Bob Seger and a Cross-Country Casualty

How failure to heed the singer's warning cost a dynastic distance-running program a state title.

Having won eight state titles over the past 24 years, the Blanchet High School men's cross-country program is the closest thing to a dynasty that this crap sports town has. I was co-captain of the 1991 BHS state championship squad, yet not so fleet afoot to crack the varsity seven. Instead, I focused my energies on more cerebral contributions, such as programming the music on the bus between Seattle and Pasco, where the state meet is held each year.

Here, Tom Petty's "Running Down a Dream" was a shoo-in, as were Elton John's "Rocket Man," "One" by U2, and Queen's "We Are the Champions." One of our top runners, a bit of a space cadet, lobbied hard for some up-and-coming band named Nirvana and a song called "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Screw that: The closer it got to the starting gun, there was really only one song. And that song was Bob Seger's "Against the Wind."

"That would be a very influential song, literally and figuratively," says John O'Leary, a fellow co-captain on the '91 squad who's now the head coach. "The most challenging situation for a distance runner is to run with the wind in your face—more so than rain or snow. When you step outside of that, the phrase could be a metaphor for getting over an obstacle. Or it could represent a major goal for the team."

After decisive victories over arch rival Seattle Prep in both their conference and district meets, the Blanchet Braves were favored to run away with the 2000 state title—which would have marked the school's first title since 1992 after an uncharacteristically long drought. The team's varsity runners laughed when then–head coach Leo Genest told them that Prep would be their biggest rival at the state meet. As the team pulled into Richland, one of Pasco's neighboring Tri-Cities, O'Leary, at this point an assistant coach, cued up "Against the Wind" on the stereo, which, according to Genest, couldn't have been more appropriate.

"We showed up at the Pasco course, and it was really, really, really windy—probably 40 mile per hour gusts," he says, over a 6 a.m. cup of coffee at Zoka in Tangletown (the legendary Genest, an ultra-intense man who's in bed by 8 and up by 4, is notorious for his rigid, pre-sunrise social calendar). "[Our runners] worked really hard, and [Seattle] Prep did a good job drafting off us and ended up winning the meet in the final 800 [meters]. I thought, 'Oh, wow, that song was playing coming into Richland.' It's such a great running song. It brought me back to [O'Leary's] period."

"[Prep coach] John Robertson did everything right," adds O'Leary. "He drew up a perfect game plan—against the wind."

The Braves would go on to win back-to-back state titles in 2001 (Genest's last year as head coach) and 2002 (O'Leary's first).

O'Leary chuckles when confronted with the irony that Seger's current publicity photos show the aging rocker sucking on a cigarette while astride a Harley-Davidson chopper, a haggard, hard-livin' portrait of terminal toxicity. After an 11-year hiatus, Seger's latest release, Face the Promise, shows that his nicotine habit has gone straight to his throat. The album, which has been met with a curious amount of acclaim (presumably from critics who gave Seger short shrift back in his heyday), is a nearly unlistenable, unmitigated piece of shit. Seger's pipes sound horribly charred, and his trite lyrics border on self-parody.

Taken alone, Face the Promise makes one wish Seger had stayed retired, comfortably ensconced in his lakefront home in West Bloomfield, Mich. But the fact that the album has compelled one of rock's great live acts to get back out on the road makes it totally worthwhile.

Word on the street is that Seger's sets have been long, sharp, and chockablock with classics like "Main Street" and "Night Moves." But for a handful of distance runners in attendance at the Key, there'll really only be that one blustery ditty of yore.

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