July 14, 2005
Running the Gamut of Faith
"God on the Starting Line: The Triumph of a Catholic School Running Team and Its Jewish Coach" by Marc Bloom (Breakaway Books, 2004).
In the celebrated world of competitive high school athletics, cross-country barely makes the map. Or more like it rarely makes the map, and when it does, it's on the back side, below the fold. Cross-country runners don't get an all-school pre-meet pep rally, a mascot on the sideline or cheerleaders at the two-mile point. Racing fans don't fill out cross-country brackets at the office or lay down a C-note in Vegas on a marathon. But in his book, "God on the Starting Line: The Triumph of a Catholic School Running Team and Its Jewish Coach," Marc Bloom turns this discounted sport into a captivating tale and lures readers into its unexpected intensity.
Bloom, a contributing editor to Runner's World, former editor-in-chief of The Runner magazine and New York Times features writer, felt an insatiable void when his two daughters left for college. A lifelong runner, he knew coaching youngsters could fill the hole. He just didn't expect those hole-fillers to attend a private Catholic school in New Jersey.
A practicing Jew and member of Temple Shaari Emeth, Bloom was shocked when St. Rose High School, a 75-year-old Catholic high school with 637 students, hired him to coach the Running Roses. What did a regular at Friday night services know about leading kids who recite a Hail Mary before every meet? And would kids taught by sisters and clergymen respect a coach who missed a meet for a bar mitzvah?
Working in a crucifix-filled school, Bloom could have downplayed his Judaism; but instead, he wore his religion on his whistle. He pulled a Sandy Koufax and rescheduled a Yom Kippur meet. He said Misheberach on behalf of an injured runner, kissed the mezuzah around his neck for another and likened his relationship with track team parents to the "enriched understanding (of) congregants clasping hands at the end of Shabbat services."
While coaching at St. Rose, Bloom came to see that Jews and Catholics both put their jogging suits on one leg at a time. He used the religions' shared themes of sacrifice, hard work, and perseverance to encourage the boys' running and used running to support their spiritual lifestyle. Bloom looked "to fortify some touchstone that we, Jew and Catholic, share," he writes. "It's about realness, authenticity. It's about living an honest life. Running can teach that."
But this is not a book burdened by religious preaching. Bloom's spiritual musings are but one lap of the relay. It's Bloom's depiction of racing -- the technique, the training, the strategy -- that make this sports book a winner. I am a self-proclaimed sports fanatic: I live for March Madness, inhale SportsCenter, and suffer as only a Cubs fan can. But beyond the regular jogs I take around my 'hood, I've never given the sport of running much thought. A race seemed like little more than people running their fastest. And teamwork? Well there's no 'I' in team, and as far as I was concerned, no cross-country in team either. I was wrong.
As the Running Roses demonstrate, cross-country running is all about team bonding and group strategy. A team controls a race by setting the pace and blocking their opposition's path. A team's top-five finishers determine its place, so St. Rose wins when all its runners finish together, not when one of its runners finishes first. Bloom teaches his kids to "run for the team and individual success will follow."
An avid runner and veteran writer, Bloom goes beyond coaching the Running Roses and coaches the reader, too. He delves into the intricacies of cross-country running, details strength, speed and distance training, describes the biology behind oxygen consumption and lactic acid and explains how a smart runners can conserve 7 percent of their energy by drafting. On my morning runs, I now keep my elbows in, run tall and stay close to the weekend warrior in front of me.
At times, Bloom's book feels heavy-handed. He attempts to draw a connection between today's instant gratification society and a runner's refusal to pace himself. He tries to establish a causal relationship between celebrity culture and impaired health. He suggests that affluence weakens runners and that "a life of hardship is one reason Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate Olympic distance running."
The book's moving themes of teamwork, friendship, and hard-earned success are global enough. These other sweeping sociological theories are unnecessary.
Like H. G. Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights" and blockbuster films like "Hoosiers," "Rudy" and "Breaking Away," "God on the Starting Line" takes a close look at young athletes and how their lives away from the team influence their performance on it. Ryan Lavender struggles with his parent's divorce; Mike Dunn with a lack of confidence; Justin Gallagher is swayed by drugs and the wrong crowd; John Lennon by the glamour of basketball. Bloom conveys what he hopes to have taught these students and shares what he has learned from them. In his most notable achievement, Bloom is able to craft the story of a cross-country season that competes with the best of high school football and basketball tales. Tension, competition, stats, records, injuries, disappointments and breakthroughs -- it's in there. With "God on the Starting Line," Bloom transforms the laborious sport of long-distance running into a quick read.