At many schools, cross country coaches assign their runners a workout, watch them leave the school grounds and head onto the trails. An hour later, these coaches welcome the runners back to school grounds, say a few words and dismiss them until they meet again the next day.
This is not the case at Severna Park High School (SPHS), where the coaches are also runners. Not back of the pack runners, not middle of the pack runners, but fast and fit runners.
Coach Elmer McPhail, a volunteer coach during the cross country season and the sprinter’s coach during the track season, is the oldest - and the fastest- of the three coaches.
But he didn’t start that way. McPhail has been running since he was in middle school where he wasn't the fastest kid on the team but had high hopes and the work ethic that he hoped would some day get him there.
Although he continued to run through high school and college, it wasn’t until his senior year at Fresno State University that all of the work paid off.
“Before my senior year, I was just a little guy,” McPhail said, “My senior year I finally grew and bulked up and the speed came along with it.”
For some athletes, everything comes easy. For those who have to work for it, this can sometimes seem unfair, but not to McPhail.
“I think wanting it so badly and working for it for so long made me the person I am today,” he said.
On April 18 Coach McPhail put all of his hard work on the track and roads to the test.
The Boston marathon is the holy grail of marathons with every marathoner hoping one day to qualify. Very few of those same runners even dream of receiving one of the coveted BAA vases awarded to those who place in their age group.
McPhail has run marathons since 1998, but unlike most marathoners he hadn’t sought out a Boston qualifying time until early in 2010 when he confessed to a friend that he thought he might be done running marathons. His friend convinced him he couldn’t quit until he qualified for and ran Boston at least once.
Going into the Rehoboth Beach marathon in December of 2009, McPhail knew he needed a 3:35 marathon to qualify for Boston but coasting to the finish is not in him.
“I don’t believe in doing anything unless I am going to do it to the best of my abilities,” he said. “That goes for everything in my life.”
McPhail came across the finish line in 3:03:51 at Rehoboth, earning a spot in Boston, an overall eighth place finish and an age group victory.
Over the next year and four months, McPhail continued to do what he loves to do - run with his adult cross country team that competes at a national level, while at the same time training with his runners at SPHS.
“I think it makes me a better coach,” hesaid. “The boys respect that I can run with them. Last fall I was in the best shape of the year because I was running with the top three runners on our cross country team.”
His players were getting something in return. They were training with a nationally ranked runner who expects his runners to always give it there all and leads by example.
McPhail feels like he might have been a little conservative in his debut run at the Boston Marathon. He followed the advice of runners who had been there before and held back until later in the race.
He says he didn’t think he was prepared enough. He thinks maybe he should have done more hill work, more track work, more work in general. Still, he was happy with his 2:50:39 finish and happier still when he heard that he had placed second in his age group.
“I had no idea I could do that,” he said/ “I had certainly not expected it and when Josh (Coach Alcombright) told me, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.”
He hardly had time to digest the information before he and Coach Alcombright had to dash out of the hotel and head back to the race venue where Coach McPhail stood center stage and received a vase that few people will ever see in person, much less bring home.
McPhail said that standing on that stage, shaking the hand of Geoffrey Mutai who had just set a course record and receiving that trophy was surreal. But he believes he has received so much more from running.
“Running has taught me so much. It makes me better in everything I do in life and it has given me some of the best friends I have in my life.”
As a coach, it is this last gift that he hopes his players receive from running. He knows that only a handful of his runners will go on to run in college but he believes that even the slowest kid on the team can walk away knowing that he has built friendships to last a lifetime.