Seaside Challenge: Runners gain personal insights, life lessons

October 2015 Posted in School, Sports
Kaylin Cantu and Gabriella Cortez at the start of the girls Difficult race.

Kaylin Cantu and Gabriella Cortez at the start of the girls Difficult race.

By Steve Ritchie

Only in cross country can a coach lose his team before the race even starts.

For the last 15 years, my Kennedy High School team has joined 80 or 90 other teams at the Seaside Three Course Challenge. Held at sprawling Camp Rilea, each of the six races puts 300, 400 or even 500 runners on the starting line. With thousands of fans, an infectious beat from the drum line and adrenaline so thick you can almost see it, the atmosphere at the meet is the best.

But, too often, I am watching our runners in one race finish, while the next race is getting ready to start. When I get to the line a few minutes before the start, sometimes I can’t find my runners in the sea of athletes. No last minute instructions or encouragement if you can’t even find your team!

This year, I gave my athletes specific instructions about where to line up at the start, and I am fortunate to have a group that not only listens to me, but even remembers what I say. No lost team this time around.

One reason it is important for the coaches to be at the starting line at Seaside is the nervousness caused by the unique format of this meet. There are three courses: easy, moderate and difficult. The runners do a blind draw from a coffee can, choosing a red, blue or white poker chip to determine their course. It is pretty common to hear shrieks of joy and howls of despair as they get their heart’s desire or their biggest fear through the luck of the draw. We always like to video those reactions as they draw the chips.

The difficult course is truly fearsome, with incredibly steep climbs up sand dune hills, a muddy bath in the water pit that tries hard to suck off their shoes and a mob of some of the best runners in Washington and Oregon to test yourself against. Somehow, the top runners always end up running the difficult course.

Gabrielle Cortez, a junior in her first year of cross country, ran 3000 meter courses in her first two meets, so had never even run a normal 5000 meter cross country course, much less the “difficult course” at Seaside which everyone swears is longer than a 5K. She drew the red chip, though, so there she was at the starting line, trying to muster her courage, still smiling.

Gabrielle survived this test, and, I hope, learned more about her innate ability to meet challenges and push herself beyond what she thought were her limits. Cross country gives a lot of such lessons and personal insights.

Freshman Clarissa Traeger lost both her shoes in the water pit – on this day “mud pit” was a better description of this hazard – but she had the presence of mind to retrieve them and get them back on her feet. And somehow managed to finish 52nd out of 350 runners.

Each of the nine Trojans who competed at Seaside had an inspiring or memorable story about his or her race – something that makes coaching cross country a constant delight.

But there is something else notable, too – not related to the competition. The Seaside meet is always an overnight trip for us, and traveling with a coed group of teenagers can be problematic. But every year, Assistant Coach Dar Wavra and I marvel at the way the JFK students conduct themselves. They may need to be reminded occasionally to “keep it down,” but their politeness, good behavior and kindness to others always wins the day. I have received so many compliments over the years from motel managers, restaurant workers, and meet organizers, I have come to expect that.

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