Leaving a legacy: Long-time coach Kristen Uhler reflects on her years leading HRV cross country

‘Every time you step to the starting line it’s a test of your character, and that carries over to everyday life’ -- Kristen Uhler

Photo by Adam Lapierre
‘Every time you step to the starting line it’s a test of your character, and that carries over to everyday life’ -- Kristen Uhler

Although too modest to admit, Kristen Uhler is truly irreplaceable. As a lifelong athlete and 27-year coach and educator at Hood River Valley High School, her friendly but fiercely-focused approach has inspired thousands of student athletes who passed through her grasp in a way that only someone who genuinely practiced what she preached could. This fall, as Uhler prepares for a new phase in life – as a grandmother – she is relinquishing control of the HRV cross country program, leaving it in the capable hands of new head coach Brandon Bertram and three-year assistant Gabe Judah (although you can bet she’ll be cheering from the sidelines any chance she gets).

While preparing for the start of school – she remains the HRV health teacher and plans on coaching track again in the spring – Uhler took the time last week to answer a few questions about the past, the future and what her legacy at HRV cross country means to her life.

Q: What is your background in running, personally and competitively?

A: I didn’t start running competitively until college at Univ. of California at Santa Barbara. I was extremely active as a kid growing up in Newport Beach. Riding your bike to the beach, surfing, bodysurfing, playing beach volleyball, riding home then running to a friend’s hot tub was a perfect day. I realize now what a great childhood I had!

Training in Santa Barbara was great; we’d run from UCSB to Santa Barbara City in bare feet on a low tide. I ran cross-country and track at UCSB.

Q: When and where did you start coaching and what other sports did you coach?

A: I started coaching at Henkle Middle School and Columbia HS in White Salmon in 1982, where I got my first teaching job out of college. I was living in Mt. Hood at the time. I coached basketball, as I played basketball throughout HS and my first semester at Orange Coast College. I was too short and too slow! I should have been doing endurance sports in HS but was crazy for basketball, field hockey, and gymnastics. None of which I was very good at! Title Nine was in full swing at Newport Harbor HS, I had some great female coaches that I really admired.

Q: If you had to sum up what running means to you in one brief statement, what would you say?

A: Running, or exercise in general, has given me opportunities, a time to process, a cathartic release and a coping mechanism for life’s challenges. I sincerely believe humans were meant to be active. Being sedentary is not natural; we were designed to be hunters and gatherers. Inactivity leads to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and depression. At least one hour per day of activity keeps one healthy mentally and physically.

Q: Why are you retiring from coaching cross country this year?

A: I’m taking a break from coaching due to family responsibilities. I guess I’m in the “sandwich” generation. My parents are aging and I want to keep them in their home, so they require care. Also, my daughter and son-in-law are expecting their first child. I want to be an active grandma, taking them skiing, biking, sailing, hiking and generally being available when needed. My family means everything to me! It was a difficult decision and I’m hoping I can help again when the time is right.

I’m still teaching Health at HRVHS. Our school is a great place to be. I’m striving to make a difference in kids’ lives and motivate them to make healthy choices. High school kids have great energy. Every day is different, and fun, with teenagers.

Q: You must have a wealth of memories from your years coaching. What are a couple highlights that come to mind?

A: Coaching allows you to really bond with kids. Running, in particular, attracts a certain type of athlete. They are willing to sacrifice and work year-round while setting high goals academically and athletically. We’ve been fortunate to have state champions and district champions. For example, the 1992 State Championship team just ran the Hood to Coast together; we will always be friends. The relationships you develop are more important than trophies.

Q: What core lessons did you always try to teach your students through the sport of cross country?

A: Keep working, stay consistent and maintain balance in your life (family, academics, and then sports). A poor race can be a motivator and give one perspective. Be confident — everybody is beatable — and set your goals and dreams high. If you’ve put in the work, you DESERVE to win!

Q: What have you learned from your students and athletes over the years?

A: Not to sweat the small stuff. Your true character comes out when you are stressed and tired — how you react under those conditions shows your true character. Also, every student and every athlete is equal. It doesn’t matter how fast or how privileged you were when you were born. Some of us are more fortunate than others. In the end we are all equal. Also, I think it’s important to teach humility and identify any sense of “entitlement” as a sign of weakness. In running, your success must be earned.

Q: What will you miss?

A: The kids, for sure, and watching them achieve their goals and become empowered; the parents and all the coaches I’ve bonded with, and that nervous feeling before a big race. It makes you feel so alive!

No one really knows the outcome of a race and you have put so much time and effort into your preparation mentally and physically. Every time you step to the starting line it’s a test of your character, and that carries over to everyday life.

Q: How do you feel about handing over your coaching legacy to someone new?

A: Brandon (Bertram) e-mailed me last year and wanted to help. I really think that was a gift, as my family situation was changing. He appeared at the right time. He is competent and open. I know the runners will thrive under his coaching. Also, Gabe (Judah) is in his third year as assistant coach and the kids love him. I’m thankful that the runners are in good hands.

I’m just taking a break; I want to keep the door open to coming back. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I’m trusting I can help with the kids again at some point.

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