Ed Powelson was the athletic director at North Carroll High School for decades. In 1988 he graciously allowed me to coach the cross-country team there. I’m not a teacher, I had no coaching experience, and I was just twenty-seven years old.
I don’t know if he had any reservations about letting me coach. If he did, he didn’t show it.
You didn’t have to be around Ed for long to realize that he put his heart into the school’s athletic program. He was a man of principle. His passion rubbed off on me, and I wanted to do my best to represent the school because I knew I was also representing him.
At that point, most of what I knew about running is what I’d learned through my own experiences. First, success in racing requires hard work. Second, most high school kids will avoid hard work if possible.
To assure that everyone on the team worked hard, I ran many of the workouts with them. There were few opportunities to goof off. They ran farther than they had ever run, and they were pushed in different ways.
As the season progressed I could see the team getting better, and by the time the championship races rolled around, we were contenders. We steamrolled the other teams in the regional race, taking three of the top four places. And then the team won the state title by a margin of sixty-three points.
Back in 1988, I was too young to appreciate the affect Ed had on me, but when I heard that he’d passed on, I closed my eyes and silently acknowledged his influence. Despite not having seen him for twenty-five years, it hurt knowing he was gone.
After I stopped coaching at North Carroll, I don’t recall going to another cross-country meet until September 5, 2003. It was a beautiful fall day. The air was fresh and there was a slight breeze, so you could feel the coolness.
My daughter, Katie, had decided to run cross-country the summer before her freshman year at Winters Mill High School. I was probably happier than I should have been.
When I arrived to watch the twenty-team meet, I saw the make-shift camp sites scattered around, and I walked the fields talking with people I knew.
I first saw Katie after her team finished the course walk. I wanted to run up and hug her, to let her know how excited I was, but by then I had learned the important parental virtue of self-restraint.
As the teams lined up, I walked out so I could get a good look at the start. In the sprint from the line, Katie bumped into one of her teammates, Roxanne Fleischer. She turned to Roxanne and laughed. That’s when I knew she would be fine.
I ran out to the mid-point of the race and saw Katie running in a small pack of girls not far behind the leaders. Then I ran back to watch the finish.
As runners began to pass me, I counted. Katie came by me looking strong in thirteenth place.
Afterwards, all I wanted to do was find her. I saw her sharing the moment with her teammates, so I kept my distance for a short time, then I rushed over, gave her a hug and said, “Oh my gosh.” She laughed.
I’ve read that important people in our lives are here to help guide us along our way. They show us possibilities and gently encourage us to take the right path. It’s never forceful, just a loving nudge that we are free to accept, or not, on our own terms.
The summer after her freshman year, Katie inspired me to start the Flying Feet Running Programs. At the time, there was no structured running program to help local kids get ready for cross-country in the fall.
Eleven runners joined in the summer of 2004 – Katie, nine of her teammates, and my son, Paul. The following fall, Katie’s team, in just the third year in school history, finished second at the Maryland State meet.
Today, Flying Feet isn’t anything like it used to be. It’s evolved as I’ve gained experience and the dynamics of the group have changed, but I often remember the meager beginning.
My running could have been a selfish pursuit, my life an unconscious drifting. Thankfully, Ed Powelson did his best to show me and, years later, Katie gave me a gentle reminder - we are here to share something of ourselves.
Important messages are often found in the silence of isolated trails, where we can hear the wisdom of those who’ve run beside us. Make sure you’re listening.