God On The Starting Line is a wonderful gift to the world of prep distance running and those who support it by prolific, multi-talented track writer Marc Bloom. Bloom's career has spanned the American running boom over the past three decades, and his journalistic work includes his own Harrier magazine, Runner magazine, Runner's World , The New York Times , and more.
In 1997 Bloom decided to make a foray into coaching, sending his resume to numerous schools near his home in New Jersey . St. Rose, a small Catholic school, was hardly his first choice; on the other hand, as a Jewish guy, he hardly expected to be hired by that institution.
While we pick up this odyssey in its fourth season, few stones are left unturned in providing the necessary background. We are then taken on a detailed journey through the 2000 campaign for St. Rose as they battle to make their mark in the cauldron that is Jersey cross-country.
Unfortunately, I am among those who has failed to avail himself of all of Bloom's previous seven books, but it's hard to imagine the four or five I haven't read (plus those I have) could affect anyone as personally and on so many levels as this.
The book appeals in so many ways that it boggles the mind and begs for a list. So here goes.
1. Enlightening the Parent: Bloom has published “A Parent's Guide to Cross-Country,” a valuable resource. I don't have it in front of me, but I suspect that it's rather like watching a great television chef at work. You can learn a lot, but it's not quite like being there. With this book, you feel like you're there getting your hands dirty and eating the meal - the real, heartfelt experience right here. Any parent who doesn't have empathy for what their distance-running kid or his/her coach goes through after reading this isn't focusing enough. You are there as he describes the ups and downs of dealing with kids, kids just like your kids, day-in and day-out.
Something else about this book very nice for parents is that Bloom on the one hand takes the time at certain points to explain aspects of the sport to the uninitiated, yet he never dwells on these points, gets too simple or talks down to the hardcore cross-country fan.
2. Enlightening the Coach: If you're a young coach who needs to hear what it's like on the inside, or heck, if you're a veteran coach who still wants to learn something from a fast-study who's one of the finest writers in the business, this book is for you. It's a roller-coaster, and you get to live through the highs and lows.
The book is full of lessons that bear repeated readings to bear each of them out, especially for a coach that has anything less than obedient running robots on his or her team. Some are simple one-liners, others are longer treatises on major issues. Almost everything's covered.
“I have to be satisfied with imperfection … I've learned that parts of me have to change for me to reach these boys and coach effectively.”
“The canvas of running options is endless. … There is no foolproof method for success and that is what makes success so sweet. … You create your own path to mastery.”
“Get through the suffering and you enter a different world, a pristine world, where you have a higher consciousness, an exquisite understanding of life, a taste of hardship, and hardship conquered. Then the running is smoother and more powerful than you ever imagined.”
“I'm not only an authority figure, but a willing role model. These boys need willing role models. … I reveal my emotions, show the boys how much I care, shed a tear now and then, hug them, plead with them, get pissed off with them … I'm myself.”
And that's just in the first few chapters.
A Tribute to Cross-Country, Jersey Style (!): I've gotten a little feel for the Jersey scene from some of our more infamous (!) posters on DyeStat's TrackTalk message boards. Now, thanks to Bloom, I feel like I've experienced everything but the feel of my own overweight carcass hurtling up and down the hills of Holmdel, “where the Bowl strips you bare and exposes you for the athlete you are.”
Yes, along with all the other things this book is, it's a tribute to Jersey CC, the good and bad, but especially, the legendary course that is Holmdel. Bloom captures both the physical challenge of the layout, but also the spiritual draw to a place that is a shrine to the sport.
He puts it most simply in a statement I'm sure every Jersey runner can understand: “Holmdel is the context for everything.”
A National Perspective: As if getting the view from Holmdel wasn't enough, an additional treat is the fact that the Running Roses travel to the Great American in North Carolina that fall. Those who've known about the scene for a few years will remember that 2000 was not only the second straight year prep mile record-holder, 2004 Olympian and running icon Alan Webb won the one of the big races, but the year the event was almost drowned by a storm. Being the school's first trip to a national-level event, you get the wide-eyed perspective.
But more than anything, to me, this book is a journey inside the head of Bloom. While I suspect, like anyone else, he has some close friends, I'll bet there are a lot more like myself who know this leader of our community on more of a friendly acquaintance level. Well, get ready to know everything you wanted to know about the journalist – and then some. You get what seems like Bloom's every thought from mid-summer to season's end, in addition to a career's worth of perspectives on the sport.
If you don't know Bloom well, you will sure as heck feel like you do afterward, warts and all. You might be surprised to read him describing himself as a “caring fussbudget” at one point, bursting out in a “heaving, uncontrollable wail” in another, and his entire response to, um, “Oceangate.”
One might feel if he or she is sitting in the therapists chair as Bloom spills out his guts from the adjacent couch. You may feel at times as if Bloom has that infliction that some writers are accused of, diarrhea of the keyboard. Stephen King has been accused of the same thing. Stephen King is also my favorite novelist, so that tells you where I stand.
The fact that this story is so personal is what makes it so rewarding. Most impressive is Bloom's insightful exploration of being a Jewish coach in a Catholic school. Indeed, he asks himself, “What am I, a card-carrying Jew, doing in a Catholic school?” At one point, he is given a boy's Catholic cross necklace to hold during a race. How does he deal with that? Why, by reciting a Hebrew prayer of healing.
Bloom thoroughly embraces his Jewishness, while being as open as possible to what being a Catholic runner means to his boys and what it means for him to immerse himself as their coach while remaining true to himself. That you get to hear these inner conversations as awkward or challenging situations arise is a real treat, as is how he uses principles of both faiths for the growth of both himself and the team.
“I want it both ways,” he says, finally, “to observe my Jewish faith and coach my Catholic team.”
This is what sets the book apart for me. If you've ever wanted to be a voyeur inside a cross-country coach's head, especially this cross-country coach's head, this is your chance. You will get lost in this tale of St. Rose's sometimes flailing and inconsistent, but ultimately courageous drive to claim Jersey supremacy in their division and its coach who wears his emotions on his sleeve, er, these pages.
If you've read all this way wanting to know more about the story of this book, or the plot, as it were, well, you just need to buy the book. Then you can discover the personalities of Ryan Lavender, Justin Gallagher, and Brock Silvestri. Then you can read about them slogging through the mud in Charlotte , or rambling through the hills of Holmdel. Then you can read about Oceangate, The Swede, The Bowl, Belmar, the Pizza Race, and the New Jersey Parochial B State Cross Country Championship.
You can experience their flights of indifference and arrogance, and their resolve, pride and passion. You can follow the school's journey as they strive to reach the top of the medal stand. Most of all, you will learn about the striving and humanity of cross-country, the words Bloom uses in the book's forward to describe what readers responded to when they first read of his coaching endeavors in a piece for Runner's World .
Told through Bloom's eyes, it's quite a journey. It's kind of like eating, oh, a premium triple chocolate fudge brownie ice cream sundae. You might feel stuffed and a little woozy, but like you've never devoured anything so delicious.