Anyone who’s ever spent a prolonged amount of time in the Tri-Cities knows what a summer along the Columbia River means.
In a word: heat.
Yeah, but it’s a dry heat, right?
I lived and worked there before starting a career in journalism and I have family there today. I know what it takes to get along in an area where triple-digit temperatures are so common that they are treated as an almost everyday occurrence.
Which makes what Peter Hawkins is doing in his first summer as the head boys cross country coach at Chiawana High School all the more impressive.
The former Ferris High athlete is the fifth of seven Ferris athletes from the Hawkins family. His oldest brother, Isaac, was a five-time state champion for the Saxons and his sister, Emily, also won a state title. Peter was part of the first state championship team for coach Mike Hadway.
To say the least, Pete has lived a road map to what it means to be a distant runner. In fact, he wrote a book on the subject.
“In my youth I seemed to think that every town had a legacy of running like Spokane,” he wrote in his book, “Varsity Seven.” “Only in the years after I left Spokane did I come to realize the unique blend of coaches and athletes that has made it a wonder to the world of distance running.”
Cross country at Chiawana is not a sport with a track record, so to speak.
“In the last 10 years Chiawana has finished last or next-to-last every year,” he said. “There just isn’t the kind of tradition that all of Spokane has. We’re looking to reverse that this year. We think we can finish first or second in our league.”
Of all members of his family, Peter Hawkins has a unique understanding of what it means to find your way in cross country.
He struggled in his own high school career. At one point before his junior season, he thought seriously about walking away from the sport. His father immediately put him on the phone with Isaac, who was running for national power Stanford, and the conversation got him back on course, figuratively and literally.
He ran his best race of the season at state as a junior, placing fifth and pushing the Saxons to the state title.
He’s using that experience with his squad. Drawing heavily on his own experiences as well as from a lifetime association with some of the greatest coaches in Spokane high school cross country history.
“I’ve taken a little of everything from all the coaches I’ve talked to,” he said. “All the good things that I’ve taken and tried to make my own. From Jon Knight at NC, I’ve adopted his 1-30 rule. That means you treat everybody the same, from the first kid to the last.
“From (longtime Ferris coach) Herm Caviness I’ve adopted his policy of having one-on-one time. Every day I try to take a different kid aside and talk to him one-on-one.
“From (former Rogers coach) Tracy Walters I’m trying to learn his great ability to listen to his athletes – I want to hear what they think is happening and how they think they’re doing.
“From (his high school coach) Mike Hadway I know that sometimes it just takes a long, hard run to make things happen.
“What I learned from (former Mead coach) Pat Tyson is to just exude positivity. I believe all my runners are young Peter Pans, young and invincible.
“And from (former University High coach Bob) Barbaro I understand that this is a system and process that’s going to take time.”
And he’s putting his money where his mouth is. He’s running every workout right along with his team.
For the first time, the team and the coach are putting in the kind of mileage and the kinds of workouts they need to improve their season. As his father, Paul Hawkins, drummed into him growing up, summer workouts are like putting money in the bank that will pay off at the end of the season.
More importantly, he’s teaching his runners to train with the kind of intention that translates into success once the season starts.
“Each day I’m trying to get the guys to believe in things they’ve never done before,” he said. “We’re coming together. I think they all secretly love being pushed. They’ve never run more than 25 or 30 miles a week over the summer. Last week our top guys ran 70 miles and two more were just over 65.”
In essence, Hawkins is trying to bring the Spokane cross country tradition to the Tri-Cities.
“It’s kind of a been a joke with my family and friends,” he laughed while getting his two sons ready for bed. “I was a part of that Spokane tradition growing up and now I’m on the outside trying to derail it.”
Hawkins has instituted a new summer tradition of having long training runs to each of the schools Chiawana will compete against this fall. There was an 18-mile run to Hanford High and back. An 18-mile run to Kamiakin. Last on the list is the longest run – a 22-mile run to Southridge.”
Once the school year begins, Hawkins is hoping he can coax a few more runners out for the team. As one of the biggest schools, he hopes to one draw the kind of numbers Tyson drew at Mead.
You can feel that the days of running last are over for Chiawana. With miles in their bank account, the team will now learn how to earn interest on their accounts by learning how to race at the front of the pack.
“It’s coming together,” he said. “We’re feeling the results. We’re excited, but it makes me kind of nervous to say those words.”
At a weekend homecoming to Spokane, Hawkins was quizzed by his brothers about how his first months as a head high school cross country coach were going.
“I told them there were no bad days,” he said. “There’s never been a bad day coaching.”