The Kids on the Course

Jalen Bunch, Cort Merritt and Henry Reid race during the DCXC Invitational. Photo: Charlie Ban
Jalen Bunch, Cort Merritt and Henry Reid race during the DCXC Invitational. Photo: Charlie Ban

There was big news spreading at the DCXC Invitational, after the elementary school races. Two girls were eager to share it.

“I got second place!”

That wasn’t even the big news.

From her friend: “I got ice cream!”

Both were treated with equal praise by coaches and teammates and that, in large part, speaks to the promise lying ahead for young cross country runners.

In a sport where participants are definitively ranked — someone is first and someone is last — the big challenge for coaches is to keep kids in the sport, developing their skills but staying patient and keeping runners engaged.

Dereck Barnes has been coaching the Fairfax Police Youth Club for three years, after his daughters noticed of how much he liked to run and asked to do it himself. And soon, he had been recruited to coach. He was on the cross country team at Methodist College in North Carolina, so he came in with a lot of experience, but he still needed to refine it.

“I knew the art of running, but I didn’t know the science,” he said. “Getting a coaching certification helped me a lot.”

More than at any other level, a youth coach’s role is to hold the athlete back.

“The magic is encouraging, them, explaining why we do the workouts,” he said. “We don’t do any type of intensity until they hit puberty. We’ll run up some hills, but we won’t go any anaerobic work.”

Three times a week, FPYC practices in some Fairfax County Park where the runners can stay on grass.

“We teach them to run by feel, learn the sport, respect the sport,” Barnes said. “There’s plenty of time for them to work on speed. We just want them to enjoy running.”

As a child in Fayetteville, N.C. Barnes ran Junior Olympic track events and was impressed by the levels of organization to the sport and the chance to run against and meet other athletes from across the state, region and country.

“Back then, soccer was pretty disorganized, too,” he said. “It’s gotten its act together and that’s why it’s so popular. If track can get to that point, we’ll draw people in.”

His older daughter, Aiko, is a fan of long distances — she enjoyed running the Junior Olympic 3,000 meters in track and longer cross country races. Even so, she’s still a sucker for flash.

“I was inspired by Usain Bolt,” she said. “But I like to run longer. I try to pace myself when I run.”

She sounds decidedly mature in telling that she sells her friends on running by saying “it’s fun and good for your health.”

At DCXC, she and her sister Aoi got a kick out of making funny faces in the New Balance photo booth.

As for Aoi, “I love to compete,” she said.

In D.C,’s Tenleytown neighborhood, Janney Elementary School has had a team for three years, now co-coached by Jenny O’Connor. Though she was a soccer player in her youth, she has run road races, including the Boston Marathon, and her fellow coaches are triathletes.

There’s a little more pressure because with a volunteer coaching staff, managing athletes’ safety forces coaches to make cuts to keep the team manageable.

“Every year there are more kids trying out,” she said. “We hate cutting kids, but we have to keep them safe.”

Her son, Seamus, took up running after seeing how much his parents enjoyed it.

“I manage running with my soccer practices,” he said. “I haven’t gotten tired of it yet.”

Kathryn McKinney has been coaching at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Woodley Park for five years. Like the Janney coaches, she’s a volunteer. And even though her athletes have finished running, she’s sticking around to see two former runners, now freshmen at Wilson High School, race later in the day.

“I hope they wind up with a life-long love of running,” she said. “We try to keep the program competitive but fun.”

One way she does that is by keeping plenty of records by which kids can gauge their improvement. The one-mile uphill run in the zoo is a staple of the program, and kids love to look back and see how they did in different “zoo miles.”

“We have kids coming in with all different kinds of experience,” she said. “Some of them have parents who run. Some of them have never played a competitive sport before.”

Vincent Kamani is one of them. Now an eighth grader, he joined the team last year after a lot of soul searching.

“I thought about if there was an apocalypse, I’d better be able to run,” he said. “It seemed like the best sport to get into shape.”

He was the top finishers on the Oyster-Adams team, taking eighth place at DCXC.

Kamani had a rough first year adjusting to that level of exercise, but after training trough the hot 2016 summer, he felt something click.

“Now I can run a lot faster than I thought I could,” he said. “Now I don’t run because I want to be okay in an apocalypse, now I just don’t want to lose.”

McKinney tries to keep the workload, as light as it is, from intimidating her athletes.

“We’ll run a mile to Rock Creek Park and a mile back, so everyone who comes to practice does at least two miles, and they don’t even notice it,” she said. “I’ll have them to scavenger hunts, things that take their mind off of the running.”

And it’s been working. For a school of roughly 170 people, the team sports 50 runners.

“We have almost a third of the students in the school on the team,” McKinney said. “That means they’re having fun and want to keep running. That’s good feedback to have.”

Her son, Alexander Walch, runs on the team. He prefers the 800 meters, so when he starts high school he may just opt for track, but even so, cross country has been teaching him lessons.

“I’m a lot better than I used to be,” he said. “I found out I like competing, and I didn’t used to like competing. Back when I played soccer, I would be the kid doing cartwheels on the field.”

Kamani said he can transfer the mental focus he has developed from running to anything else in his life.

“It’s all about where is your mental state,” he said. “Every race is a question of if you really want ‘it’ and how serious you are about it.”

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