Jim Tracy’s that rare, wonderful coach who can inspire his athletes to run through brick walls for him.
Or, at least, crawl across a finish line.
Tracy, 60, has been coaching boys and girls cross country at San Francisco’s University High School since 1994. His teams have won 30 league championships, 23 sectional championships, and his girls have won 8 state championships.
All Tracy expects from his runners is the same effort he used to give when running for Riordan High back in the 60’s.
“Unforgettable,” classmate Dan O’Neill told Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Walleyed, mouth agape, snot flying from his nose, having pushed himself until he was 100 percent totally used up.”
Tracy spent two decades trying to work around his running schedule. In 1994 a friend cajoled him into helping establish the cross country program at University High. They built the program from scratch, and Tracy’s been in charge since his friend left in 1998.
Among his coaching principles are honesty, knowing his runners and pushing them through grueling practices, and incredibly detailed record keeping.
Tracy’s runners will give everything they’ve got to elicit a “nice race” from Tracy. “If you ask him, ‘Well, how do you think I did today?’ he’ll tell you, ‘You had a bad race,’” Holland Reynolds told Katie Hafner of the New York Times. “It’s because of his honesty that when you receive a compliment from him, you know you’ve done really well, and it makes all the runners want to strive to please him.”
“All undue praise is wasted effort,” Tracy told Ostler, “because they don’t need it. They’re seeking real affirmation, and real affirmation is based on real effort and results.”
Tracy found the best way to get to know his runners was to run right along with them. But never at the front of the pack.
“It doesn’t do any good to run with the kids in front; they’re good already,” he told Ostler. “I’d grab a kid and start talking to him. I learned so much in the years of running in the back of the pack, and helping those people move forward.”
One of the nuggets Tracy discovered was the benefit of one-hour, high intensity interval workouts instead of longer workouts involving long-distance runs. For example, Tracy will send his runners through 16 400-meter sprints, with short rests in between.
Take my word, that’s a tough workout. I still vividly recall a high school practice spent running just 10 400s. It became a near-death experience.
“He tells us to take an interval off if we really need to,” team captain Ned Tannenbaum told Ostler. “But, if you take one off,
he looks at you like, ‘Do you really need to?’ He gets in your head, makes you question if you’re giving it your all.”
Over the years, Tracy has kept detailed records of workouts, races and splits. He keeps the information in a heavy backpack he’s never without. “I think [the data] must go back, like, 15 years,” Reynolds told Ostler. “You can ask Jim about a workout you did your freshman year, your third interval on a certain day, and he’ll dig it out and show you.”
“I wanted to break 20 minutes, and he told me what it would take,” former runner Grace Hunter told Ostler. “I did it. I wanted to be top 10 in the state, and he told me what it would take. And I did it. I learned that I could do things I never thought possible, and this has given me an inner confidence I never had before.”
Sadly, Tracy doesn’t run with his team anymore. And he struggles to carry his backpack. At the start of this season, his team was told that their coach was suffering from ALS.
“Everybody was crying,” Reynolds told Hafner. During the season, his condition worsened. “He’s been falling down sometimes at practice,” Reynolds continued. “And he brings a chair to our workouts.”
Before the start of the state championships on Nov. 27, the team did its usual cheer. Then Reynolds led a special cheer for Tracy. “I think that made the team really want to win it for Jim,” she told Hafner.
We certainly know Reynolds did. With half a mile left in the 3.1 mile race, Reynolds was in third place, ready to make her move. “For some reason, my legs just gave out,” she told Hafner. “I was confused, and I started to slow down.”
Turns out that Reynolds was dehydrated, and suffering from hypothermia. But she kept going. Barely. “Her vision was locked on her goal,” Tracy told Hafner. “I’d never seen anything like it. It was a mask of determination.”
About three yards from the finish, Reynolds collapsed. Then, remarkably, she began crawling to the finish line.
She dragged one foot across the line, finishing the race. She finished in 37th place and was University’s fifth — and final — scorer. Her points clinched the state championship.
And in so doing, this inspired runner had given the gift of inspiration back to her stricken coach.