Nearly two decades into his cross country coaching career at Scarborough High, Jim Harmon is coming off a seventh Class A boys’ state title and showing no sign of the burnout that can claim colleagues who coach other sports.

Cross county, he said, is different. Parents never complain about playing time for their kids because, until the regional and state meets, everyone gets to run. And as for choosing seven runners for the big meets at season’s end, “that doesn’t usually come down to my decision,” said Harmon, who lets results dictate his championship lineup.

“I think we deal with fewer headaches than some of the other sports,” he said. “It’s the nature of the sport. It’s objective.”

Perhaps that is why so many of Maine’s high school cross country coaches continue to endure. Harmon, with 17 seasons under his belt, isn’t even halfway up the ladder of experience climbed by Scarborough girls’ coach Ron Kelly, who started in 1972, the same year Title IX became law.

“It wasn’t always easy,” said Kelly, who began coaching while still a student at the University of Southern Maine. “There were some years that had smaller numbers. But they’re good kids. They enjoy it. I’ve probably got another 10 years in me, as long as I’m healthy.”

At age 63, Kelly is but a pup compared to Lake Region Coach Dan Dors, whose 21 years in Maine coaching began only after he retired from Massachusetts, where he coached football, basketball and outdoor track.

“I was building a home up here and a job opened up, so I decided to take it for a year,” said the 79-year-old Dors. “That was ’94 and I’m still here. I enjoy the kids. I don’t want to give it up.”

Dors said cross country runners are a different breed, a type he finds more receptive to coaching than athletes in other sports.

“It takes a special person,” he said, “to go out there and run seven to eight miles a day.”


Bill Reilly of Fryeburg Academy, in his 26th year, marvels at the sparse turnover among cross country coaches.

“We don’t have parents asking why my kid doesn’t play,” he said. “Everybody runs. There are no bench sitters.”

No benches and no bleachers mean less pressure on winning, said Mark Crepeau, in his 36th year at Massabesic.

“I’ve heard very little from parents other than, ‘What can I do to help?’ ” he said.

“We don’t get that coaching from the sideline that you do in basketball, football or lacrosse. (Coaches of those sports) have a lot more heat to have a winning program than we do in cross country.”

Over at Yarmouth, Bob Morse has 45 years of experience between the middle school and high school. He credits a culture in which spectators (parents, mostly) cheer for all runners, regardless of jersey color or school affiliation. Everyone has a common opponent: the clock.

“Cross country doesn’t have the stress factor that football does,” Morse said. “It’s over in 15 to 20 minutes. We get down when we don’t win, but we get over it. It’s not that big a deal. It’s nice to win, but we focus more on each kid on our team.”

Karen Reardon has been at South Portland High for 13 years after seven in Biddeford. Her first coaching job came more than three decades ago, with boys’ varsity basketball in the Virgin Islands. She also has college coaching experience.

“I’ll tell you, it is the most fun sport I’ve coached because it’s the most team sport I’ve coached,” she said of cross country.

“Obviously you adjust workouts for kids in terms of degree of difficulty or injury recovery, but the goal is the same for everybody. And when you get them all working together, Oh my gosh, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Reardon said mutual respect among athletes from different schools seems more prevalent in cross country than in other sports, not that there aren’t rivalries, but that there is an appreciation for the dedication and commitment required of runners.

“There’s no trick play, there’s no special equipment,” she said. “You’re out there in a singlet and shorts and sometimes it’s really hot and sometimes it’s pouring and sometimes it’s really cold. And no matter the ability, everyone can understand the effort.”


Plenty of coaches keep fit by running with their teams, although perhaps not as fast or for as long as they once did. There’s also the reward of seeing individual athletes make progress.

David Dowling, recently retired from teaching at Portland High but entering his 19th season as cross country coach at Greely, has runners who try all season to break a 10-minute mile. Seeing one such girl in the homestretch of the conference meet on pace to beat her goal by 20 seconds, Dowling yelled ‘You got it!’ as “she kicks it in for all she’s worth,” he said. “We’re just as happy for her as we are for one of the No. 1 runners.”

Indeed, in no sport other than perhaps swimming or Nordic skiing can coaches measure individual improvement so clearly and convincingly as in cross country running.

“We get to see it and reward it and celebrate it,” Dowling said.

“I’ve had kids who were never going to be great runners,” said South Portland’s Reardon. “But they learned that they could be good runners. And that’s been exciting, too.”

After exhorting runners not to give up for so many years, cross country coaches clearly have taken their own message to heart.