For the Love of Running
This is a letter I wrote to my former high school cross-country coach who has been diagnosed with colon cancer. At his age (Gosh! He’s probably more than 80 years old now), he is choosing not to fight it or seek treatment for it. I just learned this news this morning and wrote this letter for my mother to deliver to him for me.
Dear Mr. Ugly –
You know it’s a funny thing….maybe even a premonition, really….but the other day I was thinking about you and the speech you gave when you awarded me with the Coach’s Award in Cross-Country in the 10th grade. Then I started to recall the first time I met you in middle school when you started intramural track and field. I remember that cramped hot weight room in the basement of the middle school with its asbestos-covered pipes running above us. You introduced yourself but your name wasn’t important. You told us that we could call you “Ugly.” And ever since then I’ve only ever called you “Mr. Ugly.” Whenever I yelled out, “Hey! Mr. Ugly,” your response always put a smile on my face as you pushed up your glasses with your middle finger! Now today, I come back from a run to read an email from mom saying that you aren’t doing well and would I write you a letter. I immediately started to cry because not only do I still remember the first time I met you, but I remember all you have done for me throughout the years.
I think I can safely say that you are the first man I ever respected -and even now more than 25 years later, there are only a handful who gain my respect. You never yelled or screamed at us. You just wanted us to enjoy what we were doing. In middle school, you had a ribbon for every place we finished for every event. Even if it was last place, everyone got a ribbon. I have scrapbooks filled with those ribbons; even the shelves in my room back home are still lined with my running trophies. And the trophy I cherish most is that Coach’s Award. Maybe I wasn’t the fastest that year, but I had heart, I was dedicated and most of all, I had fun running! And because the trophy and accompanying speech came from your heart, it is still my favorite and most cherished.
How many finish lines have I crossed where you were there to catch me, literally, as I expended every last ounce of effort I had just to pass one last person near the end? One time I even vomited on you from pushing so hard toward the finish. You would catch me and hold me upright while walking around with me so I wouldn’t cramp up or fall to the ground. I can still hear you cheering me on, “Get ‘em, kid,” which only made me run all the harder, giving it all I had.
You helped me find running and running helped me with self-respect and self-esteem issues in middle school and high school. I passed running down to my sister and my mother. Even dad tried it for a few years. I went onto college and ran cross-country but I didn’t have a coach like you. After two years, I quit, telling him I could run anytime, anywhere, on my own. I didn’t respect him; he wasn’t a runner.
After Jody’s death, running helped me but I think it helped mom the most. In fact, I think it saved her although it made her a bit psychotic at times, I thought. And I’m still running to this day. I’ve been here in Ghana, West Africa for almost three years now with the United States Peace Corps as an agriculture volunteer, now a leader. I leave this country on June 3rd. I’ve run in the African bush to train for a ½ marathon in Accra, Ghana during which I had the time of my life – high-fiving spectators along the way, picking up and carrying off small children for a little ways, cheering on others as I passed them and even slowing my pace to run and chat with them for a bit – mostly just enjoying myself. My time didn’t matter – I finished strong and with a smile on my face! Even now during hot season when temperatures exceed 110 degrees (the hottest I’ve had on my thermometer is 132.5 degrees Fahrenheit), I get up nearly every morning and go for a run. I yell out my morning greetings to those I pass and take pride when women walking off to market with full baskets balanced on top of their head, tell me I’m doing well or raise both arms to show me the sign for strength. That’s what I’ve learned from you and the running you showed me – enjoy it! You don’t have to win; you don’t have to train for marathons; you don’t need to break records – you just have to have fun with it!
Thank you for all you’ve shown me, Mr. Ugly! And if someone hasn’t already noted your service to Montoursville Athletics, thank you for all you’ve done for all the sports teams there. I’m sure everyone misses seeing you in your yellow jacket on the sidelines of the football games or in the doorframes at the basketball games or jogging around the track with Mr. Shimp!!
God bless you and your family!!