“Run. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.” On Wednesday afternoon in a social studies classroom in the new wing at Killarney secondary, Owen Li wore a sweatshirt that just about summed up the life of a cross-country runner at the school.
The team motto this year is ripped from a Nike marketing campaign but missing from the mantra is the most important word of all.
“Family. This team is like family,” said Li, a Grade 12 student and one of two boys’ captains, the week before the 2013 cross-country provincial championship in Langley.
“We spend so much time together, especially during the main part of our season when we spend mornings and after school with each other. We’ve built this bond.”
For the past six years, the Cougars cross-country team has increased in size each season, and the committed, supportive athletes are changing the competitive scene at high schools across the city.
They warm up before races and cool-down afterwards. They go through a series of dynamic stretches to loosen and limber muscles. They chat and laugh and wear matching sweatshirts customized with their names. Alumni return to cheer along the racecourses and grads also drop by after school to train.
The roots of this family go deep. “I essentially grew up in the program at Killarney since Grade 8,” said Janice Leung, a 2010 Killarney graduate who studies kinesiology at SFU and attended every race this season as the team’s trainer.
“Everyone is given the same opportunity to work hard and excel in the program. At the end of the day, that is what our program at Killarney is about, and has always been about. Kids that have athletic experience or not, are fit or not, all equally are given the chance to be part of a great team.”
Cross-country competition begins in September but Killarney runners start each season after track and field ends in June. They cover long distances at a slow pace to build their endurance. As the months go by, they introduce interval training to increase speed and strength. Before races, they taper.
Coaches Bob Solmes and Don Chang offer 10 practices — each morning at 7:30 a.m. at each day after school at 3:30 p.m.— during a five-day school week. At the height of the season, the most committed athletes run two two-a-days, which means they train twice in the same day two times each week. They also run on Sundays.
“It’s a good feeling that our work pays off,” said Aran Rafie-Pour, 17, who finished in the top two each race this season and co-captains the boys team with Li. “Definitely every one of my teammates helps me every time I run. It’s nice to know I have all their support though getting our work done together and then coming first over all as a team.”
Because athletes’ interest and abilities have advanced so swiftly, the coaches have introduced more sophisticated training.
“They’re not great athletes because I’m a great coach. They made me want to be a better coach,” said Solmes. He and Chang first coached cross-country together in 2008. “Our genius is being here. They do the rest,” said Solmes.
The numbers show how “opening the door,” as Chang put it, is drawing more students to cross-country.
In 2006, the first year in the past decade when Killarney had the minimum five boys to register a team, there were eight dedicated runners who attended three practices a week: two girls and six boys. Two years later the team counted 28 runners and by 2010 there were 38. This year there are 52 Cougars.
The coaches recognize the efforts of the athletes. The athletes thank their coaches. “A lot has to do with their dedication and the time they invest in us. It makes a huge difference,” said Li.
Chang, who runs the Boston Marathon and who wore a Red Sox jersey on Wednesday before Boston won the World Series, attributed the team’s success to senior athletes and alumni. “Veteran members take newer ones under their wing,” he wrote in an email to the Courier.
“They work very hard for any success they have had, but more than that they work for and with each other, cheer for each other, help each other and are a real team. They ‘grow their own’ and the newer ones then become the veterans, and the process continues.”
Yomi Wong, 17, was once new to the Cougars cross-country team and is now a senior who plans to return after graduation.
“It’s given us an opportunity. If it weren’t for running, I would never have talked to Owen or Aran because we hang out in totally different groups outside of school,” said the girls’ team co-captain who met her boyfriend after she joined the team.
“I feel like it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us.”
The B.C. cross-country championship is Nov. 2 at Aldergrove Regional Park in Langley.
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