Tales of running beginnings and the significant impact of my first cross country coach.
Delayed Onset Gratitude
Every year when I return home for Christmas, I look forward to the tradition of retracing the roadside paths and trails of the town of Portola Valley. Mesmerized by the sound of the stream and transfixed by a world of colorful leaves, my mind wandered to memories of running the same path with one of my high school coaches. As rain splattered my face a new sensation, I call delayed onset gratitude, set in. See, I tend to reference my running “career” only in its collegiate terms. But recently, I realized that the teachers and coaches of our youth, who provided the launch pads to live out our dreams, can easily slip through the cracks underappreciated. In the form of time and energy, they water the student-athletes like seeds, in hopes to see them bloom. Yet often, their efforts don’t take root, and bear fruit until years later.
Introducing Laura Young, AKA LoYo, My first cross country coach.
Just months after graduating from Emory University with a Bachelor’s degree in English, and a minor in art history, Laura Young joined the Priory community to coach, teach, and supervise in the dorms. With collegiate athletic experience of pole-vaulting, hurdling, and cross country running, the school certainly scored big in hiring her. Sure enough, from the moment she stepped foot on campus, “LoYo from Mississippi,” did not disappoint. She possessed an iron work ethic, a cheery and childlike energy, a killer competitive streak, and a bantering humor much appreciated for the honest paced distance run. But never to be underestimated for her “recent grad” status, she saw through poor efforts and excuses with ease and doled out disciplinary pushup sets like a veteran coach.
From Outside Hitter to Harrier
I first approached Laura late in the summer before my junior year of high school, when facing the athletic dilemma of whether to stay loyal to the volleyball team, or add cross country in the mix. After asking about “maybe trying a few races,” I attempted to thwart any possible hopes or expectations by an intentional downplay of my growing interest in running. I made clear that I had never run longer than four miles at once, and that volleyball took first priority. As one who had also competed in two sports simultaneously, she understood the dilemma and agreed to my proposition. But in looking back, I think she already knew. Somehow, perhaps due to an acute coaching intuition–that as much as I enjoyed blocking in front of the volleyball net, that I really belonged, with the harriers.
I entered the running world as a wide-eyed rookie, eager to learn, but requiring much directive guidance in nearly every aspect. Yet never bothered by my lack of experience, she matched every ounce of eagerness and curiosity with an investment of her own. Nothing in her coaching contract entailed holding additional practices for only one athlete. Actually, between dorm duty, afternoon practice, teaching, and maintaining her long distance relationship, the faculty might have even recommended against it. However, whether it was meeting me for early morning hill repeats, or Sunday nights at the track, she made time anyway.
Our Most Memorable Workout
Faded in memory overtime, the breathless repetitions of track ovals blend together like a water color swirl. But even so, there is one workout, that I remember down to nearly every last left turn…Arriving early at church one Sunday, I peeked over Laura’s shoulder and spotted scribbles of intimidating intervals on the back of her welcome card. 400,800,1200, 1600,1200,800, 400 (all out). I assumed she wrote this workout for the boys team, obviously. Because I didn’t know how to pace 1200s, and 1600s were far too long; or so I thought.
“Wait, is that my workout tonight?” I asked hesitantly.
Reading my mind, she responded. “I’ll do the pacing, you stick with me. You really just don’t know how fast you will be someday.” She had a knack for speaking genuine encouraging words at the right times. Several hours later, after an apprehensive warmup, I tucked in behind her on the outer edge of lane one, as she paced the ladder with precise evenness. In my novice runner’s mind, which constantly questioned my body’s ability to survive, the passage of time stretched on unceasingly. But finally, as the last rays of daylight fleeted away with our feet, we finished the final interval in a sprint. Quietly satisfied in the completion, I rested my hands on my hips and stared dazedly into the dark football stadium. But Laura, not caring to cater to my relaxed manner and conservative speaking style, reacted differently.
“That. was. a kick-ass, bomb, frickin’ awesoooomee workout!!” She positively beamed as she caught her breath. “So I know you have a chem test tomorrow, but how about we grab ourselves some recovery Cold Stone creamery, after cool down?”
I didn’t want to let chemistry class act as the limiting reagent to my time sensitive muscle refuel, so I agreed. Gobbling down gotta-have-it sized bowls of mint-chip and brownies, I caught hold of her contagious excitement. As we walked out of Cold Stone, I stood a little taller, with a tad more confidence, and a few less self imposed limits. I couldn’t wait to get back to the track. That was a shift, victorious for the coach and athlete both, more significant than any volume of mileage recorded in the training log.
Track Debut and 23 Days of Rain
As fall cross country rolled into spring season track, I happily traded in morning runs for afternoon practices. It rained 23 days in month of March that year. But Laura, already accustomed to inclement weather of the south, held nothing back for mud’s sake, and considered it character building for us Californian softies. In spending more time with the team, I noticed she did not discriminate based on talent when it came to her commitment to each individual. Not uncommonly, she found us in the cafeteria before school on race day to deliver notes titled something like, “I eat 3200 meters for breakfast. Splits for champions.” None of us were high school superstars, but this type of attention to detail infused a sense of significance in our training, and led us to take pride in our racing. In fact, she believed in me so wholeheartedly, that I started to think maybe she was onto something. That maybe, if I kept at it, I could even run in college.
But much to my disappointment, near the end of my first track season, I discovered my time under her coaching instruction was going to be short. She was headed to graduate school. Upset by the news of her departure, my egocentric 16 year old mind conjured up nothing remotely congratulatory about her acceptance into the teaching master’s program at Stanford. But picking up on my discontent and unusual silence, she assured me that she would be not only be around that summer, but that she would also take the liberty to come knocking on our front door to join me for summer training.
“7:27 provokes the question, ‘Why 7:27?’ and everybody gets here at 7:27 to find out why.”– Bill Bowerman
And train together we did. Six days a week, we met at 5:27 PM, weaving a tapestry of varied speed and terrain workouts into a quilt of base mileage. Some days, laughter and springy legs marked the training logs, but inevitably the discomforts stitched their way into the quilt too. I skinned my knees on single track trails; she dodged an estate owner’s surveillance cameras after vomiting brunch too close to their manicured lawn; we both sought refuge in sprinkler spray and streams when the thermometer pushed triple digits. But regardless, we forged our friendship through these miles. She told me many stories: about her college teammates, her ability to out eat the football players in chocolate muffins, her pranks of junior high, of falling asleep with ice wrapped shins, her pole vaulting crash, and her loss of a family member. I learned many valuable lessons as I soaked it all in, and of course, told plenty of my own stories in reply.
On Sundays after long runs, we chugged electrolyte drinks while stretching lazily on the soggy front lawn. My Dad habitually washed the neighborhood’s cars–I think, strategically at this exact time–to eavesdrop on our running debrief, soak me with cold hose water, and make sure Laura felt welcome for dinner. We counted her as one of the family as she joined us for heaping helpings of enchiladas and homemade plum cobbler. She even picked up on all of the sibling nicknames. At times I longed for those idyllic evenings out on our patio to pause in time, but all too soon, late August arrived. She started her graduate program; I joined the volleyball and cross country team’s for official preseason practice; and the famous 5:27 meetings came to an end.
The Power of the Coach’s Voice
I headed into the fall of my senior year ready to run for another wonderful coach, Katie Henderson, with a high level of hope and positive anticipation. I expected personal records, almost with a hint of entitlement, because of the summer’s hard work. But unfortunately a severe iron deficiency, undiagnosed for the first half of the season, left me lagging behind the previous year’s times by several minutes. The doctor ordered a stop to athletic exercise for at least two weeks, allowing me to compete in the sectional meet at the tail end that period, only very reluctantly. At this point, placing in the top ten for an individual state qualifying spot, looked highly unlikely, and my dreams of collegiate running seemed like a distant summer fantasy.
At the central coast section cross country meet at Toro Park, I ran around the final turn in 10th place. Pleasantly surprised by the position, I felt content enough to simply hang on. But when another chase pack caught up on our heels, a conscious decision came (as does in most races), to fight or to fade. I know a lot of people cheered for me that day. A lot of people thought it could be my last cross country race ever. But in the zone of competition, most of it–the ruckus boys teams, and the high pitched parents of competitors, registered as static. But one channel came in with crystal clarity. With 600 meters remaining, from behind the flapping red and white flags, her distinct voice reverberated over everything else.
“ Chrissa! If you ever wanted anything in your life, NOW IS THE TIME TO FIGHT FOR IT! I KNOW YOU CAN DO THIS!”
Shaken awake from late stage race fatigue and complacency, her words resonated deeply. I realized my season did not have to end defined by frustrating let downs, and that it wasn’t out of reach or too late, to turn it around. Taking the words to heart, I fought to finish in 9th and qualify. Two weeks later, toeing the starting line at the state meet with a much recovered body full of iron and red blood cells, I ran my first personal record of the season. The experience was made all the sweeter with Katie, Laura, and nearly my entire family spread throughout the course.
A Grand Gift
As fall blossomed into spring again and Laura’s school load intensified, I saw her less frequently, but I always made sure to keep her up to date on the team’s progress. One night in early April, after the second league meet, I sat at my desk in a state of satisfied weariness. With my hair in a wet messy bun, and Spanish vocabulary cards spread out in front of me, I opened my silver flip phone to shoot Laura a quick text before diving into my homework.
“2 mile. 6:04+ 6:04 = 12:08, Team 2nd in 4×4, I split 65 🙂” There was no immediate response but roughly 30 minutes later, my Dad cracked open the bedroom door.
“LoYo’s here to see you,” he said, grinning his signature, ‘I have a secret,’ smile. “Why don’t you come on out front.”
Shuffling outside in my fuzzy orange slippers, I plopped down beside her on the wooden bench and we started to catch up on life. I let her off the hook for not coming to the meet once she told me about her classmate’s recent registration into a psychiatric ward due to lack of sleep, and stress. And naturally, as the topic lurks behind every second semester senior conversation, I brought up my looming college decision. I desperately wanted to attend Westmont College, but Concordia University Irvine was considerably less expensive. I expected she might offer some wise decision making advice, but instead she told me about a $1000 prize, recently awarded to her through the program.
“Wow, that’s great!” I congratulated. Pausing, the atmosphere took on an unusually formal, but still sincere, silence.
“I am so proud of you, Chrissa,” she said.
“Thanks. Is that because I ran such even splits in the race?” I questioned.
She laughed, shaking her head.
“Well your pacing definitely has improved… but I’m talking about everything else. You’ve worked hard, stayed determined and it’s brought you a long way. And there’s definitely still more in you. Trust me, I know paying for college can be stressful, but I’m already finished with my loans, so if you’ll accept it, I would love to gift you this $1000.”
I was stunned. While $1000 might appear trivial towards a private school tuition, I counted every penny of the financial puzzle significant. The timing and amount of her contribution served just enough to help push me over the edge to commit to Westmont College, my dream school. Of course, I thanked her in earnest, at the time. But it wasn’t until later, when I entered the world of young adulthood, that I began to comprehend the magnitude of selflessness in her gesture. As a teacher, at 26, who loved travel and adventure, Laura had easily hundreds of other enticing places to spend the money. But instead, in a beautiful, and literally grand, act of generosity, that still inspires me today, she chose to invest in the future of a seventeen year old.
The Fruit in Faithfulness
When I finished high school I knew that I liked running, but I never imagined the extent to which it would shape my character, or open up doors in my life. By the time I graduated from Westmont, I had run in eight national championships, and even earned NAIA all American honors in my last cross country race. Admittedly, I enjoyed experiencing tastes of success.
But “success,” as defined by the clock, is fleeting in nature, subject to modulate with bodily state or schedule constraints. On the contrary, I have found that the faithful pursuit of a goal, produces a fruit, regardless of results, that is truly rewarding, and far less fleeting. If cultivated into habit, perseverance, patience, resilience, and friendships, can continue to endure long after the end of a scholastic season.
But it takes a smart coach to help develop this in young athletes while still allowing for their motivation to stay intrinsic.
In hindsight, Laura could have easily dealt with me differently. She could have short circuited my long term development by skyrocketing my mileage for high school success. She could have hovered over me like a helicopter coach, when I left for college and questioned the validity behind every workout. But wisely, she chose a third alternative. She handed me off, like a baton in the correct exchange zone, to Westmont, uninjured, with the wisdom of her stories, and plenty of room to grow. She advised me to enjoy the college team experience, trust my new coach Russell Smelley, (although never hesitate to speak up when my legs were overly stale) and always, to give the glory to God.
I’m quite thankful that the Priory decided to hire Laura, and enable us to cross paths. But I must admit, from the teenage perspective, her resumes accolades mattered very little in comparison to her unique kaleidoscope of qualities. She was real; she was relatable; and I surely speak on behalf of the rest of my Priory teammates in saying, her passionate dedication as a coach positively impacted all of our future trajectories.
*Today, Laura Young Lewis resides in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband Chris, her four month old daughter Aziza DeCelle, and her dog Tenaya. During the summers, she directs a camp for low income middle school students and takes them on outdoor adventures. In the academic school year she teaches sophomore English, and AP art history, while continuing to coach both track and cross country. She is missed by the faculty and alumni of the Priory community, but her students and athletes in Tennessee are undeniably blessed to have her.