As a daughter of a college track and cross country coach, running is in my blood. It has been a part of my life since I was a little girl following my dad around on the track as he coached the runners on his team. The smell of the all-weather track surface, the sound of the starting gun, and the sight of well trained athletes crushing their goals flood my senses with a wave of nostalgia. Maybe that’s why I have always viewed the calendar year exactly like a track. A perfect oval with January and July on the exact opposite sides. It has always perplexed me that some people picture the calendar year as a squiggly line, or nothing at all. Because for me, it is very much a race track oval. However, an educator’s school rarely has the bouncy surface or predictable turns of a track that is so perfectly etched in my mind. To me it looks more like a cross country course with a combination of ups, downs, twists, and turns that require strategy and endurance to navigate successfully.
My dad spent most of his career coaching track and cross country at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California, one of the most highly regarded track and cross country programs in the world. I’m so proud of him and the incredible legacy that continues to live on. A piece of the legacy my dad left at Mt SAC is the cross country course that he helped designed with his friend and fellow colleague, Don Ruh. It has a reputation of being one of the most challenging and famed courses in the world due to its incredible design mixed with a variety of complexity and difficulty. Let’s look at this historic course as a metaphor for the school year.
The Mt SAC cross country course starts out with a mile of flat asphalt and dirt called the Valley Loop where runners get a quick and energetic start as they make two half mile loops. Runners start out in a large pack and feel strong as they gain momentum, settle into their pace, and gain traction for the climb ahead. When we design our school beginnings with energy and enthusiasm our students are able to start out strong and settle into a natural momentum and pace. Creating fun and engaging opportunities to bond and develop trust as a class are essential in order to gain traction for the climb ahead.
As runners round out the second half mile of the valley loop and fall into a comfortable rhythm, they hit the Switchbacks that consist of four tight hairpin turns up the side of the first hill. This part of the course requires technical skill as the terrain is steep with loosely packed gravel and the runners are packed close together due to the energetic start. Strategy is required to navigate each stretch as each curve brings unknown challenges. The Switchbacks could be compared to the holiday months from November through January where students have lost a little of the steam they had in the Fall and are also experiencing the unsteady emotions that come with the holiday season. It’s important to huddle as a team and navigate the unstable terrain and hairpin turns leading into the holiday break together. At each turn tap into student’s curiosity by bringing in a little mystery and wonder. When we keep learning exciting by adding twists and turns it helps peak students interest and engage them as they make the steady incline in learning. When designed effectively, students come out of the switchbacks feeling empowered and ready for the challenges ahead.
POOP OUT HILL
By the end of the last hairpin turn, the tight pack of runners separate. The runners that navigate the terrain together, focusing on moving forward, and are able to keep a strong footing on the unsteady gravel are the ones that lead the pack as they approach the third part of the course, Poop out hill. Though this hill is short, it is the steepest of the course. This stretch is tough! You’re tired and everything is uphill. Without momentum and endurance you will live up to the name, and “poop out” before you reach the top. My dad shared this sage advice on how to conquer this historic hill, “You need to accelerate at the top of the hill, not the bottom. As you go up the hill you want to pace yourself so you have a burst of energy at the top. It will give you momentum going down. Runners who start too fast will lose steam before they reach the top.” The stretch from mid-January to April feels just like poop out hill. Testing has begun, the breaks are few and far between and we’re all just straight up tired before we even start making the climb. The good news is if we can just keep running slow and steady up the hill, we will be able to see the finish line in sight. Stick together, stay positive, and focused. We don’t have far to go now, or so we thought.
Reservoir Hill is a steady uphill climb that runners must conquer before the steep descent to the finish line. This feels like the longest stretch of them all and though the hill isn’t as steep as the last one, it is longer. It seems as if it may go on forever as the energy that was so readily available at the start has nearly been expended. Educators, can we relate? The months from April to June are brutal. Testing is finalizing, the calendar is packed full of events, and students (and staff) are suffering severe burn out. The end is in sight, but tensions are high and emotions are volatile. Self-care and positivity are critical in this stretch if we are going to make it to the end. Care for those you serve by showering them with encouragement and positivity; infusing fun and laughter whenever you can. It’s amazing what a difference this makes as they conquer the last learning climb.
As the runners reach the pinnacle of Reservoir Hill, the end finally feels within reach. Runners fly down with a new burst of energy as they approach the Norton 400 sign (named after my dad) a quarter mile down the airstrip to the finish line . This stretch is designed for speed and applause as it wraps around the spectator area for a finish that is both exciting and quick. This time of year is electric as everyone feels the culmination of all the year’s hard work. We fly down the hill reminiscing of all that was learned, the relationships built, and memories that were made. As we blast down the airstrip we celebrate with all those supporting us at the finish line applauding a job well done! Victory! We’ve made it and we should be so proud!
This famed 3 miles of dirt, asphalt, and trail, is well known and respected because of its design. My dad and Don Ruh put thought into each hill, twist, and turn to make sure the design tested the skill level and tenacity of each runner. Just as a good game has a variety of game mechanics, so does a good course. They designed it to have equal proportions of ups, downs, and flat ground with some unpredictable twists and turns throughout. How athletes approach those takes strategy. If you start too slow, you’ll never catch up. If you start too fast, you’ll never make it to the finish line. However, if you set a steady pace you will be able to weather each twist, turn, and incline, and end the course strong.
Navigating the course ahead of time is essential in determining what pace to set and how to tackle each turn. Runners who race without that preparation aren’t equipped and will be disappointed with their performance. Just as successful runners need a strategy and a plan to crush their race and finish strong, so do we. As educators we not only strategize and plan to design the course, but we help our students do the same so they can navigate each stretch and experience the joy of victory at the end.
Just as each cross country race is affected by weather and various other factors, we are going to encounter unforeseen circumstances and obstacles too. However, with a well orchestrated design, strategy and planning we will be prepared for the unexpected and cross the finish line victorious! As you begin designing your own course for the upcoming year, remember what a special and important role you play in students lives! You are leaving your own magical legacy!
Wishing you all a fantastic start and an excellent race! I will be celebrating with you at the finish line!
Tech Integration Specialist in Southern Oregon and author of Make Learning Magical. I'm passionate about finding innovative ways to transform teaching and create unforgettable experiences in the classroom.