My First Cross Country Practice – Made a Difference

9th Grade School Photo – wearing my cross-country
jersey as an undershirt

This is the second post in my ongoing look back at my 40 years as a runner series. They are my recollections and honest reflections about a part of my life that others only glimpse, as that “guy” out running.

Back to the story

That afternoon, when I got on the activity bus to go to the high school, I didn’t know what to expect and was very nervous about it.

After all I had heard rumors about the Cross Country Coach – Mr. Smith and what a jerk he was. The soccer players on the bus with us, reinforced his reputation on the way to the first practice. Telling us stories about Mr. Smith and what he did at school and how he treated soccer players. From what they were saying Mr. Smith was the biggest asshole teacher/coach in the school district.

We got off the bus and the soccer players all went into the gym. A couple of them had some sarcastic comments for me, they all knew I had been cut from the soccer team and teenage boys are not known for their empathy and I gave them the one finger salute for their comments. While 7-8 other new to the cross-country team, besides Jay and I, waited outside for someone to tell us where to go.

Scary as Hell

Mr. Smith – 1972 Nokomis High
School Year Book – Scanned Photo//

Out walks this gray-haired, skinny, old guy with a black eye patch over one eye who looked at me while I was saluting the soccer players and in a guff voice and asked, “You here to run cross-country or what?” I stammered and stuttered “yes” already thoroughly intimidated by him.

We introduced ourselves to Mr. Smith and he went over his expectations for being a member of his Cross Country team.

He looked me over a couple of times, shook his head and told me that I needed a different pair of shorts and shoes, (I was wearing an old too big t-shirt, cut-off jeans and basketball sneakers) everyone else had gym shorts and some kind of running shoes on.
I told him that I didn’t have anything else to run in (we hadn’t done our back-to-school shopping yet), I was the oldest of 5 kids at that time and we were definitely lower middle class. We got what we needed, but not too many extras, the basketball sneakers (Chuck Taylor high tops) had been from last basketball season and were in pretty rough shape. I guess I didn’t make a great first impression.
Initial Run

He told us to go down to the track and run 4 laps around it to warm-up. I know that I must have looked at him like he was growing another head — 4 laps!!! I had never run more than one lap at a time and wasn’t too crazy about running that far. Everyone else had started running and I was still standing there – Mr Smith looked down at me and pointed at everyone else and made a motion with thumb to get going, he never said a word, I knew what he meant.

I caught up and passed everyone else, but I didn’t even make it 2 laps around the track, before I started walking. I walked until he yelled at me to keep running. I had a long conversation with myself about how stupid this was and what a jerk this guy called Smith was, along with calling him every name in the book (under my breath of course).

After running/walking the mile warm-up I was dead last and everyone was sitting around waiting for me to finish. I got a lot comments from the other runners and I remember using a certain finger to let them know what I thought about their witty comments. I know that I saluted a lot people back then, usually when they weren’t looking.

Mr. Smith then walked us around the cross-country course (a 2.2 mile course), giving his strategies for different areas and how to box in opposing runners so they couldn’t get by. After touring the trail he told us to go down and run another mile to cool down. Yeah right.

This ain’t for me

I had already made up my mind that this was my first and last cross-country practice, running long distances sure as hell wasn’t for me. I cheated and only did 2 laps to everyone else’s 4. I got a lot of dirty looks and some comments from the other runners including Jay. I didn’t care – that was going to be my last time running that far – ever!

When we got back up to the gym, Mr. Smith was waiting there for us. He motioned me to come over and took me inside to the coach’s office. I was sure he was going to give me hell by the half-acre for not doing the 4 laps and to tell me not to bother coming back again.

The Gift

Instead he looked at me and gave me some old running shoes (they were Converse canvas and rubber sole running shoes that were pretty well-worn, but in a lot better shape than my old basketball sneakers – you couldn’t see my feet and toes through the holes). These were the old shoes that the school had for kids who don’t have any running shoes and did not have the money to get their own. Mr. Smith also had a pair of old gym shorts and told me that I would run better next time if I wore these along with the shoes.

We talked for a few minutes about what I wanted out of running cross-country. I told him I wasn’t sure about this long-distance running stuff and that I liked to run fast and short distances.

He said something that no one before him had ever said to me…he told me he saw something special about my running and that he expected me to be one of his better runners in a few years. He also let me know that he noticed I hadn’t finished running and that he was disappointed by my not giving 100% effort.

It didn’t matter at that minute, whether Mr. Smith’s prediction ever came true or not…he was one of the first people in my life that said he believed in me.

That was his gift to an insecure teenage boy – belief that I could do something, whether he meant it or was just saying it to say it, on that day, it was what I needed.

Always remember that day

There are certain times in your life you remember really well!

That first Cross-Country practice was one of those times that I know changed my life, I was a kid who didn’t really have a lot going for him, had just been cut from the soccer team and Mr. Smith gave me a chance and something to work towards, which I needed badly back then and a place to start.

Little did I know then, that Mr. Kenneth Smith – my new Cross Country Coach was one of the finest gentleman that I would ever meet in my life and he would be a major positive influence all through high school and beyond.

I would have been much different

If Mr. Smith hadn’t taken the time to talk to and help me out that night, I never would have gone back to the next practice.

Isn’t it strange the difference that a few minutes of an adult’s time can make in a young person’s life. I hate to think of the directions that I could/would have gone, without his guidance through some pretty tough times for me during my high school years.

I will be forever grateful that Ken Smith took that time to talk to me that night and give a kid some badly needed kindness.

Never underestimate what a difference a few minutes of your time might make in someone’s life, especially a child’s.

I went back

Yes I went back to the next Cross Country practice, learned that I could run 2-3 miles pretty easily and have been a runner ever since. I still love to run fast (at least fast for me), but now at least I can find pleasure in running those longer distances and miss it terribly when I can’t just run.

If you are interested in earlier posts in this series here they are:

40 Years of Running

I hope you enjoy reading these recollections, I know that I am enjoying going through the pictures, diaries and reflecting back on these parts of my life.

2 thoughts on “My First Cross Country Practice – Made a Difference

  1. "Isn't it strange the difference that a few minutes of an adult's time can make in a young person's life." <- Indeed, Just think about the many teens who go without the luxury of having that kind of guidance and encouragement, esp. when some kids never or rarely even hear that their own family believes in them. You were lucky to have that man in your life, he obviously made a great difference & sent you in a good direction.Interesting series, keep it up.


  2. He did make a difference and it is the way it has always been, we don't know the difference that just a few minutes can make in anyone's life, but especially a young person's life. Thank you for reading and commenting.


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