Cross country lessons: Handling disappointment 101

Taylor Dugas of Saint Ignatius takes the early pace in the sophomore race at the 2011 Chicago Catholic League Cross Country Championships, held at Midlothian Meadows. Dugas finished third in the race.

On Saturday the Saint Ignatius varsity boys’ cross country team finished second in the Chicago Catholic League championships:  Loyola Academy 35, Saint Ignatius 63, Fenwick 67, Brother Rice 67 (low score wins).  Our boys were disappointed.  Last year, we won the meet for the first time in twelve years–and for the first time in my six-year cross country coaching career at Saint Ignatius.

It meant a lot to our team when we won that meet.  We worked very hard over the last year trying to win the meet again.

But we have been second in my coaching career at Saint Ignatius as often as we have been first.  The fact that our boys were disappointed in second place suggests our team has come a long way.  And perhaps they weren’t that disappointed.

We did have another small disappointment, however, at the front of the race, as our junior Jack Keelan also finished second, outsprinted in the last 400 meters by senior Todd Ford of Loyola, who had also beaten him three weeks ago at the Palatine Invitational.  Keelan had been CCL champion and the conference’s top runner a year ago.  His time of 14 minutes and 55 seconds was an improvement over the last time he ran the same course three-mile course at Midlothian Meadows last month, and the conditions Saturday, colder and much windier, with a rain soaked course, were much slower.  The race itself was a tactical challenge for Keelan, as Ford and his Loyola teammate William Hague refused, on the orders of their coaches, to lead the race or push the early pace.   As a result, the pace was slow, over 10:00 for two miles, and although Keelan tried to wind up the pace over the last mile to try and take the sting out of Ford’s better finishing kick, it was to no avail.   Keelan opened a small gap, but Ford ran him down.  Keelan, Ford, and Hague will race again, presumably at the sectionals and then the state meet, in a race with more players and a faster pace with much different tactics.

But there was also a third disappointment for our team (not to mention a few more):  In the sophomore race, a quick eyeball look suggested that Ignatius won pretty easily, with runners finishing in 3rd, 7th, 8th, 9th,  11th, 18th, and 19th.  In cross country you add the score of the top five finishers, low score wins, and our 38 points seemed like an easy winner over Loyola, who had finished strong up front—1st, 4th, and 5th–but then their other runners were farther back in the pack—17th, 19th, and 24th.  That looks like 46 points.

Here is where it starts to get complicated.  Several teams in the race–Fenwick, St. Rita, and Brother Rice—did not have full teams of five runners.  So by the rules of cross country when the team scores get calculated, those runners are not included.  That change did not adjust the Ignatius score at all, because no runners from those teams beat any of the top five Ignatius runners.  But the Loyola score did get adjusted; the 17th and 19th place runners, in the team scoring, moved up to 13th and and 15th—for a total of 38 points.  That made the race a tie.

When the score for the top five runners tie in cross country, you go to the sixth runner to break the tie.  It seemed like a great thing that Patrick Kennedy, an Ignatius swimmer who ran cross country in part to become a triathlete, would be the runner who won the race for us with his 18th place finish, ahead of the Loyola boy who finished 24th (before the adjustments, which don’t figure here in the direct comparison of sixth place finishers).    Kennedy had, in fact, run one of the best races on the whole team at any level, improving his time by one minute from when he ran the same course a month ago.   Cross country is a genuine team sport, and when you go to the sixth runner to break the tie, it helps everyone to understand and remember that.

As it happens, I was doing the computer work yesterday to produce the meet results.  So I was the first to see that exciting outcome.  When I found out the apparent result, I sought out Kennedy and our other sophomores to congratulate them.  We were all surprised at how close the final outcome had been, because Ignatius had looked like such a clear cut winner.

Alas, the final outcome was not that simple.

There had been a cutting the course violation reported.  One of our boys, Conor Dunham, had cut in front of a flag on a turn when he was supposed to go around the flag, the long way.  A course monitor, a coach from another team, had called at him twice telling him to return to the flag and go around it correctly.  It seems like a small thing, but that is the rule.  When the meet official and starter John Polka much later in the day finally tracked Dunham down and asked about what had happened, Dunham, to his credit, answered honestly.  He had missed the flag, yes, and he did not retrace his steps when told to do so.  Dunham had been our second finisher, and taking his result out of the scoring after he was disqualified, Loyola was the winner of the team race—36 to 41.

Yes, this is disappointing.  Certainly, Dunham took it hard, and one feels badly for him.  He had run the race with an infected and presumably painful toe, an abcess, which his physician father had lanced and treated that week.  Dunham had not even told me about the toe.  He had run in the race to help his team.

But just so you know, Dunham is not just a sophomore cross country runner.  He’s a hurdler who ran cross country this season, instead of playing soccer, to develop his abilities as a track runner.  Last spring, as just a freshman, he qualified and ran in the 300-meter intermediate hurdles at the IHSA state track championships in Charleston after winning the sectional championship, and he set school frosh-soph records in both the 300s and the 110 high hurdles.  As I told the boys when we gathered as a team after the race, Dunham will have lots of chances to work off his disappointment for himself and for our team when he gets on the track.  He had done an honorable thing admitting his mistake without denial.

A friend who started his blog before I did, North Shore Country Day School athletic director and track coach Patrick McHugh, does a lot of labeling and indexing; he also admirably tries to post something, even if just small entries, every day.  He has written 56 blog posts that he labels “life lessons.”  Among those are a series of blogs that deal with disappointment and failure in sports (with many personal memories of disappointment), including one titled “The Interesting Relationship between Failure and Success,” where he offers a link to a New York Times story from earlier in the school year about how students learn from failure.  That article includes significant references to the work of Martin Seligman, recent author of Flourish and other books and a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  Seligman helped establish the Positive Psychology movement, and he has been aided in that task recently by former graduate student Angela Duckworth, who has written and lectured on the topic of “grit” and perseverance as characteristics for success.

At our cross country meet on Saturday there were plenty of lessons to be learned involving failure, disappointment, and, we will hope, the importance of grit and perseverance.

Yes, we run cross country to try and win races.  But we also run to learn life lessons—and a lot of those lessons are about handling disappointment.  As I frequently tell our runners, only the one winner of the race goes home really happy, whether as individual or team champion.  Our team has known that feeling.  But almost everybody else at the race—sometimes hundreds of other runners–goes home disappointed.  Learning what to do with that disappointment is the key to future success.   The lessons of the 2011 CCL cross country championships will pay off for our team another day—in other cross country and track meets when our boys run again, but more importantly in the lives we all live away from cross country courses and tracks.

And that is why we really run.

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1 Comment

Filed under coaching, cross country running, IHSA, parenting, running, teaching

One response to “Cross country lessons: Handling disappointment 101

  1. In a way, Durham is a hero — even though he was DQ’d. Running on an injury and then being honest about his cutting of the course is exactly the example of grit. It will mean even more when the team has a chance to rebound.

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