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Murray Journal

New coach, new race, new excitement for the Murray Parks & Recreation youth cross country program

Nov 11, 2019 04:19PM ● By Carl Fauver

Recreation Coordinator Leisl Morris and youth cross country coaches Savannah Watchman, Spencer Watchman and Austin Knighton (L-R) stand behind a handful of the 50 young runners who participated in the popular Murray Parks & Recreation program this fall (Carl Fauver/City Journals)

By Carl Fauver | [email protected] 

As a young Native American boy – growing up amongst the sagebrush of Shiprock, New Mexico, an hour southeast of Four Corners Monument – Walter Watchman used to crawl out of bed most mornings, long before dawn – to “run to the sun.”

“It was a tradition my grandparents taught me,” Watchman said, nearly a half-century after those lonely dawn jogs. “I ran east and watched the sun rise in front of me. It was about a mile each direction.”

That run to the sun may not have been a widespread tradition, because Watchman always did it alone. It instilled in him a love for cross country running he continued to pursue during his high school and college days.  

Now Watchman shares his joy of running with youngsters in the Murray Parks & Recreation cross country and track programs.

“Having him take over our cross country program has been fantastic,” said Murray Recreation Coordinator Leisl Morris. “I like his approach to conditioning and training. And the kids love him.”

So do their parents.

“We are insanely pleased with coach Watchman,” said Liz Ward, who’s son Jacob, 12, has been running for Walter two seasons.  “He’s legit. Wherever he goes to coach, we will follow him.”

That, in fact, is what the Wards – and several other young runners and their parents – did this fall, after Watchman left Salt Lake County’s Central City Recreation Center (615 S. 300 East) to bring his coaching talents to Murray. Two assistant coaches – his son and daughter-in-law – were the first to follow, with several young harriers not far behind.

“I was with Central City more than 20 years and was just ready for a change,” Watchman said. “I’ve always respected the Murray High School cross country and track programs, going back to when I was going to high school in Ogden. I thought it would be fun to coach the kids in this area.”

After moving to Utah from New Mexico at age 9, Watchman ran three years of cross country for Ogden’s Ben Lomond High School, and another year for Brigham Young University, before going on a church mission.

Later he introduced all six of his sons to the sport. One of them, Spencer Watchman, is an ironman athlete in his own right. Spencer and his wife, Savannah, are the two assistant cross country coaches who followed Walter to the Murray program.

His third assistant coach this fall was 2019 Murray High School graduate Austin Knighton, who has worked for Murray Parks & Recreation for three years.

“I’ve worked a total of 26 different youth sports seasons for parks and rec,” Knighton said. “But I have always been a referee or umpire. This is the first time I’ve been able to coach – and I love it. They offered to pay me. But youth coaches don’t normally get paid, so I am not turning in my coaching hours for pay.”

Knighton earned eight athlete letters while attending Murray High, in football, wrestling, weightlifting and track.

“I enjoy helping the kids become better runners,” Knighton added. “In nearly every sport, running is a form of punishment. But here the kids want to do it.”

Murray Parks & Recreation will lose a good hand in just a couple of weeks, when Austin moves to the Missionary Training Center in Provo and then to a Spanish-speaking mission in Oklahoma City for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The new array of coaches weren’t the only changes for the youth cross country program either. Deciding the kids needed one more race during their season, rec coordinator Morris and coach Watchman cooked up the idea of the “First Annual HAYDAY 2K,” complete with something even more unusual – an art contest.

Young runners in the cross country program were encouraged to draw HAYDAY 2K T-shirt designs. The first place winner landed on the front of the shirts and second place on the back.

The new race was held on a brisk October evening at Willow Pond Park (1000 West, just north of the I-215 belt route) and included 31 young runners, along with several parents.

Jacob Ward was one of the race’s top finishers.

“He has taught me so many running mechanics, like how to climb hills better,” the Hillside Middle School seventh-grader said of Watchman. “And we do so many different things at practice – it’s a great variety. I think most of all, I like his three rules.” 

After coaching youth cross country for a quarter century, Watchman has boiled it down to three simple, but important rules:

  1. Listen to coaches
  2. Respect each other
  3. Have fun

“I think I give kids more structure than most youth programs, because I want them to remember what they’ve learned when they get to their high school teams,” Watchman said. “People who don’t know the sport sometimes think cross country coaching is just watching kids run. But we have lots of different workouts, for distance, speed and hill running.”

The Murray Parks & Recreation youth program “regular season” ended a couple of weeks ago, with the All-County Cross Country Meet, at Wardle Fields Regional Park (14148 S. 2700 West). However, those kids with qualifying times at that meet are now training for a state meet later this month, sponsored by the USA Track & Field Junior Olympics Program.

Moreover, any of Watchman’s runners who do well enough at the state meet will qualify for a national meet next month. While still with the Central City Recreation Center a year ago, a dozen of Walter’s harriers qualified for the national finals race, held in Reno, Nevada, last December.

“It was a slushy, muddy mess – but a lot of us went,” Liz Ward said. “His dad and I went, along with Grandma, Grampa, an uncle and a cousin – all to watch Jacob run. But if he qualifies this year, I’m not sure whether we’ll go again.”

Ward said primarily that’s because Wisconsin – the site of this December’s national cross country finals – is more than twice as far away as Reno and likely to be even colder and wetter.

Watchman said he is committed to helping his runners train through the state and national finals. Then after a break, to let the snow fly and melt, he plans to be back at it, with the Murray Parks & Recreation youth track and field program, next spring.