Reflections on a trip to the Manhattan Cross Country Invitational
I have known about and thought about attending the Manhattan Cross Country Invitational for quite a few years. The annual meet is held at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx in New York. It is the second largest high school cross country meet in the country (behind only the Mt. Sac Invitational in Southern California) and it is the largest one-day high school cross country meet.
After taking the SHC team to the Mt. Sac Invitational in 2011 and the Woodbridge Invitational (the third largest meet in the country) in 2012, it was natural to think about making a trip to New York for the Manhattan Invitational. In fact several members of the class of 2015 asked me if we could go in 2014, so that over their four year career they would attend the three largest meets in the country. In between this year and the two trips to Southern California, in 2013, our overnight trip was to perhaps the most unique cross country meet in the country, the Three Course Challenge in Seaside, Oregon. I have taken the team to this meet every third year since 2004 and the last two times, we travelled by train.
The conversation about going to New York became more serious on the train ride home from Oregon in September 2013. Before I knew it, I was talking to the SHC choir director about how he plans the choir trips to New York and Europe. Before I knew it, I was e-mailing back and forth with a travel agent to put together a potential itinerary and get an approximate idea of the price.
It would be a five day, four night trip and cost in the neighborhood of $1,200-$1,400 per athlete. For this to happen I wanted at least twenty athletes to commit to going. The trip was approved by the administration in the spring of 2014. In May I began polling people to see if there really was interest. The interest was there. Now I had to see if people were going to back up their interest with a financial commitment. The “no turning back” deposit day came and I had checks from twenty-two families. A few weeks later, I was able to add three more travelers but those three had to pay an additional $100 to cover the late fees. In total we had 29 people going, 25 athletes and four coaches.
My assistant coaches that were going, Tomas Palermo, Rachel Giovannetti, and Sherie Lo Giudice, were critical to ensuring a safe and successful trip. They are all experienced coaches in our program. To have them with me was invaluable, as the four of us work seamlessly in terms of always seeing what needs to be done and thinking about everyone’s safety and well-being.
Even as I filled out rooming lists, made decisions about the itinerary, and filled out purchase orders to pay the travel agent, the trip seemed far far away. In September we had a team meeting to go over some of the team policies for the trip. That’s when it hit me, “we really are going to New York.” We were down to a group of 28 because of illness. We were about to fly 2,560 miles, to attend a meet with more than 5,000 runners, and we would be spending 107 straight hours together.
It was amazing how calm and at ease I was. I had a general idea of what I wanted to do and how I planned to handle certain situations like study hall, free time around New York, and getting the team around on the subway. But I also trusted my own experience in that I would have to wait until I got there to make some of these decisions. Thanks to the high usage of smartphones, I didn’t even feel the need to print out maps for the kids. I knew they would be able to use their phones to figure things out.
I did go out of my way to explain to the teachers at school why I was taking students out of class for such a lengthy amount of time right at the end of the grading period. I also felt it was important that we attend Sunday Mass and that the kids dress nicely for the plane ride and church. We had a long debate during a meeting, and in the end, the kids voted and decided to dress up in more than their polos and khakis for the plane ride to New York and church, if in exchange, I would let them change into “more comfortable” clothes for the plane ride home and the sightseeing on Sunday after Mass. When I was the team manager at UCLA we always dressed up for plane rides, so it warmed my heart and reminded me of my college days when I arrived at the airport to leave San Francisco and the boys were in dress shirts and ties and the girls were in dresses or blouses.
One moment that will stay with me forever was in the bus that brought us from the Newark airport to our hotel in Manhattan. The kids started playing music on a speaker, and while I usually require them to use headphones, it was a special occasion so I let it go. As we drove through the streets of Manhattan, the Jay-Z/Alicia Keys song, “Empire State of Mind” came on and everyone cheered. We were here!
We had some challenges throughout the trip, but each time the kids stepped up to meet my expectations. Everyone was focused and followed directions when we had only 33 minutes in Detroit to get off our first flight and board and be seated on our second flight. When we had to move quickly to and from subways and keep the group together, everyone stayed within earshot and was ready to do what we told them. It was an impressive showing. As we lined up for a ferry to the Statue of Liberty, the security guard, who heard me give instructions to the kids and then saw the kids immediately go do what they were told, said to me, “nice job.”
Meet morning, my heart was racing. We gathered in the lobby and then started walking to the subway. It would be our first subway ride of the trip. What a rush to get on the NYC subway to go to a meet. Unfortunately, it was raining and we had no tent and no tarp. When we got to Van Cortlandt Park there were thousands of people everywhere and we didn’t really know where to go. Finally I found the check-in tent and then we found a tree that would at least provide us with a little shelter. The kids put their bags into the garbage bags we had bought at Walgreen’s the night before.
I gave each of the kids four Sacred Heart Cathedral rubber bracelets and told the kids to give them to people they met during the meet. I also cancelled our usual no phone policy for the meet, because I knew kids would want their phones to take pictures to remember the experience and share with others. We even had our own hashtag for the trip (#SHCXCinNY). Thanks to the bracelets, Carolyn made friends with Kellenberg Memorial High School, which was the team near us. They offered for us to put our bags under their tent.
My next unforgettable moment occurred as I was getting ready to take the starting line photo of our first race, the JV Boys. Blossom took the camera from me and said that she thought that I should be in all the starting line photos today because this was New York. It also warmed my heart to see the kids running the race with their bracelets and then taking it off in the finish chute and giving it to a runner next to them.
The whole trip was filled with moments that brought a smile to my face. We had a nice balance between time all together (bus tour of New York, team dinner at Angelo’s Pizza, Sunday Mass), activities we did as a group but where people could break into smaller groups for certain parts (sightseeing at the Statue of Liberty and the 9/11 Memorial Museum), and free time when the kids were on their own and had to meet me at a specific time and place (a somewhat nerve racking time period for me). The kids had earned my trust by working with me, not against me, throughout the trip. They deserved some time on their own to explore and make their own decisions. That’s when they really learn some life lessons. I reminded them to stay in groups and to make good decisions. Then I crossed my fingers. Fortunately, they did not disappoint. Ironically, I kept getting lost around New York such that I was the one a little tardy to the meet up spots.
One thing about these trips that always brings a smile to my face is when I see two people, who I didn’t think were particularly close, have a long conversation or joke around about something. During a trip of this length, the coaches really get to learn more about each student on a more personal level, too. And the beauty of a group this size, it was small enough to be manageable for the coaches but large enough that if someone started to get on your nerves you could easily just go hang out with someone else for a few hours.
All in all, I really enjoyed this trip. Before dismissing the kids when we got back to SFO, I told them: “I enjoyed this trip a lot. And without all of you there would be no trip. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you for coming to New York with me.”