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Looking Back at Williams Track: Greg Crowther ’95

The following was written by Greg Crowther ’95, research scientist and 100k World Cup runner. It was originally published here on his personal blog.

Joel Richardson (joelrichardson _at_ verizon.net), a fellow Williams College alumnus, is collecting information for a book about the history of Williams track and field. Among the questions he’s asking is, “Do you think being on a track team (specifically the Williams team) benefited you in ways other than just being on the team (such as values learned, becoming more disciplined, or friendships and memorable meets and performances)?”

Below is my answer.

Being on the Williams track and cross-country teams benefited me in at least four ways.

First, I’m generally slow to make friends, so those daily interactions with fellow runners were important to me, especially during my freshman year, when I hadn’t yet bonded with others through shared academic interests or other routes.

Second, races served (and still serve) as a useful outlet for my competitive instincts. When I was injured in the spring of ’92, I felt myself becoming more of a grade-grubber trying to beat the test scores of my classmates — a less appropriate expression of this competitiveness.

Third, my development as a runner in college provided a vivid and dramatic lesson in my (and everyone’s?) capacity for self-improvement. A similar revelation is summarized beautifully in an essay by Adam Gopnik on the late Kirk Varnedoe, who before becoming a giant of the art world was a jock at Williams: “He [Varnedoe] gave football all the credit. He had discovered himself playing football, first at his prep school, St. Andrew’s in Delaware, as an overweight and, by all reports, unimpressive adolescent, and then at Williams, where, improbably, he became a starting defensive end. The appeal of football wasn’t that it ‘built character’ — he knew just how cruddy a character a football player could have. It was that it allowed you to make a self. You were one kind of person with one kind of body and one set of possibilities, and then you worked at it and you were another. This model was so simple and so powerful that you could apply it to anything. It was ordinary magic: You worked harder than the next guy, and you were better than the next guy. It put your fate in your own hands.”

Track may be an even better teacher of this lesson than football, since changes in performance are so easy to quantify. When I arrived at Williams, my personal best time for 3000 meters was 9:35; by the time I left, it was 8:43. It’s hard to experience this sort of physical transformation and not be changed psychologically — not become more hopeful or less fatalistic. I was changed.

Fourth, my coaches and teammates helped foster a lasting enjoyment of the sport. We took ourselves seriously and trained hard, yet were often reminded that there was more to running than trying to win races. I give Pete Farwell a lot of credit for promoting and extending the values of his predecessors: respect for tradition, respect for the environment, concern for one’s teammates, the simple joys of gliding through the wilderness….

I still run because, fundamentally, I’m still a competitive person. But I still enjoy it as much as I do in part because of Pete.

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#1 Comment By sophmom On May 6, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

Great post.

I’m a big believer in the power of athletics to instill lifelong skills and enjoyment, and Crowther’s ability to share this in such a personal way is a joy to read. And the reference to Gopnik’s piece on Varnedoe and the tribute to Farwell…really lovely.

I don’t know what kind of research Crowther does, but I imagine running must provide a nice balance…especially if his work involves long hours in a lab.

#2 Comment By Parent ’12 On May 6, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

Ronit, such a pleasure to read, thanks.. & I immediately thought of SophMom with the reference to Gopnik on Varnedoe

Please take a look at Speak Up.

#3 Comment By crowther On May 6, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

Thanks, sophmom! I should have thanked you long ago for the Gopnik/Varnedoe series. It was way too long for my taste and partly about a subject (art history) in which I have little interest…. And yet I loved every sentence of it.

My research relates to development of new antimalaria drugs, by the way.

If I may be permitted to hijack my own thread, though, here’s the question that I find most interesting…. One’s potential for self-transformation through hard work can, in theory, be experienced in virtually any non-athletic arena. If you practice chess endlessly, you’ll get way better at that. So why is it that SO MANY of us (myself and Kirk Varnedoe included) have found this lesson most compelling in an athletic context? Is it that there are often visible physical changes that accompany the inner ones? Is it that physically demanding work is fundamentally different from work that is hard but not physically taxing? I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts.

#4 Comment By Ronit On May 6, 2009 @ 11:45 pm

Being a non-athlete myself, I am not qualified to comment on the transformation experienced by athletes. But I suspect that athletics might be one of the only areas in the modern, secular academy where the cultivation of ‘virtue’, what you might call self-improvement, is still a requirement rather than an option.

#5 Comment By sophmom On May 7, 2009 @ 2:42 am

Crowther @3:

I am delighted that you enjoyed the Varnedoe series. It was looooong, that’s for sure, but I enjoyed every word of it myself. It had a very profound impact on me. I think of Varnedoe, and the Gopnik piece, often.

But, lest I hijack your hijack, I want to address your very interesting question. I read it a couple of hours ago, and have been thinking about it since, and now see Ronit’s comment as well, which I have to think about for another while.

I am not an athlete, but I studied dance when I was younger, and I am a good swimmer. Also, I have been around talented athletes (and dancers) enough to understand the dedication it takes to be really good. I think the wonderful satisfaction that comes from the kind of transformation you speak of, is that most sports are an endeavor that occupy mind and body. Unlike your example of chess, when you are running, all of you must be involved to produce the best results. Your body must be prepared, your senses attuned, discipline is required, strategy, pace, poise… all of these things must be marshaled by the mind. And when everything is working at it’s optimum best, the feeling is so great, that it provides the impetus to strive for that feeling again, and again. And the more you strive, the better you get, and the more often you experience that intense high. I think dance must provide that feeling as well, and maybe live theater to some extent.

Also, improvement is something that can be measured and shared, and in fact, enhanced by competition and working alongside teammates.

Hmmm…didn’t mean for that to get so long. Maybe a short answer might have something to do with the physiological pleasure of endorphins?

#6 Comment By Rowhard On May 7, 2009 @ 8:41 am

Ronit, thanks for posting this. I echo Crowther’s well articuated sentiments. For me it was rowing, but same thoughts. I would not have made it through Williams were it not for the friends, discipline and structure that crew provided. I guess my blog name 30 years hence is an indication of its impact on my life.

#7 Comment By sophmom On May 7, 2009 @ 9:43 am

Rowhard:

It’s nice to know the sentiment behind your moniker. I thought it was some sort of metaphor for having to keep up with the Joneses progressives. ;-)

#8 Comment By Rowhard On May 7, 2009 @ 10:01 am

Sophmom:

Actually, that metaphor works as well. I have been rowing against the wind in that regard of late, but in crew they taught us never to give up!

#9 Comment By sophmom On May 7, 2009 @ 10:11 am

Crew is a gorgeous sport. I know very little about it, but I can’t watch it without thinking of Eakins work. Although, I guess this painting would be…sculling, rather than crew?

#10 Comment By Rowhard On May 7, 2009 @ 10:45 am

Correct

#11 Comment By Ronit On May 7, 2009 @ 10:50 am

Cross-post of a comment from Greg’s blog:

My running experience at Williams was x-country rather than track, so isn’t of interest to Joel. But I did want to echo and expand on the credit you give to Pete, who was also the x-country coach as well as the head track coach during my (and your) years at Williams.

Three things about Pete’s coaching have really stuck with me over the years. One is that a commitment to running (and by extension, to any sport) for the simple joy of it isn’t mutually exclusive with a commitment to running as fast as possible (either as an individual, or as a team). Even at an NCAA Div III school like Williams at which academics and non-athletic extra-curriculars are taken very seriously, Pete stood out as a coach both for his lack of emphasis on winning, *and* the number of wins his teams racked up. The men’s x-country team under Pete won the first two national titles won in any sport at Williams, and regularly wins Div III New England. Second is the sense of history he fostered–the sense that to run x-country at Williams was to become part of an ongoing legacy that was bigger than you. Third was the way he ensured that the slow guys like me felt just as much a part of the team as the fast guys who were actually scoring the points in meets. The men’s x-country team had a lot of talent at the top end when we were at Williams (as I recall, you were never better than 5th man Greg, which shows just how frickin’ fast our best guys were). I’m sure many coaches could’ve coached the top 7 guys to a lot of success and maybe even a national title. But I doubt many besides Pete could’ve done so without the 20+ guys outside the top 7 feeling like afterthoughts (and probably running slower than they did under Pete). When I heard that the top 7 guys had won that first national title, I started jumping up and down in the street and screaming I was so excited and proud. I felt like *I’d* been a part of that victory in some nebulous and admittedly small but nonetheless very real way.

It’s that third one that’s stuck with me the most. The communal experience of running x-country for Pete was very much in contrast to a recent (at the time) experience I’d had in baseball, the other sport I played seriously. Junior year of high school, I and the other non-starters were very much made to feel like third wheels by both the coaches and the starting players. Indeed, it’s clear that’s the way the coaches wanted it. They thought that to have a successful team, they had to foster a dog-eat-dog culture where you were either a starter/winner or a sub/loser. I didn’t play the next year: I quit baseball, my *favorite* sport, before my senior season. It wasn’t at all to do with lack of playing time–I was totally fine with that. I just hated playing for a team that I wasn’t really part of, and the asinine notion (shared by many, many coaches in all sports at all levels) that it *had* to be that way or else the team wouldn’t be as good.

I now coach youth baseball (13-14 year olds), and every team I’ve coached has included very skilled players all the way down to kids who’ve never played before. I try very consciously to coach the team like Pete, rather than like my high school baseball coaches. I’m sure that every player, skilled and otherwise, will have more fun that way, and I honestly believe we’ll be more successful too.

Posted by: Jem | May 6, 2009 7:45 PM