Just to the west of my old high school can be found the start and finish line for the cross country course. The three mile course was a notoriously grueling one, as it dropped nearly 300 feet to the river and then snaked its way back up the valley through a run of sharp switchbacks and steep grades. The finish line came at the end of a 100 yard sprint preceded by a very deceiving and energy sapping geological formation called the Grasshopper Hills. The Grasshopper Hills were four, steep-sided low hummocks spaced out over 200 yards of green pasture land and it was our teams coup de grace.
I remember the very first time that I ran Grasshopper Hills in practice. Our team stood about 20 yards from the base of the first hill while Coach instructed us in the upcoming drill. “Now, I’m going to go on over to the second Grasshopper. When you hear my whistle I want you guys to run up the first hill and come on over to me on the second one. And I want a full sprint. Got that?”
There were numerous groans. Coach, an avid runner, had just led us on a brisk 3 mile run down to the river and back and we were looking forward to an easy warm-down and then off to the showers. It was early September and too damn hot for this to be much fun. Coach turned and jogged off carrying his ever present whistle and clipboard.
In a few moments we heard the shrill whistle and the 9 of us set on up the hill, running hard. Topping the rise we could see Coach on the other side of the little valley that lay between the first two hills. “To me!” he shouted. “Run to me!”
We rushed full tilt down the slope, rebounding at the bottom and surging on up the other side, each of us vying not to be last. As we crested the hill we were horrified to find that, while out of sight, Coach had sprinted ahead and was now standing on the third hill!
“To me!” he shouted again. “To me!”
Never slowing, we charged down the next slope, stuttering out muttered profanities with each shuddering stride. Up the next hill we charged, beginning to spread out now as we began to lose our wind. As usual, I was near the middle of the pack and was dismayed to hear the groans and curses from above as the front runners found that Coach had once again levitated over to the last and final hill.
“To me!” I heard his robotic cry. My legs felt like wet bags of cement and each breath was a wheezing gasp of sharp pain. “To me!” I hated him fiercely as I pushed on towards the summit of this last hill.
Of course Coach was not on the last Grasshopper hill either. We finally found him, smiling, at the bottom of that fourth and final hill. I cartwheeled on down past him, collapsing to the ground, arms splayed forward and face down in the hot dry grass, gasping for breath. Those of us not prone stood bent over, hands on knees, heads hanging down, spasmodically heaving in great gulps of precious oxygen. Our jerseys were soaked through and sweat poured off of us in streams.
“Good job, guys. Go ahead and stretch out and call it a day. See you all tomorrow morning.” And with that he trotted off towards the gym, clipboard firmly in hand, his nasty little whistle bouncing up and down on his back.
“Why that no good-“
“What a sonofa-“
“That’ll be the last time I ever-”
It wasn’t fair! Each time we thought we had finished, every time we felt we had completed our run, we found that we still had farther to go. Each time we felt we were close to him we found that he was still farther away. We continued to grumble our disapproval between gulping down great droughts of air. But slowly the realization dawned on us.
Sure, he had asked us to do more than we had expected, even more than we had agreed upon. And yeah, he was uncompromisingly ruthless in his methods. But we had done it. Every time we thought that we were spent, with nothing more to give, we saw him farther on up ahead and somehow found the reserves to keep on going.
But the most amazing thing was that everything that he pushed us to do, everything he commanded of us, he had done as well. Every time he called out for us to come to him, over each brutal hill and through each discouraging valley, he knew what he was asking of us, because he had just run the same course. He never asked us to suffer anything that he had not already endured.
Although we had just finished cursing him, we understood that the reason we did what we had just done (and would do again) was because of him. Because he had faith in us and knew that we were much more than we ever thought we could be. Because he knew what we could accomplish – things that we never thought possible. The reason we kept on running and didn’t quit was because of that insufferable man standing on ahead, calling to us, visible for all to see. It was the sight of him that we ran towards, each of us fully aware that he was also watching us and there was no way we were going to let him down.
(That year our cross country team won the county and district championships and placed fourth in the state tournament. The team won every home meet in over three seasons. Unfortunately, today Grasshopper Hills has been graded flat and now is the site of a housing development.)