Sharing the trail with middle-school runners

Written on Oct 17th, 2017 by , Category Marlene Farrell Blog, Training

Here are the members of the Icicle River Middle School Cross-Country Team. (Photo by Heidi Swoboda)

By Marlene Farrell

Coaching middle schoolers in cross country running requires a delicate hand. Every year Coach Eric and I have a band of thoroughbreds ready to hit a trail. They’ll run, with little wasted motion, on and on.

The vast majority of these young runners, however, need guidance every step of the way. We praise them for the effort sketched on their faces when they keep running instead of dropping back into a walk. We give them tough days so they can surprise themselves with surviving a daunting workout (which sometimes includes the dreaded combining of the words “hills” and “intervals”). Easy days follow the hard days. That way the kids catch themselves saying, “Is that it? Is practice over already?”

We live in an era of year-round sports, summer camps aimed at kindergarten “athletes” and pressure to “play up” whenever a child shows a smidge more passion or talent than his or her peers. When I was these kids’ age, we didn’t even have a middle school cross country team. We weren’t expected to run distance except a mile for the presidential physical fitness test.

As an adult and veteran runner, racing entices me because I have a desire to train and then test myself. At a race I get to see if I can push hard throughout the course without blowing up. I’m not looking for running to feel easy. Rather I train to increase my familiarity with the temporary discomfort and pain of racing. At the finish line it gives way to the pleasure of knowing I tried as hard as I could.

I don’t expect many middle schoolers to yearn for a race as a testing ground. My 13-year-old self would have laughed at this whacky craving. Middle schoolers run for their own variety of reasons, but mostly they center around hanging out with friends and the freedom of running through town and on local trails. If we surveyed them on their favorite aspect of cross country, meets would rank high. But if we drilled down to the specifics, it would have more to do with the bus rides and grocery-store stops than the actual races. Popsicles and Capture the Flag would also top the list.

Treats and games should matter to middle schoolers. They’re kids after all. Some of them have huge shoe sizes and deep voices, but that doesn’t mean they’re adults. Their exuberance rubs off on me. You might catch me trying to imitate one of their dance moves while we wait for everyone to show up at the beginning of practice. Or I can get equally excited about what I’m going to buy at Safeway for the bus ride home.

They’ll cut corners because they’re balancing the idea of training with a kid’s prerogative to shun work and look for shortcuts. Practicing day after day, Coach Eric and I have learned to anticipate their typical shenanigans. Some we can tolerate, like butts in the air during planks and sticks wielded like swords on forest runs. For the offenses that bring the team down, we guide their teammates into pressuring them to act right.

Middle schoolers haven’t changed that much from their former selves as innocent elementary kids. But we grown-ups heap more and more responsibility on them, for good reason. I’d argue that sports, and certainly cross country, can be an arena where we give them a wide spectrum of expectations, so they can find their own balance of work and play. We’ll make life-long runners or athletes of them, which is worth more than any single tough workout or first place in a race.

If they run fast, if they run far and if they run well, it signifies bravery. They run, not with the cold calculation of a veteran runner, but with heart of someone on the verge of discovery.

Marlene Farrell is a writer, long-distance runner and coach. She lives in Leavenworth.

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