Cross country runners try to keep it Close
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The cross country team has a picnic table, a case of water bottles and a box full of bananas as they prepare for the West Hillsborough Invitational. Al Lopez Park is covered in runners; teams have banner-adorned tents as student athletes go on “pack runs,” trying out the track before the races begin.
Hillsborough’s 13 runners tie tags to their shoelaces and pin numbers to their tank tops as coach Daniel Close addresses them. “Make sure you’re just out here to have fun,” Close says before the races began. “Limit your walking.”
Close isn’t new to the sport, but he is new in one regard: coaching runner s on his own.
Last year, Close coached alongside Arturo Salow, a then-biology teacher at Hillsborough. Now, Salow is at medical school at Northwestern University, leaving Close to coach the team by himself.
“Coach Salow did all the workouts,” junior and second-year runner Josh Carpenter said. “Coach Close handled the paperwork and politics.”
Close is a baseball fan — he’s played the sport since he was 6 — but has never ran cross country. He started coaching cross country at Hillsborough three years ago when he volunteered to help when the team was without a coach.
“It takes a special kind of person to come out here in this heat and run,” Close said. “I’m just more knowledgeable with baseball.” Close says that because he’s the only coach, more experienced runners need to step in and mentor younger athletes.
Senior and fourth year runner Heather Hodges agrees. “[Close is] doing a great job. He helps plan things, but it’s also a joint effort with us,” Hodges said. “Key members that show up a lot help. We’re the ones who hold a lot of the stretching. It’s very student-run.”
Last year, with both Salow and Close as coaches, Hodges set her personal record – 5 kilometers in 28:22. But there weren’t enough girls to field a full team. This year, there are the required amount of runners on the girls and boys teams, but Close has to coach them by himself.
“It’s hard being the only guy out here. Salow gave me all his files, so I’m just using what he’s given me,” Close said. “I’m trying to do the jobs of two people.”
Junior and first-year runner Shani Abraham is turning the corner, about to finish her first-ever race. She slows from a run to a walk, almost stopping. Close runs to meet her. He points at the finish line, urging her to continue. “Everyone just started cheering me on. It was just so motivational,” Abraham said in the minutes after the race. “Especially Coach.”
Abraham starts to speed up. A walk becomes a jog. A jog becomes a run.
A run becomes a full-out sprint as she, Runner No. 556, crosses the finish line. Close is waiting nearby, ready to give her a high-five.