When Matt McCue was a freshman walk-on to the University of Colorado cross country team in the summer of 2001, he showed up for his first run at the Potts Field track. The were only three runners at Potts that day; future NCAA champions and Olympians Jorge Torres and Dathan Ritzenhein, as well as Edwardo Torres. McCue got hammered that July morning, but he hung tough with the “skinny Trinity” the entire 12-mile run.
McCue hung in well enough to run for four years for Mark Wetmore’s Buffs, a career bookmarked by Colorado national team championships his freshman and senior years. As I read the early part of McCue’s new book about his Colorado and high school days, An Honorable Run, I thought it would be similar to the popular CU-inspired Running with the Buffaloes, by Chris Lear, likely full of cool anecdotes about the Torres twins, “Ritz,” and the workouts the team did.
In a pleasant surprise, it is not. Rather, “An Honorable Run” is a poignant runner’s coming-of-age story that explores the relationship between McCue and his high school coach, the late Bob Brown, as well as with Wetmore, a perennial Big 12 coach-of-the-year. The coaches are contrasts in personalities and life journeys, but both made deep impressions on McCue, which he eloquently explores in this 150-page book.
Brown and Wetmore both “were driven by a simple passion: they loved coaching runners,” McCue writes. “Every year, they would bid goodbye to seniors and welcome incoming freshman … I was the other factor, common to both. The eager runner, I barreled down the fast lane, connecting – and colliding – with each coach along the way.”
“The more I ran, the more I found myself falling in love with the sport. … it gave me goals to meet and an identity. I was known as the kid who ran fast. When I was tired I couldn’t ask my coach to take me out of the race for a rest. Instead, I was left to find out if I had any grit or guts. I lived for that feeling.”
McCue is indeed eager. As a freshman at Regina High School in Iowa, he wanted to win a state championship, immediately. The wise and hug-giving Brown puts him on a four-year plan. In the first of six chapters, “Pace yourself,” McCue describes his start in running as a 13 year-old. He wants to win, but realizes he is not the most talented runner: “There was only one solution: hard work.”
Ah, the secret formula for any distance runner (or writer). McCue writes that in high school he grew “accustomed to driving myself to exhaustion. Running far hurt!” Yet, under Brown’s patient coaching, McCue discovers that “The more I ran, the more I found myself falling in love with the sport. … it gave me goals to meet and an identity. I was known as the kid who ran fast. When I was tired I couldn’t ask my coach to take me out of the race for a rest. Instead, I was left to find out if I had any grit or guts. I lived for that feeling.”
McCue was fast as a prep, but not fast enough for a college scholarship. Like many high schoolers, he ran too much and got injured. After reading Lear’s “Running with the Buffaloes” – several times – McCue’s new goal became “walking-on” to CU’s team. Wetmore takes one or two such non-scholarship runners each year, and McCue made it in 2001. Locals will enjoy his description of the Buffalo Ranch cross country course and of racing up Jawbone Hill.
The following chapters detail McCue’s CU career, showing how he got stronger and faster. Not able to make the traveling squad for the NCAA cross country meet his senior year, McCue’s new goal becomes running a fast time his final semester. He seems to do just that at the April, 2005 Mt. SAC Relays 10,000 meters. “An Honorable Run” opens with a prologue describing that race and how, running under the lights in a cool California night and cheered on by his parents, McCue clocks a personal best 10K of 29:33. Or does he? The final chapter of the book provides a surprising twist to that story.
“An Honorable Run” is about more than running fast times. It delves into the question many ask as time goes on: What does it mean to be a success? McCue begins finding his answer one Sunday afternoon when his mother calls him at “The Fight Club,” the house up Boulder Canyon he shares with the Torres twins and Ritzenehin. Coach Brown had inoperable pancreatic cancer, McCue’s mother tells him.
“Suddenly, life had acquired a whole new meaning that would force my perspective to evolve and mature,” McCue writes.
Now, confronted with life’s suffering, McCue postpones a trip to New York City, where his dream of becoming a writer will take him, to return to Iowa and spend time with Brown. “What was important was a coach in Iowa who had always cared for me even when I ran away from him. It was my turn to wrap my arms around him. I headed home to stand by his side.”
McCue is able to spend much time with his former coach, whose strong will allows him to survive longer than expected. In November, 2007, McCue finished writing “An Honorable Run.” Later that week, Brown passed away. McCue returns home for the funeral. It is a windy, gray day. McCue holds it together until some former Regina runners ask him about the book.
“Coach told us,” they say. “He was very proud of it, and of you.”
Writes McCue, in the final lines of the book: “I completely broke down. The words twisted my insides, ripped my throat, and filled my eyes with tears – of sadness for that day, and of joy for the future, when life would begin anew and I could carry on, with hopes of becoming a ‘Coach Brown’ in the life of a passionate young man, someday.”
In the summer after his sophomore year, McCue had received a note from Wetmore, saying in part: “Remember that you train and live as seriously and as committed as anyone, and when it is time to move on, you’ll know you had as honorable a run as anyone. Thanks for your great character.”
McCue has written an honorable book, one that does justice not only to his two coaches and his close-knit family, but to all the thousands of young runners who dream big dreams, and who struggle endlessly to reach them. Like a 30-minute 10K runner with the potential to race faster, An Honorable Run”left me with the feeling that McCue has much more to write.