Quiet, supportive, successful, “Coach” inspired his athletes for a lifetime

Editor’s note: Jim Wescott, head coach of Colby track and field from 1978 to 2003, died following a medical emergency while rowing on Megunticook Lake in Camden, Maine, May 27. The news prompted an outpouring of sympathy and tributes, including this remembrance from one of his former Colby runners.

Jim Wescott

Jim Wescott, longtime cross country and track coach at Colby, is shown at a meet at Colby. Wescott led the Mules to conference championships and coached several All-American athletes at Colby. Photo by Jeff A. Earickson

That first August—in 1982 when I showed up for preseason, a skinny freshman, a lowly walk-on—the whole Colby cross-country program seemed almost too casual to me, too relaxed. I’d come to campus with the notion that running in college was a grim and serious endeavor. A certain sadistic part of me hungered for 90 miles a week, for getting spiked in the shins during speed workouts, and for a coach who carried a steely menace as he hovered trackside with a stopwatch, snarling, “Gut it out! Grit! Grit!”

But no, we ran—what?—40 or 45 miles a week that first month. We gathered, laughing, on the lawn by the field house in the cool hours just after dawn and ran barefoot “strides” in the grass, the morning dew cool under our feet. We took the team van out to Acadia National Park, to Sidney and Skowhegan and East Vassalboro, and trotted along calm country roads. In Norridgewock we found a rope swing that pendulumed out over the velvety black skin of the Kennebec River. We leapt and we swam and we rode the van back to campus with the late summer breeze ripping in through the windows. And the coach never yelled at us, not once. Indeed, if there was even a shadow of darkness in our cross-country and track helmsman, Jim Wescott, we never saw it. He was, improbably, ebullient at every turn—quiet and steady, sure but spare and unassuming in his instructions. “Think positive thoughts,” he’d tell us as we piled out of the van for a run. “Positive thoughts and a good tempo. Not too fast. Stay within yourselves. Have fun.”

I was already a skeptic back then, a journalist in the making, and I wondered to myself, “How’s this whole fun thing going to work out? Isn’t running about suffering?” But Jim Wescott had come to Colby via the Division I powerhouse North Carolina State, where he’d coached Maine native Joan Benoit (on a junior year away from Bowdoin), who would go on to win the 1984 Olympic Marathon, and all around me now, on every van ride, sat proof of his continuing success. Kelly Dodge ’83 had run a 4:08 mile the year before, after a summer of almost no training. His classmate Todd Coffin would soon become the Division III national steeplechase champion, and the Colby cross-country team was perennially among the best small-college squads in New England.

How did Jim Wescott make all this happen? To me many things about him were inscrutable, almost Sphinx-like: his perfect, poised posture; his zero-body-fat physique; his ability to rattle off long runs with us even though he was ancient (39 years old or something) and, as a one-time decathlete, not quite distance-runner skinny. I noted his smile and his warm chuckle and his unwavering knack for saying something kind when each one of us shambled into the field house for practice. “Well, good afternoooon, Ahtha,” he’d say in his thick New Hampshire accent when my friend Art Feeley ’85 came jangling along, all bony elbows and wrists, in the gray depths of a November afternoon.

Eventually, I realized something else: everyone on the team invariably called him Coach, even when we were talking about him behind his back (which we did, constantly). “Imagine if Coach walked into the frat party and saw us right now.” “I just talked to Coach. We’re doing intervals at the graveyard today.”

It was never the coach or Coach Wescott. It certainly was never Jim, and in all the stupid horsing around we did, gabbing away as we loped through Oakland or Winslow or wherever, no one ever cooked up a nickname for Coach. We didn’t discuss why this was so, but at some level we all knew that he was our sensei, our wise man, the cool and benevolent leader whose guidance we needed as we negotiated the roiling waters of young manhood. We believed in him. Any questioning of this basic fact was off the table.

And so when it came time to knuckle down—to do, say, six one-kilometer repeats amid the fallen leaves in Waterville’s Pine Grove Cemetery—we knuckled down. We listened to Coach as he made minor adjustments in the workout. (“Now, Ahtha, why don’t you start this one out right here, behind Tom?”) We were aware that his was a subtle mastery, like a symphony conductor who knows exactly when to nod toward the violas. We followed him, and we rode the van to races at Franklin Park in Boston, and we stayed at the Howard Johnson. We ate French toast, pre-race, going easy on the syrup, and we ran hard and we rode the van back to Waterville and then, for a moment, we all sat, listening, as Coach pulled the van off to the side of Mayflower Hill Drive, by the library, and dispensed a few words of parting wisdom. “Good work,” he’d say, twisting around from the driver’s seat to peer at us all through the darkness. “Go easy tomorrow. I’ll see you on Monday.”

He was not a man who delivered stirring speeches, and pithy aphorisms were not his style either. Almost always, he led by quiet example. Still, one of his favorite sayings resonates for me. He was fond of noting, each time the cross-country team competed at home, that just east of Mayflower Hill Drive our home racecourse dropped 90 feet. There was a huge downhill right after the four-mile mark before the course finished, at an even 5.0, by the field house. “Ninety feet!” he’d shout to the bewilderment of our opponents as we came gasping by. “Ninety feet!”

It was in some ways a throwaway comment. Any dope could discern that the trail dropped, and the numbers involved were immaterial. What mattered was that our coach was sharing a team secret. He was reminding us (late in the race, in our moments of deepest suffering) that we were part of a tribe that harbored its own secret knowledge, its own customs and rituals. We had grown strong together in the woods of Maine. We had run, all of us, through blizzards and over icy roads and through thick spring mud buzzing with deerflies. And our Coach had been guiding us every step of the way. Even now, as he stood trailside, he was telling us that he cared, that he loved us.

“Ninety feet, ninety feet!”

Certain phrases stick with you, and a few years ago, after my daughter started running in middle school, I told her about Coach, and about how he’d honed in me a lifelong taste for being healthy and for getting outdoors. Then at races I evolved my own unique cheer. “Ninety feet!” I shouted as my girl ran by. “Ninety feet!” She was running on courses that were flat as a pancake, but that mattered not. I just wanted her to know. I wanted her to feel what I felt running for Jim Wescott, our Coach and a great man who is now sorely missed.

Bill Donahue ’86 lives in Portland, Ore., where he is an avid cyclist and cross-country skier, as well as a freelance journalist. His stories are online at billdonahue.net.