The sport of cross country running isn’t always about winning. For many high school students, it’s about the running high, the friendships and the personal improvement.
While he coaches his runners with winning races in mind, Mark Morrison, Pleasant Grove High School cross country coach and woodshop teacher, celebrates his runners’ personal achievements. And not just with a pat on the back, or a “Good job,” but in a very visual way.
There are about 50 athletes on his cross country team, and every one of them has a small wooden plaque, about 8 inches by 5 inches, engraved with their name. Morrison creates the plaques in his woodshop at the school, engraving them with a CNC router. Every new runner who joins the team receives their own plaque — which includes the 28 new athletes that started their cross country journey this year.
But more important to the runners are the small 1-inch shingles Morrison fashions and hands out to them to hang on the small hooks at the bottom of the plaque. These represent a runner’s personal record in different runs — including “The Reaper” — the team’s grueling uphill practice run along the streets of Pleasant Grove.
The plaques have room for three rows of shingles, and the shingles also connect to each other. If the runners start on the team as freshman and stick with it until their seniors, they end up with multiple lines of shingles hanging down from their plaques, displaying their triumphs. Morrison has been the school’s cross country coach for six years, and started the wooden tradition that first year. He wanted the students to see their own progress and earn at least something small for their consistent efforts to run in heat, rain and snow during each season from June to December.
“Some races have 200 to 400 kids in them, and there is only one winner. Your progress is getting better at each race. It’s your personal record — your PR. That’s our gauge,” Morrison said. “This helps keep track of their bests each year. They’ll remind me if I haven’t made their shingles.”
A few female athletes have a special shingle on their plaque celebrating their first 6A state title in cross country last year, and the first-ever state cross country title for the school. Morrision credits that win to that very unique set of girls who set the state title as their goal and pushed themselves to it.
Every athlete on the team participates in races — “we don’t have a bench,” as Morrison explained — and the sport is both a team effort and an individual one. Just as he enjoys teaching new carpentry skills in his classroom, he enjoys seeing his team improve, even if it’s just by a few minutes faster. The sport of running teaches them important life lessons.
“It’s hard for this generation to fail, but that’s part of learning. We evaluate the why — we look at their preparation, sleep, what they eat, and if they are coming to practices. They realize it’s not the end of the world, and this is a benchmark. And then they can get better,” he said.
For the hundreds of athletes who’ve run through his program so far, they all have a very visual way of seeing each of these benchmarks, and recalling their personal bests and the lasting friendships they made along the way.
“It’s just so cool,” said Makaila Runnels, 17, a senior on the team. “He has plenty of other stuff to do, that’s why I like it so much. Coach made them, and he took his own time to do it, and they last forever. He’s not just our coach, he cares about us.”