On Saturday morning, all of you were checked in and huddled under the overhangs in an attempt to stay dry before climbing on the busses. I was doing the same under the hatch of my car while asking Coach Franklin if we had everyone here. When I felt my phone buzz in my pocket, I assumed it was one of you pleading for mercy over a failed alarm or a pokey ride. Instead, I saw a message pop up from the girls' coach at Warren. I didn't have to read the message to know its content, but I opened it anyway: Coach Dawson--the boys' coach from Warren--died on Friday. He was only 64.
I first met Coach Dawson back in 1998 when I started coaching track at ZB. At the time, I was coaching both the boys and girls distance crew. And at that time, I was the only female coach of boys in our conference, and only one of three on the girls' side. Most of the other coaches assumed I was a manager, if they even acknowledged me at all. They certainly did not think I could be the coach of Steve Cross, a kid who had a killer racing instinct and a will of steel. In every dual meet of the season, he anchored the 4X800 and 4X400, and he ran the open 800 and 400. In EVERY dual meet that season, he won the open events, and in almost every case, he helped our relay win. It was a beautiful thing to witness. The only coach who actually spoke to me (other than our awesome coaching staff) that season was Dawson. He genuinely loved track and cross country, and he wanted every kid to find success. At meets, he would always check in with me to see what kind of workouts I was having our crew do and to share ideas that might help Steve make it to State and the others improve. In what was definitely an old boys' club, Dawson made me feel welcome. At State that May, he helped me feel worthy of being there. And when Steve did not perform well in the finals, he and Coach Meyers (also one of the great mentors of my life) were the ones who made it so simple to accept when they proclaimed, "State is a tricky place. You got him here, and he had an amazing experience. That's all that matters."
When I became a ZB cross country coach the following fall, he was the first to come congratulate me; he told me that I was the energy needed to help reinvigorate the ZB team (at the time, we only had 7 girls--two of whom walked during races). He had this gentle way of making me feel seen and valued; I soon realized that he made everyone feel that way. Over the years, I would witness his love of the sport and his sense of justice. In our end-of-season meetings for the conference, he would always stand up to the other coaches who tried to make changes that only benefited the big and rich schools, despite the fact that he would have benefited from the change, too. We talked about why he loved the Blue Devil Invite (which as of two years ago, was named after him): the course and competition gave kids a chance to run super-fast times, and that is just fun. During track season, we would always spend at least an hour talking at the Carthage Invite, comparing notes from indoor training and marvelling at the performances. And his athletes? He was always in awe of them and treated them like his own children. He bragged about what great humans they were, how well they scored on the ACT, and which colleges were calling for them. He taught me so much about keeping perspective, too. At one point, he had over 100 boys out for the team. He had the option of implementing cuts so that the team would be easier to manage, but he didn't. He wanted as many boys as possible to have the chance to fall in love with running and our sport. So instead, he started riding his bike to be able to better supervise the giant team.
When Dawson told me he was sick in the summer of 2019, I was not too worried. Like every difficulty in his life, he met his cancer diagnosis with optimism, so I assumed that everything would be ok. In the fall, I could see that he had lost weight, but I chalked it up to the treatment. He joked that he had some weight to give, and he focused on his team instead of the fact that the treatments were not working. All fall, I watched his boys run incredibly well. Not only were they fast, but in his words, "they are incredible kids." Dawson revelled in their performances. He was giddy that THIS might be the team that finally made it to State. At the Lake Forest Regional, his 1-5 had a 56 second split, and they won the team title. He was over the moon when his boys walked up to get the plaque. When they started taking pictures, the boys called him over to be included, and he had to practically be dragged into the frame; he wanted them to have the spotlight--it was never about him. So of course when we went to the Sectional the following week, I tried to pour all of me energy into Eric and all of the Warren boys. It just seemed right that this team should make it to State--not only for those boys, but also for a coach who helped runners improve for 40 years. His boys ran well--with only a 48 second split, and impressive feat at the speedy and crowded Busse Woods course, but they just missed their team goal by one place. Sixth place was a gut punch...only 14 points away from one more week of cross country. When finishers' times are separated by less than a second, 14 points is really nothing. But Coach Dawson took it in stride like he always did. When I found him after the results were posted, he simply said, "It would have been nice to make it, especially for all the seniors-they wanted this so bad."
So when we arrived at Deerfield this fall, I was hoping to see another strong Warren team. I knew that Dawson was not doing well, and I wanted him to have a great season to buoy his spirits. He had warned me that he was struggling physically, but when I saw his gaunt frame sitting in a chair near the starting line, I almost did a double-take: he did not look like himself anymore. We talked for a while like we always do, and he revealed that this race would be his last; he was stepping down for the season in order to get his affairs in order. Hearing that phrase put chills through me, but I hoped against hope that some miracle would happen. His boys ran really well, with his top runner nearly breaking 15. After the girls race, I headed back over to talk about the race with Dawson, but he had already left to go home and rest. When my text to him the next day went unanswered, I knew on some level that I would not see him again.
So when we finished up our team talk at the conclusion of the meet on Saturday, and I said that I needed this day, I really meant it. I needed to see teammates care about one another. I needed to see aggressive starts. I needed to see impressive kicks. Each of your races was a balm to the bad news. Thank you.
Varsity Women's Race:
These women enjoyed the best course conditions of the day, yet the rainiest weather. In the pre-race huddle, I was a little worried about the energy level, but I brushed it off as nerves. When the gun sounded, I was pleased to see our crew get out so strong. When I saw them emerge from the first loop, I was elated at our placement: all six got out strong and were close to one another. I figured that with the visual contact, they would be able to run strong in the middle mile. When they headed into the woods for the second time, we were still in solid shape, but I was concerned about the looks on most of their faces. Bee after bee was looking down and looked, for lack of a better word, flat. The two exceptions were Riley and Jenna. Riley was moving up in the pack, and Jenna had her signature smile. ;) When our bees emerged again to start the final loop, we had lost some ground to Vernon Hills. In the final 400, most of our crew either lost a spot or stuck, with the exception of Riley. When she popped out of the woods, she had a focused look in her eyes, and she willingly took my advice to gear up on the two runners ahead of her. She ran an exceptional last 400, reeling in a girl from Mundelein. With each turn, she pulled closer, and in the final stretch, she finally caught the girl just a step before the line. That kick represented her whole race: she was tuned in and challenging herself the entire way. That mindset earned her a new LPR of 22:19, a drop of 42 seconds over her great race at Deerfield. This stat is significant: Riley's best performances have been in true head-to-head races. Obviously, our season is primarily comprised of time trials, but I want you all to take a lesson from Riley--that competition can help you show your true potential! Congrats on an inspiring race, Riley!
Even though the second half of the race did not go how we had hoped, there are some other bright spots. First, Audrey got out hard like she usually does. To paraphrase her own reflection, she was close to Grant's #1 Aly. That kind of mindset--to not be intimidated by the Sectional champ of 2019, is the kind of swagger I want to hear about! And Maya responded to Audrey's aggressive start; she was proud of the fact that she was close to Audrey after the first loop. I am proud of her goal to stick to Audrey! And it continued down the line--Marisa had Maya in her sight lines; Riley could see Marisa; Katelin was ahead of her goal to stick with Jenna; and Jenna was pulling on Katelin. The sum of this is a group that is willing to pull on the energy of their teammates. This mindset is what we need to keep building upon as the season continues! The other highlight is that post-race, I could see that each of the girls immediately knew what they should work on for Tuesday. After a thoughtful conversation, I felt like we were on the right track. In looking at the results, I was pleased that we were so close to a very talented Vernon Hills team in the point total. If you put Kelsey back in the mix, we win easily. And if you add Natalie, we dominate. We have a chance to do some great things as a team this season, and I am proud of the honesty and gutsiness of this group. I look forward to seeing them race on Tuesday!
In an attempt to make the races more competitive, the Grant coach collapsed the two JV races, and I was excited to see that opportunity for our bees! The rain let up for this race, but the course was more torn up. This crew did not care about the course. In the pre-meet breakdown, the energy felt different. The group was inspired by Riley's awesome kick, and they were ready to race. Our group got out really well, and I was stoked to see Julien and Karen so near the front of the race. Our next pack of Delilah, Illyana, and Mia were way up too, which was awesome to see! Our remaining bees were working well together in packs and looking focused and strong. Heading into the woods for the second loop, I was OVER THE MOON to watch so many of you charge around the flag and use the rolling downhill as a way to catch someone. I was about to list people who stood out here, but I realized that it was the whole crew. You women really used the features of the course to counteract your mid-race fatigue, and it made me smile! The part of the race I'd really like to focus on is the last hill. At this point, the hill can be a game changer. You are about to hit the two-mile marker, you are fatigued from the slippery, wet ground, and you have to face what feels like a monster. I was stationed at the hill, and I was so happy with how many of you responded. In particular, Delilah attacked the hill with power. She shortened her stride and looked at the top of the hill as she drove her arms with pride. Delilah has always been a strong hill runner, and she leaned into that title. Julien also had her sprinter-perfect form as she drove up the hill--outstanding! Ashley was also impressive by gaining momentum on the flat in order to help her attack. Belen attacked aggressively and briefly slipped; rather than giving up or looking defeated, she redoubled her efforts and looked fantastic overcoming the hill. And Mia did a great job of keeping her momentum after she turned the corner; rather than backing off, she kept driving past the baseball diamonds. Heading into the woods the last time, Nataly, Aubrianna and Blanca did a fantastic job using that little downhill. They seemed to come alive at this point in the race, and I was literally jumping with joy watching it happen!
The finishes from this group were impressive. Illyana pushed through the entire 400, looking sharper with each turn and outkicking a girl in the last stretch. Ashley and Jenny both reacted so well on that long stretch before the tricky turn, looking assertive and picking up their turn over. Karen took a risk and tried to catch a runner from Vernon Hills. Although she came up a second short, her grit in the pursuit is what we need every single race! Every single one of you looked strong and tuned-in during the last 400, and I'm proud of you! Shout out to Mel, Joceline, and Bianca for getting their first races of the season under their belts. They each admitted some nerves pre-race, but once the gun sounded, they relied on their experience to guide them throughout. Proud of you all! :)
Post-race, Keeley and I had a short talk about her disappointment in her race. It was then that I first pointed out how special you all are, and I later echoed this point to the whole group. You women have created an elite crew of rebels. 26 strong, caring women. 26 out of some 1,300 possibilities. You are the only 26 who were brave enough to battle the heat and the cold and the wind and the rain. You are the only 26 who sought out an opportunity to grow both mentally and physically. You are the only 26 who agreed to run mile after mile, deal with blister after blister, stretch tight muscle after tight muscle. That decision alone makes you one tough cookie. And if you keep leaning into the lessons this sport provides...if you keep treating each practice and each race as the gift that they are...if you keep learning from one another's strengths...if you keep working on your internal dialogue...we will bee the difference.
So when I said that I needed today, I needed it because running has always been a refuge for me when life was and is difficult. And watching you support one another brought me strength on a day of sadness. Thank you for that.
As we head into this next week, let's refocus our minds on the gift of each day. Let's do it in Coach Dawson's memory. And please keep his family, athletes, and friends in your thoughts. Rest in power, Coach!