It doesn't happen often, but Kris Keppel did miss Land O'Lakes cross country practice on Tuesday. Bright and early the next morning he pulled up in his gray pickup truck to meet the sunrise and his runners.
Despite his chemotherapy treatments, the team leader still shows up.
"A lot of times I think he should be at home resting," said incoming senior Mary-Kathryn Guenette. "That's just his personality. He wants to be there. He wants to be there for us and see us progress. We love having him at practice."
Keppel was diagnosed with cancer last September. He had surgery to remove it but one month ago doctors told him it was back. Underneath his Land O'Lakes running shirt, his stomach is covered in scars. Underneath his thinning hair, he periodically fights off tears.
"I look up to Coach Keppel," said Guenette. "So, it's just really hard seeing him struggling and it's just makes it really hard to see him going through that when I know how hard it is."
"Each and every day I just think, 'We might lose coach Keppel'," said Guenette's best friend, Carolyn Estrella. "It's just hard for all of us and it's hard to comprehend that we might not have him one day."
Keppel has been a fixture on the Gators cross country teams for over two decades.
"1994 was my first year," he said proudly before practice. None of his runners were even born then.
He's been coaching at the same school the entire time. Over the years, he's kept in touch with many of his student athletes. His impact has gone far beyond the cross country fields.
"He's helped me tremendously. I've seen him help so many kids," said girls cross country coach Karen DeHaas. "He means a lot to me. I mean, I can tell you that I love coach Keppel as a person because everything he does, he's just a genuine person."
Last year, the 6-time coach of the year helped a runner with the same battle he's currently facing. Steven Barnabei beat cancer with Keppel by his side.
"He was just there emotionally," said Barnabei. "Part of my mentality was I had to get better and I had to do it with friends. He was a big friend in that."
The diagnosis for Keppel isn't as bright and hopeful as Barnabei's was a year ago. Barnabei faced brain cancer. Keppel is dealing with pancreatic cancer that has moved to this liver. He lost 40 pounds after having the Whipple procedure done. His frame is frail compared to the 213 pounds he used to weigh.
"His hair is graying and starting to fall out," said Estrella. "For all of us, it's hard."
Keppel isn't letting the cancer get him down. Five days a week, he's out with the kids. Sometimes he watches. Other days he bikes along with them as they run and train for the upcoming school season.
"It's definitely zapping his energy but he musters up all the energy he can every day," says DeHaas. "He doesn't miss a practice unless he's getting chemo."
"He's so inspirational," said Guenette. "Every day at practice h has a positive attitude. He's always there. He never messes around. When he comes to coach he's all in. He's always giving us words of advice, cheering us on, making us better runners and definitely (has) a positive attitude all the time."
That's why DeHaas nominated him for a prestigious award. TheBrooks running company is doing a nationwide search for the most inspirational coach. Currently, Keppel is second in the voting tally.
His runners feel like he's a perfect person to win the award.
"I feel like he does deserve it and let's leave all of the cancer stuff out," said Estrella. "Just him in general as a person and a coach. He's always pushing people through stuff and getting people through stuff."
Keppel helps his students in so many ways. He's helped them arrange rides to practice. He's even handed out pointers for asking a girl to the homecoming dance. He's been a huge part of the Land O'Lakes community that the runners aren't ready to let go of.
"If he's not around, we're going to have to run harder for him. That's all I can say," said DeHaas. "We have to do it. 'I Run For Keppel' will have that much more meaning."
The slogan 'I Run For Keppel' is the one Estrella and Guenette chose to put on a special t-shirt they made for Keppel. They have sold nearly 500 of them and raised around $3,600 dollars for Keppel's medical expenses.
"I haven't touched it yet," said the coach.
He may need it but, for now, he's focused on keeping his runners on course. Next week, the team will load up for a nine-hour bus ride to a running camp in Georgia. Keppel has scheduled his chemotherapy around the trip to make sure he's able to support his runners in person.
He would have it no other way.
"He's in Stage 4 cancer but just recently he said, 'I'm not thinking about anything but being a miracle. I am going to beat this. I am going to survive this'," said DeHaas. "I would like to see that happen."