SPECIAL RUN: Merrell Noden displays the ready smile that was a hallmark of his approach in coaching the Princeton Day School cross country program over the last four seasons. Noden, who passed away on May 31 at age 59 after battling lung cancer, strove to get his runners to enjoy the sport. Running was at the core of Noden’s being as he set track records at the Lawrenceville School, competed for the Princeton University cross country team, and later ran at Oxford as a grad student. In addition to competing, he wrote about the sport for Sports Illustrated and other publications.
In coaching the Princeton Day School cross country program over the last four seasons, Merrell Noden was thrilled whenever his runners were at the front of the pack.
But his main ambition in leading his charges wasn’t centered on achieving personal records or top-3 finishes.
“My goal is to have the kids learn something about running and cross country, to make them enjoy it and stay with it, and to improve,” said Noden in a 2013 interview.
For Noden, who passed away on May 31 at age 59 after battling lung cancer, running stayed at the core of his being until the end.
As a student at The Lawrenceville School, Noden ran a 4:11.9 mile on a distance medley team that set a U.S. high school indoor record; and, on his own, he set an Eastern high school indoor 880 record of 1:54.0. At Princeton University, he ran cross-country for four years while graduating summa cum laude.
After a stint teaching at Princeton Day School, he earned an MPhil in English Literature at Oxford University. While at Oxford, he trained and raced with the North London Athletics Club and earned an Oxford Blue. He would continue to run for pleasure and competition throughout his life.
Returning from Oxford, he started writing for Sports Illustrated and produced a number of insightful stories on track athletes, among many other subjects. After a distinguished tenure at SI, Noden branched into freelancing, contributing to a variety of publications.
In 2011, he took the helm of the PDS boys’ and girls’ cross country teams and found a new audience to regale with his love of running.
Reflecting on his time with Noden, PDS assistant cross country coach Chris Devlin said that Noden clicked with the young runners.
“He was very knowledgeable about the sport,” said Devlin, who joined the coaching staff in 2012. “He had run at Princeton and written for Sports Illustrated but you would never know that from talking to him. He was one of the nicest and most down-to-earth guys. The kids really related to him.”
Emma Kaplan, a member of the cross country team for the last three years who recently graduated from PDS, credited Noden with inspiring a love of running.
“He helped everyone appreciate the sport,” said Kaplan. “He told us stories about his experiences as a runner and some of the people he had run against. He helped everyone set goals.”
Noden, in turn, appreciated seeing the PDS runners achieving their goals.
“He recognized everyone’s improvement, not just the top five runners,” said Kaplan.
“He was good at recognizing the accomplishments of others. He had a special connection with everyone on the team.”
Devlin and the runners, though, recognized that Noden was struggling with his illness, which first manifested itself in 2012, when he missed a few practices and ran less regularly with his athletes. By 2013, he was using a cane and a walker to get around. Last fall, he would customarily coach sitting in a golf cart or a chair.
There was no thought, however, on Noden’s part of taking the easy way out and giving up his coaching duties.
“His brain may have said stop coaching but his mind and heart said not yet,” said Devlin.
“It was a love of the sport and a love of the team, he wanted to be there for the kids. He was inspirational; he would get dropped off at the bottom of the hill and would make his way to the pagoda. He never mentioned anything about his illness. I made sure I got a golf cart whenever I could for him. He was like a military service guy, never bringing up anything about what he was going through.”
While Noden may have suffered in silence, his steadfast presence spoke volumes about his commitment to the sport and team.
“It was hard to see him go through that much pain, especially when you had seen how active he was before,” said Kaplan.
“He still came out to practice even though sometimes he was not able to walk and the other coaches had to help him. He wanted to come out and support us. I think it was because he loved the sport so much, everyone who knew him knows that he loved running so much. He enjoyed coaching us as well. At one point his son, Sam, was on the team.”
Noden’s love for the sport and his runners leaves a major void for the PDS program.
“It is going to be really hard to fill his shoes,” said Kaplan. “He was so understanding and connected so well with everyone.”
For Devlin, it is hard to imagine coaching without Noden. “I will miss the bus trips,” said Devlin.
“He would tell stories on the bus. His friendship and the knowledge he had was special. We would talk about fantasy football. He knew I was a big Notre Dame fan and he would joke about whether he was going to bet on them. He took me on as a coach when I had hardly any background in running and taught me what I know about the sport. We haven’t just lost a coach, we have lost a friend and a mentor. One of the kids said on a web post that he may be gone but he will always be there with me when I am running.”
This reporter got a first hand exposure to Noden’s gift for imparting running lore at the 2013 Mercer County Championships. As Noden was sitting hunched over near the finish line at Washington Crossing State Park waiting for his runners, we struck up a conversation. He talked about how one of his athletes had competed for the Thames Valley Harriers in London and spoke glowingly of his time with the North London club. Noden’s eyes sparkled as he then recalled how he used to do 20-milers in and around the park we were sitting in to train for marathons.
As the runners approached the finish line, Noden smiled and turned his focus to the race at hand, looking right at home notwithstanding how bad he must have felt being confined to his chair.