Cross country season is off to a great start - not in small part due to the volunteers that help staff the meets here such as Les - today's starter at the Seaport Invite in Clarkston, Washington. I've watched Les start races in the Inland Northwest for about a decade and always wondered at his easy disposition and calming effect on a mob of athletes itching to sprint away. Today was nice because I had a chance to chat with him briefly after the junior varsity race got under way since I was the backup timer today and didn't have to call splits at the mile mark.
This marks the 28th year that Les has acted as a race official, working both cross country and track. Before that, he coached for a couple of decades - between the two, he has five decades of experience which is a stunning concept, at least for me (having just reached my fiftieth year - it means he started coaching the year I was born.) He plans on sticking around for at least a few more years so that number will only grow. Like Ripken's consecutive game streak in baseball or Coach K's wins in college basketball, it's a record that's going to be awfully hard to beat.
Interestingly enough, he grew up in Maryland, not far from where I grew up. Both of us were children of people in government service - his father was military, mine Department of Defense and we've both been to Okinawa. It's an odd feeling - a touch of nostalgia - to meet someone from that neck of the woods when I've left it far behind, both in distance and in time.
Les projects an old-fashioned graciousness and warmth and I suspect that aspect of his personality is what gets the races off to such smooth starts. Listening to parents compare him to other starters just reinforces the importance of the role that he plays - whether he knows it or not - to the community and to the athletes.
I also suspect that if you brought you his role, he'd tell you that it's all about the kids and the joy that they bring as they compete against each other and themselves. It certainly wouldn't be about Les and five decades of service to these youngsters. The Starter is that kind of man.