Bonus Week! :)
Last June, I came home from the State Track Finals on an absolute high after what I can only describe as the most bizarre, and yet satisfying State Meet I have ever witnessed. I was so proud of how our group navigated ridiculous weather and unprecedented delays, all in the middle of a pandemic. In the following days, I struggled with how to imagine the next season. I was "losing" one of the most impressive senior classes I have ever had the privilege to coach. How do you replace the optimism and work ethic of a Kelsey? Or the hilarity and power of a Maya? Or the smile and dedication of a Jenna? Or the growth and grit of a Jenni? And that list doesn't consider the depth of the class of '21: Lesly, Karen, Ixa, Julien, Marleth, Delilah, Belen, and Ashley. I mean, seriously...how would we move from this kind of experience, leadership, honesty, and just awesomeness into a new season?
I knew we had a good core, but how would we grow? How would we recruit? Who would step up to lead?
My worries (like all worries) were based on fear rather than facts. Fact: all those seniors were giving. They shared their love and wisdom and growth. Fact: all those seniors wanted the 21 XC team to bee amazing. Fact: YOU were listening.
This season was unexpected, and that's what makes it all so glorious. As I said on the bus, seasons like this, especially the last month, do not simply happen. They require the captains to buy in and then to lead with humility and grit. They require newbees and veterans alike to buy in and be willing to grow. And they require everyone to be vulnerable...to be willing to put themselves out there, knowing that falling short of big goals is possible, but the journey to get there was worth it. All of these requirements happened thanks to all of you, and it bought us a team birth at the Sectional, which was a dream come true! But it also bought us an incredible season. One that certainly had its moments of challenge (honestly, I'm still not over how many people that quit the season), but that also provided opportunities to learn and grow. I think one of the most gratifying feelings was watching the seniors grow into such an impressive group of leaders in their own way. There is no way to replicate the depth of the class of '21, but the class of '22 didn't try to. Instead, you seven found your own voices and your own style of leading this very different team. It was so cool to watch!
This week was something next level, though. To have a week of practice like this, and then a trip like this requires selflessness and pure love. The nine of you (plus some of the boys as well as Anderson and Hamilton) selflessly gave yourselves to Audrey all week. You gave her your sweat and energy in workouts. You gave her your laughs and sound effects and stories on adventure runs. You gave her ALL the parks. And you poured pure love into her...not just when she found out she qualified...not just on Monday...you did it all week and all trip. It would have been so easy for you nine to goof off and lose focus. But that's not the character of this group. You took her journey seriously, and it says so much about your character. I am simply in awe of how beautiful this last week was. Thank you for proving to the world that "this generation" is NOT lazy or selfish. Thank you for showing the boys how to balance laughter with intensity. And thank you for making this week something to be proud of. From your help with organizing the trip to designing the shirt to all the little moments in between, thank you for showing the power of love! Of course, I love watching you all run fast, by I am far more proud of the character you each displayed this week, and you should be, too.
Audrey, I need you, too, to take some compliments. You handled the non-running parts of this week with grace, and I am so proud of you for that. I know that the last thing you probably wanted to do was sit through a recorded interview or to walk through a loud parade, but you let yourself simply bee part of it all, and I'm thankful for that! I wanted you to be able to revel in the praise that you earned, and you seemed (at least outwardly) to somewhat enjoy it. :)
I also need you to own the fact that you ran one hell of a race. To run your absolute best race on the biggest stage of your career is simply awe-inspiring. It is no easy feat to keep the nerves in check, but you did so with grace and grit. After you slayed Tuesday's workout, I kept thinking that if you could just keep everything in perspective, you were ready to run a great race. As I watched your and your girls run the course on Friday from the bleachers of the coaches' meeting, I could see how easy you looked. Each time you looped by, you were laughing and listening, looking smooth and fit as could be. On Saturday, when I pulled you aside to talk about a race strategy, your eyes were so sincere; I could see that you were nervous (understandably), but also that you were ready to make the most of the race. You wisely leaned into your girls during the warm up and dynamice an strides. After the breakdown, I felt bad that I couldn't think of any good corny jokes to lighten the mood on the line. I could see the weight of your goals on your face, and I willed time to move a little faster so that you could just get to what you do best: race.
When the gun sounded, I put an Italian hex on the two girls who cut you off (I have since rescinded it...I don't want that bad blood in the world...), but you didn't need it: You hopped around them, and offered the best vengeance--you beat them all. I raced down to the first uphill to see your positioning. You had run the first 400 like a pro, putting yourself in a smart spot--around 60 or so. You looked fantastic, and I lost my mind a little bit. I raced across the field, realizing that I should have warmed up properly, and found a spot just before the mile. As I watched the leaders approach the mile, I saw that the pace was zesty; Welin from OPRF rolled through in 5:10, with the chase pack in close pursuit around 5:20. It felt like only moments later, I saw you working the outside of the course, passing peeps as you cruised down the hill, looking impressive in 5:37. I was elated! It was slightly faster than the 5:45 I had prescribed, but well within your ability. I had asked you for a slower pace in order to temper the adrenaline and the setting that would conspire to likely pull you through faster. When I darted back to the other side, I found your brother, who was going absolutely nuts about your race. To see his joy for you in that moment was simply priceless. He truly loves you and wants you to shine bright! When you exited The Back 40 and approached the uphill of loop 2, you had moved up considerably, near the low 40s. Collin and I were so impressed by how strong you looked, and we raced across the infield (with Collin low-key insulting my age, claiming that I "still had some speed" lol) to see you on the downhill of the last loop. As you coasted down the hill I was fully losing my mind. You looked so dang strong, and I knew the time was FAST. I darted across to see you one last time with about 300 to go. Collin was staring at my watch, doing math, and realizing that you were going to break your goal of 18:00 without a problem. When you raced by us, I could not help but think about the last 400 you ran on Tuesday...you just looked so impressive and ready to eat! I tried with all my might to make it to the finish before you, but I think we all know how that went.
What I saw instead filled my heart with so much joy. I watched Kaila sprinting to the finish area to see your last steps. I saw Brionne running to the same spot, even though she wasn't supposed to be moving like that. And when I got to the top, I saw your team searching for you, celebrating and laughing and sharing. Illyana said that watching your kick brought her to tears. Marisa and Aubrianna and Natalie, feeling joyous about your race, stood on a picnic table and held your fat head up, proclaiming that they were "Looking for this woman!" and begging, "Audrey, come find yourself!" We searched for you and realized that there was no way that you were standing in that sea of people. I called Kaila, who answered on one ring, and explained that you were near the road away from the crowds. We all raced to find you and celebrate. And for the second time this season, you let me hold my hug a bit longer than usual...and you actually seemed content.
The numbers do not lie. For the first time this season, you were able to keep your first and second mile sub-6: 5:37 and 5:59. You also beat three individuals from our Sectional (so you moved up from 10th to 7th), as well as one runner from New Trier's team, one runner from Barrington's team, one runner from Loyola Academy, one from McHenry, and one from Palatine. To say that your outperformed our Sectional is an understatement! That would have put you 10th! All of this math adds up to a 17:41 time and a 43rd place finish--the only time for a ZB woman at 3 miles at Detweiller (when Kim Johnson qualified back in 1991, the State Meet was still in the stone ages; women were only allowed to race 2 miles). And across all courses? No ZB woman has run faster. Audrey, I think it is obvious, but I need to say it anyway: I am so proud of how you performed! A race like this says so many things about you: it says that you consistently worked hard all season; it says that you believed in your training; it says that you believed in yourself. The moment you qualified, that quote on the shirt popped into my head because it was so fitting for you this season--you didn't overcomplicate things...you simply raced hard. I hope that it is obvious that your team is so proud of you, too. RIley and Kate wanted to bee part of the junior room situation because they wanted you to be at ease, and I loved that arrangement because of the promise of power it portends for track and next season. Brionne and Nat darted around the course for you despite a bum calf and ankle respectively because they wanted you to feel the power of their love as you raced. The freshies offered their competitiveness in the games we played as well as their laughter as they soaked up the lessons you told without speaking. Marisa (and her mom) made loud signs to show how much she believes in you! Aubrianna, after narrowly missing the chance to go to Sterling, showed her dedication since Conference in order to share her love with this team. Illy helped me design the shirt because she wanted the world to know how special you are, and she "matched" your energy all week because...well? It's you and Illy. :) These nine were inspired by you, and so were your coaches. And it doesn't end with this group. At least eight others wanted to come see you, but we couldn't pull off a pep bus this year. Heck, Jarek made his dad drive three and half hours to watch a 17 minute and 41 second race. Your season and your race has fed and inspired others. Own all of that!
To say that I am excited about this upcoming track season and next XC season is an understatement. Yes, it is fun to watch you all run fast, but it is equally joyful to watch the way you work together, laugh together, and grow together. As we loaded into the bus after the craziness that was our Dairy Queen stop, I could not look away from the glory the setting sun provided in my rearview mirror. The intensity of the pinks and oranges...the contrast between the dark landscape and the brilliant clouds...the minute-by-minute growth of the color...it just felt like a perfect closing to an incredible and intense season. As I was revelling in Mother Nature's genius, you were all brainstorming final "Remember Whens," re-laughing at the silliness that had unfolded only hours before, and oooh-ing at the sweet moments that you did not want to forget. That was when I started to think about what to say when we reached school...what to write here, too, because I did not want to forget, either.
So incredibly proud to be your coach,