VERGENNES — The new Vergennes Union High School cross-country coach calls himself a lifelong runner — and credits the sport with helping point his life in the right direction.
Eric Carter, who takes over from Jeff Kauffman, is a 51-year-old Panton resident who logs up to six miles a day in his running shoes and has coached the VUHS middle school team and helped out the Commodore track program.
VUHS athletic director Peter Maneen said Kauffman is pursuing a business opportunity this fall, but will stay on as the school’s winter and spring track coach.
Carter, a Panton selectman, Goodrich Corp. systems engineer and father of three VUHS graduates and one current student — Shep Carter, a junior who returns after being the cross-country team’s top performer in 2010 — said his love affair with running began in fortunate fashion.
He acknowledged he was on the wrong path in middle school in his native Bar Harbor, Maine, sneaking cigarettes and even alcohol and “hanging with the wrong crowd.”
“I had a tough middle school time. I had a lot of frustration and anger,” he said. “I kind of acted out in a lot of ways.”
But not all of his friends were making poor choices.
“After 8th grade I was at a point, which path was I going to go down?” he said. “I was sitting at the lunch room table one day in 8th grade toward the end of the year, and one of my friends said, ‘I think I’m going to run cross-country in the fall.’ And I said, What’s that all about?’ (He said,) ‘Well, you run.’ And I said I’d try it, and it changed my life.”
By his senior year, Carter was the team’s top runner, taking 22nd in Maine in his school’s division. More importantly, he turned his life around.
Carter ended up going to college, starting a career track that resulted in his 24 years at Goodrich, finding the faith that led him to join the Panton Community Baptist Church (and preach there and at three other area churches on a fill-in basis), and meeting the woman he would marry, a teammate named Annette, now a teacher at New Haven’s Beeman Elementary School.
“It put me on a better path. I had an outlet for some of my frustration and aggression. It put me in a better crowd where I had better role models and peers that were serious about what they did, and they wouldn’t put up with any foolishness. There were captains that said, ‘Carter, you’re going to toe the line. You’re on the team now, and you have a responsibility to act a certain way, and we’re not going to put up with anything less,’” he said. “And I’ve been a runner ever since.”
If anything, Carter now runs more than ever. His New Year’s resolution was to run outdoors, not on treadmills in the Goodrich workout facility, no matter what the weather, and he said he has not missed a day. On Aug. 27, he was third overall in the Vergennes Day 5-kilometer race.
Yes, Carter admits his legs ache a bit sometimes, but he said the small amount of pain is worth it.
“They’re a little sore here and there, but I’m holding up OK for an old guy,” he said. “I just love it. I do five miles a day, six miles a day. I love being outside, I love getting out of the office at noontime.”
Carter coached the middle school runners for four years and also assisted former VUHS track coach Jim Becker before taking the past two years off from coaching. His middle school teams were successful, he said, including a win at the Middlebury Invitational.
When Kauffman decided to step away during the fall, Carter decided to step back in. Carter hopes his athletes will appreciate his passion for cross-country.
“I think that’s what I bring to the table, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of experience doing it,” he said. “I want people to work hard, but also have fun. I think there’s a real good balance that we need to maintain. And that’s what we’re going to try to do this fall. Work hard, work really hard in practice, look forward to the meets. Get ready for the meets. We really want to be ready for the meets physically and mentally. We want to run, and we want to run hard.”
Carter said the mental challenge of the sport is as daunting as the physical.
“There’s a point in a race when you have to make a decision. Do I settle for where I am, or can I take another guy? ... And that’s what I want to prepare my team to do, not to settle, but to be able to take it up a notch and be able to pick off another guy, or two more guys, or three more,” he said. “And that’s what separates good teams and good runners from mediocre ones. It’s mental. You’ve got to have that physical preparation, but you’ve got to have that mental desire to want it.”
Carter will keep an open mind about how long he will stay on the job.
“I take it a year at a time. I tell people I take things a day at a time. I’m here to help. If someone came in with more experience and really wanted to do it, I would be happy to step aside. I would be happy to be their assistant,” Carter said. “Right now I take it one season at a time, and I’m happy to help and do what I can.”
But he won’t rule out a long-term commitment.
“I love kids. I think I’m a big kid myself. I love to be around them. I love their enthusiasm. I love their energy,” he said. “I could certainly see myself doing it for a while if the circumstances were right.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.