Thirty-five years ago this month, I was a college freshman, a farm kid who had no business attending the liberal arts college where I ended up. I hadn’t been assigned a single paper in my small high school, and based on the amount of writing that confronted me, I was sure I’d flunk after my first college semester.
Another thing I had never experienced at my high school: cross country. I had run track fairly successfully, but we didn’t have cross country at my school, which is why I had no expectation that I’d run in college.
But if you’re a runner, you run, and on my first days on campus, I spotted several runners who looked a lot like me: skinny and scared. On a whim on a sunny September afternoon—largely because I was procrastinating over a late paper—I decided to join them, which is how I became a college cross country runner for the next four years. My teammates became my best friends, then and—a full generation later—now.
But the glue that held everything together, from the team to my sanity, was my cross country coach, Will Freeman. My freshman year was his first year of coaching the team. Will was a lot like me – a country kid who didn’t take the indulgences of academia too seriously. He had a gravitational pull on me that told me that no matter how hard the classes got, no matter how long the papers, or how stressful college can be, he’d be there every day, a whistle in his mouth and a stopwatch around his neck, encouraging me to run just a little faster.
I’ve long since left college and made my way in the world. I still run. I still am connected to my college teammates. Will is still there, still coaching another round of skinny, scared college kids. But this is his last season. He announced this summer that he’s retiring from coaching, and last weekend 35 years of runners converged on our alma mater to celebrate his career and his impact on us.
I ran the alumni race, not because I wanted to—five miles at collegiate race pace is not comfortable—but because I wanted to run for Will one last time. It occurred to me, somewhere between miles 3 and 4, that I’ve always run for Will. I wear a whistle and a stopwatch and coach my own teams because of Will.
You can’t know these things, but I hope some of the skinny, scared kids I encourage to run just a little faster will look back with fondness on their experiences, and realize they also run for Will.