The teenaged girl was telling her teammate to lean forward and lift her knees.
“The team was out there and they were running and one of my girls, Maria Lewis, when going up the first hill was just telling her teammate ‘Lean forward, dig deep, knees up’ and I guess the city councilor was close by and listening and it helped him get up the hill,” said Pam Rose, the coach of the revived Boston schools cross country team.
“He congratulated us after the race. Then he just started asking us who we were and he invited us to the Mission Hill race.”
The 5K Mission Hill Road Race earlier this month marked the end of the regular season for the Boston schools’ citywide cross country team that was assembled this fall for the first time in about four years.
The city’s cross country program was revived for the first time in 2003 by former O’Bryant runner Ruben Sanca, who represented Cape Verde in the 2012 London Olympics. When Sanca graduated in 2005, the city’s cross-country mantle was picked up by Charlestown runners Omar Aden and Ahmed Ali. But after Aden and Ali graduated and went to run for the University of Arkansas and Providence College respectively, the city-wide cross country team fell by the wayside once again.
A Snowden history teacher and track coach, Rose was tapped last spring to revive the cross country team for this fall and ended up having about 14 students from eight schools compete in seven meets this fall.
Her first order of business was to stress the importance of truly making the team a citywide program.
“For everyone to understand this is the city’s team,” Rose said, “part of that process was making sure the uniforms say City of Boston.”
The team is open to all high schools in the district except Boston Latin School and charter schools. Schools with grades 7-12 are also eligible to participate. While the girls on the team had all had at least run track before, only some of the boys had any formal running experience, let alone competed in cross country.
“So it was amazing to see how they all came out and how they worked and their work ethic was excellent,” said Rose, who ran track for Boston University and coached two seasons of track at Brighton High before moving to Snowden. “All of them for the most part were able to finish all the races, there was no one stopping and they were consistently able to bring down their times every time they ran and they ran hard.”
CASH Academy senior Jemuel Stephenson had never run track or cross country before this fall and was able to bring his 5k time down from 24 minutes to 21 minutes. Stephenson was even more impressed by his teammate, Raymond Chai, who brought his time down from a 30 minute 5k to 23 or 24 minute 5k.
“Which I though was really phenomenal,” Stephenson said. “I think we grew really well … As a team I think we really bonded because there’s all the different people and you have to work as a team. It’s not just ‘These are the people I run with,’ these have to be the people you connect mentally and emotionally with so you can relate to them so when you get on the course it’s like you are running for each other.”
Rose also didn’t have any cross country running or coaching experience before this fall and it took her a while before allowing her team to log the millage the sport requires.
“It is a completely different sport [than track],” she said. “The misconception is running is running, but it is completely different from what they are used to.”
She coached the team with her husband, Colin Rose, who also teaches in BPS and ran for BU. He ran one season of cross country in high school. Other than that, the couple relied on books, videos, clinics, and picking the brains of other coaches.
“I think it was a good first step, the most important thing is to get a core group of kids, who are committed and come every day no matter the talent level, that will be the base of the program.” said Colin Rose, 31. “We invited anyone who was willing to come do the work. We just kind of put it out there that we have this team.”
Colin Rose said the team expanded more than just the runners’ lung capacity, it also opened their eyes to the world around them.
“I wanted to take the kids for a hill workout so I took them to Fort Hill in Roxbury and a lot of the kids had never been there before and they were like ‘This is so beautiful,’” he said. “I was like ‘This is your neighborhood.’ Even running to the Fens they couldn’t believe how close the MFA was and it’s their own city.”
Besides getting the word out about the team, another issue the team faced was that many members are Seventh-day Adventists who cannot compete on Saturday for religious reasons.
But the biggest issue the team will face is sustaining the program. History has proven that it is not easy to keep a cross country program in the city going since getting students to come out to run multiple miles several days a week is not an easy sell.
"I don’t really like cross country but it helped me keep in shape for track so I’m thinking about doing it again," Fenway sophomore sprinter Ajia Salmon said. "When I talk to my friends at school I try to encourage them to try it out even though I don’t like it. Most of them are busy, they do other activities. Some came out and tried it for a few days but did not end up liking it and would quit."
Pam Rose said the key to sustaining the program will be successfully reaching out to the all the track coaches in the city as well as to other school-based distance running programs.
“I think lot of it comes from coaches,” she said. “Athletes trust their coaches more than anybody else … [This won’t work] until we can work on the climate of getting all the coaches together and for them to say who their distance kids are and get them to come out and trust each other in terms of trainings and technique.
"Once we can get over that hump we’ll be better off.”
Mary Grant, the former MIAA state meet director for track and cross country who is the commissioner for the Boston City League track league, said the program is in good hands with Rose.
“It’s very difficult not to be in a school and try to develop a team,” Grant said. “Things have changed now. The high schools are so spread apart. … It needs support from the high schools, from the individual high schools. [Boston schools athletic director] Kenneth [Still] talked about going around to each high school and talking to them and that’s something it needs.
“A lot of head masters come to the city [track] meet and present awards and root for kids. That’s a good thing, but this needs more support.”
Pam Rose said her goal for the program is to build a foundation so in the event she can no longer coach the team another coach could easily pick up where she left off.
Given how quickly her first team bonded, that doesn’t sound like it will be a problem.
“For me I felt like we were a team from the first day when I showed up to practice,” Salmon said. “They were really supportive of me and tried to help me finish what we were told to do. So I felt like we were a team from day one.”
About Boston Public Schools Sports BlogMore »
- Justin A. Rice -- A metro Detroit native, Rice is a Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) and Northeastern University graduate. Rice lives in the South End with his dog and wife, who unfortunately attended the University of Michigan ... his wife, that is. He curates the BPS Sports Blog and is always looking to write about city athletes with great stories. Have an idea? He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJustinRice or @BPSspts.
- Zolan Kanno-Youngs -- A former captain of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School football team and a current second-year Ujima Scholar at Northeastern University, Kanno-Youngs is the color commentator of the mens basketball team and a writer for Northeastern's campus newspaper, the Huntington News. He joins Boston.com as a correspondent for the site's BPS coverage. Have a story idea? Contact him at KannoYoungs.Globe@gmail.com. Follow him on his Twitter @KannoYoungs.