What I Learned from Track and Field

One  sunny afternoon, Coach Steve decided he wanted to do something different with the sprint crew.

Like usual, he asked me, “What do you think?” and showed me the day’s workout. As a first-year sprint coach, Steve relied heavily on my opinions of the team and knew that I paid attention to the workouts and what should get done.

Today’s workout: Twelve 200-meter strides with no downtime.

Ouch.

“Strides should be at about 60 to 70 percent,” Steve said.

My small sprint crew gathered halfway around the track, where we would normally start a 200 meter race. This was my favorite race, but in track lingo we were only stretching our limbs. 60-70 percent was a hard run, but not close to full speed. In my head I could picture it clearly–we’d be up on our toes, breathing hard. It was more about heart and lungs than muscle.

No downtime made for an extremely tricky workout. We’d finish the 200 meters and immediately walk back to the starting line for another one. After four or five strides, my pace started to feel less balanced. My breathing was haggard. We were all sweating hard and talking less. We could feel the blood pulsing in every cavity in our faces and throats.

Steve kept encouraging us while we griped and grumbled. No one achieved greatness in track without a hell of a lot of pain. What was funny about it, though, was that though we felt like our legs were less like pistons and more like weights, and though we were pushing ourselves to the brink and felt weaker than ever, Steve swore we were actually improving our times each time we completed a stride.

About halfway through, some of the teammates started to drop out. Some of my own relay team made excuses– “my ankle hurts, gotta wrap it,” “I have my period,” “I’m dehydrated,” and etc.

Steve knew it was all bullshit, but he let them go. At first I was angry. As his second-in-command, I wanted to know why the hell he wasn’t punishing them with a coldhearted declaration of “12 more strides” or something like that. If I was the coach, I’d be heavyhanded. But I didn’t say anything. I glanced at some of the other girls in question, but they shrugged and kept going, too.

At the end of the workout, only about a quarter of my team was left and Steve still didn’t say anything. I was satisfied that I finished, but furious. I had a steamrolling headache, my entire body ached, and I was done dealing with the relay team’s complaints that I didn’t deserve a spot, and especially not a spot as anchor.

Who could say such a thing, when I worked twice as hard during each practice? Not only did I finish the workouts, the very minimum requirement, but I stayed late to help the second-seeded girls work on form. We stayed late with the boys and worked on starts out of the blocks. We did extra lunges, extra cool down strides, and even learned how to long jump to get some extra sprinting in at the end of practice.

And at 3:00 on any given practice day, Steve would put a hand on my shoulder as I read over the workout and ask, “What do you think?” And I’d either nod and say it was good, or I’d put a finger in the air and add something about starts or baton handoffs or something sprinters call “floating,” which is where you reach full speed and try to hold your body at a constant speed for the rest of the race as close to 100 percent as possible. I’d tell him I wanted to do more polymetrics or do some sprints up the steep hill by the baseball fields.

At the end of the longest workout of my life, twelve 200-meter strides, there was my relay team, sitting in the locker room, various complaints continuing. The rest of us picked up our water bottles and sipped carefully, refusing to sit so that we could cool down properly, and only sipped a little water at a time to avoid muscle cramps.

I eyed the four other girls, one of whom was a backup and believed she, a freshman, deserved my anchor spot, but Steve was firm about it. I eyed them, but didn’t talk to them and controlled my temper. However, I did talk to the other girls who actually finished the goddamn workout with me.

Steve came in to chat and told us he was very impressed.

We gave him sardonic looks.

“No, really,” he said. “You improved with each stride.”

We gave him sardonic looks.

“Girls, I timed your strides. That was not easy and I know it wasn’t easy. But you pushed through and you really impressed me.”

The girls that backed out partway through looked uncomfortable.

I cocked my head, still wondering why he wasn’t pounding his fist and calling upon the wrath of Hermes, god of athletics. He left the locker room like everyone did a fabulous job and we won every race in a meet.

Then I realized he didn’t need to punish anyone. That it was insanely, totally fair. That he knew who worked hard and who earned their dues and who was slacking, and that he didn’t need to punish them because they were punishing themselves by not working hard enough.  Their slack-a-delic behavior showed him how seriously they were taking the team. And their complaints about me certainly showed him their entitlement complex. So he didn’t need to say a thing.

Well, it wasn’t Hermes coming to smite anyone. And it wasn’t what I would do.

But I could take it.

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