Why does anyone really do anything? Why does one start; persevere; endure? Try to become part of something bigger than yourself?
Why did I start to run? Coach Mayer asked me to. On July 13, the summer before my seventh grade year, Coach Mayer called my house. He said, “The cross country team is starting practice at midnight between July 14th and 15th. I think you should come down.” Now, Coach Mayer is the kind of man you just don’t say, “No,” to. I can whole-heartedly say that if he came to my door one afternoon and said, “Hey Autumn, I’m heading to Hell today. I’ve packed some supplies and I need you to come with me, “ I would, without hesitation, reply, “What do I wear?” and, “What time do we leave?” When Coach Mayer asks you to show up, you do.
While running for Coach Mayer, it was easy to find a “why” and imagine running for something bigger than me. He commanded respect. People naturally became the best versions of themselves when he walked into the room. Stretched your stride a little longer. Pushed a little harder. Passed one more person on your way to the chute. Coaches like this have an influence far beyond the fields, courses and courts on which their athletes perform.
Coach Mayer helped hold me together when my Dad lost his battle with cancer. My dad died on a Saturday. I’d just found out I qualified for the state cross-country meet. Literally, moments after they’d called my name, we received word he was gone. There’s little I remember of that day, week, month. I do remember that next Monday. In the small town where I grew up and went to school, if something happened, it seemed the whole town knew within twenty minutes. Everyone at school knew. I was glad because no one knew what to say and they all left me alone. I was just lost. Coach Mayer’s classroom was the first room on the right on the second floor. I walked up the stairs and even though the middle school classes were on a different schedule than the high school, he knew I’d be walking by just then. He stood at his door, waiting for me. As I reached the landing, he held his arms wide and wrapped me in what seemed like a cast iron shield. I found myself in one of those moments you just know you’re going to be ok. I’d held it together pretty well so far that day. He gave me a fortress where I could be weak, even if only for a few moments. Coach Mayer coached kids to be better athletes by coaching them to be better people.
I’ve been blessed to have some amazing coaches in my life: Pep Stidham, Eric VanLanningham and Hank Angus. Coach Stidham was a legend. He’d coached for 25 years when he died just a few days after the Bellevue Invitational Track meet my eighth grade year. I recall he died early on a Wednesday morning. It was a shock to everyone: enlarged heart. I’m not sure why, but that Tuesday evening after practice, he and I sat on a bench near the 50 yard-line of the football field at the track that would soon bear his name. He talked with me about the meet that occurred just a few days before. As the sun set, he explained how disappointed he was with the lack of heart his girls’ team had that year. I asked him if I disappointed him. “Never,” he said. I never talked to him again. I carried that conversation with me every practice and every race. I never wanted him to watch me run and think, “She’s lost her heart.”
I’ve heard monuments and memorials described as a way to immortalize people, places and events long after they’ve died, been demolished or vanished from first-hand memory. Monuments and memorials are, in my opinion, just as fragile. Real immortality comes in influencing another human being. I’ve found my “why” over and over while thinking of these moments.
Ahhh, Coach V. It took me a while to get to the point where my snotty little teenage self was going to bestow him with the respectful title of, “Coach.” He and I butted heads on numerous occasions and looking back, I’m embarrassed at what I put him through. Coach V taught me real grace under pressure. He was just a young kid stepping into the shoes of a giant, searching for a place of his own in the world. He earned his stripes in those years with Bellevue. Once I bestowed him with his “title,” my “why” was to make him proud, too.
They say, “The only constant in life is death and taxes.” I think the only constant in life is change. Alas, Coach V moved on before me. I had two years with crummy coaches. They may have doled out the same workouts and same motivational quotes, but the delivery was different. I wouldn’t realize for years, but there was a lack of integrity there. These men were small men. Small men do small things. It’s been said, “Successful men aren’t always great, but great men are always successful.” I was fortunate enough to have some great men in my life, great coaches. When you’ve had the best, the knockoffs just aren’t going to cut it. These men made it easy to find a “why.”
There were some years there where I didn’t have a “coach.” I didn’t have much of a “why” for running. I kept running. I kept running and searching for meaning: a reason, a why, something bigger, greater than me. After several years of searching, there it was: The Hope Express. (http://thehopeexpress.org/ftk/) When I sent my application, I didn’t know I would get back so much more than I gave. I’d get a new coach in Hank.
I was so nervous talking to Hank for the first time. One chance to sell to this guy why he should choose me to be a part of a team to carry precious letters from Hershey Medical Center to Penn State for THON. As soon as we started to chat, my nerves were gone. Goofiest man I’ve ever met, but when it’s time to get serious, it’s time. Listen to Hank talk about Connie, Ronnie, Syd and Gabe for just a few minutes and you’ll find yourself devoted to whatever mission Hank may be on.
This morning on the radio, I heard a DJ say, “Men find their identity in their jobs, women find their identity in their beauty.” This may or may not be so but, it lead me to a profound conclusion: I’ve found myself, my identity, over and over again while striving to be a part of something larger than myself. I’ve learned that finding a “why” is infinitely easier when surrounded by the best: Coach Mayer, Coach Stidham, Coach V and now, Hank and The Hope Express. The Hope Express and the people involved have led me to find new parts of myself and establish the “why I run” for this part of my life. There is a sign in the town where I run: Millard Advisory Group. No matter where I run, or what route I take, I make sure I run past this sign. The Hope Express., THON, The Four Diamonds Fund and “why I run” at this point in my life. They all lead back to one little boy: Christopher Millard. Running by this sign reminds me “why I run,” no matter what.
Why do I? I want to take advantage of the rare and precious opportunities to be a small part of something much bigger than me.
For “Chris’ Story” http://www.pennstatehershey.org/web/fourdiamonds/home/aboutus/chris