By Matthew H. Steilberg
I’ve rarely seen a high school cross country story on the front page of the local sports section. It happens occasionally, but just not that often. That slot is largely reserved for a higher class of spectator sports and their star athletes; generally you’ll find local cross country race results somewhere after page three and in fairly small print – if you find them at all. Accordingly, the 1979 Trinity Episcopal High School cross country team simply didn’t have the allure of the school’s football or basketball team and we sure as heck didn’t show up in the Richmond Times-Dispatch very often.
…We weren’t the tallest or the strongest – and I have to admit to myself, not the best looking either. We were mostly scrappy with boyish grins. Some of us – 6’0 140 pound at-the-time me included – were downright awkward in appearance. And we seemed to have more issues with our complexion than other sport athletes, which never seemed quite fair to us.
…We also weren’t among the popular elite in the hallways of the school or officers in student government. We didn’t drive the nice cars. And getting to the biggest point of all, none of us dated what you would call the “it” girl either.
I wouldn’t say that we were dorks or losers, just maybe just one level down in the overall caste hierarchy.
Ok, maybe two levels down.
Our three-mile races didn’t draw many fans or much excitement, probably because all a spectator (usually one of our moms) pretty much got to see was the start of the race and then the finish. We didn’t get secret cheerleaders decorating our hall lockers with streamers and candy like they did for the celebrated players of these other more popular sports the day of their big games. They didn’t show up and cheer for us at the meets either.
I don’t blame them, I wouldn’t either.
There were no stellar quarterbacks or wide receivers on our team. No power forwards who could dunk with authority or dead-on point guards who sank the game-winning shot either. And as for the team, there were no cross country championship banners hanging in the gymnasium like there were for the others.
So this team was a collection of what I’ll call just-north-of-nerd kids who could run a few miles and have a little fun along the way. While we had a few guys with decent speed – like Jimmy “Fly” Taylor and “Downtown” Kevin Brown – we were overall a pretty average team. And we were ok with that.
Because we had a good amount of fun without our coach knowing about it.
Well, a typical workout for us first involved turning an eight-mile assignment into a no-more-than-three mile jog. That wasn’t very difficult to pull off either since our coach, Wayne Whitley, wasn’t there to catch us taking certain shortcuts. He’d dispatch us out on a particular route, usually as he puffed his cigarette, and then retreat back to his office. Hot August and September afternoons would inspire us to run about two miles down Cherokee Road to Bosher’s Dam on the James River and enjoy a nice swim before running back up to the school and finishing up for the day. Cooler days in October or November and we’d simply run the half-mile to my house and watch cartoons for an hour – and then run back up Pittaway Drive to the gym to be done for the day.
Now that I think about it those running-to-swim expeditions actually had us looking pretty sweaty and worn out upon our return – but only we knew it was river water and not the perspiration of ten miles or more. The cartoon afternoons at my house required us to splash a little tap water on our faces, necks, and arms before heading back to the school. Clearly we gave nominal effort to our practice runs and overall conditioning. And as you might expect, that led to pretty average performances in our scheduled meets against other area teams.
Until the day that everything changed for our team. That day came in August of 1980.
We’d heard rumors over the summer that a new coach would take over our team come fall but none of us knew any more than that. And it’s not like our whole life hung on this cross country team, so we were more concerned about our summers than we were focused on that announcement. Besides, we had our minds on the beach, the pool, and a bunch of other more important things – like would there be any cute new girls in our class this year who might give us a chance – which wouldn’t happen but it was fun to think about the possibility anyway.
It was a late August day and we all showed up as usual for the first day of practice – and boy was it hot. I could feel the Bosher’s Dam swim coming. All of the usual suspects were there – Walter Johnson, Bobby Nastanovich, David Kraehnbuehl, and others.
“Where’s the new coach” I asked one of them. No one knew. We looked all around but the only stranger we saw was some young guy over near the gym tying his shoes…
His running shoes.
Uh oh. Get ready to meet Coach Allen Weeks.
“Hey guys, my name is Allen Weeks and I’m your new coach. I’m looking forward to a great
season and I hope you are too. We just need to be willing to work hard together as a team. Let’s get ready for a quick run down to William’s Dam and back”
A quick run to Williams Dam and back? Uhhhh…that was about five miles down Cherokee Road, a good three miles past our customary Bosher’s Dam swimming hole. Now we are staring down ten very long miles – and apparently with this “Coach Weeks” running alongside of us.
No shortcuts. No swimming. Lots of pain instead.
Well, that was one long day and we all made it home safely but at least three of us puked along the way, me being one. Coach Weeks ran everywhere – at the front with the fastest guys and then he would jog back to the slower ones (me being one) and encourage us. Then he’d run back up and catch the faster guys. Easily.
And so began the story of what would become the 1981 Prep League Cross Country champions – from Trinity Episcopal High School.
Coach Weeks was just 23 years old, fresh out of Washington and Lee University where he starred on the cross country and track teams. He began that 1980 season with us as our new coach and in a few weeks he’d also become my English teacher.
More strikingly, Coach Weeks was a passionate and fast runner. Suddenly we were introduced to hill rep workouts, track intervals, and even something called a fartlek, which means “speed play” in Swedish. It’s a training method that blends continuous training with interval training; simply defined it involves periods of fast running intermixed with periods of slower running. Of course at first we just snickered at the name but soon we began to see how the “fart-lick” workout, among all the others, was making us faster.
And these workouts were making us faster. Much faster. Our Trinity team began to win meets we should have been winning all along and we were coming close to beating other teams like Benedictine and St. Christopher’s who were always among the best in the league. We now looked forward to races at Maymont and Roslyn – courses that were renowned for their muscle burning hills and overall rugged terrain – because we knew we could handle them. Coach Weeks had us not just heading out on training runs we were attacking these runs with enthusiasm.
He was a different kind of coach than we’d ever had before in our lives. Others I’d had were knowledgeable about whatever sport and understood the right practice routines to run…but I’d never had one that did the workouts with me, side by side. Other coaches could shoot jump shots or throw the football – but never better than anyone else on the team.
Coach Weeks was faster than all of us – and not just by a little, but by a lot.
We finished third in the Virginia Prep League Conference that first year with him as our coach. That may not sound like much until you regard our history. The prior year? The prior year we were ninth out of ten. And the team had never finished higher than sixth in the school’s history. Coach Weeks didn’t get too excited about our third place finish (which we were stunned to achieve); he just congratulated us on our performance and let us know that we’d win next year and then be running for the state championship. He said it just like that.
And we believed him. We ran throughout the year. We ran on weekends. We ran all through the summer. Several of us even began to run specialty races like the Virginia Ten Miler in Lynchburg and the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler in Washington DC, events that attracted world-class runners and placed us in the same field with names like Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter. That’s right – I really ran in the same race with those guys – a Boston Marathon champion and an Olympic gold medalist. Obviously I finished WAY behind both of them but I was there in the same race.
And then I ran my first marathon with Coach Weeks in the spring of 1980, something I’d go on to do four more times – and none would have happened without him.
He was becoming influential beyond our cross country team. Suddenly English became my favorite subject. Suddenly Washington and Lee University was a school I wanted to know about and consider; he took us there for four days right after the end of school to train and we met his college coaches. And then he came up with the idea that we’d work on special projects to raise money so we could travel to Colorado and train for a week in the Rockies. The trip came to fruition and we flew out there and stayed out there with his sister. He even took us to see a rock concert performer we’d never heard of before. Bruce Springsteen. At Red Rocks Amphitheatre, no less.
Yes, in the summer of 1981 I saw one of the best concerts I’d ever see in my life – even to this day. Plus we ran up Pikes Peak. We ran across the plains of Wyoming. We visited the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and did a few laps there. Who does this with their high school cross country team?!?! We were all far too young to see it as odd that a coach took so much interest in us, but years later I find myself absolutely dumbfounded by his initiative, commitment, and desire for us.
Coach Weeks had ascended to a mythical leadership figure in our eyes – so much so that my best friend on the team, Walter Johnson, uttered the somewhat-joking-somewhat-serious words that would become a rallying cry for all of us.
And he really did. Coach Weeks saved us from accepting mediocrity. He saved us from staying juvenile when it was time for us to grow up. He saved us from performing beneath our ability. We would follow him anywhere. Coach Weeks was now transcendent.
He even got the cheerleaders to decorate our lockers the day of a big meet; I guess he heard us grumbling about that. That’s exactly the kind of person he was. We felt beyond ourselves.
The 1981 cross country season commenced and it didn’t surprise any of us that we swept the table of meets then won the league championship – and with relative ease, I might add. Unbelievably we had gone from ninth to first in just two years. And we did compete strongly for the State Championship, finishing third behind several juggernaut teams from northern Virginia. All of us were running sub-18 minute three mile races and we could all break a five-minute mile. He made us believe we could run faster each and every race. He made us believe we could do anything.
Yes, we hung the first cross country championship banner ever in Trinity’s Carpenter Gymnasium where it still hangs today.
And then next year in 1982 he was gone. We didn’t know why or where. He was just gone. I can’t remember how we got to say goodbye and I guess it didn’t take too long for us to find other ways to occupy ourselves as high school seniors.
But I do know this – our team was never the same.
That might be the only fault in his leadership; we couldn’t do it without him. It would be exactly thirty years – 2011 – before Trinity Episcopal would hang another championship banner in cross country. Interestingly enough, I hear they did it with a strong new coach who runs with the kids – and who happens to be very fast. Coach Marcus Jones.
I graduated from Trinity Episcopal the following June of 1983 and enrolled at Washington and Lee University that September, where I’d go ahead to be an English major and a member of the varsity track team – as a pole vaulter – but that’s another story for another day. Coach Weeks was still coaching me. I could still feel him running beside me, only now it wasn’t so much about running anymore. And I kept following his lead.
I try my best to follow him today too, but it’s just not as easy as it looks. What helps is that I can try to remember what it means to have a leader who is fast enough to run with their team and not just bark orders from a back office. I know what it feels like to have a leader who cares so much for his team and each individual that he wants to do more than just coach them to win a simple race – he wants to provide for experiences beyond what’s expected.
He wanted to give us life-long experiences, and he did.
My running days are now over, thanks to multiple knee surgeries, but I still think of Coach Weeks – because clearly he was much more than a cross country coach to me and to others. I wish I could be just like him but I’m not quite as good, just like I wasn’t quite as fast as him. He used to say this to me, though:
“Matthew, try to win this race. And if you can’t win it, I want you to scare the hell out of the guy who does.”
Life is a journey, not a destination. I may not win the race, but I can still be drawn each day by a desire pulling me towards a meaningful finish line.
Al saves. Still.