An open letter to my track coach

Track Team

“Here’s a question. What was everyone like in high school?”

I was sitting at Mission, a Texmex happy hour spot in Dupont Circle, D.C. I was joined by my entire office (all six people), plus my direct boss and HR director from San Francisco. We had gone out to welcome our two Silicon Valley guests to D.C.—and also because at 5:00 on a Monday, none of us felt like working.

We went around the circle—some giving the minimal response, “I was a jock,” and others diving a little further beneath the surface, “I was such a nerd and never knew my place.” Probably due to the fact that I was two margaritas deep, I went with the latter approach: “I was the girl who did everything right, but was a nightmare to deal with.”

I had always been a great writer, but once received detention for making my yearbook teacher cry. I received one B my entire high school career, but was constantly caught in a debate with my teachers. I was fast, but my coach often said to my mom, “I was ready to kill your daughter today.”

“The only person who could control me was my high school coach,” I finished. My high school coach was someone who changed my life for the better.

My HR director looked at me. “You should write him a letter and tell him that.”

This is the letter to that coach.

To my high school track coach:

I was in the sixth grade the first time I ever ran with my coach. That day I made a mental promise that if I got out of that run alive, I would never, ever run again. Four years to the day, I promised myself I would either run Division I in college, or I wouldn’t run at all.

Coach, thank you for teaching me which promises are worth keeping, and which are worth breaking.

The first time my coach made me run in Iowa winter, I got caught in a country pasture covered in three feet of snow. It was 2001, when “snap pants” were in style. My friend Annie Olson and I were convinced we were going to have to have our legs amputated, because the wind and snow got sucked in through the sides of our sweatpants and damn near froze our legs off. I never wore snap pants or short socks on a winter run again. Today, when every other twenty-something is pacing herself on a treadmill hating her life, I’m wiping snot from my nose running outside.

Coach, thank you for teaching me that running through three feet of snow won’t kill me, but boredom might.

I was in the 8th grade the first time I ever collapsed after a race. It was the first track meet of the season, and I got the baton for the 4×4 in dead last. I picked off each girl one by one, and came to the 300 mark with nothing left to give. This was the first time I learned the meaning of The Wall. I heard the voices of 30 junior high girls screaming their little lungs out at me, and thought, “I am going to break the hearts of every single one of my teammates if I do not pull this off.” I put my head down and ran.

Coach, thank you for teaching me that if you want to break down a wall, never listen to yourself because you’ll only hear doubt. Listen to those who believe you can do it.

When I was a freshman in high school, our high school football team made it to the state tournament. The Friday before my own state cross-country meet, I announced I was going to watch the football game. This meant I would not be home until midnight, threatening my performance for my meet the next day. [This would be one of the many times my coach was ready to kill me.]

Coach, thank you for teaching me that if you make your Saturdays worth it, you will never need Friday nights.

By my senior year, I accumulated a group of friends who I never would have known had it not been for track. Chelsi (who I nicknamed The OC—short for obsessive compulsive disorder), a germaphobe freshman obsessed with doing her homework before the due date; Heather, a junior who was the only girl on the team who had a worse mouth (or a more outrageous personality) than me; and my best friend Lexi, an annoying freshman who my coach made me run with.

Coach, thank you for teaching me you will miss out on meeting a lot of amazing people if you stay within your own circle.

My school has not resurfaced our track since the 1960’s. It’s a dirt track that still has to have the lanes painted on before each meet. Every school in the conference was up in arms the year we insisted on hosting the conference meet ourselves, instead of holding it on an all-weather track. In my graduating class alone—a class of 50 people—we sent two girls Division I and one girl Division III for track.

Coach, thank you for teaching me you can go wherever you want, even when you come from dirt.

By the time I was sixteen, I could squat twice my weight. All winter long, Lexi and I lifted with the football team. One day a senior football player asked, “Kara, do you think you could box-squat three plates?” Three plates on each side equaled 315 pounds, over 2.5 times my bodyweight. Lexi’s eyes lit up, and my coach gave the ok to try it. With one football player on each side, and one standing behind me in case I toppled over, I did one rep. I came up screaming, but I racked it.

Coach, thank you for teaching me that you haven’t maxed out until it sounds like you’re giving birth.

One year ago today on Black Friday, I went on a six-mile run with my friend Kurtz. We were within a quarter of a mile of my house when we ran past an apartment building being reroofed. I ran over a shingle, and felt a nail go through my shoe and into my left foot. With my sock filled with blood, we got back to my house where Kurtz offered to drive me to urgent care for a tetanus shot. My response was, “Don’t be ridiculous—it’s not my brake foot.”

Coach, thank you for teaching me to stand on my own two feet, even when a nail goes straight through it.

Coach, thank you grounding me and for teaching me how to use my stubbornness as my greatest asset. Thank you for choosing not to kill me, but instead making me run until I died. Happy Thanksgiving, Kara

  1. Kara,

    I’ve shared this with my Twitter network, a few teachers here at school, and will share it with my 8th graders today. We talk a lot about grit and perseverance in education. This is exactly what they need to see/hear from a former student of this school as it speaks to not only the athletes, but everyone else as well. I can only imagine your track coach’s smile as he reads this, on someone else’s computer of course! 🙂

    Thank you for sharing this out,

    Darin (Mr. Johnston) 🙂

    1. Darin – That just made my week. I’m so happy you enjoyed it, and I hope your students can find some way to relate! Kara

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