If you missed the first three posts, we invite you to read A Nice Long Warm-Up for What Follows, Keep Calm and Run Good, and Running, Racing, and Balance.
Last April, as Matt Simonson ’04 was taking a train across rural Bosnia and Herzegovina, en route to interview a group of genocide survivors for his dissertation, he found himself writing pre-race psych notes for GDS track team athletes. “The DC State Track & Field championships were coming up in a few weeks and, regretting that I couldn’t be there to cheer on my “kiddos” as I had last fall, I figured that getting postcards from halfway around the world telling them I believed in them was the next best thing. ‘Long distance’ isn’t easy, whether being far away or running a long way, but it has some unique benefits.”
Matt began joining GDS track or cross country practices whenever he was home from Williams College, reconnecting with former teammates and getting to know the new underclassmen. When he took a teaching job in DC, Anthony brought him on board as an assistant coach. “It proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Suddenly, this personal passion of mine, running, became a way to help other people. All this knowledge I’d been accumulating for years about how to make myself faster became a way I could help kids realize their goals. The part of high school I’d loved the most—the challenge and comradery of cross country—evolved into a sense of mentorship. After nearly a decade of running cross country and track, I fell in love with the sport all over again in a whole new way.”
After moving to Boston to teach high school and later pursue a Ph.D, Matt maintained contact by chaperoning the team’s weeklong pre-season camp in August, joining perennial volunteer coach Mark Berenson ’00 and a rotating cast of alumni and assistant coaches. “I’ve kept up this routine for eight years now, getting to know a new crop of kids at camp, sending notes of encouragement during the season, and then surprising them by popping out from the shrubbery alongside the racecourse to cheer them on at their biggest meets. By now, some of the kids I once coached have returned as coaches themselves.”
“GDS’s cross country coaches don’t stand on the sidelines and blow a whistle,” Matt explained. “We run with the kids every day. We’re a part of their conversations, laughing at each other’s jokes, listening to them debate the consequences of mass incarceration and speculate about solutions to climate change, and occasionally passing on non-running life advice. We’re not grading them and they’re not forced to be there. We try to build up their confidence, make them feel supported, and hope that the sense of accomplishment they gain from running will spill over into the rest of their life. Cross country—and [head coach] Anthony Belber—did that for me in high school, and it’s meant the world to me to be able to pass it on.”
The remarkable thing about giving generously, of course, is the way one often gains in the reckoning. Back during the 2009-10 season, Matt signed the team up for shareable online training logs, and he continues to read them and provide feedback each day. He also shares his own. “With so many of the kids reading about my running adventures, I really wanted to set an example with my training as well, and that helped propel me to train for the Boston Marathon. It was my 11th marathon and my sixth Boston, but the first one for which I’d trained alone. The messages the kids would send me after reading my logs are what got me out the door in a 20-degree chill for a 1-3-hour trot in the hills, seven days a week. When race day finally came, I dedicated each one of the 26.2 miles to a particular runner or group of runners I’d coached over the years.”
“This team is a family,” Matt said. “We get some kids who have almost no interest in running but have realized that this is a safe space for them where there are adults who will notice if they’re having a bad day, upperclassmen who will reach out to them if they’re new or shy, a sport with no cuts, no prerequisites, no time on the bench. So we attract a lot of kids, we mentor them and they mentor one another, and in time some of them grow to become truly elite athletes. In the end, when these kids see alumni coming back to run with them, whether for a season or just a day, they know that they’ll always have a home at GDS, no matter the distance.”
Next week's installment, Putting in the Work, features 900 tons of concrete, record-breaking throws, and alum coach Maya Braxton ’10.