Guest blog by Mary DiBernardo
I started coaching the kids at St. Kevin Catholic School the summer after graduating high school in 2011. Like many 18 year olds, I was at a loss for what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t do well on my SATs and my running career only started to get good my senior year while training with the boy’s team. So, with no plans to go away to college and an eagerness to continue running, my own cross country coach asked me if I wanted to coach middle school.
I think she asked me because my love for running had grown into somewhat of an obsession that surpassed what my own coaches knew about the sport. I spent extra time in class reading my coach’s old Runner’s World Magazines with spreads of Kara Goucher and Scott Jurek and thought that these athletes were the most badass people in the world. How could I leave the sport so soon? And so, I accepted the offer with a full-time class schedule and working six days a week as a waitress. My friends would ask question like this of me: “Why are you doing that to yourself, Mary” and “You're getting paid for it, right?” Granted, there have been times where I have asked myself the same questions but the truth is, it has turned out to be the only thing that truly brings me complete joy in my life. If I knew one thing by the time I turned 19, it was that I going to keep coaching.
Not too long ago, I read the book Run the Edge by Adam Goucher and Tim Catalano. In the book, a girl comes up to Tim and asks him about joining the cross-country team and why it is that her friends love it so much. He tells her that to explain what running is like would be like trying to describe the color blue to a blind man. No one can understand how great it is to be a runner until they become one themselves. They need to develop “color vision.” For reasons I cannot really explain, the kids at St. Kevin’s developed it early in life. Kids that are aged 5-14 years old sprint to meet me on the track, eager to know what the work out is going to be. Any normal person would probably ask, “What is wrong with these kids?” However, because you are reading this I assume that you are a runner and have this color vision. I don’t need to explain the exhilarating joy that comes after a run or the love-hate relationship we have with sore legs. Chances are you have been bitten by the run-bug too and have a love for it that takes priority in your life: Second to breathing? If this is the case, you must know that that same love for running in the heart of a 12 year old is something that should not be tainted. It’s pure. It’s fragile. It needs to be cared for. It needs direction.
When my boyfriend and I partnered up as a coaching team we took the needs of the kids we coached as a priority in our lives. We believed that these kids, slow or fast, could do amazing things if only they believed in themselves. With this philosophy, we have seen our kids go from being middle-of-the-pack runners to winning races. We have seen them close 200 meter gaps and hold trophies high. Then on other days, not so picturesque, we have seen them fall short of a win. Our fifth grade girls will sulk after they cross the finish line (like many runners will do) with their pink bows and high socks, tears streaming down their jerseys, wishing they could have done better. Once things have calmed down they will come up to me and simply say: “Wait till next week.” Then there it is: the reason I am a coach.
I often times wonder if these kids are teaching me more than I am teaching them. They have been my vehicle from adolescence to adulthood in a way they will never understand. Because of them, I always think twice about my actions. When I am unsure about something, I always ask myself “What would little Becky say if she saw you doing this? Seemingly overnight, I have become a role model for these little girls who have an obsession like I do with running. I have vowed to continue being a role model and give them the tools they need to succeed. And, through wanting to see them succeed, I have met an amazing group of people who want to see me succeed.
Because of these people, I have dropped back on my shifts at the local bar (I am down to 2 days now) and I have become a PE teacher. They also inspired my boyfriend and I to start our own running club called FlyRunners, in which we have found to be quite profitable in the off season. For the first time this year, we took two all-girls teams to the Florida Youth Runner’s Association in Lakeland, FL. These girls, with talent out the caboose, trained an extra two weeks and attended two races unlike anything they have experienced in their small conference. Because of this, they got a taste for what running will be like when they get older. They experienced real competition and most of all they had a blast. If this experience in any way encouraged them to continue running after they leave me and go onto high school, then I will have been a successful coach. There is an overflow of talented runners out there in need of coaches that care. It happens too often where kids who want to run are at a disadvantage because their program is run by those who care more about a stipend or they have no program at all.
So, if you have any extra time on your hands, you have a passion for running which I know most of you do, and want to pay it forward, my advice to you is to become a Cross Country Coach. Just like with running, I promise it won’t take more than it gives.