Her Last Race

Her Last Race

You see the last of our junior varsity runners crossing the finish line, you record their times, close your notebook, begin to walk off.

But hold it. Wait. There's this one - the blonde over there. There are tears rolling freely out of her eyes, so much so she bends over, grabs her knees. After first, you're confused - then slowly, you get it.

It was her last race. That's it.

This girl, for the record, wasn't born with the "running gene," but like many before her, she just loved being on a team, training with the girls. Putting on the bib number on odd Saturdays. Griping about waking up early on those Saturday's because that's a big part of what running cross country is. Pasta dinners. Looking at course maps. All that, and then some.

She came to every practice, never complained, did all the workouts, helped pick up the mess teenagers always leave around the place. There's a beauty in that, and in junior varsity sports in general. You, as a coach, were once asked what you thought of JV sports and, usually one to wince when reading your own words, remain proud of these:

"JV sports is just like boxing out in basketball. You don't get the stat or the love, but you're the reason why it happened in the first place. JV works just as hard, and they push the varsity where they can stay on varsity."

In moving on, you don't approach this girl as sometimes - in fact lots of times - you let the kids work through things. In this case, think Bambi, but with the momma deer already gone. Instead, you watch as she leans up, walks to the tent, sits down, begins taking off her spikes.

As for you, you prepare to do one of the toughest things there is to do as a coach, and that is give that speech to ones, like her, who have just completed their last high school race.

After all, during the season it is ALWAYS about the next game, next year, gelling for postseason, making it happen. For some seniors, good or bad, it's all already happened.

There is weeping and gnashing of teeth in postgame huddles for many an upperclassman. My favorites are when the coach just shuts up and gives his player a hug - what's to say anyway? Ironic that I say this, but sometimes words aren't necessary, but simply the art of being there.

As for now, you watch while she gathers her stuff, accepts, and gives hugs, briefly cries on her bestie's shoulder. Part of your heart shatters in seeing this, as an adult you always want to swoop in and, well, just make things right again.

And this pain isn't just for the coaches and the kids, either. Moms have cried when washing the dirty uniform one last time, got weepy again when they packed it up, handed it in - this time knowing they'd never get it back.

Dr. Seuss told us not to cry because it's over but to smile because it happened. Easier said than done, because sometimes that final buzzer sounds so - well - final as you walk off that court. You chose to stand out there awhile, even while the other team celebrated around me. It's like when you open the doors of Groesbeck Hall for the seniors come May, many who will never walk back in.

Still, this is a good pain, because it means you - and she - cared, gave a rip, re-lived races when she was supposed to be asleep, pulled teammates aside in the hallways talking of this mutual bond, this team thing with all its sayings about there being no "I" in the word and all that. It's like you always say about running camp - you can tell that you did it right by the size of the lump in your throat when you drive away.

It takes guts to care, to love something, to put yourself out there. Sometimes you have no respect for aloofness, though you're not even sure aloofness is a word.

For now, you watch while she walks back to the bus, one last time. She stops once, looks back at the course, at that pain, and that spot right there where it began to hurt, and that 100 meter stretch of long, flat grass where she grinded it for all she was worth.

She wipes another tear out of her eye and you could almost swear you can read her mind during all this.

Still, if you had to tell her anything, if words were necessary and a lot of the time they aren't, you'd tell her to rest for a while, be sad if she wants, then get up, get ready, and go get involved in something else she'll love so much she'll cry about that later as well.

It's called passion for life - and that's a good thing... 

As she gets on the bus, she catches your eye, and behind all those tears, you could almost swear you see her smile