By Jim Sullivan
---- — Cross-country season is a good enough reason to run, but for the Amesbury XC teams, this year is personal.
“A lot of the upperclassman had Mike for three to four years,” current Indians’ boys and girls coach Ernie Bissaillon said of his predecessor and close friend, Mike Farmer, who lost his battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in late June.
“So it was a pretty tough ending to the school year with Mike passing away. Because, up until a few weeks before, there was a lot of hope that he would recover. We all thought he would be back here in the fall.”
A longtime indoor and outdoor track coach, Bissaillon worked with Farmer as his assistant coach in the spring for the past 20 years and they even started the indoor program together 16 years ago.
“It’s like a family member has passed,” said Bissaillon. “It’s a nice opportunity; I just wish this was under different circumstances. I think he would be happy for me. But I would much rather watch him go coach and have a few laughs with him along the sidelines.”
For long-distance runner Bissaillon, cross-country seemed like the perfect fit for him to coach when he got to the Amesbury school system 30 years ago. But soccer came calling first and the cross-country program became Farmer’s domain.
“Every day from November through June, we’d always get together,” Bissaillon said of himself and his friend. “Our seasons would overlap. Now he is not there. It’s difficult.”
Now, Bissaillon has come full circle, coaching a pair of teams that are in the middle of a rebuilding cycle. The boys had a 1-9 season last year and the girls went 2-8.
“The kids have been working really hard,” said Bissaillon. “Hopefully we will continue to get better as the season goes on and I’ll get through my first year here and try to enjoy the year with them. Getting them to learn more about the sport and try to inspire the love of running like Mike did. It’s about working hard and having fun along the way too. Hopefully the winning will come along also.”
Bissaillon said that he hopes to name a September freshman/sophomore race after Farmer in the near future; but for him, keeping things going is the best tribute he can pay his friend.
“Mike would be happy that we’re trying to keep the program going for him,” he said. “The kids have been great. Hopefully I can continue to inspire them.”
In a league as competitive as the CAL, Bissaillon was deeply moved when all of the track programs came out to AHS in April for “Miles for Mike,” a fundraiser to help Farmer with his day-to-day expenses while he battled cancer.
“You could see from all the support he had gotten in the spring that he had affected a lot of people, which is nice,” said Bissaillon. “Over the years, he had done so much for the kids in an unassuming way. He was just a quiet, humble guy.”
Now it is time for the CAL cross-country teams to chase each other once again. Farmer would have it no other way.
“We’ve got a big transition here, not only for me but for the kids,” said Bissaillon. “I’m sure it’s on their minds too. He did things his way, but my way is a lot like his. I’m respectful of that and they know that the coach was a friend of mine. We all understand each other in those regards, which is good.”