cross country running

Country running


From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

Wiry and a glutton for punishment, I was a pretty good cross-country runner in a Connecticut boarding school. (This was before the unfortunate term “preppy’’ became so popular.)

Cross country is, of course, mostly an autumn sport. When we started the season,  in the middle of September, it was often hot and humid, few of the leaves had turned and we sweated gallons. Then, first slowly, then faster, it got cooler and cooler, the leaves of the maples in the Litchfield Hills turned to flame, and  then wind and cold rain would take them down – in some years it seemed all at once -- after the first hard freeze. By November snowflakes would mix with the rain.  Then, we’d almost look forward to starting the race just to get warm, although it was always by its nature a test of pain tolerance. There was the taste of what seemed to be blood in your mouth when you were running the hardest, coming up from your throat.

We ran at schools all over the southern half of New England, up and down muddy or rocky trails through woods, along streams, across golf courses,  around ponds and beside country roads,  sometimes dodging dogs and slipping on wet leaves. Almost all of the courses were hilly, and often steep.

Most of the schools were in the country or exurbia. So being on the team impressed on me again just how beautiful much of New England is, even when you’re seeing it while  gasping for breath on a November Saturday when it’s blowing  a gale and pouring, and the landscape is mostly brown.

Our coach was a short, solid,  bald man with piercing blue eyes who didn't look like a runner himself (more like Mr. Clean) called John Small, who also taught Latin and German. An Army veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, he  was the perfect coach – (outwardly) calm and persistent,  innovative in training methods and usually perceptive about the psyches of adolescent males. 

As I came to know him a bit I learned that the most traumatic events of his life were, not unexpectedly, during the Battle of the Bulge, in which Mr. Small, barely out of boyhood,  was ordered  to do some lethal and desperate things in violation of the Geneva Conventions. A  bachelor, he lived alone in a small apartment at the school and often seemed reclusive. You could often hear through his door Bach being played on his hi-fi. But most Sundays he could be seen in his Porsche with an attractive lady of about his age – 38-40 or so.

Maybe he had dealt with his trauma by taking cover in the soothing routine of a boarding school. But all in all, he was a very complicated man of mystery.