“Cape Island Spotlight” will be an occasional series about runners I know and love and think you will too! Runners are an interesting breed – a little quirky mixed with a little masochist mixed with hard work and hard play makes for some of the most fun people I know!
Here, I’ll show you…
Steve Pierangeli, aka “Mr. P” or “P”
Mr. P is the man responsible for the running nut I am today (though he can’t take responsibility for the rest of my non-running nuttiness. That is all me!). He was my high school cross-country coach and if I were to answer the “Cape Island Spotlight”, his name would appear under the question of who saw the runner in me. I owe an awful lot to this man, and you can read more about that here. But today the spotlight is on P. He is a teacher and coach in the Pittsgrove Township school system, where he has been for many years. His is a fascinating story and I especially loved doing this interview because it gave me the chance to better understand the person that he is and all he has overcome. As high schoolers, I think we all experience the sensation that teachers are not actually people – they are just the adults whose whole reason for existence seems to be tied up with their identity as we see it in the classrooms and hallways. Once we become adults ourselves we realize the folly of that assumption, but it is not often we get to go snap into focus the blurry images we had of them. This interview gave me that chance and it happily filled in blanks that made me put this man on an even higher pedestal. For all you former Cougars out there, take a peek at what we were not seeing as we roamed “the golden halls of learning”.
Who saw the runner in you, ie how did you get into running?
I come from an athletic family and tried a lot of different sports in grade and middle school. But because of my hand (ed. note: Mr. P has a birth defect in his right hand that required 8 operations), I could never get very far. I was actually great at baseball, decent at football but every time I would make a team a surgery would come up and I could not play because of a cast. By freshman year running made sense because I could run with a cast. It changed my life because my hand would never get in the way again.
My first practice I only ran 15 minutes. My coach, Steve French, said “take your time, build slow”. And by the end of the season, I could do 10 mile workouts and that was something. Running gave me a tremendous amount of confidence, and I found my identity (ed. note: no small feat in a family with lots of kids!). I never really achieved a lot in high school running – not in terms of medals or places or times. It was more things like how to treat others and how to be a teammate. In cross-country, when we finish a race we all still like each other. We might have battled it out over the miles but that falls away when it is over. What we do is hard, and at the end there is mutual respect because we all know what it took to get there. I have never been too into the competitive side, for me it has always been more about teamwork and camaraderie.
How long have you been pounding the pavement/trails?
Since I was 14, but running was always a family tradition. We went to the Penn Relays because my dad had run in the Penn relays. When I was a kid I watched McCory and Jim Ryun before they were Olympians. I love taking the kids to the relays – they are 25 yards from Usain Bolt. You can’t buy that experience, you just can’t.
A moment where you said to yourself “oh my god, I love running!”
It wasn’t actually a race. I can remember this clear as day. There was a runner I coached named John Thompson. I could run a marathon at the time and 12-13 miles was no big deal. But this was back in the days when it was hard to get the high school kids to do longer runs. Thompson was ready, though. We went out for a 10 mile run and at 9.5 I could not feel my body anymore. I felt nothing but the fact I was floating. I was in my 30s, I was toe to toe with this 17 yr old and I felt like I was flying. I have not felt it since, I don’t know if I ever will again but I am always looking for it. I call it the Thompson spot.
A moment when you said to yourself “Whose idea was this again? Why in the world am I doing this!?”
That would be Broad Street 2012. I did not train enough for it. All week leading up to it, I said “I am not doing it.” But some of local coaches were saying, “oh come on, once a runner always a runner” and ” don’t worry, the crowd will pull you along!” And then I got to expo and I get my shirt and some new shoes and just swept up in all the excitement. So race morning comes and within a ½ mile of the start I thought, “what the hell are you doing?” But I wound up pacing myself nicely and made it through to the end.
Running adage that is not true for you (i.e. they say to avoid running on a full stomach, but lil sis can house a hoagie and be fine to run immediately)?
For us it was the superstition that new uniforms will ruin a team’s season. It’s that “if it is working for you, don’t change it”. I almost did not give out new uniforms because of this! But I built them up so much; I had to give them out. And you know what? They have worked out really well for us, we are having an incredible year. (ed. note: P showed off the new uniforms and I was duly impressed! Very high tech fabric and super cool design)
Speaking of superstitions, I always think of a runner I had, Greg Frith, and his ritual meal before a race. On the bus on the way to a meet he would always eat a bologna sandwich, a Snickers bar, a banana and can of Pepsi. He ran every race perfect, he was a decorated 16:30 runner and one of our best by the time his high school career was over. All those rituals that we do (both alone and as a team) – none of it really works, but it truly is a mental thing that can help.
Prefer to run alone or with partner/group?
Both. There are times…there are just days I want to be alone. No one can call me, no one can get in touch with me and I need that. But there are other times when – like today, when we ran together. There is nothing like that. (ed. note: here, here!).
I also will partner run when I need to talk to kids individually. We go out a little earlier then the rest of the pack and sort out whatever we need to.
Favorite running gear?
I have really grown to love tights. I started hating sweatpants in the winter and I now feel more comfortable in tights. My son said to me, “aww, man, can’t you put some sweats over them?” so I went out and got a bright green pair. *laughs*
And I also love a really light pair of shorts. You can’t beat a pair that you can’t feel. If I find ones I like, I’ll hold on to them forever.
Bucket list race?
Bay to Breakers because of the change in elevation, the uniqueness of the race and that it is point to point. Pike’s Peak just sounds like a cool challenge. I am at the point now that I am looking for something new and different. There are a few races that I return to again and again (like Broad Street) but overall I want to do something new. But not the mud runs or the Warrior Dashes or anything like that – I have no desire to be electrocuted while running. *laughs* The kids try to get me to do them, but I haven’t been convinced so far.
Would you (or have you) ever do a bare it all (ie naked) run?
Probably not. Again, I like to feel comfortable while running and I would not feel comfortable at all on a number of levels. I don’t mind if other people do them, but it’s not me. And I really can’t imagine it on a bike (ed. note: P has been getting more into biking as of late). I need special equipment for a bike, I can’t imagine no equipment. *laughs* (ed. note: love that he took this question in stride! Thanks, P!)
What is your favorite race distance?
Hmmm. Now? I would probably say 8k. For different reasons, I like different distances. Broad Street 10 miler – you feel ok for the first 7, then you have to work for last 3. It is not the whole grind of a half, but more challenging than a 5k or 10k. With the boys now out of the house, I have more time and I know where I want to put that time – I am planning on the Philly Distance Runnext year(ed note: this race is now the Philly RnR , but will probably always be known as the PDR to most locals).
Do you run on vacation or take a break?
I especially like running on vacation because it is new, someplace I have not run before. I love running at the shore, on the beach. No matter where I go, I take my running shoes. You just have no idea when a chance to run will come up. You don’t have to plan it, but you’ll be glad you have them if an opportunity comes up. I tell the kids “when on summer vacations, take your shoes!” and they come back telling me of the great,unexpected runs they had.
What is a running ritual you have that makes other raise their eyebrows?
I actually don’t have any, I’m pretty easy. I am the opposite of Greg Frith *laughs*. Well, actually, I don’t eat before a run, even a long run, which is unusual for most runners. I have trained myself better over the years to eat, but it’s hard. I had to do it for the marathon. But my preference is to eat the night before and not that morning. It’s something I’ve had to work at.
Advice to fellow runners?
“Enjoy”. One word. Before each race, we say a prayer (I ask the kids ahead of time if it is ok with them – we’ve had years when we would do “Our Father” and then Hindu, Muslim, and Yiddish prayers. If a kid objects they don’t have to do it, no problem), go over race strategy and then the last thing I say to them is “have fun”. It has to be something that makes you feel good.
I would also tell others to “run relaxed”, that is hugely important.
What is your favorite post-race indulgence?
A beer. It to be a dark beer, like a Yuengling. If I were to have a light beer, I might as well stick with water. It’s a whole lot cheaper and tastes the same. *laughs*
Weird, random fact about yourself?
When students come back to the school, years after graduating, you all say to me, “you look the same!”. Now, I know I have changed physically, but the essence of who I am has remained the same. I am always going to be positive, always going to find something good in any situation. We remain the essence of who we are and I think that is what you all are seeing. I am a product of everyone in my life – obviously my immediate family but so much of my time is with my students and athletes, and even the other coaches, that you make me who I am too. Who gets this kind of life? What can I say? I have been so blessed, even with the hard times, I have been so blessed.
Mr P. recently led the Cougars to his 200th career win so I had to ask, “which was the most memorable?”
Oh, I could list a ton, there are so many. Of the recent ones, probably the duel meet we just had against Woodstown on October 2nd this year. We had trained very hard for this race, we had built our season towards this and it was Milestone #1. They beat us last year and they had their whole team back so they rightly felt confident. Halfway through the race, they were winning 25-33 and our boys were in positions 1,5,6,10 and 13. By then end we were 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8 and won. I was so proud of them for staying on the race plan and not getting flustered. It is so hard for them to run their race in a position like that. So there was the satisfaction of beating a rival, of them running their race plan and to set us up for the #200 win. It was a good day of coaching.
Can you see now why I love this man?! Thank you, Mr. P! Come back tomorrow for an special bonus section of Cape Island Spotlight where he shares the three times running saved his life. Like, literally. You don’t want to miss it!