Dawn creeps through the fog atop McClure Pass on a chilly fall morning – but no one is awake to see it. Except Judy Sunsky. She’s the bus driver. All of the members of Aspen’s cross-country team – including head coach Chris Keleher – have long since nodded off, tucked away in cocoons of blankets, sleeping bags and pillows.Keleher stayed awake to make sure all of his runners boarded the bus after leaving the high school parking lot in the dark at 6 a.m. But after stops in Snowmass, Basalt and El Jebel, he tells Sunsky that everyone is accounted for before he lies down, stretches his legs across the aisle and tries to catch what little sleep he can.Close to three-and-a-half hours later, nearly everyone is awake as Sunsky weaves the bus through the wet streets of Montrose. The team arrives at the town’s middle school with just under an hour to spare before the starting gun of the varsity cross-country race. That’s enough time for the Skiers runners to wipe the sleep out of their eyes, go to the bathroom, change, stretch and jog the course. The whole race itself – a nonconventional relay that pairs two runners together to complete six one-mile laps – takes less than an hour. Then, after a short awards ceremony, the team piles back on the bus to grab lunch at Safeway. Even though Keleher advises his runners to be efficient with their time – and “to eat something healthy” – there is a lot of dawdling in the store before everyone is back in their seats nearly 30 minutes later.Just after noon, Sunsky pulls out of the store’s parking lot. There’s one more stop in Hotchkiss for a bathroom break before the long drive over the pass and back to Aspen.
The math seems funny to say the least: A six-hour round-trip bus ride for a sporting event that lasts less than an hour. But when it comes to playing sports on Colorado’s Western Slope, long bus trips tend to be the norm, not the exception.Hotchkiss. Paonia. Delta. Buena Vista. Cedaredge. Vail. Montrose. All places that Aspen and Basalt’s teams have traveled to this fall. And don’t forget the Front Range – nothing less than a four-hour ride one way – if you want some good non-league competition, or if you make it to the postseason.”I calculated it one year,” says Keleher. “I don’t remember the exact numbers. It seems like the average time we were actually running was about 20 minutes, 21 minutes maybe, while the average travel time was six hours roundtrip. So it was about 18 times difference as far as travel time to running time. It’s crazy.”Travel time versus competition time for a cross-country meet is more skewed than other sporting events such as a three-hour football game or a two-hour soccer or volleyball match.But, to be fair, the cross-country team travels only once a week, typically on Saturdays.During the fall, soccer and volleyball teams can play up to three times a week, with as many as two of those contests on the road. Aspen’s soccer team alone has traveled nearly 1,000 miles this fall, and that’s before the start of the playoffs. If the Skiers advance to the 3A state semifinals, as expected, it means a long bus ride to Broomfield, the host site for the final four.During the last week in September, Basalt’s soccer team traveled to Vail Mountain School on Tuesday (212 miles roundtrip) then headed the opposite direction to Paonia on Saturday (174 miles). During the first full weekend in October, Aspen’s volleyball team headed to Olathe on Friday night (127 miles), then spent the night in Delta before driving to Cedaredge for an 11 a.m. game on Saturday, then back home (120 miles).”It’s all part of the job,” says Aspen soccer coach Junior Sutherland. “We keep forgetting this is a job, for all of us. We do it because we love the sport.”But is it too much? How much do marathon-long bus rides affect athletic performance when competitors must rise before the sun, or return long after the sun has set?”I don’t think it matters the night before,” says senior Jacob O’Connor, who crashed within five minutes of getting on the bus to Montrose. “As long as you get some sleep, you’re all right. I think what’s more important is the sleep you get earlier in the week.””I think it does [hinder athletic performance] a little bit,” Keleher says. “But sometimes it’s nice being on the bus. You can stretch out. You can sleep. I think the kids are used to it by the end of the year. It’s what you do. If you live here, you have to do this.”And what about school?When Aspen’s harriers ran at the Liberty Bell Invite in Littleton on Friday, Sept. 15, the bus left the high school just before 11 a.m. for the nearly five-hour trip. The team’s athletes missed more than half of their classes for the day.”Our kids have to be really committed, especially on the Western Slope,” says Aspen Superintendent Diana Sirko. “Sometimes they’re not getting back until 8 or 9 at night on a school night, and they still have to get all their homework done. You have to really manage your time.”
As for academic performance related to sports, a bevy of national statistics indicate that high school students who participate in extracurricular activities tend to perform much better in school than those who don’t. An article titled “The Case for High School Activities” on the National Federation of State High School Association’s website (nfhs.org) cites 22 different state and national studies that indicate the benefit of participation in extracurricular activities. All showed higher grade-point averages, better attendance rates and higher standardized test scores for participants as opposed to nonparticipants.At the state level, those statistics echo the findings of a 2002 joint study by the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA).Of the 6,799 students surveyed from 14 schools of various enrollments, the average GPA for a student participant was 2.96, as opposed to a nonparticipant’s GPA of 2.35. A participant in extracurricular activities missed school an average of 3.59 days while a nonparticipant was absent 5.92 days, according to the study. The reasons why student participants perform better than nonparticipants are simple, says Bert Borgmann, an assistant commissioner at CHSAA.”In order to be eligible to participate, you have to meet a certain academic standard,” Borgmann says. “The kids who want to participate are motivated to meet that standard and usually exceed it. I don’t care what kind of activity it is – sports, music, speech, theater – anytime you get the kids engaged in the school in something more than just math and social studies, they’re going to do better and perform at a higher level.”But what about the long bus rides and the missed classes?”Even though they’re on the bus a lot, athletes still miss less time than other students,” he says. “The kids who don’t participate in activities, the numbers show they’re just not as motivated to be at school.”
Sirko says that she has heard concerns in the past – from teachers and parents – about the amount of time student athletes spend on the bus during the school year.Cross-town bus rides for teams on the Front Range are a lot different than a trip to East Vail, much less Hotchkiss, for a 4 p.m. soccer game or a 6 p.m. volleyball match. But Sirko is quick to echo the survey conclusions – that Aspen students who participate in sports tend to be some of the best in the school.Skiers volleyball coach Matt Bergdahl isn’t a big fan of the long bus rides. For volleyball, he says, it would be ideal if athletic directors were able to coordinate three-team matches to cut down on travel time.
Even with the traveling, however, he says it’s hard to recall a time when one of his players was in academic trouble and in danger of being ineligible. “Most of the senior girls, if this is an indication, are all applying to academically tough colleges,” he says. “I don’t know what the average GPA of my team is, but I’d make a guess that most of them are probably in the top 10 percent of their classes.”I never have a problem with them. I hear some feedback that maybe the teachers don’t understand the travel aspect – in terms of getting somewhere and then getting ready for a match. Sometimes they feel like the kids are leaving too early … I make sure the girls plan ahead of time with the teacher for the time that they’re going to be gone.”On the bus ride back from Montrose, Keleher’s runners eat their lunches, listen to music on their iPods, play games, color in coloring books and talk about plans for Saturday night.Keleher even bought a cake for freshman Gracie Nichols for her 15th birthday. After the traditional birthday song, the cake is passed up and down the aisle and everyone digs in with a fork.Looking around, however, no one seems to be doing any homework. It’s Saturday, but wouldn’t it be smart to do some history homework during a six-hour bus ride?”It’s not very easy to do homework on the bus,” says junior Annalise Grueter. “It depends on what the assignment is. One of my friends, another junior, I think she gets all of her homework done on the bus and I’m amazed at that. I usually get half of one assignment done. And that’s on a good day.””Sometimes I do it, but not always,” says sophomore Brittany Marrs. “We’re supposed to, but sometimes I can’t concentrate on the bus.”It’s rare for one of his players to do homework on the bus, Bergdahl says. But sometimes they bring it along and do it in the stands. To cut down on costs, the freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams travel together, which means there’s a lot of downtime for members of each team at the destination school.”Some of them actually can do it on the bus – those that can read on a bus without throwing up,” Bergdahl says. “Myself, I have to stare out the window the entire time. iPods have replaced doing homework on buses.”
Once the bus passes Carbondale, Aspen’s cross-country team – slap-happy from the road -starts singing again. This time it’s familiar songs from Disney movies.The Skiers run through a medley that includes numbers from “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “Pocahontas.”It’s apparent that bus rides – especially really long bus rides – help foster team chemistry, if nothing else. (See related story)Sunsky – who has been driving for the district for six years – says that each team does this differently. Some are quieter, others rowdier. Girls teams talk about different things than boys teams. Cross-country and skiing teams are different altogether because girls and boys travel together.There are other pronounced differences, too – like the way a girls volleyball team smells after a match as opposed to a group of muddy football players.”It can get pretty bad,” Sunsky says of the latter.But one thing’s the same: All local athletes and coaches spend lots of time on the bus.”I’d much rather live here and take three-hour bus rides than live in the middle of Denver,” Keleher says.
And everyone agrees on the best part of any long bus ride: When the bus stops in the parking lot in Aspen and everyone gets off. At least until the next bus ride.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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