The Unity Charter School Wolf Pack Survives

The world of cross country running often gets overlooked by the majority of people unless one of two things occur: you, yourself are a cross country runner, or you, yourself are a coach of cross country runners - and this mostly only applies to high school and collegiate runners and coaches. Unlike other sports there are cheerleaders, fancy gymnasiums or even much equipment.  It’s a sport where you constantly compete with yourself. In middle school we don’t have officials or scorekeepers (or even scores for the majority), we run at public parks, on busy side streets full of pedestrian and automotive traffic, we “practice” only once or twice a week running circles around an abandoned tee-ball field, and the only fans we have at races are a few parents toting around younger siblings who run around pretending to be on the team. But, we love it. We wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Nothing is greater than having a middle school of less than 90 students and having 40 of them come out to run cross country. It is the sport of teamwork, camaraderie, brotherhood, sisterhood, and most of all - family. And in only our 4th year of interscholastic competition, we’ve built a program that is not only built on strong foundations, but can compete.

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The top 10 runners in each race always get the accolades - medals, ribbons, trophies, an interview with an over-caffeinated British man - but, cross country is a team sport. One outstanding runner does not make the team. Sure, they help out with the extremely low point total that we all want as coaches, but your team is made up of five runners who’s scores add up to your team score. After our inaugural season in 2016, and seeing some elite competition in the state at our level, I begin to preach pack running with much resistance from my elite runners and much fear from my middle and back of the pack runners: “Why should I slow down for them at practice?”, “How am I supposed to keep up with them in practice?”. Teaching young athletes to be unselfish, resilient, flexible, and to have a positive attitude is why every coach is coaching - it just takes a little bit of convincing.

With only around 15 runners in our first season, it was tough to get them all running in packs, but I convinced some additional track and basketball players of mine to jump on over to cross country and have been silently grooming them for the past three years. Insert a couple of transfer 7th and 8th graders, as well as some runners who love their friends and can’t do anything without them...and we have an even 40 runners on the team in 2019. If you were to tell me that I could convince 40 middle schoolers to run 2+ miles a few times a week four years ago, I would have just laughed and walked away. But now, we have not only have program that is built on family, trust, and positivity, but we have a chance to really make some noise.

After a few up and down meets with both the girls and boys teams, we find ourselves in a closely heated dual meet with Morris Plains. Our top two boys place 1st and 2nd, with our next three coming in as a group in 5th, 7th, and 8th. We edge out the competition by 9 points to earn our first boys team victory in school history. One week later, our girls pull off a 1 point squeaker over Walter T. Bergen thanks to our top five all finishing within 6 places of each other to earn the girls first team victory in school history. These don’t mean much to anyone outside our team and our school, but they are huge confidence builders and show the team that we can really pull off some magic this year, and all thanks to running in packs.

Another few sub-10 point losses, including an unbelievable race against Mendham Boro and Madison (two amazing teams with two amazing coaches), and some really solid practices, we were ready to go into our first ever Championship Meet week with some momentum and some motivation. Within the final week of the season we had the Morris County Junior School Grade Race, the Morris County Junior School Championship Race, and the 10th Annual Pumpkin Race at Gill St. Bernards. 

Due to unforeseen injuries, sicknesses, and academic issues, our boys team actually whittled itself down to only 6 eligible runners - “That’s okay” I keep telling my assistant coach, “We have enough to score.” At the grade race on Monday, we have the 31st, 53rd, and 60th best 8th grade runners in the entire county (out of 150), the 30th and 125th best 7th grade runners (out of 133: more about that 125th best runner later), and the 52nd best 6th grader runner (out of 127). On Tuesday, even with two more meets later in the week and nobody to beat out for championship spots, the boys run hard anyway and enjoy their time out in the rain, saying it was “the best practice we’ve had all year!”. On Thursday’s Championship race our small team of 6 runners just needs to show up and run the race of their lives - no big deal. With a full team of 7, we projected a 3rd place finish and possibly a 2nd place finish in our small schools group if we ran like we were on fire - but with 6, and losing one of our 8th graders to an injury the day before the race, spirits are a little down. I calmly group up the team and deliver them my award-winning coach’s pep talk: 

“Look - we’re missing some key components of this team but it comes down to what you can accomplish here today and what the guy next to you can accomplish. We have six runners -  maybe not the six we thought would be here on day 1 (my #125 runner chuckles and I stare right at him) - you have to run the greatest race of your life and I know you’re going to do it. You’re all going to do it - just keep doing what we’ve done all year. You belong here. Run hard, run smart, and run together.”

They toe the line, the gun goes off, and they get swallowed up in the 50+ runner race that extends into the sun and down a large hill at Central Park of Morristown. As a coach, this is the hardest part about a race that you can’t get to all the different split marks - the only place I can physically get to is the final 500 meters. Thankfully, this season, we’ve mastered the art of finishing strong. The 2800 meter course loops around in the woods at the bottom of the aforementioned hill and then works its way back up long and slow before hairpinning downhill and flat for the final 400 meters or so. At around the 9:45 mark, my first runner appears (currently in 15th place). He is blazing past me at his (what would be) best mile split of the year. He looks at me for some encouraging words, his breathing is labored as sweat pools up on his forehead, and I say what I’ve been saying all year, “You’re fine. You look good”. I tell him his place, he nods, and then takes off, eventually overtaking two more runners to finish in 13th with a school and personal record (PR) of 11:10. Before I could even whip my head back around after watching our first runner turn the final corner, my next runner comes in. My top 7th grader who has taken over 4 minutes off his time from last year at this course is flying by in 21st place - now I’m fired up. I maintain my demeanor and mantra for the team this year as he looks over to me, “There you go. Lookin’ good. Stay strong.” Meanwhile, in my head, the amount of screaming and positive expletives running through it is hard to silence. He, too, whips around the corner and passes two more competitors to finish in 19th at 11:29, another PR.

My inner fire subsides a bit when a large group of runners pass and my next three scoring runners aren’t in it. “This is where they should be” I echo to myself, “Where are they?”. The large group of 7 or 8 runners goes by and then I see one. My next 8th grader is struggling, alone, in between two large groups. He looks over to me for guidance, “You’re alone. Either get up with the next group or drop back to the one behind you. How are you feeling?” He nods to the first part and then shakes his head to the second question. He tries hard and catches the tail end of the group ahead of him but doesn’t make too much headway, he has a great sprint at the end to finish at a time of 12:14, in 29th place. “Where are those last two…”, before I can finish my thought, here comes my last 8th grader and my surprise 6th grader who’s only appeared in two meets this year, working hard and working together. Their times are two more PR’s, and they push each other down the stretch and finish within five tenths of a second of each other at 35th and 36th. A minute goes by, and here he comes - #125. I’ve never been more pumped to see a potentially non-scoring runner come around the final turn. “He’s gotta be running 3 minutes faster than he did on Monday!” He flies in at 15:52, passing a few other runners on his way - two minutes and eighteen seconds faster than his time on Monday, another PR.

With 5 out of the 6 boys on the team running PR’s, we get close, but ultimately pick up 5th place in our Group. The team loses another runner and gets trimmed down to 5 the next day for our final race at Gill St. Bernard’s, the 10th annual Pumpkin Run, and as a team, run even better times and have even better finishes. They run together for most of the race as well - 13th, 25th, 29th for the top three, and then 69th and 93rd - the one runner who didn’t get a PR the day before, got one on this day and my #125 took another 45 seconds off his time. Might not have been the end of the boys season we wanted, but they ran well and made great strides - no pun intended.

Our girls team, doesn’t have the same problem, as my assistant coach and I have gone back and forth for the past week on who we pick for our top 7 come the Championship Race. Today’s the day we find out who, out of the 19 eligible girls, will run on Thursday. But alas, today is Monday - and we see mixed results from our girls that only makes the coaching staff even more confused of who to move on with. All five of our 8th grade girls run in the top 70 (out of 140 girls), with our top runner as the 28th best girl in the entire county - their times are discouraging (most ran faster the year prior at the same race), but the back four finish all within 10 spots of each other - a solid pack. All five of our 7th grade girls run in places that range from 22nd to 123rd, once again with okay times, but the back four all finished within a few spots of one another. Our seven 6th grade girls, probably the most promising group of young athletes I’ve coached in awhile (I like to call them the “Team of the Future”), get pinned in early and have a hard time making up time on the slow course. Our top finisher runs at 52nd place, and at a clip around 1 minute and 30 seconds slower than her normal times. 

They look exhausted. “The big hill killed us”, “We’re not ready”, “Everything hurts”, “I’m so slow.” They all let out their frustrations so easily like their just breathing them out. They need to turn it around quick for the Championship meet on Thursday - but who do we pick if we were so underwhelmed overall? 

Experience always trumps new successes, so we go with our five 8th graders, our one standout 7th grader, and our lone 6th grader who’s been up there all year. We’re set. The girls have a lackadaisical practice on Tuesday - it’s raining and they know they are running on Thursday so most of them are not terribly motivated to run, but they get the job done. They are looking forward to the day of rest as my assistant and I still wonder if we made the right choice.

We arrive on Thursday and the girls are visibly nervous - struggling to get loose and having a harder time focusing. While I’m out watching the boys finish up and losing my mind at their finishing speeds and times. My assistant coach is calming the group of girls down while systematically boosting up their positive energy and trying to talk some sense into them about how good they actually are and what they could accomplish in their upcoming run. I race down from the finish after getting my boys’ times and rush to see the gun go up and fire off from the opposite side of the start. One of my many talents as a coach is yelling so that the entire county can hear me - so, I bellow out a long, echoing “Let’s go Unity!” as the girls make their way through the crowd. My girls do what they do, go out slow and pack up, eventually picking up the pace when they get into the last half mile or so. 

We’re up  on the hill, just waiting and waiting, the race itself feels slow for everyone in it - especially compared to the boys race where the first competitor came by us in a 5:28 mile split. The first girl whips by - alone, casually running like she’s on fire, and then there’s a group of five more girls, then there’s a massive group of about 12 girls all surging forward together as a conglomeration of brightly colored jerseys and flushed faces - only about 10 seconds between the first and last girl. We have two brightly-colored jerseys stuck in there - my top 8th grader and my top 7th grader are in the front half of the mob and the back half of the mob moving well and pushing past people. They fly around us as we yell out places and give them our words of approval - “Looking good.”, “Keep breathing.”, “Let’s try to catch a few down the shoot”. They do just that, ripping past a few runners and, just like the boys, are beating people down the stretch. They place 14th and 18th respectively and just like that, we’re on the board and before I can even turn back around, I see the next five green jerseys rush by me in a blur. “All five together?” I ask my assistant coach - “Yep!” she screams excitedly. The twin sister of our first runner, followed by our next three 8th graders, and our lone 6th grader are all pushing past a large group of runners, together, in a sea of green. They look relaxed, comfortable, and starting to do damage against this huge secondary pack of about 15 runners within a few seconds of one another. They find their spots and race towards the final straightaway, cruising past runners who look like the race ended 200 meters ago. They all pop in in 29th, 34th, 36th, 37th, and 38th - the definition of a pack. As a team they do well enough for 6th place out of 9 teams, not great, but we’re setting ourselves up well for our final race at Gill on the following day.

After the boys return from their inspired Pumpkin race, the girls’ race lines up and shoots off all in a blur. There’s no top 7 here - 17 of my girls show up and are really excited to run today as a team. The feeling of the whole squad really relaxes them and they went into the race today confident, positive, and just loving being with their friends. Just like the championship course, this course takes them out into the rolling landscape of the Gill St. Bernard’s campus and we can only see them returning from their out and back loop. From the top of our hill that we stake claim to, we see the first pair of runners tearing through. There’s a large gap between the first two and the next large group of about 10-20 girls all spread out over a 30 second span - but we have our first two girls running side by side in 14th and 15th place, respectively. They look strong and yet relaxed at the same time, they are just running to run and look comfortable where they are. Just then, under a minute later after the first two head up the final hill, here come the entire rest of the top 7 sitting comfortably within a few seconds of each other. Not only is this the fastest that this “secondary” crew has run, but they just start overwhelming the other runners in a sea of green as they push up the final hill, alternating who’s leading - speaking to one another confidently and encouraging each other as they weave throughout the other runners. As I watch my top 8th and 7th grader fly through the shoot, one second apart from each other, my pack of five start whipping around the final turn, working with and past one another. They come in through the finish within 6 seconds and only 7 places between them - our final places for the top seven: 14, 15, 26, 27, 29, 31, 32, or a total team score of 113. While I hand in our form with our score, I’m astonished of how well all of our girls did and how packed up they were throughout - not a single girl finished by themselves, in fact, there was another group of five that finished within 7 spots of each other later in the race as well. 

113 is a decent score, and I’m already ecstatic of how the team did as a whole that when they start announcing the results, I’m honestly not even paying attention. They announce the boys teams results and we place 8th out of 10 teams, not bad for a squad of 5 and some really great personal achievements. They try to make the results as anxiety-driven as possible by announcing the last place team first. In the year prior, boys got 11th out of 11 teams, so that was a quick reading, but our girls got 4th out of 9 teams, so we actually had to wait it out for a few extra moments. Anyway, we’re here now in 2019, and they announce the 10th place team - not us. Okay. 9th place team - not us, 8th place team - not us, 7th place team - not us, 6th place team - not us. One of my girls turns to me and says, “They probably didn’t even count us.”, another one comes back with, “were we that bad that they didn’t even announce us?”. 5th place finisher - still not us, 4th place finisher - also not us. My assistant and I look at each other…”Okay?!” I get sarcastically excited and we let out small laughs amongst the team - third place would be cool. Third place - STILL not us! The girls get quietly nervous because half of them still think we were SO bad that they left us off of the results and the other half might have thought we won the whole thing. 

The race announcer starts speaking more clearly and with more tone than earlier: “In second place, and our runners up for the 2019 Pumpkin Run, with a score of 113…” I’m thinking to myself, “Hey, we scored 113...” She continues on, “...Unity Ch…” She can’t even get the remaining syllables out as my entire team goes ballistic and start screaming and jumping around like we won the Super Bowl. Throughout all the chaos, every set of eyes on the field lock on us. This small charter school from Morristown that nobody’s ever heard of athletically, that has as many students in its graduating 8th grade class this year (30; the most ever in our history) as most other middle schools have in one classroom, and that practices two hours a week on badly paved roads and a worn-out tee-ball field pulled this off. I feel the overwhelming thoughts of everyone else in the crowd: “Who the hell are these girls? How did they get second place without having a single runner in the top 10? Why are they so excited about second place?” I get ushered up to grab our first ever trophy in our school’s short history of athletics and it couldn’t be sweeter. 

Christopher McDougall, the author of Born To Run, simply states that “The reason we race isn't so much to beat each other,... but to be with each other.” This idea of “the pack” and a family-like atmosphere comes naturally in cross country and I pride myself on having built that kind of culture at our small school and throughout our athletics programs. The sport is built for fostering strong friendships, creating new pathways, setting new goals, overcoming fears, and most importantly - bettering oneself by bettering the group. These last four years have been quite the blur, but I’ll never forget what we’ve built here and accomplished in our short history.