For my money, the mark of a real runner is a familiarity with the now famous scene from the movie Chariots of Fire, in which one of the protagonists, Eric Liddell, falls (is pushed over, actually) on the first turn of a one lap 400 meter race. Suddenly, the movie runs in slow motion as he crashes to the ground and the camera switches to bystanders while looks of horror and resignation flash across their faces. As Liddell tumbles and then rights himself, that look of resignation is in sharp contrast to his own look of boundless determination, confidence, and what I can only describe as a healthy aggression. It was a British production, but in true Hollywood style and still in slow motion, Liddell raises himself and launches into the most improbable comeback in movie history. Accelerating like a wild animal, Liddell eventually runs down his French antagonist and passes him, collapsing across the finish line. As a lifelong runner myself, this scene is seared into my DNA, but it’s not the revenge-and-conquer angle that always manages to inspire that lump in my throat, a racing pulse, and sweaty, pre-race palms. For me, every day, seven days a week, it’s that notion of never giving up, the resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, and that boundless self-confidence that inspires, and always, always, wins the day. And so it was on Saturday that Deerfield had their own Chariots of Fire moment, when top five scorer Grace Russell was tripped, lost a shoe, and tumbled to the ground in the first 200 meters of the race, to then be unavoidably trampled by the hoard of runners behind her. Perhaps she momentarily succumbed to that very human set of emotions of panic and fear, but it was a short-lived moment of doubt as Grace righted herself, muscled her shoe back on, and charged back into the race. This was not only one of the more courageous moments in Deerfield sports history, it was representative of our entire season. Down in numbers and unable to rest our athletes, the defending champions eventually lost a dual with a powerfully deep opponent, and with a shrinking roster of tired and sore athletes, things started to look bleak as we limped into the championship race weekend. But, rather than giving up and just going through the motions on a cold, snowy race day, I like to think the team had a collective Chariots of Fire moment (now officially rebranded as a Grace Russell moment) this 2018 season. Indeed, the girls might have had the shine knocked off their 2017 shield of invincibility and suffered through some physical moments that a little rest would have helped us avoid, but they persevered and rallied. Down that last stretch they placed in the top four at New Englands and garnered a team plaque for their troubles, but more importantly, they never gave up.
The race started with a crack of the starter’s pistol echoing through a chilly November air, with alternating snow and intense sunshine as the runners sprinted from the line for the initial turn and the first choking point of the course. Quickly asserting her season-long dominance, Captain Victoria Patterson immediately dashed the hopes of any would-be usurpers of the crown, and only 200 meters into the race, had left the entire field to fight for second place. Behind Victoria, Noelle Abeyta glommed onto the chase pack of eight or nine girls, and running courageously despite significant breathing issues, fought off several last mile surges to finish in a dramatic down-to-the-wire dual with Exeter’s second runner and grabbing a super 5th place finish. Following Abeyta, ninth grader Abigail Fernald, suffering from severe late season leg discomfort, ran like a woman possessed, with her head down and that look of boundless determination and healthy aggression. It was the race of the season for Abby, who has wrestled with chronic ailments but never once put herself above the team, sacrificing every week to add to our collective greatness. Finishing in an incredibly impressive 11th place, Abby earned the respect of teammates and coaches alike for her season-long, all-in attitude and dedication to the team cause. Behind Fernald, Russell was busy passing the 48 runners it would take to get her across the finish line at 49th place. I’d rather not speculate on the place Grace would have finished had she not been the victim of circumstances well beyond her control, but suffice it to say that Deerfield lost to 3rd place Andover by only 11 spots, and yet, more importantly, had Grace given up and understandably only held on to her position, Deerfield would have been easily pushed out of a top four team awards by a hungry Noble and Greenough squad who were lurking only seven points behind us: This plaque should have all seven runners’ names engraved in it, with Russell’s name etched in bold. Following Russell in 57th place and rounding out the top five scorers for Deerfield was an ever-steady Jane Mallach who pushed the last tiring 400m to maintain her much needed position. Following close on the heels of Mallach was a surging senior Captain Gemma Bishop who, demonstrating what it means to finish a race hard, practically leaped across the finish line for 59th place and very nearly cracking the 22 minute barrier. Piling in behind Bishop was our seventh harrier and one of our most consistent runners, Erin Howe, who powered through the muddy, puddle-filled course in 22:10 for 64th place. It was a tight race this year among the top schools, and so finishing in the top four and being recognized with a prize at the awards ceremony means the varsity have everything to be proud of this year. They might have fallen this season, but more importantly, they got back up and raced to the finish line, letting the rest of New England know that this team never gives up.
Mirroring the varsity members, the JV squad raced to a similarly impressive fourth place finish, losing to the third place team by only four places, or mere seconds, timewise. Despite the relatively slower times, the magnitude of courage displayed by these six girls easily equaled that of their varsity counterparts. Up front, and taking the bull by the horns, 9th grader Isha Rao dashed into the lead pack and clung to it through the three daunting loops to finish in 11th place in a time that would have positioned her on the top seven varsity of 13 of the 14 teams competing. Close behind Rao was Captain and comeback kid Ely Burke who, weeks prior, was not even running due to a strained muscle. Luckily for us, Burke was the poster child for determination on Saturday as she muscled her way through the course, and one-by-one, past competitor after competitor, running her race, her way- excellently. Next came newcomer and candidate for most improved across the season, 9th grader Aerin Lo, who, seemingly transformed during the season into an aggressive, confident runner, powered her way to an astounding 21st place finish. The JV trooper-of-the-day award goes to 11th grader Sarah Jung who, sidelined as recently as Thursday, was on the list to be pulled from the race, but insisted on jumping into the fray, even if only operating at 50%. Jump she did, and save the day she did, too, running 22nd place overall and amazing her coaches as she powered through the pain. Trailing Jung was junior Anna Fu who, finishing in 57th place, seemingly discovered a real joy of running and pushing herself this season. Much to the delight of her coaches, Fu came through every time we needed her, and Saturday was a prime example. Indeed, Anna truly ran the race of her season and set the stage for a great senior fall. Our sixth and final JV runner represents a true success story, for this season Jasmine Ramos has overcome her fear of competing, and her team benefitted all season from her ever improving presence. Finishing in 85th place, Jasmine, cross the finish line with a look for exhaustion, but walking down the chute to have her number recorded, she managed to look up and crack a knowing smile, which just like in a Hollywood feature movie, was perhaps the most fitting ending imaginable to a wonderful Deerfield Girls’ Cross Country season.
Finally, the assistant coaches and I cannot, in writing anyway, even begin to properly express our admiration for the focus, commitment, and team spirit exemplified by all the girls in green. They are the reason we do what we do, and we want to thank them from the bottom of our hearts for being a great pleasure with whom to work. It’s not an easy road competing in a physiologically extreme sport with precious little recognition and even less fanfare, but they make it look easy and fun. Likewise, we would also like to take a moment to recognize the dedication and contribution of the parents of these wonderful young women, without whom none of this can happen.
Go Big Green!
Head Coach and Biggest Fan