Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 6 Sep 2002 09:08:01 -0400

Living the Dream


I don't need to wonder where my life's course might have taken me if not for the early detour into journalism. Following my original dream of coaching cross-country or track in an Iowa high school would have worked out fine. A cousin of mine is proof of that.

Bruce Henderson lived my dream for me. Careers don't get much more productive and satisfying than his has been.

Our fathers were brothers. Mine was a runner in high school and college, his was a jumper, and we each took after our own dad.

Bruce pole vaulted in high school, but never climbed high enough in that event to compete in college. So he mastered the triple jump at Northern Iowa University.

You wouldn't guess by looking at us that we're first cousins. He's from the big branch of the family, and he now looks down on me from six-feet-plus and outweighs me by nearly 100 pounds (but he insists that he could still give me a good race at 5K).

We share a lifelong love for our sport, inherited from our fathers. We've just lived it out in different ways.

Bruce turned to coaching after college. In the early 1970s he settled with wife Gail in the western Iowa town of Atlantic, which sits midway between Des Moines and Omaha. They've never left, having watched their three sons grow up there.

At age 54 he still teaches junior-high math, and coaches Atlantic's boys and girls in cross-country but only the girls track team. Those girls have won four of the last five state titles.

Bruce's success earned him a regional coach of the year award this year from the National Federation Coaches Association. This made him one of eight nominees as the nation's top high school girls coach.

When I visited him in Iowa this summer, he was planning his trip to the coaching group's national convention in Alabama. "It'll be fun to go someplace new, act important, dress up and get a plaque," he said.

Bruce downplayed his national-award nomination. He preferred to talk about how the latest state championship had slipped away from his team.

He drove me past the source of his greatest pride -- the college-quality, track-only stadium he'd helped bring to Atlantic. He told of his work with the state track coaches' association, where he shares his experience and enthusiasm. He showed me the postcards that his runners fill out and mail to him each week, noting their summer training.

"When are you eligible for retirement?" I asked as we toured his hometown.

"Retire!" Bruce said as if the question were ridiculous. "Why would I want to retire? I can't think of anything I'd rather do than what I'm already doing."

A few weeks later I heard that his fellow coaches had voted him national high school girls coach of the year. He told a reporter from Atlantic that he appreciated the award. Receiving it "was extremely fun, but it doesn't compare with winning a state title or coming from behind to win a meet you were not supposed to win."

Nor does the national honor compare with the quieter, everyday joy of passing along his knowledge and love of the sport to a new generation of athletes. That's the greatest value of coaching.

Forty years later, I realized my deferred dream of coaching. I now teach college running classes, which is coaching by another name.

I finally get to see with each new class what cousin Bruce has seen with 30 years of teams: Kids teach the teacher as much as they learn from him, and give back to the coach more than they get from him. This really is a dream job.

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