END OF THE SEASON
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The cross country season was about to climax for Dave Coppock, MSU Billings' head coach, but he was too distracted to see it happen. It was the final moments of the most important men's race he had ever hosted, the NCAA DII West Regional Championship, and the volunteer in charge of steering the runners into the finish chute was confused.
"They still have one more lap!" the volunteer insisted but Coppock was confident it was time to move the course flagging and direct the runners into the last 400 meters of the 10k course. Henry Cheseto, the soon to be men's champion, was barreling down the course toward the dilemma. All Coppock had to do was move the course flagging 10 meters to steer the runners down the correct path - it would only take a moment - but time was literally running out.
For a split moment, Coppock froze, unable to act as a heavy lump of dread hit the bottom of his stomach and visions of Regional races gone bad flashed through his mind. After spending the past 25 years coaching and nearly another decade before that racing he had obviously seen this happen before. The most notable time was at this same race in 2008 when it was hosted by UCSD and the official charged with moving the course flagging sent the runners down the wrong path and sent the race into a veritable shit storm. The race had to be rerun later in the day in higher temperatures and at least one runner suffered heat stroke.
Meanwhile, Robert Peterson was trying to prevent a disaster of his own. After a cross country season of top finishes and personal bests, Peterson had finished the conference meet in fourth place. Such a strong finish in the competitive 83 man 8k meant Peterson was considered a serious candidate to qualify for nationals at the Regional meet hosted by his home town. He was well on his way to proving this in the first half of his 10k when things started to slow down.
A week earlier Nocona Frame paced the snow crusted course with MSUB assistant coach Trent Hooper and pondered her upcoming race. The MSU Billings women were no more emotional than the men but Frame and her teammates were feeling the pressure none-the-less. Frame was a top placer throughout the season and earned an All GNAC at the conference meet. There was a chance she could qualify for the national meet from regionals but it wasn't going to be easy. The week of regionals was a light training week. The lack of big workouts made it to easy to over-think the looming race. Under gloomy skies, and with assistant coach Trent Hooper by her side, Frame led the women's team through their last week of training. Staying focused, staying trained, or staying rested were none of the problems facing MSUB's women's team. Staying relaxed was the challenge.
Coppock broke from his terror and jumped into action and sent the racers down the right path - the disaster averted! His heart still pounded, Coppock took a moment to catch his breath and reassure the volunteer. This wasn't Coppock's first time having to split his time between hosting a race and coaching his athletes, this wasn't even his 30th time, but never before had there been so much on the line. He had an athlete on the verge of qualifying for Nationals and at the same time there was a race with nearly 30 teams to manage! Realizing his runners were already finishing he broke into a run and headed for the finish line to see how things turned out.
Peterson kept position, for the first half of the race, with a handful of the best runners in the country but then somewhere around the forth mile Alaska Anchorage's runner, Henry Cheseto, shifted into a gear that no one seemed to know existed and immediately gaped the field by almost 100 meters. The pace was just slightly more than Peterson could hold and he began to falter. He strained to keep from being passed as the pack surged in reaction to Cheseto. Peterson, now overwhelmed by length of the 10k, a distance he had only raced a few times previously, was starting to question how long he could hang on. He had started the race alternating between the top three positions and was now doing his best to stay in the top 15.
As Robert began to struggle Frame was doing her best to warm up without letting the men's race get inside her head. MSUB's women were all feeling emotional and tense, bouts of nervous laughing, crying, and stern silence, passed over the team like the storms clouds giving the meet mixed rain and sun. The team's seniors had the hopes and relief all associated with a career ending meet. They hoped to race well but another part of them just wanted to get the deed over with. Nocona knew she had another year to try at Nationals and part of her certainly just wanted the race to be over with. But these were small thoughts, they lived somewhere in the back of her mind. For the most part, there was only a single thought in her head; the race.
By the time Coppock had read the official results for the men's race it was already clear what had happened but no one wanted to say anything too definitive until the coach confirmed it. The girls were spiking up and the men were putting their tights back on when Coppock came over with his telling grin. Peterson had placed 13th overall and was the first individual who wasn't on a nationally qualifying team so he was officially going to Nationals. The next individuals were only seconds behind Peterson - a little slower and his season would have ended right there in Billings' least known city park. Celebration ensued for the men, the pain was over.
For the women celebration felt premature as they jogged to the starting line. The last race of cross country season is powerful and dichotomous thing for runners because its a release, a relief, and a beginning of rest. But it is also a thing of tremendous pressure; our society places great emphasis on the finale. How things end is more important than how they go throughout. Nothing brings greater feelings of disappointment and appeasement than a final race.
For the seniors it went by like a slow motion film on fastforward, the memory blurred, the details lost, but the pain somehow still slow and drawn out. A relief for sure, it's always good to be done with a race, but heartbreaking at the same time to know that a chapter of life was concluded. Whether it ended on a high note or a low one seemed irrelevant to the fact that it had ended.