What happens when a high school student gets lost on a practice run through the suburbs? A cross-country coach has a story to tell:
"SOMETHING TERRIBLE COULD HAVE HAPPENED!" by A. Coach
“I’m so relieved she made it back safely,” the mother relayed to me in an email exchange. “Something terrible could have happened!”
Earlier in the week, her daughter Chelsea, a freshman runner on the school’s indoor track team, had gotten lost while out running. Her usual running companion was out sick that day, and Chelsea had to stick with a faster pack to stay connected to the group. Somehow, she lost contact, and after a couple of miles outdoors, she went off-course.
It was December, close to the shortest day of the year, and wet outside. Yellow and red leaves clung to the streets and collected in piles near the edges. Cold rain pelted the sidewalks and roads. Kids walking home from school huddled in colorful windbreakers, their backpacks slung around the front and kept dry under their jackets. By the time the team’s runners left the school gym, the sidewalks were mostly empty. It was not a nice day to be outdoors, but distance runners had little choice. They needed to run if they intended to compete, and the absence of an indoor track or clear sky was no obstacle.
Chelsea was 14 and new to running. She didn’t know the streets around the school very well, but most days her runs were no longer than three or four miles. We coaches often told the girls to turn right, run to a stoplight, and come back—a straightforward out-and-back, with no turns. Once they mastered that, we’d ask them to turn left at the stoplight, and left again at the next intersection, and turn left one last time to get back to school. We kept the routes as simple as possible because so many girls got lost. Even the straight out and back courses bewildered some of them.
I was out of town when Chelsea went astray. My two assistants, Chris and Brian, were responsible for the team that day. But what happened that afternoon likely would have happened if I’d been there, too. It was just bad timing for my assistants.
When Chelsea didn’t return from her run, Chris and Brian panicked. They sent a couple of older girls out looking for her. Chris told me later that she started to cry. Through tears she told the athletic director about Chelsea, and the athletic director immediately informed the head of school. The head of school informed campus police. The bureaucratic wheels began to turn.
And then, 20 minutes after anyone even noticed her absence, Chelsea appeared in the gym. Soaking and quiet, she muttered that she’d gotten separated from the group and lost her bearings. It had taken her a bit of time to find her way back, but she had. She seemed embarrassed and eager to change the subject.
When I returned from my trip, I was swept into meetings about The Incident. The head of school met with the A.D. to talk about better safety protocols. Going forward, the girls would run with a buddy. They would carry a phone. They would wear reflective vests. Coaches needed to know exactly where the girls were running, at all times, and trail them in a car. When they arrive at school, the coaches should park in the lot closest to the street, so they wouldn’t lose contact with the girls in the first few minutes of their run. Parents had to know that their daughters were always supervised when we let them out on the streets to run. We were responsible—i.e., liable—for their safety.
Ever since I started coaching, I’ve worried about the girls under my care. I feel responsible for these young women and anxious about their well-being, with or without a school edict demanding it. Teenagers are especially susceptible to accidents because of the double whammy of their adolescent condition: they’re both preoccupied with their private dramas and subconsciously convinced of their immortality. My cross-country runners have no choice but to run on the roads in our suburban town, which often are clogged with harried parents driving 5000-pound vehicles, or fellow teenagers unsure how to parallel park. Just running on these roads requires vigilance, which I try to instill. "Read this article about a runner getting hit!" "Run on the left, stay single file, look in both directions before stepping in the road, keep your wits about you!" "Does anyone have a safety tip they’d like to share?" I’ve told every team I’ve coached that my worst fear is having to call a mother to report that her daughter has been hit by a car.
In other words, the girls’ safety is a constant concern of mine. But school-sponsored demands for relentless supervision, which is litigation-prevention wrapped in a cloak of concern, has turned coaching into high-end babysitting. It has also sent a misguided signal to young adults that sickos lurk around every corner, that they’re right to be very, very worried, and that they have no tools to rescue themselves.
No 14-year-old should be terrorized by the prospect of simply losing her way for a bit in a safe, family-oriented suburb.