Commentary

Runners show courage for coach

Updated: April 17, 2011, 9:35 AM ET
By Kory Kozak | ESPN

Holland Reynolds couldn't see the finish line. All she saw was the wet ground below her as she crawled on her knees, 10 feet from the finish line of the California State Cross Country race. Jim Tracy, her coach at San Francisco University High School, looked on helplessly as his star runner struggled.

"I knew she needed to finish. It's within her to finish," said Tracy. "It's purely determination which allows you to finish."

Tracy, who was diagnosed last June with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease -- was going for a record eighth state title in 17 years. His runners, realizing this could be Tracy's last season as a coach, were determined to support him the best way they knew how. They entered the California state meet in Fresno last November determined to win that title.

Just before the 3.1-mile race, the girls gathered around Reynolds, their team captain, and she led them in a simple but powerful cheer.

[+] EnlargeHolland Reynolds
Robin Hauser Reynolds Holland Reynolds, right, a member of the San Francisco University High School cross country team, nears the end of the race.

"Let's do it for Jim!"

It was rainy and unseasonably cold and the race would be unlike any Tracy's team had ever run. All five of Tracy's runners would do something extraordinary that day.

Sophomore Jennie Callan, who had missed most of the season because of knee injuries, fell at the start of the race and immediately dropped to last place, 169th out of 169 runners. But she got up, passed more than 150 runners and finished 16th.

Bridget Blum had never led a cross-country race, but she led this one, for more than half the race. She finished third.

Soccer star Adrian Kerester had never run in a state meet. Her soccer schedule never allowed it. She finished 25th overall.

Sophomore Lizzy Teerlink ran the fastest race of her life by more than a minute and came in 36th.

But a cross-country meet is decided by the combined finishes of a school's top five runners, and Reynolds, a junior and the best runner Tracy says he has ever coached, was still on the course with the championship on the line. She had been in the lead pack with Blum for the first 2 miles.

"All of a sudden my breathing got faster and faster," she said, "and I slowed down and I didn't really realize how many people were passing me."

In the last half-mile of the race, she had become dehydrated and was barely running. Tracy watched in agony as his star runner tried to finish.

"She no sooner gets about three yards from the finish line then she just pitches over and falls down," Tracy said.

A race official went over and told her that he could help her up, but if he did, she would be disqualified. Reynolds started to crawl. Just six feet to the finish line.

It took 20 seconds.

"It never occurred to me that I wouldn't finish," Reynolds said. "You need to finish because that's the point."

[+] EnlargeJim Tracy
Robin Hauser ReynoldsCoach Jim Tracy has won eight state titles.

Until three years ago, Tracy, 60, ran 10 miles a day, but muscles in his legs began to fail. The ALS means his muscles are shutting down. There is no cure.

"When you lose something, at some point you realize that it's not coming back," said Tracy. "I've run a million miles, I've run a million hills. I live in San Francisco, the city of hills, but if I go down the slope all the way, I have a feeling I'm not getting back up. And I'll miss that, I'll miss the climb to the top."

Despite wearing braces on his legs and back, Tracy was at every practice this season, even on days when he struggled to stand. He would stumble. He would fall. He would always get up.

"I've seen him, um, get so tired that he almost falls and we need to rush him in a chair," Blum said. "And those moments, it really hits you -- the severity of this disease."

Tracy is a volunteer coach for cross country and track and field. He never married, and says his runners are like his children. They are his family and he treats them that way. His runners call his style "brutally honest."

"He is going to tell you exactly what he thinks, and he is going to give you the truth, straight up," said Kerester, a senior. "There's something about him that is really inspiring and makes you want to push yourself to your limits and really kind of kind of push past the boundaries."

That's what Reynolds did. She was University's fifth and last official finisher. She crossed the line in 37th place and was immediately taken to an ambulance and treated for dehydration.

"She had never let the team down ever, so the need to finish is great," said Tracy. "It's like me -- I have a physical problem, I'm not going to let it stop me from getting somewhere. I'm not going to make it to the finish line, unless we consider death the finish line. But she got there."

Less than an hour later, Reynolds' teammates told her that she had helped clinch Tracy's eighth state title when she crawled across the line. The girls celebrated with Reynolds in the ambulance.

"It made him proud to be a coach on our team and to have girls that really care about him and will go to any efforts to do well for him," Reynolds said. "That's definitely worth way more than a medal, just that knowledge that you're responsible for making his last season a great one."

Kory Kozak is a producer for ESPN. For more information, visit coach Jim Tracy's website.

Kory Kozak is a producer for ESPN.