Last Saturday morning I attended a retirement Fun Run and celebration party, complete with a cake, organized by grateful parents and athletes of longtime Chicago-University High track and cross country coach Bud James. That event will be another blog post.
Then in the evening I helped out at the Midwest Distance Festival at Illinois Benedictine in Lisle, where I made it a point late in the evening to seek out Palatine cross country and track coach Chris Quick. We had only a short conversation, but I had the pleasure of meeting and shaking hands with Palatine alumnus Tim Meincke, who was standing with Quick. Together they watched Palatine sophomore Graham Brown break the frosh-soph school record for 3200 meters, running 9:29.45 for two miles, 9:26.1 on my official watch at the meet for 3200. Earlier in the evening I had watched another member of the Palatine team, senior Christian Zambrano, run 4:18.81 for a mile.
Meincke (nickname “Monkey” to his Palatine friends), Brown (apparently still known as “Prodigy”), and Zambrano are key characters in Quick’s book, One Way, Uphill Only, his memoir about the 2011 Palatine cross country season in which the team won the Illinois High School Association 3A state title. While there might not have been a book without that victory, perhaps, the book is less about winning the race and more about the relationships among the teammates and their coach on the way to that victory.
I am working on getting the exact details, but I remember either after the summer of 2010—or better, the summer of 2011—a parent of a Saint Ignatius cross country boy told me that they had seen the Palatine High School boys cross country team running together in Colorado somewhere in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. Maybe the Ignatius team could do the same thing? asked the parent.
I’m not sure how I answered at the time. But my thought, then and now, is that Ignatius is not Palatine.
After reading Chris Quick’s book I am even more sure of that.
A Palatine team booster club, as I understand the arrangements, pays most of the expenses to send the team to Colorado each summer; the accommodations are not splendid, with some boys sleeping on the floor of rough cabins. But it is a powerful bonding experience for the team as they share hardships of accommodations—and the suffering of running up mountains in altitude.
For years our track team has competed at the Palatine Relays at the end of April or early in May, and each time I marvel at the community support for the event. It is the only meet we attend where visiting coaches do not have to chip in and run the events; competent community volunteers take all those tasks—like measuring the long jump, shot put, discus, and triple jump. We competed at the Palatine Invitational cross country meet for the last two years. Once again volunteers carry an enormous load of the work for the meet—including the concession stand that sells a lot of hot chocolate and coffee. I can imagine that the Palatine community probably supports its football and basketball teams, the major high school spectator sports, with even bigger crowds—although perhaps not as many volunteers who actually help to run the events.
At Ignatius we have a few home track meets, and we host a cross country meet. A few parents help out, but the coaches do most of the work. This is not a criticism of our wonderful parents—and we hope to recruit more alumni to help, as well.
Palatine, as Quick’s book emphasizes at several turns, is not York High School, the dominant state power and perennial favorite to win the cross country title. The school marching band does not follow the team to the state cross country meet, like the York band does. Busloads of fans do not come to the state cross country meet from Palatine.
But in Quick’s book about the 2011 Palatine cross country team that won the Illinois High School Association state championship, it is clear that this is a program of storied achievement going back years and years—and the community both feeds, demands, and supports that achievement.
Perhaps nothing shows this more clearly than Quick’s description of the Early Bird Running Program, a 6:00 AM summer run for the team and the community in Palatine. Each morning of the program 150 runners—some from the high school team, some from elementary schools, and many adult runners, including cross country and track alumni —gather in front of the high school: “While most high school groups develop an insular bond with one another through school camps, we train alongside Boston Marathon aspirants, fitness joggers, mothers and fathers, and returning alums.”
There is, in fact, a large Ignatius track community out there in the world. We’ve seen it come alive and coalesce at moments like beloved Coach Jim Connelly’s funeral last September. But we don’t get together daily in the summer150-strong at 6:00 AM to run together and encourage our high school boys and girls teams.
Ignatius is not Palatine.
Palatine, as I have said, is not York, either. After winning the state cross country title in 2013, York has now won the state championship trophy 27 times in the last 48 years.
As Quick begins his story, Palatine had never won. But they had finished second five times—including a recent stretch of three second-place finishes in a row: 2003, 2004, and 2005, all three times behind York. Quick had been assistant coach for the first two, and then head coach in 2005. In addition, Quick coached his team to third place in 2007. Quick’s Palatine program has produced IHSA individual champions Alec Bollman (1600-meters in 2010), Matt Smoody (800-meters in 2007 and 2008), and Steve Finley (XC in 2005). In its conference, Palatine had won 61 consecutive dual meets in the Mid Suburban League, as Quick wrote his book in 2011, and in 2011 Palatine won its ninth consecutive conference championship.
After Jack Keelan’s exploits this past year, Ignatius now has a proud state champion, too. In 1981 Mike Patton won the state cross country championship, the 3200 at the state track meet, and then finished third in the 1600—another great champion. But when we won the Chicago Catholic League cross country championship in 2010, it was the first time since 1991. We did win again in 2012—and in 2013 we won the CCL outdoor track championship meet. But that was the first track championship since 1991, as well.
When we qualified as a team to compete at the state championship cross country meet in 2010, it was the first time our team had done so since 1981.
Ignatius is not Palatine.
Even before his team won the 2011 state cross country championship, Quick, then at just 35 years of age, had already established the groundwork for a hall-of-fame level career—and he had put his name in big letters on the already established monument of Palatine track and field and cross country success.
But in addition to celebrating the hard work and success of his 2011 team, Quick’s book also makes another thing perfectly clear—Quick himself is unapologetically a running and coaching nut. I mean no disrespect–and instead of nut, a better word might be “character.” Completely devoted to and passionate about his team, deeply involved in what he openly acknowledges as a loving relationship among his ”men,” knowledgeable and expert as a trainer, Quick is also capable of wonderful foolishness that in fact demonstrates the depth of his love for his sport and his boys. It might also be the key to his success as a coach.
When Quick pushed his team into the Rocky Mountains to run up ten percent inclines and switchbacks, climbing over snow drifts in June to complete the assigned runs, he pushed his own 35-year-old body to run with them. He, too, ran 80- and 90-mile weeks the rest of that summer. He suffered and sweated beside them.
I did not attend the 2011 state cross country championship meet in Peoria when Palatine won. Our Ignatius team has its own story from that year, a story told in these blog pages as the team, not a big surprise, and its star runner Jack Keelan, which was a surprise, failed to qualify for that state meet. So I didn’t travel to the Peoria on that November day; neither did Keelan, for the record. Other members of the team, in fact, did so to watch as spectators.
After reading Quick’s account of the race, I regret not having been there, mainly because I missed seeing Quick in the outfit he wore that day, which he describes unapologetically in the book. Having pushed his own running and training to the limit that season, even as he pushed his team, Quick dressed himself in a red Palatine throwback singlet and short, red running shorts—and he admittedly scrambled around the course like a mad man as he exhorted his team to run and win.
Quick had earned that uniform, most readers of the book would agree, after training alongside his boys all year.
The book makes it clear that Quick is a knowledgeable coach in terms of designing a demanding training program for his team and that he is also skilled at team building and psychological motivation. But it is also clear that Quick, an AP English teacher at Palatine, is also a romantic, whose passion and emotion about what he does at several key moments of the book overwhelms his telling the story. In other words, as he tells us in the book, he cries a lot when the moments overwhelm him. And his emotions, he admits, often get the best of him.
Some might wonder about boundaries and propriety–and wonder whether Quick gets too close to his boys. He describes the team peeing together in the bushes before the championship race at the state meet—angering a park monitor. Boys stop by his house at 9:00 PM for summertime evening runs. He knows their music, and their personal tastes in terms of food, dress, and hygiene He seldom says a word, however, about their lives beyond the team—except about their relationships with parents, which seem important to Quick.
He writes about the Palatine track team’s visit to the York field house in the middle of the book as Palatine runs an indoor track meet there; he describes the York trophy room, with its 27 state trophies. Nothing could match that impressive memorabilia. But much later in the book he describes the basement room of his own house—with team photographs, framed medals, and trophy photographs of each individual runner on the team that won the trophy. Indeed, he apparently has a room in his private home devoted to his Palatine running teams.
He describes numerous occasions when he stands in front of his team giving speeches in which he cries—including the morning of the state championship run. On that day, as Quick tells the story, he had so convinced the boys on his team of their love for each other that they all cried together.
Then they went out and won the state championship that afternoon.
I have never cried in front of my team, either out of emotion or as a way to motivate them—and I have never managed to move them to tears. We do have a framed photograph on the wall of our family room of our 2010 conference-winning cross country team, celebrating my Lawless Award as the Chicago Catholic League’s top coach that year. It was given to me by my team that season.
But Ignatius is not Palatine. And I am not Chris Quick.
Quick, as I suggested, is unapologetic about his coaching passion. Other coaches make appearances in the book, especially his Mid Suburban League colleagues. The book celebrates the hard-boiled competition of that conference. The relationships and rivalries between these coaches, as Quick describes them, in some ways resemble the relationships among the coaches in the Chicago Catholic League, of course. But Quick also seems to make it a point that these MSL coaches, like himself, are pretty nutty. Among those coaches, his closest friend, he notes, is Jamie Klotz of Buffalo Grove. Klotz make several appearances in the book, and he is among the first to congratulate Quick after the state championship win.
As he tells the story of the 2011 MSL indoor championship meet early in the book, Quick also affectionately describes Klotz this way: “As head coach of Buffalo Grove’s cross country and track teams, he is one of the true characters in Illinois sports. To know him and love him you must be anesthetized to an endless stream of filthy language. He’s not the kind of guy you take your mother to meet. My mom has met him. All she could say afterward was ‘Who is this guy? I’ve never heard anyone say f*** in so many creative ways.’ On MSL days, he goes straight into barbarian mode. With his bright red goatee, shaved head, and numerous tattoos, he coaches with the ferocity of a medieval Viking. The man should be decked out with a battle axe and an ancient helmet scarred with the blows of former foes. When I hear the first ‘Attack!! Attack!!’ of the meet, I know it is time to go. Klotz and I always look each other in the eye and think the same thing, ‘Are you ready to bang today, brother?’”
Quick’s book deserves a real book review. He self-published it last year, and I didn’t finally get a copy from him until a few weeks ago. I really probably didn’t have a chance to read it until this week, with school finished and the track season over. But I pretty much read it straight through over a few days. A commercial publisher, Breakaway Books, will release a second edition in the fall, and that book, with a new cover, is listed already on Amazon.com. Maybe I can write something more like a real book review at that time. In other words, it would be a review of the book which would describe the book for any reader.
Because, as a coach, what especially captivated my thoughts as I read the book was the landscape it described in terms of coaching, specifically among these storied Illinois coaches that we compete against, as well.
The sporting drama of the book includes two bookend events—the 2010 state championship cross country race that Palatine lost and the 2011 race which it won. York won the 2010 meet. But much of the drama of the 2010 race—and the 2011 race which follows the same initial plot, with a different ending—really centers on the battle between Palatine and Neuqua Valley, who pursue what are essentially opposite racing strategies.
In 2010 Palatine’s runners—it is not quite clear how much under coach’s orders and how much simply out of a youthful response to their coach’s bubbling belief and enthusiasm—began the race so aggressively that they took an enormous lead after the first mile. It was Palatine ahead of Oak Park-River Forest, another fast starting team, 57-138. None of the meet favorites—in particular, York and Neuqua Valley—were in the mix at that point.
Then the Palatine runners faded. “Monkey” Meincke, who had led the Palatine runners until well after the first half mile in a misguided chase behind the frontrunners that day Lukas Verzbicas and Jack Driggs , ended up 135thoverall. Tony Gregorio held on for all-state honors in 20th. The others finished in the spaces between.
Meanwhile, from behind the Palatine runners, York, Lake Zurich, and Neuqua Valley moved through the field, eventually taking the top three spots. Neuqua edged Palatine out for the last trophy, 180-189. At the mile, Neuqua had been hundreds of points behind.
Coached by Paul Vandersteen, Neuqua had run virtually the opposite race from Palatine. Controlled and careful, their team had moved through the ranks as a bunch. They did not win the state meet in 2010, but they had done so twice in the previous three years.
In 2011, Palatine’s race plan was to run a similar race—except they would not fade so dramatically. There were also two differences from 2010. First, Meincke was going to hold back and run as a truly important fifth man. Rather than leading a Light Brigade charge down the hill, Meincke settled into an intelligent pace in the middle of the pack. In addition, over the course of the previous year, a new top runner had emerged for Palatine, Peter Tomkiewicz. Tomkiewiecz would finish as the tenth place scorer in the team race, followed by Tony Gregorio in 14th, Tim Johnson 21st, Marcus Garcia 22nd—and Meincke in 47th—for a team total of 114 points.
But the danger, in Quick’s mind, had been Neuqua, once again. Could their disciplined charge once again catch Palatine from behind? In fact, they finished third once again with 144 points.
Upstart O’Fallon had been a stealth team behind Palatine with 120 points—leading Palatine, in fact, in the early stages of the race. They had almost out-Palatined Quick’s team. The final difference, in fact, had been Johnson, Garcia, and Meincke, all of whom finished just a few places ahead of the number three, four, and five runners from O’Fallon.
I don’t really know Paul Vandersteen from Neuqua Valley or Jon Burnett from O’Fallon. I’ve talked briefly with each of them, and I’ve emailed once or twice.
But I know from Facebook and Twitter, we are friends there who follow each other, that Vandersteen is a science teacher. He takes his students on ecology field trips. Along with pictures of his family, he’ll post a picture of a turtle on his Facebook page . His training methods have benefited from experimentation, it would seem, and they have evolved into a path of moderation, as opposed to passion. We had an email exchange a few years ago, in response to some of my blog posts at the time about what is appropriate mileage for summer running, and he told me that he no longer pushed his boys into the 1000-mile club, as he had once done. In addition, his team really does not do its most serious training until the season is well underway; for the first half of the season, even, it is a dose of tempo running, and then their training emphasizes moderate interval work mainly at a distance of three-quarters of a mile or so–lots of 1200s, it seems. As I have read about this kind of approach in training books, like our current Bible, Jack Daniels’s Running Formula, this is a program that seems to go by the book. In particular, according to the “book,” it is not recommended that runners do many hard intervals for more than 5:00 minutes at a time.
I do not believe that Vandersteen takes his team into the Rocky Mountains for a trip of running pain sessions. I suspect that he does not cry very often, or at all, in front of his team. [Note: After reading this, Vandersteen did want me to know that, in fact, he does cry in front of his team–usually on the night before the state meet as the team reviews its season together.] In other words, Vandersteen would seem to be a rationalist—and a very successful one.
I know even less about Burnett We had one exchange at breakfast last November in the Embassy Suites Hotel before the state cross country race later in the day. “Our guys are going to be gunning for Jack,” he had told me. And, indeed, O’Fallon’s Alex Riba would run ahead of Keelan for almost two-and-a-half miles of the three miles later that day.
As I think about these men, and then Joe Newton, as well, they do kind of fall into different categories of approach and mindset. Quick is the poet coach—all about suffering, passion, and effort. Vandersteen is the scientist coach—emphasizing discipline, control, and adherence to a plan. Burnett is perhaps a psychologist coach, who seems to prepare his team for the biggest contests.
Newton? I don’t know him except in passing, watching him from afar at track or cross country meets; I have read some of his writings as a coach and watched him on video. I’ve also heard testimonials from his former athletes. He famously tries to shake the hand of every runner on his team, 200 boys whom he knows by name, every day at the end of practice. At Ignatius, I replaced our legendary coach Jim Connelly—and they are of a similar generation, I think. Connelly was an engineer, a math teacher—and also a political science teacher. They share some similarities of character and approach—and I think that their former athletes give similar testimonials. Newton, it seems to me, is also a political scientist of sorts—a builder of teams as a political system, one in which he pulls the strings, perhaps, as the boss maker.
All these men are characters—as are many coaches, it would seem.
But Quick—and several of the other MSL coaches he lionizes in his book—go a little bit further into the areas of color and flamboyance. Joe Newton never dressed himself in a bright red team uniform and short shorts in order to chase his runners around Detweiller Park.
Chris Quick and I have had as many as four significant conversations that I remember pretty well. At the 2011 state meet, our 4×800 team ran in the last heat. For almost three legs we were up front with the leaders, vying for a qualifying spot in the final; we faded at the end, but we had taken a good shot. Palatine had run in the second heat and run well, apparently qualifying for the final. After our race I was walking past the east end of the track, when I bumped into Quick, whom I must have already known somehow in passing, probably meeting at the Palatine Relays. He basically gave me a pat on the back and some encouragement along the lines of, “Your guys were in it until the end.” He had been watching and paying attention to our guys.
As we arrived to run the Palatine Relays in 2012, Jack Keelan had recovered from the cross country disappointment of 2011 by running great that winter—and then he dropped his astounding 8:56.86 for 3200 at Arcadia in early April. He was now among the favorites for the state meet a month away. Quick was working at the changes and scratches desk before the meet. It must have been the first time I had seen him since Palatine had won the state championship. Always scouting, perhaps, Quick asked me about Keelan’s plans at the state meet. He wanted to go after the double, I told him, 3200 and 1600. He smiled his approval. I explained the strategy we were developing; I call it the 2:05 strategy. Keelan had demonstrated on several occasions that he could negative split his races with a strong final 800 meters, 2:05 or better. That was the way to do it, Quick said supportively. I suggested that there were other guys who might be able to do the same thing—like Todd Ford at Loyola Academy. Ford had outkicked Keelan for second place behind Leland Later at the Palatine Invite cross country race the previous fall. Quick didn’t really agree: “But I don’t think there are more than a couple guys who can run 2:05 the last 800 when they are all running 9:00 pace already.”
Then he smiled and told me, “Enjoy this! Whatever you’re doing with him, keep doing it.”
We touched base again at the Palatine Relays this year, and then we had a sporadic talk together at the Nalley Invitational as we both hung out by the 200 meter mark watching our athletes run that day. It was there that I started to make arrangements to get my hands on Quick’s book, which I had meant to buy in the fall but hadn’t done so.
Finally, after Keelan’s double win at the state meet and our team’s surprising fourth place finish, one of my favorite emails came from Quick: “I really enjoyed reading your blog about the weekend… Stay up high floating on those clouds my friend!”
In those conversations, Quick had made me feel like part of the fraternity when I still felt like an outsider—or even a pretender. To be fair, even my email exchanges with Paul Vandersteen had made me feel that way, as well.
What I have learned over the last fifteen years or so of watching my coaching colleagues at work is that there are many ways to do the job successfully—and nonetheless lots of disagreement about how to do it best.
At the end of his book, after the big victory at state–which seems like it should be the ending, but isn’t–Quick tells some stories about events after the state meet. The team goes on to complete at the Nike X-Country Nationals meet, finishing 5th in the country. But Quick, under IHSA rules, isn’t allowed to coach them, and he watches from the sidelines.
He also tells the story of an all-school pep rally at Palatine High School—the impromptu kind reserved for only when a team wins a state championship. Quick finds himself with the microphone at the end of the event—and he admits that he has always liked having a microphone in his hand, just the way, it seems, he likes standing before his team giving motivational talks. At the pep rally, Quick describes for the audience the struggle and work of his team over the last year, including the torture of running up Rocky Mountains. And then he talks about what it has meant to him personally to watch his team work so hard–and then succeed.
Finally, he introduces the crowd to his team’s biggest fan and supporter—his brother, Chad. His brother, wheelchair bound since childhood, has cerebral palsy. Chad, it would seem, represents the community and its support for the team—and the team has performed because of that support. The team has run, it would seem, finally, for those like Chad who could not run.
Quick succeeds in making many of the people in his audience cry.
It is a measure of the place of a cross country team and its coach, even a state champion team, in a high school community that afterward Quick was still known by many in the general student population as “the guy who gave that speech.” (I suspect they know the name of the football coach.)
Quick, the man with a Palatine memorabilia room in his home basement, talks about the sacrifices and support of his wife and his own children which allow him to coach the team, especially at the end of the book. His father had been a hall-of-fame cross country and track coach, as well. The 2011 Palatine cross country championship was clearly a family affair—and indeed, he describes the boys on the team as an extended family.
We do have aspects that suggest a family in our own Saint Ignatius program, and we cultivate those. Peggy allows us to hold a team picnic and party in our Hyde Park condo, early in the season every year. The boys on our team know my wife and kids by name.
So there are similarities with the Palatine program.
And I share some things with Quick. He quit a graduate school Ph.D. program at Northwestern University in history when he decided finally that what he really wanted to do in his life was be a coach—and to marry his wife, Meredith, who at the time lived back home in Moline. I had made a similar decision in the mid-1990s to leave my graduate program in English at Northwestern, my second attempt at a graduate program, for I am almost twenty years older than Quick. A vague plan to teach and coach was behind my decision. Quick and I, of course, are also both English teachers; we share the burden of grading papers and inspiring students to read and to write, as well as to run. Like Quick, I have a special place in my heart for Romanticism and its excesses of feeling and expression—for both the British, but more importantly, the American versions. Where Quick, I suspect, might lean toward Blake (“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”) and Tennyson (“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”), I probably lean toward Whitman ( “If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.”) and Emerson ( ‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.’ And “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”).
What’s more, I, too, have a family member, our son Luc, who has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Luc can walk—and he can even skip along doing something that he calls running. But without full control of his right leg and not much use of his right arm, he has significant physical struggles. It is not likely he will ever run on a cross country team. My wife, Peggy, however, has frequently told me that we should never say never about things like that when it comes to Luc, who continues to surprise us.
There were particular moments in Quick’s book where my own attention piqued, especially at events where I remember my own experiences on the same days—like the state cross country meet of 2010, the 4×800 at the state meet in 2011, the Palatine Invite of 2011, and the Palatine Relays of 2011, where our teams competed with Palatine and others.
But most of all, Quick’s book sometimes made me wonder just how nutty I might seem to my runners and their parents, and, perhaps, boys and coaches from other teams, as well. I don’t think that I am nearly the same kind of character as Quick, or Jamie Klotz, for example. But perhaps there are boys from other teams who know me as that coach who wears the funny hat all the time.
Officially, I wear the hat as a way to battle the occupational hazard of sun damage. But I guess I also just like to wear it because it is a little bit different.
And I do have to wonder whether my team might be a little bit more successful if I could be a little bit more of a character like Chris Quick.
Here is the Palatine Cross Country pages link for Chris Quick’s book, One Way, Uphill Only: http://palatinecc.net/2012/09/one-way-uphill-only-now-available-for-purchase/
And here is the link for the new edition on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/One-Way-Uphill-Only-Championship/dp/1621240088