I joined Durham Academy’s cross-country team the same year that I joined the school.
I was a sophomore, and turned up at my first practice more than a little apprehensive; as a freshman, I had run at a school whose cross country team ranked in the top five of the state, which meant I lingered around the 25th-runner mark, certainly not fast enough to gain any praise or acknowledgment of my speed.
DA practices would be similar to the practices of freshman year at my previous school, I thought: competitive and unrewarding, the top seven disappearing off into the woods to run their own, more challenging workouts, while the rest of us struggled through intervals and sprints.
When I showed up at the DA track with my water bottle in hand, I warily studied the team. Tall seniors in Nike shirts and sneakers, blonde girls with ponytails slung over their shoulders, and a coach wearing a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a green duffel bag.
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I talked to exactly one person and almost hid behind a tree when the coach, a sprightly, grandfatherly man by the name of Mr. Dennis Cullen, asked me for my name.
Practice was going to be terrible. That I already knew.
I subtly compared leg muscles with the other runners and found myself sadly lackin, and I finished the warm-up panting and out of breath.
Mr. Cullen came over and asked me questions about the cross-country practices at my other school, amiably cracking jokes, but I didn’t understand his humor. I was ready to go home and tell my mom that I quit, that I was never going back again.
But then the workout started: four 1200s, a distance I had never encountered.
Mr. Cullen read off some times and asked me to place myself where I thought I might go, so I joined a group with a girl who immediately introduced herself and told that she also was a newcomer to cross-country that year, after playing soccer for most of her life.
We ran those intervals together. By the end of practice, Coach Cullen was looking at me a little differently. When I crossed the finish line on the last 1200, he studied his timer for a moment, then came over and shook my hand. “I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
I drove home that evening already excited for the next day.
I have never experienced a team more welcoming and amazing than the cross-country team at DA.
Your “rank” on the team, whether it be No. 1 or 15th, is irrelevant.
Formerly, I would arrive at practice full of complaints, already dreading the upcoming runs. Now, I’m always eager, if only to be with my teammates and share their energy. We warm up together and stretch together and suffer through the ab workouts together, and after practice we stretch out on the grass, sweaty, unable to move our legs, relishing the burn of a good workout.
That’s the thing about my team. We run with each other, not against each other.
When Mr. Cullen is standing on the sidelines during a meet, he’s always saying, “Hey, go catch your teammate up there. Stay with her. Work together.”
There’s something comforting about hearing someone’s footsteps right behind you, knowing that she’s there to push you faster, as well as to push herself.
In the post-race euphoria, we eat bagels and drink Gatorade and cheer on the boys.
And Mr. Cullen is always there, with his smile and his ubiquitous hat.
You can ask anyone on the team. Getting a handshake and a “Good job” from Mr. Cullen after a meet is better than any ribbon or medal. It’s the best feeling in the world.
For all its individualism, cross-country is truly a team sport.
In 2013 and 2014, the DA girls’ cross-country team won the Durham City-County championship for the first times in 15 years. On the starting line, our captains told us, “Win it for Mr. Cullen. Make him cry.”
He handed us the trophy twice, both times in tears.
Veronica Kim (Durham Academy ‘16) ran with DA’s cross-country and track teams this year.
Dennis Cullen retired from coaching at the end of the 2015 track & field season. In his 39 years as Durham Academy's varsity coach, his runners won 39 state team championships and 196 individual state titles.