The Watch Man

What makes Coach J’s runners tick


The varsity girls of the Flathead County High School cross country team are packed into a four-foot by four-foot box spray-painted on the grass, waiting for the start of a three-mile race in Helena, surrounded by the junior varsity girls and both squads of boys.

Coach Paul Jorgensen stands outside the huddle.

A cold wind blows from the northwest. The rain has stopped now but snow flurries still obscure the mountains. It’s a good time to be running and not a good time to watch running. Parents are dressed in down jackets. The Bill Roberts Memorial Golf Course club house does brisk business in coffee and hot chocolate.

Jorgensen stays warm wearing a black windbreaker over a gray sweatshirt with the hood hanging out the back. He’s 57 but he looks a decade younger, until he smiles. Then the smooth skin of his cheeks breaks into two vertical folds, one on each side of his mouth, and wrinkles radiate from the corners of his eyes. But this doesn’t happen often. For a man who says he loves what he does, he doesn’t display much emotion.

The Flathead runners huddle in the box. After stripping off their warm-up clothes, they keep their bodies close together and in constant motion. Then the tight cluster achieves a critical mass of warmth and excitement; “Ahhh, B-R-A-V-E-T-T-E-S, Bravettes.” Still Jorgensen—they call him Coach J—keeps his distance.

Coach J doesn’t participate in this display of enthusiasm, yet he can’t escape it either. He’s trapped into an orbit by opposing forces. These runners are the focus of his life and he keeps his eyes on them. He likes to watch them run and he especially likes to watch them win. The face he presents is mildly pleasant, occasionally bland, and always observant.

But at the same time Coach J keeps his distance out of respect for his runners and what this sport can do for them. He doesn’t offer last minute advice because he wants them to make mistakes and learn from them. He doesn’t join their circle because he wants them to generate an esprit de corps they can depend on as their own. So he ends up not talking to them.

This race in Helena is a dress rehearsal for the state championship. On Saturday, Oct. 19, the Flathead boys and girls will defend their titles from last year, competing on this same course, which wraps around the fairways, tee boxes and putting greens like a mangled figure-eight.

No high school in the state stands a chance of beating Coach J’s top seven girls. Last year they won with the best score in Montana history and this year they are led by Zoe Nelson, the fastest girl in the nation. Nelson has set a new course record every time she’s raced this year.

The boys, however, are vulnerable. They will be defending a five-year winning streak. They have won every meet so far this year, but barely. The whole team is aware that today the Flathead boys will meet for the first time the one squad most likely to beat them at the state championship: Helena High School, the hometown team. The crowd of people assembled at the golf course know about Jorgensen, his protégé, and the Flathead legacy. But they see only Nelson and the team, not the coach behind the runners.

“C’mon, Zoe,” a voice shouts from the crowd on the sidelines. “Don’t fool around. Just go out there and win it.”

It’s hard to imagine Nelson fooling around. Before joining her teammates in the spray-painted box at the starting line, Nelson runs up and down the opening stretch more than anyone else. Her stride is as natural and mathematically perfect as the spiral of a conch shell and her hair trails behind her head like it’s struggling to keep up. In particular, cross country fans took notice of Nelson last year when she won the state championship as a freshman. She stands out not only for her speed. Less than five feet tall, she’s the smallest runner in the lineup yet she’s the focal point of a lot of attention.

Coach J, however, is easily overlooked. He’s stands about 5 feet, 10 inches tall. These days he keeps his hair buzzed close to his scalp. He has green eyes and the ruddy complexion of someone who spends a lot of time outdoors. Slim, with the posture of an active man, he blends into the crowd of spectators. He could be a quiet parent, a former runner here to watch a son or daughter carry on the family tradition. He could be an assistant coach with mundane responsibilities but no authority.

Coach J carries the accouterments of a coach—a clipboard and a stop watch—but he doesn’t act like one. He doesn’t offer last minute advice and he doesn’t shout encouragement to his runners during the race. Whatever he does that makes his runners run fast isn’t apparent on this cold October day in Helena.

Instead Coach J travels alone from the team tent, to the starting line, to the intersection of the figure-eight, where runners pass both the one-mile and two-mile marks. The only giveaway of his allegiance to Flathead is the camera with a telephoto lens he uses to take pictures of his runners during the race.

But the people at the golf course know about Coach J, even if they don’t recognize him. The Flathead boys squad has placed top three at the state meet for 16 years. The Flathead girls squad has placed top three at the state meet for 13 years. During the past decade, Flathead boys and girls have won more than half of the individual state titles. In short, Flathead rules Montana cross country.

Success has bred jealousy and some parents in the crowd don’t have nice things to say about Coach J. He ruins runners, they say. Sure he gets teenagers to post fast times in high school, but they crumble when they get to college. And anyone could build a fast team at Flathead County High School, the largest school in the state. Just recruit a bunch of kids, run them near to death, and put orange and black jerseys on the survivors.

The man with the starting pistol calls the runners to order. Coach J takes one step toward his team. They all turn to face him and he asks, “Ready, girls?” They are. Coach J gently taps Nelson on the head twice with his gloved hand and leaves. The starting gun goes off. Immediately Nelson is one step ahead, then two. When the cheers subside, grumbling takes over.

“That is so sad,” someone in the crowd remarks. “The race has just started and she’s already ahead.”

Coach J, meanwhile, isn’t paying attention. He’s walking east with clipboard and camera to meet Nelson and her teammates at the intersection of the figure-eight. It looks like he’s not coaching at all. So the questions is, when does Coach J coach?

Before he was Coach J, Jorgensen was a high school pole vaulter in Helena. He wasn’t a runner then and he wouldn’t be until he started jogging with friends during college in Bozeman. This was during the 1960s, before the modern running shoe when Nike was still the winged goddess of victory, not a brand name.

But by 1968 when Jorgensen took a job teaching science at Flathead, he was calling himself a “recreational runner,” running for pleasure and not for speed. Back surgery has since ended his jogging habit and the only running he does now is across a field to watch his runners go by. Two years after Jorgensen started teaching, the coaching position for boys’ team opened up and he stepped in. “I got in on the ground floor of the running boom,” Jorgensen says. “That was in 1970 when running wasn’t the thing.” Only a half dozen boys showed up for the first practice but Jorgensen wasn’t discouraged. He recruited sprinters from the track team, launched a 32-year coaching career, and became Coach J. In 1979 he took over the girls team too. A year later, the girls won state and he’s collected 18 team and 15 individual titles at state championships since then. “I don’t give advice,” he says. “It’s a learning process and they learn it on their own.” A freshman boy hoping to make the final selection for the state championship team approaches Coach J 10 minutes before a race and asks how he can run faster. Coach J doesn’t respond, waiting for the boy to continue. When he does Coach J guides him backward from effect to cause, punctuating the boy’s statements with a grunt.

The boy says he struggled near the finish line last time and other runners passed him. Uh, huh, Coach J says. He’s not sure what pace to run so that doesn’t happen again, the boy says, and if he doesn’t learn soon he risks not making the cut. Uh, huh, Coach J says, twice. Finally the boy says, “I think I went out too fast.”

Even now Coach J delivers advice that puts responsibility on the runner. Instead of issuing a command, he speaks in conditional and subjunctive tenses, indicating that the future is not fixed. Coach J’s word choice makes it clear that the boy has options and that his fate depends on his decisions.

“You could start more conservatively,” Coach J says. “Today might be a good day for that. Maybe you should try it.”

Rather than dictate, Coach J spectates. He says his motivation comes from watching teenagers turn into adults. Cross country is an ideal venue for this transformation. It is a lonely pursuit bent and folded into a team sport. Runners succeed or fail on their own because one person can not carry another. But along the way, runners develop social skills because no one wants to run 50 miles a week alone. The combination breeds self-reliance and citizenship. Jorgensen likes to watch it happen.

“It’s entertaining,” Coach J says. “People watch television all the time. They like to see people perform. Me too. It’s the same except running is the most natural thing there is. I think for me it’s the social aspect [of training] and the purity of running.”

Coach J has been more spectator than dictator since the beginning. He carries a camera at all competitions, even home meets when his responsibilities include setting up the course, organizing volunteers, and firing off the starting gun. His photo albums reach back into the 1980s. Photography is not a chore he puts up with. It’s part of the reason he coaches.

“I let the kids go through [the photographs] and pick one of themselves,” Coach J says. “A lot of them don’t have someone taking pictures of them. Their parents don’t want to do it during the meet because they’re too nervous. But I’m not.”

Coach J deflects inquires about his secret with acknowledgements that a team is more than a coach. In the case of Flathead, captains take care of team spirit. Captains and parents organize spaghetti feeds the night before every race. Parents raise travel funds to send runners to post-season competitions around the country.

But there are two other big reasons Flathead is so good, and Coach J isn’t quiet about how important they are. First, Flathead runners train all summer. Five times a week, Coach J escorts his runners to a nearby park and they run through a maze of trails. This gives them a head-start on the season and builds running into a habit.

Second, Coach J is married to Jeannie Jorgensen. Jeannie, a former secretary, coaches the junior high cross country team. That means the duo has six years to attract, develop and refine athletes. But what Coach J doesn’t mention is the contrast between himself and his wife.

Jeannie is a clown. A real clown. Her professional name is Jeannie Jingle Tingle. She dresses up and makes amusing visits to hospitals and orphanages. Jeanie calls laughter “internal jogging” and she preaches that smiling will help runners run faster. In a yellow smiley-face purse she carries a rubber nose and fake teeth. Jeannie Jingle Tingle wasn’t a clown until she had a 10-pound tumor removed from her uterus seven years ago. It wasn’t cancerous, but she started questioning the wisdom of modern cancer therapy. She can’t accept the practice of healing the body with chemical poisons and radiation. Since then she’s been on a mission to spread laughter as an alternative. But Coach J isn’t a laugher.

“He won’t have anything—nothing at all—to do with my clowning,” Jeannie Jingle Tingle says. “I think it was a stretch for him to say he was married to a clown.”

This marriage of complementary opposites sounds too simple, but the system works. The numbers in the record books prove it. “[Coach J] tells us what to do to be good but he lets us do it ourselves,” Nelson says. All talk about strategy comes midweek during practice, she continues, and at the race. “He trusts people know what they’re doing. He knows people are nervous. He knows they are focussed on their race and don’t need to be told what to do. Mostly he just kind of watches.”

When Jorgensen does give specific advice immediately before a race it’s generic and has more to do with the world outside the runner than what’s going on inside the runner. If his boys and girls are racing on a day when bad weather is moving into the valley, he might say: “There’s a lot of wind out there. It’s coming from the west. When it’s at your back, just go. Let it push you.”

Coach J has fans among coaches even if some parents with children on other teams find fault with his success. Loyola Sacred Heart High School coach Matt Morris competed against Coach J’s runners during high school. When Morris started coaching seven years ago he began a correspondence with Coach J by email, but it wasn’t until last summer that the two men actually met in person and Morris was surprised by what he saw.

“He’s probably the most successful cross country coach in the history of the state and I didn’t even know what he looked like,” Morris says. “He’s the most inconspicuous guy ever.”

Morris is quick to debunk criticism of Coach J. Flathead isn’t the best team just because it’s the biggest high school in the state. Only seven runners make the varsity squad, and having a junior varsity squad full of kids training without any hope of moving up does not create an atmosphere of motivation. As for ruining runners, Morris says that no program should focus on college athletics since only a tiny fraction of high school students are even interested in continuing to run after graduation.

Once a teenager gets hooked on running and starts to improve, Coach J says the real problem is harnessing their desire into a productive training regime. That means running a lot of easy miles during the summer and then picking up speed while reducing distance in the fall.

“I try to rein kids back,” Jorgensen says. “They don’t like that because they have this idea in their head and they fail to realize how important rest is. They think they have it figured out.”

Currently Coach J has eight runners active in collegiate cross country. Dave Vidal, who holds the state high school record for the mile, runs for Stanford University, the second-ranked team in the nation. Seth Watkins, two-time state champion, runs for Northern Arizona University, the fourth-ranked team in the nation. Coach J’s state champion from last year, Kurt Michels, is the top runner at the University of Utah. And former Flathead runners Kevin Clary, Kevin Murphy, and Brett Winegar run for Montana State University.

“I like to see them go to college but I’m not coaching to send them there,” Jorgensen says. “I could run them into the ground and get out everything that I could. But I try not to burn them out.”

The boys who gave Coach J five state championship titles in a row are good runners, but Coach J has never been presented with someone as talented as Nelson before. Few coaches have. But Coach J is ready for the inevitable onslaught of college recruiters. As he understands it, his duty will be to provide a shield for Nelson so she can make decisions herself. Her future is undecided and he doesn’t want to get in the way.

“I know there will be demands on her and a lot of people will want to get in on her success,’ Coach J says. “It’s like a good boxer; they have these followers. I could see that happening. She’ll have all sorts of people telling her what to do. She doesn’t need that.”

Coach J is still standing at the intersection of the figure-eight. He’s talking to former Helena High coach Bill Gilbert about the results of races already completed. If any team can break the five-year championship streak of the Flathead boys, it’s Helena High, which is now coached by Gilbert’s son, and it looks like they might. Cresting a hill 150 yards away, Nelson returns to view, alone and charging ahead like something made of steel and powered by coal. Coach J lifts his camera and takes one picture without breaking his conversation. Both men have watched the finish of the boys’ race in anticipation and now, even though the official score hasn’t been announced, they agree that their squads have tied 35 to 35.

Nelson passes the mile mark in 5:22, 20 seconds ahead of anybody else. The next two runners who show up are Krista Jiminez and Andrea Foot, both from Flathead. Then there’s another gap before a second pair of Flathead girls arrive in a larger group of runners.

Cross country is scored by points—one point for first place, two points for second place, and so on. Each squad consists of seven runners—five who score points and two who push the runners from other teams further back in the results. The team with the lowest score wins. It looks like Helena’s fifth boy beat Flathead’s, breaking the tie. It’s Flathead’s first loss this season and next weekend the squad will race as something other than overwhelming favorites for the first time in five years.

There’s not a trace of disappointment on Coach J’s face. In fact, he’s more friendly to Gilbert than he has been to anyone today. They trot side by side to another junction to watch the girls again, still talking about the boys.

Nelson runs back into view. Spectators cheer as she passes the second mile mark in 11:07. She has slowed down since the start, but the first mile was generally downhill while this middle mile has been flat. At this pace, she’ll solidify her number one ranking in the country. After Nelson passes, the spectators stop cheering because there’s no one left to cheer for. She has come and gone before the next runner shows up. As she disappears, she’s still taking strides that seem disproportionately long for the length of her legs. She’s taking them quickly and that’s the mechanical secret of running fast.

Jeannie Jingle Tingle predicts that Nelson will break 17 minutes. Coach J still isn’t cheering for his girls and he’s spending most of his time just watching them clobber the competition.

Jiminez and Foot run by, still in second and third. Coach J watches the rest of his girls pass and then starts walking quickly toward the finish line. From all over the golf course, everyone is converging on the same location and it looks like a seasonal migration in fast forward.

Nelson has the finish line and the chute of multicolored flags beyond it all to herself. Coach J moves to the middle of the chute and waits. When she crosses the line, Nelson breaks her stride and slows to a walk. Then she stops and puts her hands on her knees, panting and looking at the ground. When Nelson lifts her head and starts walking again, Coach J is there.

He reaches over the multicolored flagging and pats her on the back with his bare hand. Her skin is flushed red with the blood racing through her body. She looks up at him from her side of the makeshift fence.

“Good job, Zoe,” Coach J says. “Very good.” Her time is 16:46, another course record. Nelson pauses and puts her hands on her knees again. When she lifts her head, she runs her fingers through her hair, smiles, and walks away. Coach J stays at the finish chute. Almost two minutes later Jiminez arrives. Then Foot. Soon the chute is clogged with runners. The rest of the Flathead team comes and goes and Coach J keeps watching. None of the runners are smiling when they cross the finish line. Some are gagging, and all wear expressions of pain.

But as the runners exit the chute, the smiles return. Jeannie Jingle Tingle laughs. Boys and girls stand in small groups, talking about the race. And Coach J watches their transformation.


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