WILL POWER, PAIN AND SECOND CHANCES
Why am I standing here on a cold rainy day watching young athletes run? I gave this up long ago, but here I am now with Silas.
Silas is six feet-two, perhaps 150 pounds. He is long and lean, all sinew and muscle. He is a senior at Delaware Academy in upstate New York, and is one of the young men I am working with as I re-enter my past life as a track coach.
"I don’t know if I feel too good today, Lenny. My legs are a little stiff."
The boys call me "Lenny," not "Coach" or "Mr. Mintz." I like that because the relationship I have with them is as much friendship as coaching. Silas is nervous, as he should be, for soon the starter’s gun will fire and he will ask himself to endure pain. Racing is not just running. It takes you to the threshold of your body’s tolerance for discomfort. I look up to him.
"Silas," I say, "at this moment there are millions of people in China who couldn’t care less about your race, so relax and do your thing." A smile creases his face. He runs his best 800 meters ever by five seconds, finishing with a kick that I had not seen before.
* * *
It is past dark when I return home. "Wow, you’re late," my wife, Terry, says. I had forgotten how long these track meets could last. I am cold, much more tired than I remember being in my former coaching life. Now I appreciate how good those days were–not only to watch the runners I mentored competing in meets, but to run with them during practice. We ran on trails, in parks, on roads through suburbia, past estates and horse farms. And even though I was decades older, in those moments I was as young as they were. We shared the pain and joy of a long run and discovered much about each other. When the long runs stopped in my early 60s, I lost interest in runners. It was more painful for me to watch than it ever was to actually run. I was envious of those who still ran regularly and raced even at advanced ages; I was bitter about the deterioration of my knees that ended that part of life.
A shower, hot soup and dinner manage to ease my discomfort. I sit in my usual chair, not interested in television because my mind is filled with images of the boys I coached that day.
Colin is our best distance runner, a young man with a combination of talent and great work ethic. He wins the mile, toying with his closest opponent. Soon he will run in the championship meets where he will be pushed harder. What will happen then?
Matt, a strong sophomore, runs beyond his ability on the first lap of the 800 meters, then fades but still runs his best time. He works long hours on a farm, often missing practice. "Matt, 50 percent of life is showing up," I tell him. "Come to practice every day." I think he wants to, but hasn’t figured out which path to choose.
Ben, the fastest of them all, is approaching the 50-second barrier in the 400 meters. This separates the good 400-meter runners from the champions. He is one of the school’s best students and also active in music and community affairs. He lacks pure form, but has the gift of speed.
I am, once again, driven to succeed–but for entirely different reasons. With advancing years, I have achieved the gift of perspective. Each day now is a second chance to get it right. When I am with these boys I will tell them to dream about success, but remember that dreams are want power, while consistent effort is will power.
I am trying to still my racing mind, but I find myself jotting down tomorrow’s workout. What does each boy need? Who is tired and needs an easier day? Who is energized and ready to work hard? I will meet them tomorrow with the memories of so many of my own yesterdays, some of the things I now know I got wrong. But I also remember the times I got it right. The boys I reached. The ones who needed me to be whatever it was that was missing from their lives, and I succeeded. I remember the boys who would say that to me years later.
The flames of the fire have gone out. The wood is aglow, red-hot embers. Although Terry and I sit apart in silence, I am aware of her presence. With friends she is extraverted and energetic, but at home she is pensive and seems far away. This is the Terry that has emerged since her bout with breast cancer more than three years ago. I realize that my newfound enthusiasm to coach again, to give of myself, is largely due to that time when doctors took control of Terry’s life and mine as well.
* * *
It is one week after the conclusion of the spring track season. I climb the bank to the Delhi College track. I will run today, something I do infrequently now.
A few weeks before, I was here with Silas. He agreed to work out that Sunday since he had missed a training session on Friday. It began to rain, first a drizzle, then a steady cold rain. Alone, Silas ran a series of repeat 400 meters. I watched and timed him, admiring the flow of his motion, the arms and legs in perfect synchronization, his head erect, his posture upright, just the way a distance runner’s should be. After his five repeats, all with only three-minute rest intervals, he bent over, shirt pasted to his torso, soaked with rain and sweat.
"Silas," I said, "you’re tired now, just as you will be near the end of your next race. I’d like you to jog to the far turn and then run hard to the finish line. Run that 165 yards in 20 seconds, then repeat it." He lifted his head. I saw no reluctance in his eyes; we connected this season.
Silas stepped onto the track again, jogged to the far turn, accelerating through the turn into a finishing sprint. I saw the effort in his face but his legs were moving smoothly. He finished in 20 seconds, then walked about a hundred yards and began jogging again. He finished the next 165 in 22 seconds, but I called out "20." There was no need for him to sense failure. He walked, then jogged a mile to cool down, and stretched. We walked down the bank together. He thanked me for standing in the rain to help him. "No, Silas," I said. "Thank you."
I decide to run today, inspired by all the young men I have coached this year. It starts out painfully; the little cartilage I have left in my surgically repaired knees is not enough to cushion the joints. It takes me twice as long to cover the first 400 meters as it did Silas. By the second mile, whatever little lubricating fluid is present in my knees begins to ease my discomfort. I find myself picking up the pace, as if I am running. My body feels young, but a glance at my watch tells me that what I am feeling is a dream.
I run for 30 minutes. The track is empty. The mountains in the background sparkle, greened by the rains. I am only mildly fatigued, but wonder how such a relatively slow pace could be so difficult. My hands are heavily lined, the skin on my arms and legs less taut these days, but I am happy–exhilarated.
Lenny Mintz spent his career as a physical education teacher and coach of several middle and high school boys and girls teams in Syosset, Long Island. After retiring to upstate New York, he began writing seriously as part of a group called Writers in the Mountains and several years later he also became a volunteer coach in Delhi, New York. This essay is adapted from his book of essays, Open Windows. To order a copy or find out more about his work, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.