Robin Hauser Reynolds
By KATIE HAFNER
Published: December 1, 2010
SAN FRANCISCO — A top runner who hits the wall. A coach with a cruel illness. A state championship at stake.
Such was the situation last Saturday when Holland Reynolds, a star runner from a small private high school in San Francisco, collapsed at the state cross-country meet and crawled across the finish line to clinch the championship for her team.
Reynolds, 16, a junior, has been a distance runner since she was in third grade. She arrived at San Francisco University High School as a fast freshman in 2008, ended her first season as the team’s top runner and has been the lead runner for the cross-country team ever since.
Her coach, Jim Tracy, 60, arrived at University High School in 1994 and built both the girls’ and boys’ teams into perennial state champions.
Reynolds said Tracy was the best coach she had ever had. “He always tells the truth,” she said. “If you ask him, ‘Well, how do you think I did today?’ he’ll tell you, ‘You had a bad race,’ ” she said. “It’s because of his honesty that when you receive a compliment from him, you know you’ve done really well, and it makes all the runners want to strive to please him.”
Until three years ago, Tracy, an accomplished runner, could keep pace with his fastest runners. Symptoms of his illness began nearly five years ago, he said, when a muscle in his thumb stopped functioning. And last June, he was found to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
But it is only in the past year that the disease has begun to debilitate him. A.L.S. patients, most of whom eventually lose the use of all but their eye muscles, typically live three and a half to four years after the onset of symptoms, but the range can vary widely.
At the beginning of this season, Jim Ketcham, the school’s athletic director, assembled the team and told the runners that Tracy was very sick. The news devastated the team. “Everybody was crying,” Reynolds said.
Since the start of the season, Tracy’s condition has grown visibly worse. “He’s been falling down sometimes at practice,” Reynolds said. “And he brings a chair to our workouts.”
Last weekend’s state meet in Fresno took place on a rainy, unseasonably cold morning. Reynolds, who was fighting a slight cold, was unaccustomed to such low temperatures, and said she might have misjudged how much she needed to drink.
Just before the 3.1-mile race, the team did its regular cheer, then Reynolds, who is the team captain, led a special cheer for Tracy. “I think that made the team really want to win it for Jim,” Reynolds said.
At the 2.5-mile mark, Reynolds was in third place, pushing for second, among the 169 runners. “I was going to make my move,” she said, “but for some reason my legs just gave out. I was confused, and I started to slow down.”
Tracy was at the team’s tent near the finish line, and he said he knew something was wrong when another University High runner finished before Reynolds. “I thought, ‘This isn’t right,’ ” he said. “ ‘Holland should be here already.’ ”
Tracy, who wears braces on his legs and his back and walks with difficulty, made his way to the course and found Reynolds, half a mile out, barely running and weaving across the course.
“She usually runs with a slightly bent upper torso,” Tracy said. “But this had twisted her over even more. It looked like she was barely able to keep herself stabilized. It was a grisly sight.”
Tracy said Reynolds looked at him out of the corner of her eye.
“But her vision was locked on her goal,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like it. It was like a mask of determination. I’ve seen that so many times when she’s in front, but this time she was getting buried. People were flying past her.”
Within two or three yards of the finish line, Reynolds collapsed, and a race official was at her side within seconds. He told her he could not touch her or help her, but to avoid disqualification, she would have to get over the finish line.
“I said, ‘Are you O.K., and do you want to finish?’ ” said Brian Weaver, the official. “She said ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘O.K., all you have to do is get your foot across the line, and you don’t have to get up, it’s O.K. if you crawl.’ ”
Reynolds started crawling.
“I was encouraging her,” Weaver said. “I said, ‘You can do this.’ She was nodding her head and crawling, and I was saying, ‘Nice and easy, don’t force it.’ ”
Tracy said, “It took over 20 seconds for her to crawl two yards.”
Reynolds said she did not remember collapsing but did remember crawling: “All I knew was that I had to cross the line.”
She finished in 37th place, with a time of 20 minutes 15 seconds, giving University the title it would not have won without her struggle over the line.
The instant Reynolds crossed the line, she was scooped up by Weaver, an assistant coach from the school and a trainer, who took her to an ambulance, where she was given intravenous fluids.
Weaver said that if Reynolds had appeared to be in immediate danger, he would not have let her continue. “I would have picked her up and carried her straight to the ambulance,” he said. “But she was able to make eye contact with me. Her body was tired, but she was mentally all there.”
Reynolds was still in the ambulance, unable to keep her eyes open, when she heard her mother tell her father they had won the championship. An hour later, her teammates were in the ambulance with her, and they gave Reynolds her medal. Within a few hours, she had recovered enough to go home. On Wednesday, she went for a 15-minute run.
Last Saturday’s race was the team’s eighth state championship, making it the most successful team in California cross-country history.