class state meet, depending on the year.
Here in Connecticut there are league meets, followed by state class meets (Classes LL, L, MM, M, SS and S) and out of those meets come those runners who advance to the State Open championship meet.
They are the best of the best, and qualifiers from this meet advance to the New England Regional meet next weekend.
I was reminded of what makes cross country such a great sport again on Saturday.
The winners — Eric van der Els of Brien McMahon High School and Hannah DeBalsi of Staples High School — are two of the top distance runners I’ve ever had the honor to chronicle in my long career as a sportswriter. Eric is heading to UConn while Hannah — a three-time State Open champ — is bound for Stanford.
Both are great kids and it’s been such a pleasure and honor to have watched them grow up through their careers.
Twenty minutes into the girls race, though, I also got to witness the other thing that makes the sport great, as well.
The finish line at Wickham Park is a 200-meter up-hill finish, a long steady grade that saps a lot of runners and empties their tanks.
It was during this climb to the finish that I first saw Sarah Leavens of Avon High School come into view. Her legs were growing unsteady and you could tell she was in trouble. She was done. She was going down.
I’ve witnessed this before many times. Once runners go down, their legs are gone. It’s next to impossible to get up as a runner tries, they look baby deers walking for the first time.
It’s painful to watch, yet it’s also in a way heroic. Because they don’t stop.
They’re trained not to. They go down and they think, “Get up.” They know the race isn’t done until they cross the finish line.
You could see that in Sarah Leavens’ eyes as she sat their, less than 20 yards from the finish, looking at the goal in front of her, trying to will herself back to her feet.
I’ve seen runners crawl to the finish line before.
I didn’t think Sarah was going to get back up when suddenly a runner from New Milford, a girl named Kristen Richichi stopped as she ran by and started to help Sarah up.
From the finish line, the race officials yelled for Kristen not to help Sarah because — despite the sportsmanship angle and the fact the runner helping the helpee is costing herself time and places — it’s an event that could lead both runners to be disqualified. (I never said cross country was perfect).
Sarah got back up and she finished, staggering home in 142nd place. Kristen, once Sarah got to her feet, sprinted ahead and finished 135th.
New Fairfield and Avon are not in the same conferences, but the week before Sarah had finished eighth in the Class MM championship race while Kristen was ninth. Both finished as the No. 2 runners for their team.
This was a bad day as both were more than a minute slower than the week before, but they were, a moment in time, one runner helping another will herself to the finish.
I’ve never met a runner I haven’t liked. And I think that’s a big reason why, all these years and all these pounds later, I still remember what it was like to be one.