Evening falls at the end of a meet, and Brie Pulec, head cross country coach at Malcolm High School, leads her team back to the bus. Bags and shoes slung over shoulders, Pulec, assistant coach Jack Tarr, and their runners file into the seats, ready for the journey home.
Bob Hoyer, former head coach, sits behind the wheel. Hoyer’s retirement doesn’t curb his involvement with Malcolm cross country; he drives the Clippers’ bus to and from every meet.
The competition results--satisfactory or otherwise--do not alter the athletes’ post-meet ritual: Hoyer steps on the gas pedal, and the bus erupts in song.
Post-race fatigue does not hinder the excitement in--or volume of--the athletes’ voices. They sing a selection of songs, known as “sea shanties,” stored in a binder that the seniors have passed down to the underclassmen. The athletes wanted to ensure that this ritual, like many of the Clippers’ traditions, does not die.
Traditions bond Malcolm’s current runners both to each other and to the Clippers of the past. The athletes today carry on Malcolm’s history of excellence: a state-runner up title only a year after the team was formed, a state championship two years later, two runners from the championship team who ran professionally, and countless successful athletes who--like many of the current athletes--joined the team simply to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
The athletes’ musical celebration continues--sometimes for an entire hour--as the bus meanders along highways, making its way back to Malcolm. Hoyer bops his head and drums on the steering wheel.
How did I get so lucky?
Pulec’s running career began at St. Paul Lutheran High School in Concordia, Missouri. In college, Pulec ran and studied again at Concordia--this time, Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska. Armed with a teaching degree and the hopes of becoming an educator/coach, Pulec had an important choice to make after graduation: Houston or Malcolm?
Heading into her interview at Malcolm, Pulec was “Houston-bound.” At Houston, Pulec was offered the head women’s cross country coach position, while at Malcolm, Pulec would begin as an assistant coach.
And then something clicked.
“I think anybody that goes into an interview, you just get a feeling,” Pulec said. “I don’t know how to explain it other than that: it just feels right.”
She accepted the job at Malcolm.
“And it was just one of those things: this is the perfect scenario for me,” Pulec said. “The class sizes are great; you really get to be one-on-one with students. I’m too spoiled.”
Pulec’s first few days as assistant coach were filled with discoveries; she had never observed a team with such a strong traditions and such a solid foundation.
One such tradition falls annually on the night before the district meet. Malcolm cross country alumni write letters to the current athletes, offering encouragement for the following day’s race while demonstrating Malcolm’s strong roots. In fact, one of the letters to the 2016 team was written by a member of Malcolm’s first cross country team in 1985.
“That’s probably one of the biggest reasons why the team is so successful,” Pulec said. “They know the lineage that they come from and that the program comes from.”
Certainly, the Clippers’ traditions are as plentiful as they are rich: a plastic seal named Moses is passed among teammates, a Malcolm cafeteria tray is covered with the athletes’ signatures, and, of course, the sea shanties continue to echo throughout the bus.
And the coaches hold traditions of their own, such as running each workout with the team--a tradition Pulec was particularly excited about.
“I thought, ‘I’m getting paid to exercise! This is fabulous!’” Pulec said.
Pulec runs for enjoyment. However, after a vein disorder diagnosis, Pulec realized the importance of making running a lifestyle.
Following her diagnosis at age 33, Pulec needed an exploratory surgery. During the surgery, doctors put stents in two of the veins in Pulec’s hips.
The doctors said that Pulec’s blood flow was blocked by 60 percent.
But, had Pulec not been a runner, she would have had a stroke; fortunately, Pulec’s muscles were “keeping the blood flow regulated at a rate healthy enough to where she didn’t get a blood clot.”
“And I think that was kind of the main turning point for me on really making running more of a lifestyle,” Pulec said. “[I realized], ‘Holy cow, that’s what’s kept me alive.’”
However, the perks of running with the Malcolm cross country team are not only health-related; running additionally fosters deeper connections with the athletes.
“It gets you on a different level with the kids,” Pulec said. “I think they respect you more. I think that they appreciate the fact that you are going through the same thing that they’re going through.”
And with coaches of both genders, connecting with athletes becomes easier; in the same manner that Hoyer and Tarr connect with the boys, Pulec can empathize with the girls.
“When [my female athletes] come to me with an issue, whether it’s running, or whether it’s been something that’s personal, I can genuinely connect with them.” Pulec said. “And maybe that’s more important to me because I never had a female coach. All my coaches were male, you know very brilliant coaches, but there’s something to be said about having a female if you’re a female athlete.”
Because of this strong connection, athletes--regardless of talent--reaching their fullest potential spurs an equal excitement in Pulec. Similarly, Pulec shares the devastation when athletes fall seconds short of their end-of-season goals.
“But, it’s why you hold on to the good memories, the kids that do achieve, and you hope that the ones that don’t [reach their goals] get to come back next year and try again,” Pulec said “I always tell them that’s the brilliance of cross country: you can always come back next year and give it another go.”
Pulec said that she hasn’t always been lucky. But, after inheriting a program with great coaches, hardworking athletes, and supportive community members, Pulec felt like she had lucked out in her coaching career.
“I’m the one that probably if I got a lottery ticket and scratched it, it’d say, ‘pay one dollar and fifty cents to the cashier,’” Pulec said, laughing. “So, the fact that I have had such a great program to work with and a great school to teach in is beyond me!”