Today Topo ambassador Nick Tsotu is sharing with us how coaching high school cross-country and track teams during the COVID-19 pandemic not only changed his perspective on running, but united him and his teams more than ever before.
I have always been a solitary runner. I am used to running alone. Every day. Sometimes for multiple hours. In the past I have even viewed the need to run with others as a weakness; a sign of a lack of dedication or self-discipline. But on an unseasonably warm afternoon in early December of 2020, I remember looking out at my athletes as they finished their workout and feeling as though, for the first time in my life, I was able to fully appreciate how much we need social interactions.
In Alameda County, California, we had very strict Covid guidelines in place through the winter. We had to fight to get the school board to allow outdoor sports, like cross-country, to meet for conditioning. To be honest, I was surprised they let us resume training as early as they did. The number of new case rates per day was as bad as it had ever been but maybe they understood, better than I did, how much our children needed some semblance of normalcy in their lives.
We had strict guidelines imposed on us: limits to the numbers of athletes we could work with, staggered meeting times between groups, mask and social distancing regulations, a daily health screening, and we were only allowed to run on the 625m dirt loop on campus. I wondered how many of our athletes would want to go through all of that. As it turned out, seventeen would make it through to the end of the season. Seventeen, when we have averaged close to 150 runners over my past 4 years with the team.
On that December day, I told my athletes that we still did not have any updates as to if or when we might have competitions. It seemed unlikely, but that we would continue to train to be ready to compete. Then I paused before adding “I understand how depressing things seem, but I want you to know that you all are the light of my life right now”. This had become obvious to me but seemed to surprise them. I think that was when they realized how much our practices meant to them too.
During a year when we were constantly reminded that things were not normal, the strict guidelines and my need to enforce them could have easily cast a gloomy shadow over our season. However, every athlete brought enthusiasm and positive energy to practice. I never heard a single complaint. We were not allowed to do our team cheer, but we didn’t need it; the feeling of unity – that we were overcoming our obstacles together, was always present.
One day after practice, I noticed our girls’ captain sitting on a curb, visibly upset. I sat with her and despite my fear that I was ill-equipped to console a sad teenage girl, I am proud of the words that came to me. She opened up and told me that everything was so much harder for her during the pandemic. School was harder, relationships were harder, running and motivating herself was harder. Life was harder. That made me realize that underneath their outward enthusiasm, my athletes were struggling to keep it together. Remembering my own struggles with depression, I worried that some of them could be fighting that same battle. But we were not alone in our struggles.
Before our races, the athletes always look to me for inspirational words. I am not sure how this came to be expected, but now that it is, I feel the need to deliver. This year’s message has been the same every race: appreciate every opportunity we have. We were not guaranteed to have a season. We are not guaranteed to have a season next year. We are not guaranteed another race. All we know we have is the opportunity in front of us. We could sit around complaining about what we lost, what we don’t have, or how we wish things could be different. Or we can be grateful for the opportunity we have before us to pour our hearts out into our sport, to lift the spirits of our teammates and make something beautiful out of an ugly situation. Together, we found ourselves smiling and laughing. Through cross-country we found a sense of normalcy when everything else was anything but normal. We found strength, courage, and gratitude for things that we had all taken for granted in the past. Most importantly of all, we found that we were not alone.
Nicholas Tsotu (Sigmon) teaches physics and coaches cross-country and track at San Leandro High School in California. After 16 seasons without any athletes qualifying for the section championships (fun fact: Nick was the last one as a student back in 2002!), Nick has had 8 athletes do so since taking over the distance program.