Looking back at Williams track

May 5, 2009

Joel Richardson (joelrichardson@verizon.net), a fellow Williams College alumnus, is collecting information for a book about the history of Williams track and field. Among the questions he’s asking is, “Do you think being on a track team (specifically the Williams team) benefited you in ways other than just being on the team (such as values learned, becoming more disciplined, or friendships and memorable meets and performances)?”

Below is my answer.

Being on the Williams track and cross-country teams benefited me in at least four ways.

First, I’m generally slow to make friends, so those daily interactions with fellow runners were important to me, especially during my freshman year, when I hadn’t yet bonded with others through shared academic interests or other routes.

Second, races served (and still serve) as a useful outlet for my competitive instincts. When I was injured in the spring of ’92, I felt myself becoming more of a grade-grubber trying to beat the test scores of my classmates — a less appropriate expression of this competitiveness.

Third, my development as a runner in college provided a vivid and dramatic lesson in my (and everyone’s?) capacity for self-improvement. A similar revelation is summarized beautifully in an essay by Adam Gopnik on the late Kirk Varnedoe, who before becoming a giant of the art world was a jock at Williams: “He [Varnedoe] gave football all the credit. He had discovered himself playing football, first at his prep school, St. Andrew’s in Delaware, as an overweight and, by all reports, unimpressive adolescent, and then at Williams, where, improbably, he became a starting defensive end. The appeal of football wasn’t that it ‘built character’ — he knew just how cruddy a character a football player could have. It was that it allowed you to make a self. You were one kind of person with one kind of body and one set of possibilities, and then you worked at it and you were another. This model was so simple and so powerful that you could apply it to anything. It was ordinary magic: You worked harder than the next guy, and you were better than the next guy. It put your fate in your own hands.”

Track may be an even better teacher of this lesson than football, since changes in performance are so easy to quantify. When I arrived at Williams, my personal best time for 3000 meters was 9:35; by the time I left, it was 8:43. It’s hard to experience this sort of physical transformation and not be changed psychologically — not become more hopeful or less fatalistic. I was changed.

Fourth, my coaches and teammates helped foster a lasting enjoyment of the sport. We took ourselves seriously and trained hard, yet were often reminded that there was more to running than trying to win races. I give Pete Farwell a lot of credit for promoting and extending the values of his predecessors: respect for tradition, respect for the environment, concern for one’s teammates, the simple joys of gliding through the wilderness….

I still run because, fundamentally, I’m still a competitive person. But I still enjoy it as much as I do in part because of Pete.


  1. A graceful and as always, thoughtful reflection on how your experiences are shaping your life. It tells us a lot about you and why we like the style of your blog. Thanks!

  2. Greg – We'd love to cross-post this on EphBlog with your permission.

  3. Ronit: No problem at all — thanks for asking! And thanks to "sophmom" for posting that wonderful Gopnik/Varnedoe series on EphBlog, which I *loved* despite my lack of interest in art history.

  4. My running experience at Williams was x-country rather than track, so isn't of interest to Joel. But I did want to echo and expand on the credit you give to Pete, who was also the x-country coach as well as the head track coach during my (and your) years at Williams.Three things about Pete's coaching have really stuck with me over the years. One is that a commitment to running (and by extension, to any sport) for the simple joy of it isn't mutually exclusive with a commitment to running as fast as possible (either as an individual, or as a team). Even at an NCAA Div III school like Williams at which academics and non-athletic extra-curriculars are taken very seriously, Pete stood out as a coach both for his lack of emphasis on winning, *and* the number of wins his teams racked up. The men's x-country team under Pete won the first two national titles won in any sport at Williams, and regularly wins Div III New England. Second is the sense of history he fostered–the sense that to run x-country at Williams was to become part of an ongoing legacy that was bigger than you. Third was the way he ensured that the slow guys like me felt just as much a part of the team as the fast guys who were actually scoring the points in meets. The men's x-country team had a lot of talent at the top end when we were at Williams (as I recall, you were never better than 5th man Greg, which shows just how frickin' fast our best guys were). I'm sure many coaches could've coached the top 7 guys to a lot of success and maybe even a national title. But I doubt many besides Pete could've done so without the 20+ guys outside the top 7 feeling like afterthoughts (and probably running slower than they did under Pete). When I heard that the top 7 guys had won that first national title, I started jumping up and down in the street and screaming I was so excited and proud. I felt like *I'd* been a part of that victory in some nebulous and admittedly small but nonetheless very real way.It's that third one that's stuck with me the most. The communal experience of running x-country for Pete was very much in contrast to a recent (at the time) experience I'd had in baseball, the other sport I played seriously. Junior year of high school, I and the other non-starters were very much made to feel like third wheels by both the coaches and the starting players. Indeed, it's clear that's the way the coaches wanted it. They thought that to have a successful team, they had to foster a dog-eat-dog culture where you were either a starter/winner or a sub/loser. I didn't play the next year: I quit baseball, my *favorite* sport, before my senior season. It wasn't at all to do with lack of playing time–I was totally fine with that. I just hated playing for a team that I wasn't really part of, and the asinine notion (shared by many, many coaches in all sports at all levels) that it *had* to be that way or else the team wouldn't be as good.I now coach youth baseball (13-14 year olds), and every team I've coached has included very skilled players all the way down to kids who've never played before. I try very consciously to coach the team like Pete, rather than like my high school baseball coaches. I'm sure that every player, skilled and otherwise, will have more fun that way, and I honestly believe we'll be more successful too.

  5. Jem: Thanks for your follow-up comments about Pete, all of which I agree with. Since I was a "Slow Boy" as a freshman and sophomore, I too can attest to his interest in guys outside the top 7.By the way, a separate discussion of this post is going on over at:http://www.ephblog.com/2009/05/06/

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