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Lessons of the Fall: A Coach and a Cross-Country Classic

Posted: Monday, October 20, 2008 | 12:21 PM

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"I ran and ran every day, and I acquired this sense of determination, this sense of spirit that I would never, never give up, no matter what else happened." - Wilma Rudolph, three-time Olympic Gold Medallist.

There’s this guy I know by the name of Al Baigent. He coached my daughter in soccer a couple of years back and she’s never been the same since - and believe me - that’s a good thing.

Al knows his stuff. More than that, he knows young people and what makes them tick. He’s figured out how to foster in them a love for sport.

Al’s a great coach as far as I can tell. But soccer’s just a sideline for him. What really turns his crank is cross-country running. He’s the man behind the Nike Boardwalk Relays down at Kew Beach, and for the last 22 years tens of thousands of thoroughbreds have passed his way.

On a gorgeous, autumn, afternoon I ambled down to the shore of Lake Ontario to find out what all the fuss was about. I wanted to see Al at work in his natural habitat.

“This is my favourite time of year,” Al said, by way of greeting. There he was in a bright, orange, Neil McNeil High School jacket that matched the colour of the leaves on the trees that line the boardwalk at the Beach.

Indeed, it was a festive atmosphere reminiscent of times gone by. A vendor was selling hot dogs and cotton candy dangled from the Shopsy’s umbrella over his grill. There were mothers and fathers in toques and mittens belying the chill from an easterly breeze that brought the waves rushing to the sandy shore.

Most importantly, there were 350 relay teams from 70 high schools in southern Ontario made up of 1400 kids of every size, colour and ability, imaginable. Already the midget aged boys and girls were dashing around the 3 km loop. The teams were comprised of four runners, each taking his or her turn to run out to the far end of the boardwalk and back. After all the handoffs were complete, the winner was determined by who got to the finish line first on the plush, green, grass in the shadow of the Woodbine Olympic pool.

“Good job Fitzy,” Al urged on a miniscule kid wearing oversized Neil McNeil racing kit as he accepted the tag. “What other team can that kid make besides cross-country?”

The question was, of course, rhetorical.

The spectacle of that cross-country meet was embodied by the menagerie of young people that performed against a breathtaking backdrop and gave it their all. The colours were vivid. There was the double blue of St. Michael’s College versus the fire engine red and stark white of Brebeuf, with a dash of Michael Power’s deep maroon thrown in for good measure.

“Right through,” Al urged quietly as they passed him by. He would herald their arrival to the not unsubstantial crowd with the use of a portable loudspeaker he had slung over his shoulder. “Here comes R.S. McLaughlin of Oshawa. In the lead but not by much!”

The shadows were long on the grass as the senior boys warmed up for their race.

“There’s no real glory in cross country,” Al reckoned. “The gun goes off they run into the bushes and 15 minutes later they come out. Apart from the start and finish there’s no one to cheer them on.”

It’s true. As I glanced out to see the lonely runners silhouetted against the vast lake, they seemed to compete in anonymity. Driven by some inner cause, a very personal, motivating factor.

“My heart feels like it’s about to break,” Fitzy had just finished his supreme effort and was complaining quietly to Al. “That’s O.K. Go and find someone who knows C.P.R.!” Al gave the kid a pat on the head and a hearty smile.

“That’s the motto of our team this year. Suck it up crybaby,” he said with a knowing wink.

Soon the hundreds of competitors in the boys open category had gathered at the line. Al raised his arm and fired the starter’s pistol. As he dashed to the sidelines, they erupted over the turf and their passing sounded like the hooves of a thousand horses. The race was on and the powerhouse schools quickly made their way to the front while the gritty underdogs took up the chase. You could see the strain on everyone’s faces.

“It’s not fun when you’re out there,” Al Baigent pointed out. “Part of getting better in this sport is learning how to handle the pain. They have to get used to understanding that the fun part of cross-country comes when you finish.”

Indeed, the struggle of each of those kids brought back memories of my own cross-country experience in high school many years ago. Conjured up was the recollection of that breathless desperation and the stitch in my side that inevitably came early in the course. The nausea that sometimes overwhelmed me and played itself out at the top of some grassy hill after a brutal climb.

But I also recalled the finishes and the tingle in my cheeks on those distant, autumn days. The wonderful crackle of the leaves underfoot came back to me as well as the familiar warmth of the sweatpants that I got to haul on my burning legs after it was all over. The satisfaction of an act completed was the greatest of my victories.

And so as Peter Azenza brought it home for his team from Michael Power in 38:52, there was a small smattering of applause. But there were many more runners still on course and hundreds of battles to be won. Al Baigent had announced the championship victory but then hustled to encourage the others yet to come.

“There’s nothing like the camaraderie of cross-country and one thing is true,” Al said over his shoulder as he jogged to the boardwalk. “It shows that with hard work comes success. And even if you’re not winning, at least you’re improving.”

For 27 years he’s coached track and field and cross-country at Neil McNeil and Al Baigent is a runner himself having competed in and completed the 100th edition of the Boston Marathon. In all of his travels and all that he has seen in the faces of so many kids, he had boiled the essence of this elemental sport down to one, simple axiom.

“If you work at it you can get better,” Al concluded.

It was worth the price of admission. He was one coach with one lesson to teach on a glorious fall day.

The beauty in every race is in its completion.

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