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There’s no bench in cross country

Posted: November 11, 2011 1:40 p.m.
Updated: November 14, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Why do people run? Why would anyone want to leave the geniality of a warm bed on a cold morning to spend 30 minutes of breathless agony? Why would someone choose to end a harried day at work with a pointless endeavor like running? They just do. And they do for reasons unbeknownst to many, explicable to others. Delivered to those who sprint, jog, dart, or dash are amazing enhancements sending them out the door three, five, even seven  days a week, some asserting never to stray from one sole run. Every runner has their own schedule, own motivation, own reasons. Some run for good health and strength. Some run for peace of mind and focus. Some run for mental well-being and self-respect. Running can trigger multiple circuits in our bodies, molding a person into positive contemplation. For many, running has become a symbol of freedom, luring us away from computers, phones, and unproductive activities. Others want to uncover their outer limits. No two runners are the same.

The motivation behind my 30 years of running is continually changing. Unlike the beginning, one incentive that gets me trotting down the road now is the desire to set in play positive examples for my children, ones of good health and accomplishment. “Accomplishment” -- Act of achievement; success; triumph. With these words, I’m led to a group of boys at Camden High School, a group of 24 unassuming athletes who have patiently stayed the course and are putting their school’s cross country team on the map to the amazement of all involved. Rightfully so. Just four years ago, the team was scrambling to find enough runners to compete. The numbers grew and what was a team of four became a team of seven, then 10, now 24. Not in the history of Camden High have this many kids turned out for a sport that most would ever fathom being a part of. Think about it -- why does a teenager choose to run numerous miles, five days a week, and at times, in the bitter cold or sweltering heat? They just do. It’s a different kind of tough -- a tough that requires an individual to practice self-discipline, strength, and determination, traits that can be difficult for a young person to acquire. They embrace the hard work and the challenge, and in turn, reap the benefits of being part of something special. They push themselves and each other. They run for themselves, their teammates, their school. 

And they run for their coach; the man behind the boys; the driving force that inspires passion in this cross country team. The “man” is Jerry Stokes, Coach Stokes, or Coach “Jer.” Coach Stokes is untiring and resolute in his coaching. He trains with old school ideology and views adolescents running as a platform for remarkable character building. He encourages his runners at a distance; giving them the space needed to develop their own technique, though close by to provide his infused knowledge of the sport. And this insight is delivered with over 30 years of experience behind it. Coach Stokes began running in the late ‘70s for exercise and as a good stress reliever, starting with 5 and 10 Ks only to move on to marathons with his first at age 40. Since then, Jerry has run 85 marathons, raising over $40,000 for charity. Coach Stokes is a tremendous role model for his team. He inspires his athletes to believe in themselves; he inspires them to go beyond where they thought they could. He coaches the boy and the athlete. He teaches his runners to love the sport. He motivates his team to work hard, push through the pain and fatigue, and bounce back from setbacks. And that they did. Every single runner posted their personal best at the 3-A Region Meet in October. Coach Stokes teaches his team to shoot for the top, always keeping their goals in sight.

This season, the team celebrates their second 3-A Region title, along with two trips to State. And the team congratulates their coach, winning second year in a row, Region 3-A Coach of the Year. The sweetness of victory for this team has been magnified by the effort they have put forth. I watched every one of these boys reach their goals, meet after meet, and have been amazed at their perseverance and determination. They strive. They push. They believe. They achieve. 

Running is a wonderful metaphor for life. What you put in is what you’ll get out. These cross country runners along with Coach Stokes are delivering triumph with pride and conviction. They won’t slow down. They can’t.  Besides, there’s no bench in cross country. Be proud, Bulldogs. Long may you run.

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