Padecky: A quarter-century of smiles for Santa Rosa cross country coach Doug Courtemarche

There he is, smiling. Doug Courtemarche wears it like a brand-new suit, fresh off the rack, and never takes it off. It could be cloudy, rainy, colder than an assassin’s gaze, but the corners of his mouth remain up. Courtemarche could have a knife sticking out of his foot, but he wouldn’t stoop down to remove it: Please, finish your sentence, I don’t want to interrupt.

“Doug is irrationally cheerful,” said Peter Brewer, the track and field and cross country coach at Castro Valley High School, a longtime opponent and admirer of his counterpart at Santa Rosa High. “I’m completely envious of his attitude.”

Of course, you believe a blanket statement like you believe Barry Bonds when he said he never took steroids. You initially disbelieve bold proclamations because they create immediate suspicion. You want more proof. Courtemarche gave it.

Courtemarche, 69, pointed to his left foot. It’s encased in a stabilizing boot. Hurts every time he walks. It should.

“It’s bone-on-bone, the bottom of my ankle rubbing against the top of my foot,” he said. “And if I don’t wear the boot ...”

His left hand slid across the top of his right hand.

His left foot is competing with his right knee to win the gold medal in The Most Debilitating Pain, Lifetime. Courtemarche had a knee replacement February 7. Courtemarche’s body has a lot of contenders for this title. He has had left knee replacement surgery, a new hip and hernias and back surgery and, let’s keep it simple: Courtemarche has undergone nine surgeries.

His reaction?

“I’m a lucky man,” Courtemarche said.

Thus begins the explanation for why the high school is honoring Courtemarche this Saturday at the Big Cat track meet. It’s not because the man is retiring; he wants to go a couple more years. It’s not because he’s in failing health; he treats these surgeries as a mere fever blister. It’s not because teenagers have worn him out; adolescents are the caffeine that gets him going.

It’s that Courtemarche is finishing his 25th consecutive year in a sport far from the maddening headlines. It’s not football or baseball or basketball or soccer. Not even hockey. It’s a sport that demands exertion, so back off from those pancakes, dude, if you want to make this dance. There are no timeouts. No one flops in track and field unless it’s a high jumper. Sweat equity is the currency of the day. You don’t sprint to first base; you run miles.

Track and field is like working the backlot on a movie set. The stars are on stage. Track and field is off screen, working on the scaffolding. Vital. Unappreciated.

Yet, on average, 100 kids turn out for the first practice every year at Santa Rosa. That’s more than any other sport in high school. Sure, it’s one team. No freshman or junior varsity teams in this sport. Sure, some kids turn out to fulfill their physical education requirement (95 kids are still on the team).

So Santa Rosa has had the same coach for 25 years. Oh, that seven schools in Sonoma County would like to say the same thing about their head football coach, seven having departed since last season.

Of course, winning has something to do with it. The Santa Rosa girls have winning seasons in 24 of those 25; the boys 23 of 25. Both the boys and girls have won nine NBL titles. A Panther girl has won seven consecutive Division 1 individual cross country titles.

So the kids have come out for Courtemarche for 25 years and it has to do with much more than just being successful. Success can attract helicopter parents and athlete burnout. Success can create prima donnas, entitlements, distractions that disable a program.

To eliminate all that, that’s why the high school is honoring Courtemarche. To explain how he does all that - keeping egos and expectations at bay while maintaining energetic participation - his relationship with Julia (Stamps) Mallon encapsulates everything.

It begins with her slippers.

Courtemarche was a 10-year coach with the Santa Rosa Express running club when he first met Mallon, age 8. She loved to run; Courtemarche could see that right away. At her first meet, she showed up in slippers to warm up.

“Doug didn’t say anything,” Mallon recalled. “He wanted me to figure it out.”

By the time Mallon began high school, she was fast attracting national attention. Courtemarche saw a one-in-a-million runner and did the only thing he thought logical. He asked Danny Aldridge for help. Aldridge was a sub-four-minute miler. A former collegiate All-American at Cal Poly.

“Doug could have been incredibly selfish” at the temptation of claiming the runner to himself, Mallon said.

Courtemarche? He grimaced at the thought at claiming Mallon HIS prodigy.

“It’s a horrible, horrible thing,” he said, “to coach kids through your ego. Danny could be 100 times more beneficial to Julia than I could.”

Mallon went on to win seven state high school running championships, become a six-time All-American at Stanford (the standard by which all runners from Northern California are measured) and a frustrated hurdler.

“When I first came out to track,” said Mallon, 38, “I wanted to be a hurdler. Doug was totally OK with that. He wanted me to do what I thought I’d like. I’ve still got scars on my knees from all the times I hit the hurdles and fell ... but that’s Doug. He was flexible. He wanted you to try things. See what you like.”

Now we are approaching the core of Courtemarche’s appeal, why kids are drawn to him, why kids succeed: approximately 20 have gone on to college track scholarships and an estimated 100 to running in college.

The thousand kids who have been coached by Courtemarche should thank the Internal Revenue Service. Courtemarche was an IRS field agent for 22 years. As one might guess, the job had its own built-in tension, as money and a crook are not easily parted.

Courtemarche had two security men stationed behind him, a vision which worked most of the time, especially when a man once thrust a screwdriver about six inches from Courtemarche’s face.

“The IRS put me in a lot of situations I had to deal with calmly, with fairness and firmness,” he said. “Wouldn’t you rather talk to someone who is pleasant and smiling than being around someone who is grumpy?”

Ah, there you have it, perfect training to be around teenagers or, as Courtemarche said, “freshman boys are a unique species all their own.” Courtemarche learned how to work with and around conflict. He learned, especially - and this could be a lesson for all of us -how to be an active listener.

“Kids want to know they matter,” he said. “They want to feel good about what they’ve done.”

So Courtemarche, who is childless, listens and listens and listens. Aware that adolescent emotions can be a raging sea in search of calm, he has found humor the vehicle of choice.

“I’ve had a hard time with the winning-at-all-costs philosophy,” said Courtemarche, a substitute teacher at Santa Rosa.

That’s why we have the banana race. Officially it’s called the Tropical Relay. Four teams of four runners each run a 4x100 relay. The baton is a banana.

“The goal is to finish first with the anchor holding nothing by the intact banana peel,” Courtemarche said. “Some share in the eating. One might eat the entire banana in the first leg. Or maybe the last leg.”

The Popsicle Relay lasted only two years as the goo trashed the track. That said, Courtemarche is always open to suggestions. He wants a smile on his kids as much as their time or distance on a scoresheet.

“I grew up a happy kid,” Courtemarche said of his Long Beach days. “I want the same for my kids.”

Teenagers, as is their custom, express themselves in ways other than words. On Monday, three boys from Courtemarche’s track team came by to walk Ringo, a 13-year-old mutt.

It’s a daily occurrence after his knee replacement surgery, as a walk longer than a minute or so takes away the joy of being upright.

“They don’t have to do this, you know,” I said to Courtemarche.

“I’m pretty lucky.”

“So I’ve heard.”

To contact Bob Padecky email him at

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