The following story was first published on the Good Men Project website.
I’m certain this is bad mojo, Dunston isn’t dead. But it’s probably the nicest thing I can offer a person. I don’t communicate well. When people ask my opinion, it comes out combative, abrupt. When I give a compliment, I unintentionally balance some bad with the good. It’s only when I can sit at a keyboard and pause, fiddle with words, revise and rewrite; that’s when I say what I really mean.
On my father’s eightieth birthday, my brothers and I hosted a party. We invited our entire family and a handful of his closest friends. Maybe twenty-five people in all. We’re a small clan. After dinner, before dessert, we party-hosts took turns saying a few words. We each gave a brief toast describing the life-lessons learned at my father’s side. When complete, my dad commented what a rare and wonderful opportunity to hear his own eulogy.
Point taken: why wait until death to share flattering memories of a person. This is a prehumous eulogy—it’s for my high school cross country coach, Greg Dunston.
A week before my final year of high school began, I took stock of my growing-up experience. A varsity letter was suddenly important to me. I wasn’t a runner, but I showed up at cross country practice and joined the team. I can’t call cross county exotic, but maybe unusual. In 1979, distance running was hardly a mainstream sport. The running “industry” was still getting off the ground.
Cross country was more like a club than a team. Anyone could join, but if you sucked, your time didn’t count. In my school, the popular kids played football. The athletic kids played soccer. No one spent the summer weighing the decision whether to run cross country or play another sport. In 1979, guys who could make the soccer or football team played soccer or football. The guys who couldn’t? Some of us ran cross country.
While cross country wasn’t a popular sport, Greg Dunston was easily my school’s most popular coach. Newly married and not yet thirty, to his students he looked and acted more like a college-aged hippy than a math teacher. He looked like a slightly older version of ourselves. His demeanor was unfailingly upbeat. He taught geometry with the same mix of humor and patience he applied to coaching.
The year I ran cross county, we fielded a team vying for a state championship. I was nowhere close to earning that varsity letter. I trained with the kids who joined the team looking for something to do with their fall afternoons. In general, we ran with the assistant coach, an amiable earth science teacher named “Corky.” Dunston ran with the varsity team.
While the team was split up for workouts, there was no hierarchy. No one was treated as less or more important than the fastest or slowest kid on the team. Yes, we had weekly races, which our varsity runners typically won, but it was clear that Dunston’s priority as a coach was to build our character and esteem. Every runner was encouraged to run to the best of his ability, which was, uniformly, almost good enough. Improving my running performance was Dunston’s long-term investment, although he would reap no benefits from the gains that took years to materialize. His short term success? Creating a runner who was proud of his losing times.
Coach Dunston popped into my mind today as I ran the Round Tops—a pair of hills that represent the highest elevation within Gettysburg National Military Park. The Round Tops played a key role in the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg. They’re a popular tourist destination, and viewed as either a bane or a boon by area runners.
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This morning, I couldn’t sleep. I’m messing with my meds. I just completed my best two weeks of the last five or six years. For the first time in the current decade I’ve felt focused and relaxed. I’m motivated, clear-headed, and happy. Therefore, I shook things up; I adjusted my dose; I increased it by fifty percent. Risperidone, it’s an antipsychotic they give to schizophrenics. My off-label use is to control Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD. To reduce the compulsive sounds and movements, the intrusive thoughts, the anxiety.
It totally works. My starter dose seems life changing. A chance to re-become the person I was twenty years ago—before I gave up drinking. Yes, I was a drunk, but I was a high-functioning drunk. Alcohol offers many of the same benefits as Risperidone. On a steady diet of booze and beer, I didn’t know I had Tourette’s. I didn’t see my compulsive tendencies. I didn’t hear my obsessive thoughts. Plus, what seemed like a bonus at the time, I was frequently buzzed.
For the past fifteen years, I’ve laid low—not drunk, but still drinking. In a constant battle to temper my alcohol intake. Sober, I lost most of my confidence, and my friendships, and my career.
And now I’m completely dry. I’m replacing alcohol with Risperidone.
My new dosage hijacked yesterday. It left me agitated and lazy… aimless… confused. I hung around the house all day, never really getting out to do anything. I even took a nap—something I almost never do. Still, I went to bed last night well before dark, in a crappy mood—wondering why I changed my dose when things were working so well.
Early to bed, et cetera… By four o’clock this morning, I was drinking coffee. It’s not as early as it seems. My alarm was set for five. I wanted to be running before sunrise. This has been a rough summer. Unusually humid since May. Now August, it’s unusually hot, too. I don’t put a lot of credence in “heat index,” but this year, it’s hard to dismiss. Mid-morning every day, breathing becomes a chore.
Today’s run, like all my runs, was the highlight of my day. A tempo 10K with a couple of extra “Ks” tacked onto the end. Those last two kilometers were more of a jog. By mile six, the sun was up over the trees and hills; I was cooked. But I still had to get back to my car, which was abnormally parked at the entrance to the woods. Yesterday eroded my confidence. My medication left me feeling unsure of myself. I felt so unsteady, I drove (instead of ran) the easy, paved mile to the trail-head.
As soon as I started to run, I forgot my concerns. The breaking dawn dimly lit the wooded path as I wound my way through the cool, thick air. My confidence returned in increments as I checked-off the various mental landmarks of the trail: My first creek-crossing, entering its third month of waterlessness. A quiet, sleepy Confederate soldier reenactment camp—men in hand-sewn wool uniforms stiffly rolling out of their burlap tents to brew coffee over the remnants of last night’s fire. Crossing a reconstructed nineteenth century farm—a small, red hatch-back incongruously parked alongside the hand-stacked stone wall surrounding the house.
And finally arriving at Big Round Top. A long, steep churn to the top of the hill, a small descent, more like a dip really, and then another grind over Little Round Top—surprisingly, the taller and steeper climb of the pair. These aren’t mountains, but they’re brutal. They’re hardest hills I run when I’m not out running hills. And they happen to be part of my normal weekend loop. Usually, I stay on the rugged, rocky trails interlacing the woods behind the Round Tops, but those paths are the most remote place in the park. I was feeling good, but if my Risperidone dose tweaked my heart or my brain, I wanted to be found.
As I neared the peak of each Round Top, I imagined Dunston’s trademark refrain: “Crest the Hill!” Meaning run hard, continue your climbing-surge over the top of the hill. Don’t back off until you’re sure you’re heading back down. Our coach felt that races were won or lost based on how strongly we finished each hill.
Stuff like this sticks with impressionable teens. If my cool, charismatic coach thought this would give me an edge, I was going to crest that hill. Now, twenty-five years older than Dunston was when he coached me, thirty-five years into my running career, I still embrace his decades old advice. “C’mon Jeff, crest the hill!”
I’d be hard-pressed to come up with any other lasting piece of training strategy I learned during high school. In the seventies, coaches were still feeling their way through what worked. To some degree we tapered the day before a meet, but I also recall the Friday afternoon before our biggest race of the season: we played Ultimate Frisbee in the rain as a fun workout—a way to blow off steam. Yes, it was a blast, but after a bazillion sprints during our two-hour game, every team member had thoroughly dampened any spark remaining for when the starter gun sounded in the morning. Heading off after a different Friday practice, Coach Dunston dispensed what served as sage nutritional advice for the day: “Early race tomorrow, guys. Take it easy tonight on the beer.”
While Dunston was teaching me sportsmanship and the ability to lose with grace, I stood on a precipice preparing to step off into the roughest period of my life—twenty years of unrestrained alcohol abuse. In many ways these years can easily be disguised as my heyday. I built a successful career; I posted my best running times in a variety of distances; and I enjoyed the largest social circle of my life. Everything seemed perfect, but it wasn’t a lifestyle that could last. After a wild couple of decades, I slowly reined in my drinking to a point where drunkenness was a thing of the past.
As I make my way through my sober, adult life—the life I’ve formed out of family relationships, responsibilities, and small successes and failures—Dunston’s call to crest the hill is more important to me than ever. A life built around mental illness and alcohol abstention is challenging. Every day includes a hill to climb, an obstacle placed directly in my path. Sometimes everything clicks, and I crush my day like I crushed today’s run. But often, I waste my day with anxiety, self-doubt and naps.
It doesn’t surprise me that I’ve remained a runner. Cross country was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Not because I won races, I didn’t. But because I was made to feel like a star even as I struggled. My coaches and teammates cheered me across the finish line when they could have been congratulating each other on their win, or packing up their stuff to get back on the bus. Dunston welcomed me as a member of his team, even though I contributed nothing to our score.
During that rough twenty years and my readjustment period afterwards, I doubt if I thought of Greg Dunston more than a handful of times. He hadn’t yet reemerged as the important factor he now is in my life. But around four years ago, I began thinking about him frequently. I dropped him a short email simply stating that “the impression you left on me has been immeasurable… so thanks.”
Now I’m taking that message a step further. I’m attempting to measure how important he was—and still is—in developing the person I am today. But I’ve learned once again, it’s still impossible to measure.