By Marshall Pickard
“Saints Don’t Walk!”. That’s what one mom yelled during our first cross country invitational this season to encourage our younger runners who were struggling with their first 5K. Since we are the “Saints” (our school mascot) it was a mantra that stuck with me this past season as I introduced the sport of cross country to new runners, some who had never even run a race before. As part of my philosophy I believe in accepting runners of all abilities to my program and this was the perfect motivator for those who struggled and at times just wanted to stop and walk.
As the season progressed, the theme of “Saints Don’t Walk!” stuck with me and got me reflecting on some of my runners accomplishments. One runner’s remarkable growth, Drew M., stood out in particular. Not because he broke any school records or because he was winning meets, but because of his own individual achievements and perseverance.
I first met Drew three years ago when I was named the Head Track & Field coach at Berks Catholic. Drew was a tall sophomore who had never ran competitively before. One area I needed runners was at hurdles and because of Drew’s build, I encouraged him to give it a go. He accepted the challenge and went about his work in the quiet manner that defines him. He wasn’t our best hurdler, but he worked hard and tried his best.
During my first meet as a head coach I entered Drew in the 110 High Hurdles. Things started well and my top two hurdlers were leading 1-2 with Drew several meters behind. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw Drew clipped a hurdle and went sprawling across the track. I immediately felt horrible that he had hit the track in his first race ever and started to sprint down the side of the track to make sure he was ok. What happened next defines Drew. He picked himself up and started running. Bloodied and sore, he finished the race. He not only won my respect, but the respect of the older and more experienced hurdlers. He could have easily stayed down and licked his wounds, but he didn’t quit.
At the end of the track season, I was hired as the head Cross Country coach for the following season. I encouraged my sprinters and hurdlers to run cross country to help build their endurance for spring track. Drew was one of only two runners who accepted my challenge.
Drew struggled with cross country. He often had to walk during those first practices and had trouble completing a 5K without walking. Drew completed his first time trial in 47:41. I then had to have a difficult conversation with him. I told him that I couldn’t allow him to compete in dual meets until he was running close to 30 minutes; thus, no walking. By the fourth meet of the season, Drew was competing and cut his time down to 33:17. His PR for that first year was 31:09. Remarkable growth, but he still needed to walk occasionally.
Drew worked hard the summer before his senior year. He logged his miles and started to improve. However, I still caught him walking from time to time. I told him, “Drew, you can’t walk this season. If you walk, I can’t race you”. Drew quietly accepted his fate, but little did I know I had lit a fire and Drew was determined to complete every race without walking.
Drew’s hard work showed at the first meet. In pouring rain, on a treacherous course, he finished the race in under thirty minutes! In one year, he had cut an incredible fourteen minutes off his time. Later, at the Carlisle invitational he ran a 24:52. He struggled in his next two meets, but his times averaged twenty-eight minutes for the season. He had become a consistent runner and he didn’t walk.
Whenever Drew struggled during practice and wanted to walk, I would remind him “Saints Don’t Walk!” and he would pick up his pace and keep going.
As the end of the season, I had a challenging decision to make. We had our county meet coming up and I could only take twelve runners. Drew’s times put him thirteenth on the depth chart, but I felt that he had worked harder and earned the right to run. My assistant coaches agreed. I told Drew my decision and he quietly thanked me. I didn’t realize how happy he was until his father told me that Drew was excited and proud that I picked him.
Race day came and all I hoped for Drew was that he would break 28:00 on a tough Kutztown University course. This wasn’t the speedy downhills of Carlisle, but treacherous turns through cornfields and an uphill finish that had crushed the best of runners. When Drew came through the halfway point his split had him projected to be on the bubble for breaking 28:00. I yelled to pick it up and dig deep. I wanted him to finish strong. Drew took it to heart and finished in 26:59! His best time of the season (excluding Carlisle). As a coach, I have never been prouder.
There are many reasons I coach. Helping runners like Drew to improve is one of my favorite reasons to coach. He could have easily given up and quit, but he persevered. His times won’t win him any medals, but he showed grit and determination and continued to improve and progress. He made every practice and never complained. To me, that is significant. Also, from his father, I learned that my constant prodding and pushing made Drew want to be better and do better. My coaching had a positive impact on Drew. That is something I will always cherish. And, after high school, Drew may not run again, but the lessons he learned from cross country will be with him the rest of his life. I am positive when he faces a challenge or a difficult time that he will not quit, but instead he will thrive. Because, “Saints Don’t Walk!”.