ST. PETERSBURG — Once, they were just pages filled with scrawlings of how many miles Christa Benton had run and how long it had taken her to do so.
Now, they are memories.
Stacked in a drawer in her bedroom are 10 running journals, each one a Christmas present from coach Lance Lipham.
They were diligently kept, a record of her every step since she began seriously training.
She pulls them out of the drawer every so often, each set of numbers reminding her of the man she still calls "my coach" — what he was wearing, the sound of his voice, where she finished that day — and sometimes, it makes her cry.
• • •
Lance Lipham died on Aug. 6 of pancreatic cancer at age 57. He was a great guy, say those who knew him. Witty, affable, magnetic.
"I loved every moment I spent with him," said one of his best friends, Seminole cross country coach Bruce Calhoun, who coached Lipham's son, Erik.
He was an outstanding coach, say those who ran for him. Devoted, encouraging, fatherly.
Benton said he had an "essence" that was hard to explain.
"He was just one of those people you might only meet once of in your whole lifetime, if you're lucky."
This week, Lipham's Keswick Christian cross country team will compete for the first time in 12 years without him.
Who will offer them milkshakes for running a personal best? Who will make them spaghetti dinners if they make it to regionals? Who will make them laugh with a sarcastic remark on the way home?
"It will be a little strange," eighth-grader Hannah Palm said.
This year, the Keswick Classic will be renamed the Lance Lipham Classic. And the team will wear green bands on their wrists, inscribed with one of Lipham's favorite Bible verses:
"Let us run with patience the race that is set before us."
When Palm and the rest of the Crusader boys and girls teams run the course behind school, they say they can sometimes still see him at certain spots, hear him through the trees.
"Now, boys," he would shout, and senior Alex Gispert does a dead-on impersonation of the voice.
"That was really good," new coach Fred Meinke said.
And they laugh.
• • •
Benton's father died of cancer when she was just 9, and Lipham filled a gigantic void in her life.
She was a shy eighth-grader when she first came out for cross country. He nurtured her out of her shell, as he did for countless others. She said he taught her how to be comfortable with the way God had made her.
Together they won five state championships, and Benton earned a scholarship to USF.
When she finished school, she started training for marathons with Lipham.
Now 24, she was heartbroken when he was diagnosed with cancer last fall. For a while, it looked as if he had beaten the disease, and he had a big summer of vacations lined up with his family.
The first one was to Minnesota.
"I probably won't be calling you while I'm up there," he told her. "Unless I see a bear or an elk or something."
He never called. His health was deteriorating rapidly even as he was vacationing, and upon his return to Florida in July, he went right into the hospital.
Three days before Lipham died under hospice care, Benton saw her coach for the last time.
"I wanted to give him a hug," she said. "I didn't want to believe it. I told him I loved him, that he was the best coach in the world, and no matter what happened, I would see him again."
Lipham motioned for her to come closer. In a whisper Benton could barely hear, he said:
"I love you.
That's it … "
He didn't have the strength to finish his last sentence. She thinks he wanted to say "that's it for now; we'll catch up later."
• • •
Benton teaches music at Northside Christian. One day, she'd like to coach.
Until then, she runs.
Lipham had promised her he would get her ready for the 2012 Olympics. That is her goal.
It's tough, she says, taking a moment to compose herself.
She says it will be a tough year for the Keswick cross country teams. It will be tough for everyone who knew him.
But there is hope, she said, if you just believe.
Nine days after Lipham died, Benton competed in her first race without him but said it felt like he was right there with her, every step on the way.
She ran the fastest time of her life.
• • •
Benton was Lipham's prized pupil. She was a prodigy, one of the best runners in Tampa Bay history, and from 1998 to 2000 won a state cross country title every year.
She looks back, from time to time, at her runs, her times, jotted in one of the journals Lipham had given her.
Sometimes, they make her laugh.
"They might be worth some money one day," he told her.
Turns out, they are worth much more than that.
John C. Cotey can be reached at email@example.com.