West Genesee Runners

People have asked from time to time where they could get copies of previous articles or presentations of mine on the subjects of runners, running or coaching. Most of those articles are posted here and bookmarked. Click on the article you would like to read. Most of the articles appear as I originally wrote them. Some were edited and/or re-titled by the Syracuse Post-Standard or The Christian Science Monitor in which they were published. Comments/reactions are welcomed. 

                                                                                                                                  Coach Jim Vermeulen

Articles/Presentations:

Milesplit Articles(Dec. 2013 - Present)

Cross-Country Journal, 2013 - Fall, 2013

The Salazar Effect: A Lasting Impact? - 2/28/13

Cross-Country Journal, 2012 - Fall, 2012

Managing Teams With a Big-Tent Philosphy - Fall, 2012

The Sport Is About--Who? - 8/7/09

You're Cut - The Darker Side of Scholastic Sports - 4/15/08

A Closer Look At A Week On The Run - 10/24/07

Not So Lonely Anymore - 9/12/07

In Pursuit of Average - 10/29/06

Coaching Young Athletes - 3/1/06

Who Owns Youth Sports? - 12/11/05

The Trouble With Distance Runners - 10/29/04

Hearts and Minds - 9/21/02

What Do Schools Owe Their Scholastic Athletes? - 2/11/01

Doing Something Hard Is Still A Good Idea For Kids - 8/10/00

School's The Place For Positive Passion - 9/25/97

A Season On The Run - 12/15/95


 

The Sport Is About – Who?

(Syracuse Post-Standard)

 

August again. Anticipation of another year of scholastic and recreational-league competitions hangs as heavy as morning fog. The fans are revved up for more championship runs. Coaches are prepped to build their win-lose records. Parents predict proud ‘my-kid’ moments in the grocery check-out lines. Did I forget anyone?

Oh yes, the athletes. Well, are they really that important anyway?  After all, as Mark Hyman notes in Until It Hurts, “By anyone’s reckoning, adults rule youth sports.” Need proof of that? Here are four words: Little League World Series. That annual August marketing extravaganza defies description as kids-playing-baseball. Or, if you have a few extra bucks, you can subscribe to the slick Youth Runner Magazine (comes with Youthrunner T-shirt, poster and sticker) and chart today’s 8-12 year old future superstars. Don’t forget all the ‘club teams’ tacitly promising that paying participants should be on their way to soccer, basketball or lacrosse stardom. And then there are all those parents who prowl the sidelines of youth and modified sports, already convinced of a ‘college ride’ for their athletic prodigy. Never mind that less than 1% of the middle-school students on sports teams eventually receive any form of collegiate athletic scholarship (National Center for Educational Statistics). It’s a dream were working on here, though not necessarily the dream of an athlete.

We need sunshine, some clarity of thought, some acceptance of glaring statistics to burn away the fog that envelopes too many of us in youth sport. Attempting to carefully illuminate the illusions surrounding youth sport, however, is usually like challenging a black hole. No light escapes. So here’s an alternate strategy, one that can be employed by anyone. It involves the timely application of a simple question: Why do you do this?

You can use it on coaches, parents, even fans. Use with caution, however. People aren’t typically comfortable discussing their real motivations. If you’re a parent directing that question to a coach whose program has literally taken over the life of your young athlete, and you’re told all the hours and all the haranguing is about “character building” or  “pursuing excellence,” take your child’s hand and walk away—quickly. However, if you are brave (or intensely curious), hold your ground and repeat: “No, really, why do you do this?” Ask twice; ask five times if necessary, because those former trite explanations are bogus, typically meant to mask the sad fact that a coach’s needs are dominating an athlete’s. For kids, championships don’t ensure good sports programs, and good sports programs don’t require championships. We repeatedly ignore that.

If you’re a conscientious coach confronted by an overzealous parent who’s pushing their kid to become the sport’s next superstar, it’s fair to ask them: why do you do that? Who is all this pushing really about, your kid or you? Suggest they actually listen to what their kid says about sports participation. Ask them to Google some useful reports on the destructive nature of high-octane youth sports mania. Remind them, if necessary, that their young competitor is far more likely to receive an academic scholarship than an athletic one.

If you’re a local sports fan who doesn’t care how a scholastic or youth team operates as long as it wins, who is willing to ignore inappropriate actions by athletes ‘needed’ on the field or who actually contributes inappropriate behaviors in the stands, the operative questions for you are these: When did you lose your life? Do you need help finding one?

And if you’re an administrator, a Board of Education member or a recreational director responsible for sports in your town, and you haven’t asked that question of your coaches or yourself—this might be a good time. It’s August. The kids will be returning to school shortly. A fair percentage of them will start fall team practices assuming the sport is about them.

It is, isn’t it?

 


 

“You’re Cut” - The Darker Side of Scholastic Sports

(Edited version published in Syracuse Post-Standard, 4/15/08)

 

Three times a year, at pre-season coaches’ meetings, my district Athletic Director instructs those assembled on the most positive procedures for cutting athletes following team try-outs.

It is a decent directive because for many athletes that moment will be their exit interview from scholastic sports. Few cut athletes return to reenact the Michael Jordan anecdote. To be sure, a lucky few make the team a second time around (the ones we laud at sports banquets for their perseverance) and another small percentage successfully find other sport teams. As the statistics demonstrate, however, the vast majority of cast-offs drift away from scholastic sports altogether.  This raises the basic paradox of high school sport, which touts itself as a teacher of character and positive values while systematically denying that learning opportunity to a great percentage of its students.

Ironically, that paradox is born in the promises of modern youth sport.  A fellow coach once described “the great soccer pyramid hoax” where kids and parents are taught if you start early, join every youth program available and, still young, focus exclusively on soccer, then you too will eventually step into the varsity stadium, bound for a college scholarship. Reality, however, limits the seats on that varsity bus, and through the years team cuts steadily unload the less talented, dashing dreams and denying sports opportunities along the way

To be fair, my coaching friend was probably describing any popular high school sport where this process of ‘narrowing the field’ is no accident. The functionalist theory of sport suggests this selection method is useful socially, teaching young adults the realities of the working world where competition for coveted roles is both commonplace and desired. Being cut, therefore, is supposedly a good thing because it prepares young adults for the demands of the marketplace. I doubt, however, that rationale goes over well with a sixteen year old who participated in every camp, made all the previous scholastic teams and faithfully attended all the ‘optional’ out-of-season intramural programs only to be shown the door after varsity try-outs.

The conflict theory of sport presents a less charitable view, one where scholastic sport is seen more for how it limits athletic participation through strict selection rules. That view reaches its macabre conclusion in school districts where making the team is no longer determined at try-outs but by whether an athlete participates in those “voluntary” pre-season intramural programs. Growing numbers of potential athletes, assuming they can’t master the intramural try-out process, don’t even bother, cutting themselves beforehand. It’s a tidy method of reinforcing the exclusivity of scholastic sports.

The obvious solution to such exclusivity is also the most radical: eliminate team try-outs and make all scholastic sports no-cut. Opponents argue that the popular team sports will be deluged by too many eager competitors and become unworkable; that ‘opening’ sports to everyone will degrade their competitiveness and value. Most are unaware that at Sagewood Middle School in Colorado, Francis Parker School in California and other no-cut athletic programs around the country, the true definition of sport as “physical activity engaged in for pleasure” combines successfully with public education goals promoting fitness and health for ALL students. Most also forget that properly run no-cut sports such as Track & Field have already shown us how it’s done.

          Regardless of one’s position, in a era when 17.1% of American youth are overweight or obese and where suicide has grown to the third leading cause of death among young adults 15-24 years of age, it’s time to reconsider ways of providing the positive aspects of scholastic sport to more students—not just the well-adjusted, well-supported average or elite athletes who can “make the cut.” It’s time to stop simply applauding divisional, sectional or state championship teams and start asking what those programs actually do for all the potential team members they cut, students who might, as the saying goes, need the sport more than the sport needs them. Right now, for too many school districts, the answer to that question is: not much.

 

 

A Closer Look At A Week On The Run

Syracuse Post-Standard, 10/24/07

 

Sunday: We survived another overnight trip to the Manhattan Invitational. No bus breakdown in Pennsylvania. No lost meal money. No missed races. Only an overzealous hotel security guard clueless about typical teenager behavior. The boys’ team ran very well. Even one of our lead runners, sick with a cough, raced tough and helped the ‘cats beat several other Section III top teams. It’s exciting to watch this group come together and gain confidence with each meet. The more highly ranked girls’ squad, however, had a rougher Manhattan day. They brought home a 2nd place trophy, but two of the top-5 did not perform as well as expected, so they fared poorly in comparison to other state-ranked teams and dropped in the rankings. This isn’t, though, about ranks or trophies. An ‘off’ day for a team almost always means someone in the top-5 could not perform up to potential. Sometimes, with injury or illness, that’s unavoidable. But people labeling this an ‘individual sport’ are wrong about 98% of the time. This Saturday’s Marathon Invitational is the girls’ final opportunity for a total team effort against state-ranked teams outside our section.  

Monday: It’s the last “Bingham 800” workout of the season on our home XC course. The athletes have performed well with this tough periodic workout, demonstrating improvement each time. They’re not exactly elated to be facing another one on a Monday, but with a promise to consider future changes, they start the warm-up as Coach Delsole and I wonder if this bodes ill for their efforts. No worries. They hammer the workout, a series of long intervals at controlled paces over our picturesque cross-country terrain. As they gather for the final interval, one of the seniors wistfully notes she will never run this practice again. Some underclassmen are probably wishing that were true for them too! Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, three team members on a college tour locate a Providence, RI track and dutifully log their own 800’s, e-mailing the results to me in the evening. In the end, distance running success, regardless of ability, is all about that: commitment and perseverance.  

Tuesday: With our Henninger dual meet tomorrow, it’s a pre-race day. The runners file off the bus at the Erie Canal and mill around under the pavilion until we signal the warm-up. On the agenda is a general conditioning run with surges built in, followed by a short speed session on the flat, fast canal path. The warm-up drills are relaxed, full of athlete banter and joking. I’m not a big fan of pre-race days that are too relaxed so we always build some form of ‘sharp’ running into them. The 200 meter sprints will provide that, and we are willing to risk a little tightness in the legs on meet day. After drills, the running groups launch into the bright afternoon sunshine while Coach Delsole and I discuss objectives for our Wednesday meet.  The girls must work at tightening up the time gap between their #4 and #5 runners. In a dual meet, a 30 second gap may mean only 2 finish places. At a McQuaid or Manhattan invitational, 30 seconds pushes you back 25-40 places, dooming a strong team finish. The girls can ill afford that at the Marathon Invitational this Saturday. They have a chance to practice tighter running tomorrow.  For the boys, it’s basic. As Coach Delsole instructs them later: “Just race.”  

Wednesday: Another dual meet today, our 6th of seven. We used to run four, giving athletes time to train properly and compete in important Saturday invitationals. But the AD’s apparently believe more is better. It isn’t. Any competent college coach will tell you we race high school kids too much, with some scholastic athletes subjected to almost two months of double 5k races each week. The end result of over-racing scholastic runners is that many quit competing after graduation and lose an opportunity to enjoy college cross-country. Not very smart on our part.  

Middle of October and it’s still shorts and T-shirt time. This isn’t a meet for a lot of rah-rah beforehand or intricate race choreography. Senior Day, with presentations and pictures, provides enough excitement. Instead, the athletes are given reminders for form-when-tired and set loose on a beautiful afternoon. Both teams race well and win. The girls close their #1-5 gap a little, a step in the right direction.  Monitoring the passing runners at a junction of our home course, I shout the usual exhortations and then smile, remembering a former runner who once told me how little he ever heard of what coaches screamed at him. Coaches like to think they exert a race-day influence, but more often than not, once the gun goes off we just become background noise. It’s what we do the days before that really matters anyway. Race day rants are more about the coaches than the athletes.  

Thursday: We ratchet it up today. It’s one of those short-and-sweet practices that other-sport athletes may deride but never want to endure. Preparations include several miles of general running, stretches, flexibility drills, some striders and a short break before fourteen minutes on the track. It’s simple: 30 seconds of hard running followed by 30 seconds ‘recovering’ at a slower pace. Blast the ‘ups,’ get as much back as possible on the ‘down’ before the next one. Use your running group for support and inspiration, and when you go deep into the minutes, fight to stay on the wagon and then finish faster. Consolation? Instead of the long intervals or the long runs, this one’s over fast. The JV soccer team warming up for a game on the infield watches slightly bemused as these strange people charge around and around with no ball to chase. Yeah, they’re different. But when one of the runners comes up after and says, “That felt good today, coach,” enough’s been said. They’re all strengthening. The boys’ team has been sailing under the Section III radar most of this season. One big race would blow their cover.  

Friday: With a Saturday invitational, Friday becomes the rest day. Their warm-up is virtually their workout. Following drills and strides, we remind them of a few Saturday race details and then dismiss them. A few look confused, as though expecting more. “You’re done,” I tell them. “See you tomorrow.” The girls saunter off all smiles. A team member is celebrating her birthday and the cake is being delivered.  

Saturday: Great teams achieve through shared dreams and sacrifices. Talent is just the foundation. At every invitational, I talk with at least one coach who bemoans a strong squad that just can’t ‘click’ due to one or more key runners who don’t share a team vision. On a tough day or in a tough race, with no sensed obligation to teammates, that type of runner often folds. Shared vision is not a problem for our boys. Our top runners are all on the same page; they all want the same thing; they’re not afraid to sacrifice and hold each other accountable. On this Marathon day, only tactics fail them, with first miles too fast on a deceptive course where the real work begins in mile 2. Still, they finish 5th in their seeded race, trailing two state-ranked teams and closing on a good C-NS squad. The girls’ varsity run their best team time of the year in the seeded race, and they shrink their #1-5 gap by an impressive 26 seconds.  But as an acute reminder of that relentless coaching directive—“every place counts”--they place 4th, one point behind C-NS. Had any of the top-5 overtaken just one runner, they would have tied or beaten their local rivals. I let them know that. Any disappointment, however, will surely stay with Coach Delsole and me longer than with them—as it should be. Young athletes must be expected to learn--but then allowed to move on. There’s still sectionals….

 

 

Not So Lonely Anymore

 

 Syracuse Post-Standard, 9/12/07

 

A common portrayal of distance runners has been that of solitary, disaffected individuals who follow the beats of those different drummers. That overly romantic conception found its most popular expression in the 1959 classic, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, by writer Alan Sillitoe. Sillitoe’s protagonist was a British youth, Colin Smith, who had been sentenced to a boy’s reformatory for robbing a bakery. In the story, Smith’s distance running talent is discovered, and he subsequently revels in special opportunities at long, unsupervised training runs as the school’s prized competitor. Unfortunately, his rebellious individuality ultimately dooms him with the reformatory officials.

It’s 2007, however, and Sillitoe would have a hard time writing about the current crop of scholastic distance runners. Far from the angry, introverted model of runner embodied by Colin Smith, today’s distance athletes are about as gregarious as they come. They laugh, they joke--and they talk too much when coaches explain the day’s workout. If running’s in their blood, it’s an affectation they’re always willing to share. They behave, believe it or not, just like typical teenagers.

In this state at least, instead of robbing bakeries, our runners are hitting the books. On the New York State Scholar-Athlete Team rankings for the previous three seasons(Spring 06/Fall 06/Winter 06-07) girls running sports earned the top state team-averages of all sports. Wheatley’s girls track team had a 99.599 team average; the Greece Athena Cross-Country team earned a 99.070 team-average for the fall season, and during the cold winter months, the Smithtown H.S. girls indoor track team was booking to a 99.515 team-average. Boys running sports, meanwhile, were the top team of scholar-athletes in the fall(Clinton Cross-Country, 99.658) and second in both the winter and spring seasons.

If distance runners stand accused of being self-torturing egg-heads, then there are a lot more of them out there than previously thought. The National Federation of High Schools(NFHS) survey of 2005/06 school sports participation found that of all US girls sports, Track and Field enjoyed the second highest participation rate, with 15,417 programs and 439,200 athletes nation-wide, trailing only basketball. Cross-Country was 5th in the number of programs(12,989), ahead of soccer, tennis and swimming. Track & Field and Cross-Country for the boys were also the 2nd and 6th most popular programs nationally. So much for disaffected youth….

The ‘jogging craze’ of the 70’s and 80’s had a largely beneficial effect on the popularity of running sports, though schools have been generally lax in promoting them as no-cut, life-long sports whose purposes dove-tail nicely with school mission statements. Today’s runners, however, don’t sulk about that. Here in central New York, their numbers continue to grow, their programs keep expanding and their visibility improves yearly(a team National Championship by the F-M girls cross-country team in 2006 certainly helped). Anyone who thinks distance runners only ply solitary miles back in the hidden woods has not watched those same runners push the long Manhattan Cross-Country Invitational finish through a gauntlet of screaming fans and teammates. We have, however, a shortage of local officials for the growing number of spring track meets and invitationals. And our Indoor track teams now confront the loss of their only readily available meet facility, S.U.’s Manley Field House, just at a time when they’ve had it bulging at the seams for noisy winter weeknight competitions. Support has obviously not kept pace with the growth of scholastic running sports.

Getting that proper and well-deserved support is the biggest challenge facing scholastic runners today. ‘Lonely’ is surely no longer their problem.

 

In Pursuit of Average

Syracuse Post-Standard, 10/29/06

In Garrison Keeler's fictional idyll, Lake Wobegon, all the children are "above average." Those folks know. Here in America, average isn't good enough. And these days that certainly extends to scholastic sports.

"Average" is, of course, a subjective statistic. If you make the Olympics and come home with no medal, you are merely an "average" Olympian. If the vaunted Saratoga High School girls cross country team ends the season ranked second in the nation, they haven't even had an "average" year. And look what's happening because Barry Bonds wasn't satisfied being an "average" superstar.

In scholastic sports, "average" sports programs toil in anonymity, gathering nary a stingy paragraph in the local paper and often the ire of fans who expect winners and sectional crowns. Those teams are, however, the ones that fulfill the true intent of scholastic athletics as ably as any state champions. And though we invariably focus on the undefeated and the state top-10's, our average teams, those scholastic silent majorities, are the true foundation for successful high school sports.

That's the way it should be - and for one uncomfortable reason: it's only sports. Coming from a coach, I understand that is blasphemy and I'm due before the Boosters Inquisition soon. But winning as an ultimate measure of scholastic sports success often describes nothing but the passage of time. Good teams come and go. With coaching changes or administrative shifts in priorities, great programs do also. The basic values of scholastic sports, however, can endure. The dirty little secret of scholastic sports is that most athletes don't base their choices on whether they will play for a winning team, a losing team or an "average" team. Coaches may expect their teams to be terribly upset by losing and euphoric about winning. Parents may also, while the fans in the stands typically demand a thirst for victory. And the athletes, of course, understand winning is more fun, but for them the primary requirement is successful and enjoyable participation through their best efforts - not W's and L's.

Consider Amber. A neophyte 100-meter high hurdler, she would certainly admit she wasn't the fastest on our track team. During one meet, a misstep propelled her toward a collision with a hurdle, forcing her to literally stop short halfway through the race. She could have quit at that point; I'd watched others do so. Instead, with her opponents already speeding toward the finish, she stepped back, started up again and recorded her slowest time of the season. Dejected, she slumped off the track where my assistant coach stopped her. "That was great," he declared. She looked at him blankly, so he explained. "You could have quit, but you didn't. You finished. That was a great effort." She left smiling and ready to run again.

Alternately, I've stood in the warm twilight of a June evening in North Carolina, watching my 2,000-meter steeplechaser crossing the national championship finish line a few tenths of a second shy of sixth place and recognition as a high school All-American. Trudging off the track, totally spent, she gasped, "I had no more gears, coach." What do you say to something like that except, "Terrific, Kerry. Enjoy the moment."

In both circumstances, winning or losing was irrelevant.

Adults need to effectively coach and guide young athletes, of course, but we should also follow the lead of those athletes by organizing sports to elicit not just wins and losses but best efforts. That would prove an interesting paradigm shift, one that quantifies and then emphasizes effort and the development of athletic potential, rather than records or sectional championships, as the best measure of scholastic athletic programs. What might high school "average" look like then?

It is true that on the professional (and now even the collegiate) level, success is primarily about whether you win or lose. Perhaps that is why so many forms of cheating are condoned, or even promoted, on those levels. But scholastic athletics could - and should - remain the one arena where it still matters most how you play the games.

 

 

 

Coaching Young Athletes

(Presentation before the Lafayette Community Council - 3/1/06)

You don’t wait too long for the latest disturbing story about youth sports. One month it’s a radio spot on a coach publicly berating young players. The next it’s a newspaper article on a high school athlete who has died from steroid use. Wait another month and you’ll see the latest home video of fans attacking fans or parents attacking officials at a Pee-Wee football game. The lost innocence of youth sports is, by now, old news. And whether you like Bodie Miller or not, when he stated that we’ve taken American kids away from sports by taking away the fun, he was dead-center correct. The organization Youthfirst reported that startling statistic that 35% of kids quit after a single year of organized sports and 85% drop out between the ages of 10 and 17.  (Youthfirst.com)

 There is no single cause for that current problem in youth athletics and there is no simple solution either. But coaches are clearly an integral part of any solution, and because the vast majority of young athletes gain their first exposure to organized sports through coaches, these people—you people—can do a lot to give youth sports back to kids.

 There are, of course, many books and videos addressing successful youth sports coaching, but in my experience it comes down to two basic principles, two ideas that incorporate most of what good coaches try to accomplish with young athletes. The first principle has to do with motivation:

 In 1974, I started teaching at an alternative school that integrated severally autistic students into classes with typical youngsters. It was hard work making it work, and during one after-school planning session teachers were voicing a lot of frustration about creating a group activity viable for all the kids involved. No strategy made sense; no solution seemed to really work. After haggling for a long while someone suggested that maybe it would be easier to not bother with a group activity. At that point, my head teacher and mentor, Joe Marusa, interrupted the discussion. “Before we do that,” he said, “I think we should stop and answer the question ‘WHY ARE WE HERE?”

 That’s also a good place for coaches to start. Answer the question: why am I here?  Why do I do this?  I think effective and well-intentioned coaching occurs whenever coaches are able to honestly state, “I’m here because I like kids, and I’m also here because I love this sport.”  And then, of course, act on that belief.

It sounds simple, but we’re only too aware of what happens when we get coaches who love the sport but don’t really appreciate the young athletes they instruct—or when we get coaches who like being around kids but don’t know anything about the sports they are coaching.  You should like the kids and love the sport.

Incorporated into that principle is the sometimes messy notion of loyalties. Good coaches, I think, maintain at least two strong loyalties—one to their athletes, the other to their sport. Typically, those two loyalties are complimentary—but not always.  What should a coach do, for instance, in the case of Robbie?

 Robbie was a learning disabled student that I encouraged to take up competitive running.  He enjoyed three successful years on our cross-country and track teams. He earned varsity letters and showed improvement each season. Just as importantly, he made friends and learned a lot about discipline, effort and operating on a team.  Just before Robbie’s senior season of Cross-Country, however, his father informed me that Robbie wanted to take a part-time job after school to gain work experience. The father said Robbie would have to miss two practices each week in order to work and would that be possible?

 I told him I would consider his request—and I did, trying to balance those two loyalties, one to Robbie, the other to the sport of Varsity Cross-Country. The next day, before I gave the father the answer he didn’t want, I sat down with Robbie. I explained to him that he would need to make a choice. I agreed with him that work would be a valuable experience. I also told him that Varsity Cross-Country had been, and could continue to be, valuable to him also. I then explained how, for a variety of social and physiological reasons, 60% Varsity Cross-Country would not in my opinion be as valuable. Aside from our team and school rules about Varsity sport participation, I felt that making him a 60% team member would have done him a disservice and taught him little about success in the real world. 

 Understandably, the father disagreed, and then as a former strong supporter of West Genesee Cross-Country he accused me of running an elitist program. Ironically, however, it was Robbie who seemed to understand. After thinking it over, he told me that working was more important for him at that time and that he had decided to take the after-school job. I didn’t want to lose him, but I could only admire him for making a difficult and mature decision. I thank him and wished him the best of luck.

 My second basic principle for coaching is summed up by the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Everson. Emerson wrote: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful. O.K. so what did Emerson know about coaching football or baseball or basketball? Nothing, of course, especially since those sports didn’t exist in his day. Emerson did understand, though, that we live in a world of people, and it is the manner in which you interact with people that will largely determine whether you’re a success or a failure or somewhere in between.

The same goes in coaching. Simply put, successful coaching is about teaching and winning and losing in a way that’s ultimately useful to your athletes. Participating in a sport is important of course, but what coaches help athletes take away from a sport is often more important. Not one of the thousand plus athletes I’ve coached has ever gone on to make a living by competitive running, but a lot of them have since me told how much they learned from their high school sports experiences.  

Coaches, then, can be useful in three ways:

You can be useful by knowing your sport thoroughly and by teaching it properly to your athletes. That’s a lot harder than most of the critical fans think, but you don’t have to be a former superstar to coach well. In fact, it is true that often the best athletes don’t make the best coaches.

 You can also be useful by knowing your athletes individually and by understanding their age group. Have I kept athletes on my team with 57% attendance averages because they needed the sport more than the sport needed them? Yes I have. Is there a vast difference between coaching “fundamentals and fun” to 7 year old kids and coaching high schoolers and all their attendant social and academic pressures? Of course.  But the coaching job is the same: understand your individual athletes and respect the learning needs of their age groups. 

And you can be useful by understanding that sometimes—when push comes to shove—you change the rules. I wrote recently about Nicole. She was an incredibly talented young runner who might have been one of the best ever at West Genesee. That never happened, however. By the time she was running Varsity Cross-Country as a freshman, her father was already talking to me about the college athletic scholarship she was going to win. If Nicole wasn’t running up to his satisfaction, he would yell at her during races. As the pressures mounted, her performances dropped. At one invitational, I placed her in a Junior Varsity race to take some of that pressure off her, and the father publicly argued with me about demoting her. He would not listen, and things got worse for Nicole. And then there I was, sitting with her one October afternoon as she waited to be picked up late from practice. She was crying. She said she couldn’t stand it anymore. Cross-Country was no fun; it had become just pressure and arguments and oppressive expectations. So I broke one of those cardinal, unwritten rules of coaching. I told her she had my permission to quit.  It was, I thought, the only useful thing I could do for her at that point. Nicole didn’t quit, but though she decided to stick out the season, she never joined another West Genesee team.  

 Situations like that are by far the most discouraging moments of coaching—but they are also the reason it’s important we know why we coach and exactly what we are trying to accomplish for young athletes.

 In the end, principled coaching is always worth the effort, and it will help you get it right most of the time.  Regardless of everything else going on, coaches can make sure they are doing it right. And if they do, their athletes will know--some sooner, and some later.

 I’ll close with a letter from Morgan, a former runner of mine, a graduate of St. Lawrence University now living in metropolitan New Jersey and working in a running store.

  

December 20, 2005

Hi V:

I like how I tell you that I’ll write to you and then I don’t. I’ve been so busy since I’ve gotten back—curse of retail in the Christmas season—plus, I got a position as a coach with a local catholic prep school(volunteer basis). I can say that the first time they called me coach I was pretty excited.

 

It was really nice to see you at the race for Thanksgiving, glad to hear that your team is shaping up so well. SLU is always recruiting—please spread the word or feel free to contact myself, Kerry, or the coaching staff with anybody who may remotely have an interest. I think SLU can win anyone over. Our facilities are now the best in DIII[(and there may be some coaching changes/restructuring)]

 

Which I guess is a really crappy segue into a discussion about coaching that I wanted to share with you. I greatly underappreciated you while I was in school and didn’t realize that not everyone has a first coach like you(or even a second for that matter). What you taught me helped me to self-diagnose when I was having a problem(and help others) and “the shoe thing” obviously stuck(it did help me land this job). I find a lot of your style in me and my leadership techniques and coaching methods. My running philosophy is different than anyone else that I’ve run with and met—the most valuable being training by listening to the connection between your body and mind. No one can define “comfortably hard” by a time; you have to feel it. Although I could hit any split demanded of me—my favorite workouts remain those in which you connect time, body and mind—that’s why I love racing so much. I hope that I can take what you and the SLU coaches taught me and transpose it to my new runners. Being around “young blood” and excitement can really refuel my love for the sport.

 

So I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you. I know that I thought and sometimes still do think that theatre and the arts are my passion, but I have realized that running is my passion and the other is my hobby. Thank you for instilling this love and having faith in me and my decisions. Sometimes I feel very few people understand, but seeing you in Baldwinsville made me feel better that I’m doing the right thing. Thanks again. Happy holidays and best of luck for the coming track season.

Morgan

 

And I thank all of you for the opportunity to be here this evening.

 

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Who Owns Youth Sports?

 

One of my most discouraging experiences of coaching was not the fault of any athlete.

On a clear, crisp October day, I sat with Nicole(not her real name) after cross-country practice, waiting for her ride home to arrive. A young runner with impressive potential, hers had been an oppressive season. Only an underclassman, her father had already boasted about the college athletic scholarship she would earn. He had argued with me publicly once about placing her in a junior varsity invitational race instead of varsity. At dual meets, he would scream at her to run faster with the leaders, so much so that following one race another concerned parent confronted him in the parking lot and they argued heatedly. On that pristine autumn afternoon, Nicole told me she couldn’t stand it any more; it was all pressure and no fun. Having failed to influence the parents, I did what I thought I never would: I told her she had my permission to quit. She instead hung on for the remainder of the season, but she never joined another team.

There are, of course, such stories from other sports--discouraging tales of formative sporting moments and experiences stolen from young athletes.

It has really been an eye opener for me witnessing such negative and childish behaviors from parents and coaches on the sidelines of games being played by our youth players. Not only do the players have to hear about a game from their coaches but I have heard parents berating their child for not having a "good" game - whatever that is supposed to mean. Parents and coaches are out of control.

That from a parent on a sports forum. What’s ironic is that while too many parents and coaches can’t seem to understand what youth sports are for, an increasing number of kids get the picture and are responding with their feet: "Over 35% of the millions of children who play youth sports quit after the first year of competition. 85% of the children who continue to play dropped out of organized sports all together between the ages of 10 and 17." (Youth First: Why Kids Quit Sports, www.youthfirst.info)

A once silly question now begs to be seriously considered: who really ‘owns’ youth and scholastic sports these days?

Looking around, it’s sometimes hard to tell. The possessive excesses are spread across the spectrum of those affecting youth sports. Over-zealous parents on one end who refuse to step back and simply let their child enjoy practicing and competing. Travel teams, clubs and out-of-season programs on the other end that step in and literally seize control of the evenings and weekends of a family for months on end. And the middle landscape is wide enough for everything in between: unrestrained alumni plotting against Athletic Directors; parents dictating school athletic priorities; pee-wee football practices run like high school teams and high school coaches trying to replicate college programs; school boards micro-managing sports programs. It goes on. Too many young athletes today are living every one’s sporting dreams but their own.

If we really want to know, the kids will tell us what they want out of sports. Firstly, they want to participate, to play, to compete. The Josephson Institute of Ethics, in their Sportsmanship Survey of 2004, found the following: "72% of both males and females say they would rather play on a team with a losing record than sit on the bench for a winning team." Watching winning teammates from the sidelines probably isn’t the great benchwarmers character builder that we coaches and parents pretend it is. The University of Maine Sport & Coaching Initiative’s report, Sports Done Right, cites the following as a Core Principle for student-athletes: "Each student who meets the eligibility standards has the opportunity to participate and learn through sports." Their report recommends several practices that will promote that principle: 1. Proper school funding of all interscholastic and intramural sports; 2. Support of alternative athletic programs for athletes who are cut from teams or who choose not to try out for interscholastic teams: 3. Academic eligibility standards that better reflect the potentially positive effects of athletic involvement. Added to that list might be stronger school support of ‘no-cut’ sports.

Secondly, kids value enjoying their sports more than they value winning at their sports. That’s a hard concept for many coaches to swallow. According to the same Sportsmanship Survey, only one in five athletes felt they had to win in order to enjoy their sport. ‘Having fun’ is a very real objective in youth sports, especially in the pre-high school years. And a big part of the fun is, believe it or not, learning. While school teachers struggle daily to make learning exciting for students, sports seem to have that all worked out—as long as athletes are allowed the learning opportunities that sports provide. I have taught middle-school students who seemed to view long division lessons as a form of state-sponsored torture. But after school, those same students can’t get enough of down-and-out pass pattern drills. Both are basic skills. Watch any well-coached Modified sports team, and you will witness young athletes having a good time learning the fundamental skills of their sport. Aside from social reasons, it’s primarily why they are there. The Sports Done Right core principle in that regard states: "Learning and personal growth form the foundation for interscholastic and intramural sports." The word winning is missing from that formula.

Thirdly, athletes don’t want to feel excessively judged by others about their sports participation and sports efforts, whether that be by a coach, a parent or the demanding spectators in the stands. This is a fine line to tread because any decent coach maintains two loyalties. One is to the athletes; the other is to the sport. Sometimes the two don’t mesh, especially where 50% efforts or lackluster commitment can’t be greeted by coaches with the enthusiasm that some young athletes have been taught to expect for any of their efforts. Still, this is where the logical consequences of sports, whether it be playing time, competitive competence or simply making a team, can be the strongest teachers. Young athletes figure out their comparative abilities pretty quickly. It’s when adults try to pretend otherwise that the stage is set for parent-coach battles. And the losers are usually the athletes.

 

For some parents, it’s difficult to remain appropriately detached from a child’s sporting efforts, but one thing is certain: athletes don’t need a second coach at the dinner table each night. What they need is a parent who views sports as only a tool for improving the life of their child. To the extent that they assist their athlete’s teams while refraining from usurping the roles of the coach, they strengthen those programs and enhance their athlete’s sporting experiences. Some of my greatest parents have confessed to knowing nothing about the nuances of distance training. But they sure raised great kids, disciplined, self-assured, goal-oriented kids who were then capable of succeeding at competitive running.

One healthy trend is the move toward teaching more individual, potentially life-long, physical activities in high school physical education classes. But why wait for high school when too many have already been ‘taught’ that athletic success means only team-sports success and have drifted off in negative directions? An improved balance between team and individual physical education experiences in the elementary and middle school years would be better for all kids. Physical education teachers on those levels who have introduced students to snowshoeing, hiking or running are already demonstrating just that.

Unfortunately, some simply claim the solution is a return to those "good old days." Their calls are fueled by memories of riding the bike after school to the dusty, weed-infested local ball park with a chicken wire backstop and a left-field home run fence that doubles as boundary for the local cemetery. In that perfect world, kids are choosing up their own sides, cracking jokes while wacking line drives and arguing ever close call until someone realizes it’s supper time and the bike tires spin as the place empties out in 40 seconds flat….

Yeah, well, those days are irrevocably gone. And they weren’t so "good" if you were a girl and not allowed to play with the boys. The next best thing is to give back to kids as much of scholastic and youth sports as possible. For adults, that means giving up some of what was never really theirs in the first place.

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The Trouble With Distance Runners

"Our sport is your sport’s punishment."

                                                                                                                        Runner’s T-shirt logo

 

They sure know how to yank my runners’ chains. Any time one of the scholastic distance runners I coach gets dragged into a silly my-sport’s-better-than-your-sport argument with a non-runner and makes a loyal attempt to defend our arcane pursuit, the opposition can usually declare checkmate with seven simple words: yeah, but running is not a sport.

Talk about incendiary comments. You may as well tell a distance runner that he or she was switched at birth. Ever see a competitive runner froth at the mouth before racing?

When that ultimate put-down is indignantly described the next before a team practice, I try to sympathize. "Invite them to a week of our practices," I’ll offer, knowing full well that a week of hill repeats, segmented thresholds, surge intervals, a long run and races would simply reinforce why such fools utter their seven word invectives in the first place.

The truth is, they have a point.

As a competitive runner pre-dating Nike Waffle Trainers and as an long-time observer of the steady rise of team sports and the so-called ‘soccer revolution’ in America, it’s painfully obvious to me why your average scholastic students don’t flock to the no-cut, life-long sports of track or cross-country. Forget the mumbo-jumbo about adolescent lemming behavior. Disregard the soccer/basketball/lacrosse parents burning up with ‘Scholarship Fever.’ Ignore the rising average weight of American youth. From the perspective of the athletes themselves, there are other more potent reasons why most teens would rather eat dirt daily than run competitively.

Not Enough Toys

If allowed, football players would probably wear their helmets to General Physics and lacrosse sticks would clog the classroom aisles of every northeastern United States middle school. Girls would style softball gloves into pocketbooks and soccer shin guards would become de rigueur apparel for navigating crowded hallways. Especially for young athletes, one of the great charms of any sport is its toys--all the ‘stuff’ necessary to play that particular game: shoulder pads, goggles, batting gloves, ad infinitum.

Distance runners, by comparison, are pathetically equipped. No ornaments--the physics of the sport prohibit it. For runners, less is more. How anti-consumer is that? Sure, they have the neat, removable spikes they can fiddle with, but try walking those weapons into any school and see how expertly janitors can gang tackle. For young adults, the apparel and toys of a sport are powerful symbols of identity, and the trouble is, runners just can’t muster up enough paraphernalia that shouts ‘look at me, I’m a distance runner.’ That’s a problem, a big problem.

Not enough rules

Nobody wants to admit it, but we live for our sports rules. The more complex the rules of the game, the better. We prove our cerebral fitness not by our personal great books lists or analytical political discussions around the dinner table, but by how complicated we can make our sports. Consider, for instance, the myriad of rules regulating any particular football play: required line positions; time-between-plays; permitted backfield movement and blocking angles; designated pass receivers; allowable downfield hits, ad nauseum. Here, by comparison, are all the ‘directions’ you need to compete in a 1500 meter race: 1. Don’t start before the gun; 2. Don’t get in anybody else’s way; 3. Stay on the track. Not very impressive. Take a look at the American Federations Rules & Regulations for Track & Cross-Country. It’s a puny little thing. Face it, running the 1500 meter--or any other distance running event--can never become a mass sport. Not enough rules.

Too Many ‘Nice’ Competitors

Here’s a familiar scene: Two rival cross-country runners at a Sectional Championship figuratively beat each other up for 3.1 miles. They fly from the start, neither giving any quarter. One surges, the other counters. One charges the hill, the other doggedly pushes the carry-over to cover the gap. Shoulder to shoulder for the last mile, they punch in a long, furious finish sprint and barely wobble out of the finish chute erect. Epic sporting battle, great contest of wills. So then what do they do? Does one sulk off to lick his wounds and secretly vow revenge while the other soaks up the adulation of an adoring crowd? No, they stand around congratulating and admiring each other’s effort like best buddies. It’s practically un-American, something not allowed in most athletic venues. Truth be told, nothing irritates the free-market capitalistic system more than the notion that cooperative competition often leads to superior performances. Distance runners suffer for that perception.

The Ignominy of Nameless & Numberless Jerseys

This would be a funny story if it wasn’t true. A coach had a very talented distance athlete who quit running to take up a ‘more popular’ sport and lasted exactly one non-varsity season. Why? Well, this former runner later confessed to really wanting to participate in a sport where ‘you get to wear a jersey with your name on it.’

Certainly not true for distance runners. They’re forced to toil heroically on the track or cross-country course in their nameless/number-less singlet, and when they finally lunge exhausted across the finish line someone in the small crowd says "who was that" so the guy next to him says "how the hell do I know?" Had this occurred at a football or soccer game that guy-next-to-him would have said, "look it up in the game program you idiot." That, in a nutshell, is one of the main problems with distance runners. They fail to advertise.

As the Nike ad for runners suggests: "Yeah, we’re different." Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe, in an era of mass popularities, distance running provides a home for all the dangerous oddballs other sports and their spectators don’t know what to do with. And really, if you check closely, those scholar-athlete runners are doing just fine thank you. Anyway, if you took this discussion too seriously, my advice is simple: get qualified help immediately. Talk to a distance runner. Better yet, go out for a long run yourself.

©Syracuse Post-Standard, October 29, 2004

(1000 words)

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Hearts and Minds: Selling Scholastic Distance Running

 

The best sport is one that everyone can participate in, but one that takes hard work, dedication, and a little god-given talent to become the best.

                                                                                                                                                            Anonymous XC forum poster

 

 

Hoping to glean some illuminating recruiting tips, I once asked a very successful area coach how he, year after year, convinced gifted athletes to run Cross-Country in a fall scholastic sports arena dominated by football and soccer.

"I beg," he told me.

Unless you coach the perennial state-champ Saratoga girls team, you do what you have to as a Cross-Country coach. And in convincing athletes to endure the rigors of distance running during the fall and other seasons, dedicated area coaches have left few stones unturned.

One area coach speaks about the success he’s enjoyed with "soccer retreads," athletes possessing a running aptitude who tired of the endless battles to make a soccer team or to get playing time. With some quiet persuasion, they switched sports and immediately enjoyed the more direct correlation between effort and success in distance running. Another coach finds distance prospects by giving talks to elementary school classes about the positives of running. And still another creates a substantial database of all the middle school mile fitness run results from which he recruits potential runners. Of course, any distance coach who teaches in his or her school district can usually be found in the hallways between classes, talking up running with students, cajoling and encouraging future distance runners to give our ‘different sport’ a shot.

Still, within a culture that emphasizes ease over effort, and amid a sports climate that usually favors team-oriented spectator sports, promoting distance running among young adults is often a tough sell.

It’s tough because whether as Cross-Country, Indoor or Outdoor Track athletes, running is not perceived as one of those ‘popular’ sports by most high schoolers who place a heavy emphasis on belonging. Potentially superior runners are often drawn first to soccer, football, basketball or lacrosse. Once there, they may remain marginal team sport athletes for years due to the social pull of those sports. It’s no secret that distance running seldom draws the large, boisterous crowds for home meets. Nor do most school districts and booster clubs promote running as energetically as they do field sports.

Distance running is also a tough sell because the choices those athletes must make are demanding. You can’t dabble in distance running. It requires native aerobic ability and speed certainly, but realizing potential is a process of accumulations—accumulations of the miles necessary for maximum fitness, accumulations of the competitive seasons needed to reach running maturity. That means self-discipline and dedication. And sacrifices. Dedicated distance runners almost always give something up, whether it’s that extra school club, an after school/weekend job or just social hang-out time.

And distance running is a tough sell because, ultimately, it requires something of young adults that most other activities do not. While today’s youth don’t hesitate to mix it up physically--jumping high to head a corner kick into the goal or making that dangerous cut over the middle to grab a quick slant pass—distance runners face a unique challenge. For them, competing means no time-outs, no substitutions, no half-times. The bread-and-butter-reality of distance runners, whether training or racing, is sustained discomfort. Stop-and-go sports all have their extreme physical demands, but one are based on a steady, prolonged increase in physical discomfort as a normal condition. Distance running does. That may be why Jerry Smith, who with Mike Guzman coached the Fayetteville-Manlius boys XC team to a State Championship in 1998, recently told the Weedsport XC team that one of things distance running does so well is to define your true character. Or why one of the local legends of distance coaching, Oscar Jensen, observed simply of the long runners, "Those are special cats out there."

The positives of running, as any distance coach understands, are easily overlooked and often undervalued by students, parents and schools alike. Which means it’s usually the distance coach who’s out there promoting running as an avenue to long-term physical and mental well-being. They become advocates for distance running as a life-long sport, one that can be actively pursued years after the notion of a vigorous afternoon game of soccer or lacrosse seems dated—or dangerous.

Sometimes the messages register. At a recent summer half-marathon race, one of my female high school team members ran portions of the 13.1 mile course with a 48 year old woman. Betsy’s reaction? She was duly impressed and declared that was what she hoped to be capable of when she was 48 herself.

Ironically, though, we’re hardly talking about a backwater sport here. Central New York enjoys a very rich distance running tradition and a national reputation for excellence. The long list of state and national level Section III runners roll off the tongues of veteran coaches, from Baldwinsville’s Don Paige, ranked #1 in the World in 1980 for the 800 meter, to two-time high school 1500 meter state champion and subsequent Olympian Jen Rhines of Liverpool, to this year’s three-season state championship runner Tracey Brauksieck of Homer. Section III Cross-Country in 2001 boasted two state champions and thirteen state top-20 teams in the A-D classes. Of the eight Northeast Region female runners who qualified to run in the Footlocker National Scholastic Cross-Country Championship, three were from central New York schools. And as we move into another competitive running year, the Saquoit boys XC team is pre-season ranked #8 in the Northeastern United States.

But the potential Paiges, the Rhines, the Brauksieks, as well as all those below their abilities, are seldom banging on the school nurse’s door to sign up for a distance sport. So the coaches will go out searching for them, the overlooked, the ‘misplaced,’ potential runners. They’ll encourage, they’ll prod, they’ll cajole. They know there are a fair number of "special cats" out there, runners capable of unique things. If only they can be convinced…..

©Syracuse Post-Standard, September 21, 2002

(993 words)

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What Do Schools Owe Their Scholastic Athletes?

 “…do good work…”

                                                                                Garrison Kellor

 

The young teenager had been hoeing weeds in the plant nursery’s far field for almost six hours. Under a hot sun, the only thing more painful than the blister on his left hand was the thought of interminable hours until quitting time. Bending back to the task, he spotted his boss striding toward him down the dusty tractor trail. The boss stopped about twenty feet off and, for a long minute, watched silently as the teenager hacked tiredly at the weeds.

          “Give me that,” the boss finally said. Taking the hoe, he swung vigorously for a few moments, slicing the weeds cleanly. “There,” he announced, handing the tool back to the teenager. “That’s how. Remember, if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” Then he turned and walked off to his office, leaving the teenager rubbing his blistered hand and muttering under his breath….

 

          My old man was right. Though I’ll never believe that hoeing weeds for eight hours is a job even worth doing, in theory the purposeful activities of life should not only be worth doing, but worth doing well. We should work or play with the intention of performing more than just adequately. In reality, however, things can get in the way of a job done well. Bad working conditions, bad thinking, bad attitudes, bad timing, bad bosses or just plain bad luck all conspire to demote excellence to mediocrity—or worse.  Still, ‘a job done well’ should be the goal. In the case of public schools, they will all espouse a belief in teaching students the value(and the necessity) of doing things properly.

That value should include scholastic sports. Interestingly, however, there are too many ‘half-baked’ sports programs exist--programs lacking proper equipment, programs without proper practice facilities, programs guided by improperly trained(or incompetent) coaches. On the other hand, there are many superb athletic programs, programs that contribute significantly to the development of disciplined, goal-oriented, cooperative young adults. Those extremes suggest some fairly divergent standards for what passes as a job done well. 

Scholastic sports are not mandated school functions, so it’s the responsibility of students, parents, community members or other groups to convince school boards a particular scholastic sport is a ‘job’ worth doing. If they succeeed, it then becomes the school’s responsibility to ensure that sport is conducted properly.

There is a simple standard. It is that schools owe their scholastic athletes, just as they owe students in the classroom, musicians in the orchestra pit or thespians on stage, good programs. That standard is, of course, useless in practical terms, but it leads to the more helpful question: what constitutes a good scholastic sports program?

Ask a hundred people, you get a hundred different answers. Look at enough successful programs, however, and you’ll discover three instructive commonalities, a good-program triad of sorts: 1. Good Coaching; 2. Good Facilities; 3. Good Teams

These criteria are common sense. It’s obvious, for example, that if a district puts a former baseball coach in charge of a winter wrestling team and makes team members practice each day on decrepit mats rolled out in the high school hallway, that wrestling program will struggle. Common sense, however, is not always common.

 Good Coaches

No one argues against providing good scholastic coaches, but schools sometimes fail to follow their own standards. Winning coaches with questionable principles or practices may be cut too much slack while highly qualified coaches struggling for winning seasons get fired. ‘Popular’ sport coaches who don’t win enough(and even some that do) are especially vulnerable to community pressures.  ‘Lesser’ sport coaches are often spared such scrutiny only because they lack vocal constituencies—fairly or unfairly. Such relativism should not be the rule, but it often is. Regardless, a district should have an athletic policy that addresses the educational goals of athletics. It should dictate the expected qualities and knowledge of coaches—and the educational goals they are expected to promote. Coaches should be chosen and evaluated according to that policy because those are the coaches we owe scholastic athletes—not warm bodies or record-chasers.

 Good Facilities

Can your produce a State Championship lacrosse team with March parking lot practices or 5:30 AM gym time? The answer is yes you can; it’s been done at West Genesee, but only because the other conditions of a good program work almost perfectly. Too often, however, the lack of adequate facilities is where potentially good programs go to die. The best reason for providing proper facilities is athlete safety, but good facilities also improve training, and they attract more students to sports, with the accompanying health benefits American youth so desperately need. Look at the districts with high percentages of students successfully involved in athletics; their facilities are typically top-notch.

Money is usually the trump card when school boards deny the adoption of a new sports team or seek to eliminate one. Scholastic sports facilities, however, should always be considered potential multiple-use structures, with benefits that stretch beyond a particular scholastic sport.  School pools, for example typically host recreational programs, swim clubs and provide community swim hours. Build any kind of indoor practice space and a school system can put it to good use 12-16 hours a day, 6-7 days a week.

 Good Teams

Ensuring ‘good’ teams for scholastic athletes goes to the heart of what a district believes about the educational function of scholastic sports. Does a district, for example, promote sectional championships more vigorously than high sports participation rates.  Do they consistently recognize programs for athletic accomplishments other than simply winning?

It’s easy to become laissez-faire about sports, adopting a ‘prove yourself’ standard for support. That’s when sports-Darwinism prevails and the cheering crowds help marquis programs flourish while less popular sports struggle to survive budget cuts. Most schools have at least one marquee athletic program. The question is whether a marquee program is allowed(or even encouraged) to succeed at the expense of other programs. It does happen.

          Districts with a range of good teams usually promote the proper distribution of athletes among the available sports. Those districts understand, for instance,  that not all girls must fail at freshman/JV soccer before trying other sports and that potentially superior baseball players shouldn’t languish on lacrosse sidelines just because lacrosse draws more attention. Those districts also understand that out-of-season practices or intramural programs may help one team, but also hurt three others by subtracting potential team athletes. Good teams result when schools encourage athletes to participate successfully—at whatever sports. Athletes then get more out of their scholastic seasons and the teams get more out of their athletes.

 

I often recall the stories of two athletes, both from “successful” programs. One was a highly talented high school runner coached hard to state-level excellence during a winning scholastic ‘career.’ This runner advanced to college where he promptly gave up competitive running, complaining of ‘burn-out’ from high school days. Another was the athlete from a state championship team who, years later, remembered a lot of wins but never remembered “having any fun.”  Was it just them? Or, in their cases, was there something lacking with apparently ‘successful’ programs? My old man might wonder if, with at least those athletes, a job worth doing hadn’t really been done well. 

 

©Syracuse Post-Standard, February 11, 2001 

(1200 words)

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Doing Something Hard Is Still A Good Idea For Kids

 

This September, when the Olympic flame flares against the Australian night sky, a few scholastic coaches will, for a moment at least, imagine a former athlete proudly standing with our United States team. Then, more sadly, they will realize again that something so grand never could have occurred--not because of a failure to achieve but because of a failure to try.

I can sympathize. As my high school track and cross-country coaching seasons accumulate, so do my number of ‘lost runners.’ These are kids who will never know how good they could have been as competitive runners, who didn’t stick it out long enough or never trained hard enough to realize their potential. Each year, more of them are inscribed on my mental Might-Have-Been-Runners list. That list is already too long.

Some of them quit running after the first sweltering days of late-summer practices. Others quietly disappeared amid the cold March rains. Some took their leave, amazingly, with only weeks remaining in a winter schedule. Others stuck out a season of running the long miles but the following year never returned.

They said they were injured. They said they were too busy with other commitments. They said they were told by family, by doctors, by friends and by relatives not to punish themselves so. They said they had jobs after school. They said running was just, well, no fun. Most of them, I suspect, would like to have been as candid as Warren Harding.

Harding is a legendary character in rock-climbing circles. He made the first ascent of El Capitan’s 4000-foot vertical face in Yosemite Valley. On tough climbs, Harding usually got the job done. But as the story goes, one day in the 60’s several young climbers encountered Harding wearily trudging downtrail from the latest Valley testpiece they knew he'd been attempting. Did he make it to the top, they inquired respectfully? The sweat-streaked, hollow-eyed Harding said no, he had given up. Surprised, the climbers asked why, fully expecting a riveting tale of Harding-heroics defeated by a horrifically steep face or monstrous overhangs. Instead, Harding merely glanced back at the object of his desire, shook his head slowly and explained, "It's too hard."

It’s too hard--the unspoken mantra of many contemporary young athletes. The challenge of ‘doing something hard’ has grown less and less attractive to kids today. And for understandable reasons. We have taught them the value of ease over effort. Kickin back, hanging out and chillin’ are now considered purposeful, productive activities. This is the society, after all, that insists you can ‘eat your way thin’ without restraint or sweat. It’s the same place where parents drive their kids 400 meters to school. Nike ads to the contrary, our cultural preoccupation with ease is intense.

Kids have also been taught to value participation over performance. Once, performing well in a sport was the goal of the student-athlete, and disciplined practice was the means. Now, for many, participating is the ultimate aim. In track, we say there is a difference between running a race and racing. One requires Woody Allen’s directive: just showing up. The other means you have sweated and sacrificed merely to be in a position to give it your all for a few minutes(or moments) of personal excellence.

We condone the development of style before substance. ‘Flash’ is more envied than performance. At an indoor meet this past year, I watched a protracted chest-thumping, thigh-slapping, pump-up ritual by a sprinter that seemed more about show than muscle preparation. He didn’t even make the finals. Visit a local Internet high school forum, and you will discover that trash-talking and self-aggrandizing statements have largely superseded meaningful discussions or even good old fashion competitive banter.

We have also subtly indoctrinated kids with a belief in breath over depth. That old adage, ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’ is a welcomed reality if you’re crossing wilderness streams, but it’s not necessarily advantageous for student-athletes. Youth is certainly the correct time to try different things. And kids do need a broad base of experiences upon which to develop an appreciative sense of their world. However, what is too often lost is the invaluable experience of attempting something ‘in depth’ where commitment, discipline and sacrifice are required. In an era where young adults insist on being everywhere and doing everything, often in mediocre fashion, parents have forgotten a once useful word: No.

Some of my lost runners were disappointed to learn that our sport was not all adrenaline rushes and flowing along ‘free as the wind.’ They quickly realized running could be hard, just plain hard, and that it didn’t always feel good. But in sports we have twisted the relationship between ‘feeling good’ and performing. Where the gradual acquisition of skills and the mastery of a sport’s fundamentals once provided the sense of accomplishment that allowed athletes to feel good about themselves, now we seem to think that athletes must start with feelings. In this weird reversal, the game is not enough; the kids must always be ‘having fun’ in order to learn, to stick with it. A coach’s criticism, comments or blunt instructions supposedly destroy an athlete’s ‘interest’ or damages his or her fragile ‘self-esteem’ and must therefore be muted. Too many parents want their kids to excel but without the pain and the failure necessary. Coaches that demand high levels of discipline and dedication from their athletes are frequently criticized for being too harsh or for asking too much. Often, their only defense is a winning program.

Many believe that despite the cultural and social impediments, today’s young athletes are still superior by dint of improved training methods and sports technology. You can’t, however, make that case with boys’ scholastic runners. Comparisons between sports generations are usually risky propositions, but in the sport of running the clock is coldly objective. Marc Bloom, editor of the Cross-Country magazine, Harrier, created quite a stir in the running community with his February 1998 New York Times editorial about the different generations of boys scholastic distance runners. Bloom offered these facts:

Only three high school boys have ever broken 4:00 in the mile. The first was Jim Ryan in 1965. The last was Marty Liquori in 1967.

Of the 30 fastest boys 2-mile performances, none have come in the last decade.

Legendary American middle-distance runner, Steve Prefontaine ran an 8:41.5 record 2- mile in 1969. Only two runners have since exceeded that, both in the 1970's.

Bloom went on to suggest that various social circumstances(mass media enticements, increasing rates of broken families, etc.) now compete with, or dilute, young runners' commitments to their sport. Ed Bowes, cross-country coach at Bishop Loghlin High School in Brooklyn and organizer of the Manhattan Invitational XC Meet, was more blunt. In the same article, he noted the dwindling number of runners competing at a high level of development. "Too many kids today are soft," he stated.

A simplistic analysis perhaps, but my lost runners tell me with their absence that many kids apparently do not appreciate what it means to struggle at an endeavor, to put the head down and, with the encouraging support of parents, relatives and friends, achieve something meaningful, something truly valuable. In our modern sporting society, struggling is no longer considered a worthwhile experience.

I’m afraid that my lost runners may never learn The Secret. The secret that can never be taught or coached, that can only be ‘discovered’ by the athlete willing to make the sacrifices and take the chances is this: there can be inner pride, quiet joy and a personal victory in any struggle, regardless of outcome. A corny, concept perhaps, but one that has always produced true champions—and not just the champions that stand on the winners’ podium.

This fall, only a few scholastic coaches may bemoan lost Olympians. Many more, like myself, will recall other athletes who, if not Olympics bound, might still have achieved individual greatness—had they tried. It is those lost athletes that haunt us. As much as anything, we wanted them to understand that doing something hard—and sacrificing to do it well—is always a winning proposition.

©Christian Science Monitor, August 10, 2000

(originally published in Syracuse Post-Standard, February 22, 2000)

(1362 words)

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School’s The Place For Positive Passion

"Nothing great in the world is accomplished without passion."

                                                                                                                                                                                                Hegel

After teaching for almost twenty years, coaching for ten and raising my own children, I have developed at least one opinion about ‘kids these days.’ That opinion is not that we are expecting too much effort from young adults. It is, instead, that we are expecting too many efforts.

This past Fall, for instance, I had to warn my high school cross-country team members about attempting to excel scholastically and athletically while holding down a night-time/weekend job and squeezing in the requisite family/fun time. In the spring, I ‘negotiated’ with runners who wanted to slice their time-pie between track, non-school soccer leagues, clubs, class-trips and family vacations. My head was usually spinning after those conversations. I didn’t know how they were going to ‘just do it’.

Actually, I did. Too many of them were going to load the plate by reducing their involvement in each activity. After practice, homework was going to be wedged between a micro-wave supper and the evening’s club meeting or school function. Families sitting together and discussing their days over dinner would become an antiquated notion for these student athletes. On Saturdays, immediately following their track invitational event or cross-country race, parents were going to whisk them off to a school music festival or to a soccer tournament or to their part-time job. Too many of my athletes were destined to spend their seasons ricocheting from obligation to obligation, inadvertently developing a short attention span for endeavors. This year I was not surprised when a runner needed several days off because she had so overextended herself with activities she was, according to her mother, ‘on the verge of collapse.’ Instead, I was surprised it only happened once.

The problem is not that many students want to be everywhere and do everything. They’ve always wanted that. The problem seems to be us, the parents, teachers and coaches of involved young adults. We seem to have trouble these days saying ‘no’, or even understanding that sometimes ‘no’ is the correct response to a kid’s desire to join one more club or try just one more sport.

Our common culture, after all, heavily promotes the notion of ‘well-roundedness’. People who remain in a particular position or career very long are often perceived as unambitious, in a rut. ‘Growing’ is too frequently equated with changing interests or professions. The job market reinforces the notion by warning us to shy away from specialization and become ‘more flexible’ or risk trapping ourselves in a vanishing job field. Becoming proficient at something is considered a signal to move to other endeavors. Think but a moment of all the sports superstars who can’t be ‘just’ superstars but must also act or sing or play another sport.

Young adults, of course, should enjoy various sports, activities and interests as they grow. They benefit greatly from a variety of experiences. There is, however, an age and a limit beyond which young adults may pay a price for over-involvement. By continually bouncing from activity to activity, from event to event, they can too easily forfeit a chance for good old-fashioned passion.

Webster’s defines passion as extreme, compelling emotion, enthusiasm or fondness. The word derives from the Latin passus, which means to endure or suffer. Once the word is freed from it’s present association with sex, true passion seems in short supply. That’s unfortunate. There are many young adults today, both the over and under involved, who would benefit greatly from pursing reasonable ambitions with passion.

Passion teaches discipline. In healthy forms, passion encourages goal-setting, sacrifice and positive choices--practice instead of the mall, healthy nutrition instead of cravings and long-term personal rewards instead of the momentary thrills of drugs and alcohol.

Passion promotes personal excellence. Personal excellence is not reserved for the stars of our teams or classrooms; it is possible for all students, regardless of their ability levels. More than any particular scholastic grade or athletic achievement, the passionate pursuit of a productive goal is an invaluable experience for later success as an adult. Being exceptionally talented is not critical; being exceptionally committed is critical.

Passion creates links and strengthens a student’s sense of world and community. Passionate learners seek out the people who know what they want to know or can do what they want to do. They read; they talk to people; they think about the objects of their passion and in the process gain a sense of belonging somewhere and to something.

And finally, passion can provide a necessary refuge. My years as a coach have been punctuated by too many after-practice conversations with young athletes in secret distress:

‘My father says we have to move again. I’m so sick of having to move every two years.’

‘They don’t fight any more. They used to. Now they just don’t talk to each other.’

‘I don’t know what to do. Both my parents want me spend the holiday with them.’

If necessary, a student’s passionate endeavor can be the one sphere of their life where they exercise control in a healthy manner. They deserve that much.

Often, however, we limit opportunities for passionate involvement by simply allowing young adults to do too much at any one time. The legendary American middle-distance runner, Steve Prefontaine, once remarked that a race is "a work of art." Great art requires passion. Passion requires commitment and choice about how to spend one,s limited time. When we allow, or even encourage, young adults to continually ‘spread themselves thin,’ we in effect encourage mediocrity. We may deny those very scholastic, athletic or creative ‘works of art’ young adults need to create.

Perhaps then, instead of telling kids they can be everywhere and do everything, we as parents, coaches or schools should insist that at least once before graduation all young adults find something they are good at, that they love, and then ‘just really do it’.

©Syracuse Post-Standard, September 25, 1997

(980 words)

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A SEASON ON THE RUN

 

This was to have been the autumn of high hopes for our boys Varsity Cross-Country squad. My seniors remembered their early years--two winless seasons. Only last fall, with a few dual-meet victories, had they begun to display the team competitiveness needed to contend in a league typically dominated by eventual state champions and top-10 teams. This was our season to begin arriving, pay-back for the guys who had certainly paid their dues as underclassman.

As I sat in the coach’s locker room with my two best runners, I knew I was about to dash those hopes. The two had violated team rules for the third time that season, demonstrating once again an unwillingness or inability to follow team rules and procedures. Their behavior and attitudes had become a major team problem, and it could no longer be tolerated. Still, as I informed them of their dismissal, I felt for my other runners.

I do not recall exactly all I told the two. The requirement of personal discipline, the need to learn from mistakes, the link between self-sacrifice and excellence--all these were surely mentioned. One statement, though , stuck word-for-word in my mind. I was explaining(or attempting to explain) how the goals of the team take precedence over personal desires. From their expressions and rebuttals I sensed little of that message was reaching home. "Look," I finally said with some exasperation, "I want a team that works more than I want a team that wins."

How archaic of me, I thought later, that in this age of end-zone choreographs, in-your-face slam-jams and home-run-struts, I should be coaching as though TEAM was anything more than an antiquated notion, simply a vehicle for individual displays of talent. Why should I emphasize the rules of team behavior when professional athletes day after day model something very different and even high school coaches sometimes accord more lenient standards of behavior to their stars? Was I merely being naive in trying to build a program based on shared struggles and common glories rather than just the orchestration of individual egos? After all, the pundits claim running is only that, an ‘individual sport.’

There is no fairy-tale ending to this story. The following day, my former front-runners handed in their uniforms and for the remainder of the season we struggled competitively, losing in invitational meets to teams we had previously beaten, finishing far lower in the county and sectional championships than our optimistic August predictions.

But we learned a few things. A co-captain, frustrated to the point of quitting by the team dissension, made a choice to stick out the season. Within two meets, he became our new race leader and was ultimately voted Most Valuable Runner. Other guys stepped up too as we revised our season goals and then nearly obtained them all. By the last race in early November, it felt as though we had run two seasons--and if we hadn’t scored big victories in that second phase, we’d run it harder, tighter as a squad and with more honest enjoyment. The ‘New Unit,’ as I dubbed them, had redefined the notion of winning.

I felt good about the athletes that finished our season, but was bothered by those that didn’t. No one knows what lessons they have taken from their shortened seasons, but I do know it is difficult learning to function on a team by being excluded from that team. The irony is not lost on coaches, who must decide on rosters season after season while under pressures to produce winning teams. Those pressures make it easy to justify ‘weeding out’ unmotivated or ‘problem athletes’ to obtain a winning record. But if scholastic coaches believe(as they should) that participation in sports can provoke positive changes in a young athlete’s attitudes and behavior, then second and third chances are critical. Working harder with kids who haven’t yet learned the demands and values of group participation should be a civic as well as athletic goal for scholastic sports programs. Sure, we make our jobs easier if we only coach the coachable, but we probably do the school, and certainly the athlete, a long-term disservice. My sense of disappointment stemmed not from the season’s losses, but from the small group of runners I was unable, in the end, to discipline and motivate.

Several weeks after our last meet, I ran the Thanksgiving morning Turkey-Trot Race with my son. Several of my team members were there and among them one of the dismissed runners. I don’t blame him for eyeing me warily as I approached. To his credit, he chatted amiably and then offered positive plans and ideas for the fall of 1996. I told him I was looking forward to having him back the following year.

That season is a long way off, and even then he will have to prove his words the old fashioned way--with hard, selfless practice and preparation. But something tells me he will take advantage of this chance to improve and contribute to the team’s success.

I also think it’s going to be a very good year.

©Syracuse Post-Standard, December 15, 1995

(880 Words)

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Managing Teams With A ‘Big-Tent’ Philosophy

Jim Vermeulen

 

Congratulations. All your hard work at recruiting for the upcoming season has paid off. At the team’s pre-season meeting, you’re staring out at a school classroom packed with students. What you see is a sizeable number of athletes, a wide range of athletic talent and abilities, a breath of experience, and, probably, a distinct divergence of goals and aspirations. They all, however, share an eagerness to get going with the season, so the question is: now what do you do?

That depends. Scholastic coaches are typically contracted by their schools to run no-cut track or cross-country programs, but within that parameter coaches can make significant decisions about the kinds of programs they wish to create. Coaching is a balance of loyalties—loyalty to athletes and loyalty to the sport. Coaches can, however, knowingly tip that balance. The result in one direction is coaches who aim toward feel-good ‘participation’ teams. These teams often lack discipline, standards or rigor, and athlete success is haphazard. Tipped the other way, some coaches work to create elite programs geared toward state or national championships. While these teams usually garner positive publicity and generate strong local support, they often reach that level of excellence by winnowing the field, steadily sloughing off the less talented and less committed, reaffirming the pyramid nature of youth sports involvement in this country.   

If you’ve worked to expand the numbers of athletes in your program, your philosophy probably tips more toward inclusive teams and creating a “big-tent.” For its part, a big-tent philosophy of program management attempts to maintain that balance of loyalties while addressing two current social realities in sport, both summed up in the following statements:

1.    “72% of both males and females say they would rather play on a team with a losing record than sit on the bench for a winning team.”(Sports Done  Right)

2.    The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The first statement, taken from a state of Maine study to improve its scholastic sports, suggests that kids sometimes have a better idea of the true value of sports than the adults who coach them. Obviously, every coach should want to win; the questions are how winning is defined and to what end a coach will go to win.

The second statement suggests that, in addition to other social factors, this country doesn’t use sports very effectively to promote fitness in the general population. Some scholastic coaches may simply believe: that’s not my job. The big-tent philosophy assumes it is.

A big-tent track or cross-country program is ‘big’ simply because it encourages productive participation by young adults that other programs might ‘cut.’ In that regard, it may be the most difficult coaching path to follow. The philosophy assumes that with a lot of hard work, core principles and realistic standards, athletes of varied talent can enjoy success together. It invokes a model where, to the greatest extent possible, effort is rewarded equally to achievement. In the big tent, winning is deliberately subjective. There is room in there for both the cross-country runner who finishes third at the Footlocker National Championship and the team member who works equally hard to maintain a cherished position at the front of the JV pack. Done correctly, both can consider themselves successful in that program. The big-tent philosophy believes that, for the vast majority of scholastic athletes, effort and commitment are the most valuable lessons derived from youth sports--and those lessons can be learned by anyone, regardless of talent. 

A big-tent program starts with a simple declaration by the coach that the rewards of athletic endeavor will be shared by as many student-athletes as possible. This may differ from what the AD, the parents or community members believe to be the purpose of the sport. Those differences can co-exist, however, because unlike colleagues in the rectangle sports, the yearly fates of Track and Cross-Country coaches are usually not as tightly wedded to win-loss records. There must be accountability, of course, but in a big-tent program, accountability for athlete improvement is paramount—and it applies not just to the upper echelon athletes, the ‘scorers,’ but to all athletes who are committed to showing up, working hard and competing fully.

 

Rule of Thumb: Personal improvement is the foundation of any successful scholastic sports program.

 

You cannot, however, hold athletes responsible for improvement if you do not hold yourself responsible for coaching that improvement. Obviously, coaches need to have—or know how to arrange—effective training for all the athletes in their program. As Simmons and Freeman suggest, training must be:

§  Progressive

§  Event-Specific

§  Athlete-centered

The training must be progressive as either controlled, increasing work loads or in the sequential honing of event skills. The training should also be event-specific. Pole vaulters don’t train runway speed by running repeat 800’s and 5k cross-country runners don’t spend all their non-long run training at 10k pace.

Lastly, training works best in the big-tent when it is Athlete-Centered. That mode of coaching described by Simmons/Freeman differs sharply from the traditional Coach-Centered model. In the Coach-Centered model:

§  Communication tends to be one-way: coach-to-athlete

§  Controls are concentrated with coaches(“my way or the highway”)

§  Goals/expectations come from coach

In contrast, the Athlete-Centered model understands that young adults typically have a lot on their plate, track or cross-country being just one of several major activities that demand their attention. Acknowledgement of that reality is essential for success, so for the Athlete-Centered team:

        The goal is a “dialogue,” with athlete input valuable and central to development

        The athlete’s internal controls and discipline are fostered and promoted

        Goals/expectations come from the athlete, with the coach serving as a ‘reality consultant’

 

It can be argued that there are only so many seats on the team bus and that there can only be three scorers in a track dual meet event. In the big tent, however, it’s not the job of the coach to make every athlete a varsity performer but instead to offer all athletes a role in the team’s success. All athletes are encouraged to be, as Bill Aris of Fayetteville-Manlius has described, “contributors” versus merely participants. This is no easy task. Every scholastic coach can identify team members who are willing to settle for less than the sport demands, who are satisfied with levels of undeveloped talent or who may even actively resist the training prescribed.  Those team members diminish the ‘value-added’ effects of others who work hard to be contributors. Coaches need to deal with such detractors through reasonable rules, standards and consistent team practices. There are, after all, basic bottom-lines in the big-tent. Effort is one of them.

A corollary to the basic requirement of effort is the need for sportsmanship. Good sportsmanship implies a mature perspective and a level of discipline--and since self-discipline is one of the basic selling points of scholastic sports, it only makes sense to establish positive sportsmanship as a standard and a requirement for participation. This is especially important in the big-tent where the self-discipline of its varied members is required to maximize coaching effectiveness. Time directed toward repeatedly controlling or correcting the behavior of athletes is time better spent coaching. We have all witnessed the boorish behavior of self-centered or undisciplined athletes. It is not the job of the scholastic coach to continually condone or rationalize such behavior. The job is to change it.

 

Rule of Thumb: Athletes will behave the way they are coached to behave.

 

The ultimate aim of the big-tent program is, of course, to create successful athletes. What ‘successful’ means is always a debatable topic. My definition of the successful athlete is one who:

·       Is goal driven, whether goals involve performance, personal or training objectives

·       Makes disciplined time/activity choices in pursuit of those goals

·       Responds positively to challenges required to achieve goals

·       Learns from mistakes or set-backs

 

Lastly, let’s not forget about the importance of parents in a big-tent program. If you accept athlete diversity in your track or cross-country program, it means that same diversity will likely be found in the parents of those athletes. Some of them will know a lot about their young athlete’s sport; some will know next to nothing. Some, unfortunately, may view you as a babysitter and chose to be detached from their athlete’s involvement. At least initially, you have to meet parents on their own terms. Open and frequent communication about all aspects of training and competing is a deliberate strategy that allows parents their level of involvement while encouraging a better understanding of the sport’s values for their son or daughter. The I-don’t-talk-to-parents paradigm simply doesn’t work with a big-tent program. Conversations can, however, get interesting with such a diverse group. A coach may one day be rationalizing the training regimen of a state-level middle-distance runner to a pair of involved parents and the next day be explaining to an angry mother that the warm-up drill described to her inattentive daughter was “butt kicks” not “butt licks.”

Open lines of communication do create obvious benefits. When it comes to important basic information such as competition schedules or practice times, or when team issues arise that require rumor-control, redundancy is a good thing, and staying in touch with parents via newsletters, parent meetings and even weekly e-mails prevents far more problems than it creates. I have variously described the parents of our track/cross-country programs as athlete mentors, attitude-adjustment experts, supportive spectators, team managers and historians.  They are all of these things and more--if allowed and encouraged to be involved. Perhaps most importantly, they are the group that gets the attention of the AD or the school board should your program need support.

 

Rule of Thumb: Parents are your most important constituency.

 

The oft-used term, “a commitment to excellence,” has multiple interpretations, and on many scholastic teams that directive has been used to exclude rather than include. On a team with a functional big-tent philosophy, commitment and excellence can be pursued by all team members, regardless of talent. The coach just has to do the work that makes it possible.

If track and cross-country coaches seek to broaden the student-base of their sports—and they do so in a manner that is productive and successful for all the athletes—they will never have trouble filling school rooms at pre-season meetings. They will field teams with both quality athletes and large numbers of accomplished team members. These will be teams where, as Oscar Jensen, the coaching dean of Central New York, once remarked succinctly, “It’s about the athletes.”

(1806 words)

 

 

 

References:

Take The Lead, Scott Simmons and Will Freeman, c. 2006

 

Sports Done RightTM: A Call to Action on Behalf of Maine's Student-Athletes; University of Maine, 2005

 

“Childhood Obesity Facts”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/obesity/facts.htm,  Atlanta, Georgia

 

 

Author Biography:

Since 1986, Jim Vermeulen has coached 94 Modified and Varsity Cross-Country, Indoor Track and Track teams at West Genesee High School in Camillus, New York. Those teams have included: league champions; state top-20 XC squads; individual state and NY Federation champions; three national top-10 steeplechase athletes; three individual/relay All-Americans. Coach Vermeulen is currently working on a book chronicling the running year of scholastic athletes.

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Cross-Country Journal - 2012

(published in ny.milsplit.com)

Week 1 – Opening Week

Monday:

     8:00am. While Coach Delsole(“Del”) and I chatted about the season’s inaugural team practice, the runners meandered up in adolescent clumps to take seats on the grassy slope abutting the Camillus Middle School gym. What Del and I recognized immediately was that neither of us had uttered a single “who’s that” to any approaching team members. A good sign. The success of our well-attended voluntary summer team runs was again validated. With the group assembled, we moved inside to the cafeteria for paperwork and introductions via attendance. Team member Nicole sharpened pencils for their summer training questionnaires while I launched into some comments. “You will be judged,” was one of them. “Coach Delsole and I will judge you. Teammates will judge you, competitors too. It’s the nature of the sport. It’s life. Coach and I will know—if we don’t already--what you are capable of accomplishing as runners. That is what will be judged—how well you fulfill your potential.”

     I then asked who knew what a meritocracy was. Blank stares met the question until Nick bailed me out with a spot-on definition. We covered the respect-for-talent territory, with its attendant danger of ruffled feathers should freshmen eclipse seniors. Our teams have seldom dealt with that problem, but the potential always exists. As I passed out papers and the troops penciled their summer training achievements, Del openly admired the talent on both squads but added a warning that, depending on how we all worked together, both teams could be either really good or merely average.

     We had laid our cards on the table and talked long enough. Del’s famous(or infamous) repertoire of jokes, puns and double entendres would be parceled out later at the appropriate moments. Paperwork submitted, the runners emptied out onto the back school grounds to do what they had come to do: train.

 

Tuesday – Thursday:

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/wg001.jpg     How easily these groups--who had already practiced 3-4 days a week together all summer--dispatched the jobs at hand.

     There was a 3000 meter time trial on Tuesday to check fitness levels and allow us to more effectively group runners for training. During that, a suspicion was confirmed. With Laura following her alternate training schedule--one that did not include a hard 3000 meter effort--Lindsay took over the lead chores. The next three runners across after Lindsay, however, were freshman: Bridget, Annie and Sara. Del’s nod in my direction as each crossed the line said it all. The same held true for the boys when freshman Kal finished first. Youth will likely be served this season for the West Genesee Wildcats.

     There was a Wednesday of solid aerobic work, a mixture of general conditioning run and fartlek that reacquainted team members with our trails and led to the discovery of a hornets’ nest the size of a basketball astride the inner loop of our back field trails. Certainly, that’s going to end badly—for the hornets.

     And there was a tempo run Thursday on the track. We wanted precision; we wanted the runners to hit dictated targets and for the newcomers to acquaint themselves with this most difficult of dances along the aerobic cliff. Tempo conducted properly is an acquired taste, maybe the most difficult training form for high schoolers to master--which is why some coaches don’t even bother trying until those younger runners mature to upperclassmen. Someone, however, forgot to deliver that suggestion to freshman Kal, who teamed with Ethan and clicked off laps with metronomic pace. Standing midfield, Del and I scanned it all—who was capable of staying ‘on the wagon’ of their group, who threw in the towel and fell back. Who ran with an asymmetrical arm-swing, who evidenced, even to the naked eye, pronounced heel-striking. All important information. So many runners believe they practice in anonymity, unaware of how much ‘data’ they present to any coach willing to observe and note. We note a lot.

 

Friday:

     The indomitable Maime Trotter once told Gilly Hopkins: “Nothing to make you happy like doing good on a tough job.” Great team races are, indeed, the grand goal of the season, but it’s the great team practices that make those days possible, and doing good on a tough job is what makes great practice days among the best moments of any season. Del and I didn’t have to tell them they were doing well on their 5x1000 intervals. It was early morning, but they were feeling it, pushing their intervals, staying strict on recovery times, pumping each other up on the start line of our picturesque back field loop.

     We didn’t need the watch numbers to know. Catie elected to move to a faster group; Lindsay moved up also toward the end of her workout because she wanted the challenge of a chase. The boys’ front group started out hammering and never stopped. As planned, they pulled on racing flats for the last two intervals and churned off the line, intent on compression. It was impressive stuff for early season, and though the ‘data’ later would reveal a tight four second #1-5 spread on their interval averages, we didn’t need the numbers to know it was a very good day. Gathering themselves up after going negative in their final interval, they exchanged hi-fives. Del and I just smiled. We didn’t need to tell them anything.

Week 2 – Time Trial

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/harrier001.jpg        The week seems to pick up speed; time accelerates toward school’s opening—much to the relief of most parents. Our early week practices are filled, simply, with the work to be done: the conditioning runs, the tempo paces, the hills, the spots of speed. No complaints from the athletes. Heads are bent to the tasks at hand, and we use up all our allotted practice time. A runner I thought lost to other pursuits this season suddenly reappears in week two, and one that ran every day of week one goes AWOL this week. Another one e-mails to apologize for her absence the past two weeks; this runner must change school districts due to family issues. Adding and sadly subtracting—nothing surprises me any more.

     The troops muscle through a hill circuit workout on Tuesday and return to the high school Wednesday morning to continue weight lifting and strength drills. Thursday they run the course at a conditioning pace, followed by more drills and some fartlek. Friday’s coming, and I remind them not to overdo the fair.

     One of the local objective hazards to safe training in upstate is the New York State Fair. Section III runners seeking walking-around-money get jobs there and stand on their feet for hours after—or prior to—practices, ensuring dead legs. Team members, of course, make annual fair pilgrimages in order to—among other things adolescent--test their gustatory toughness with the likes of blooming onions, fried dough and God knows what else can be rammed on a stick and deep fried(old trainers?). We can only counsel restraint and count the days till the curtain falls on the Great New York State Fair.

     Soon enough, Friday does arrive and that means the Blue-Gold Championship, our team course time trial and a first glimpse of runners at race-pace. We use our annual 5k trial on the home course to check race-readiness and readjust training groups. More importantly, however, the trial provides a preview/review of meet procedures for team members. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from hyping up a rivalry with shirts and team cheers. One alumnus, an eventual two-time All-American relay member in track, told me his only running regret at WG was never racing on a winning Blue-Gold team.

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/harrier002.jpg     Del and I arrive about 7:25am and begin set-up chores: haul out course equipment; set cones for the starting loop; put up tables and unload scoring equipment. It’s done by the time all the runners have assembled at 8:00am. We walk to the basketball court, and remind them of the essentials: manage your time so you arrive at the line on time for final preparations; warm up all your energy systems properly; have a good race plan and—most importantly--execute. As I instruct the non-racing ‘pit crew’ on their various timing and recording jobs, Del gathers the runners on the start-line for sprint-outs to get heart rates up. By 8:45am, they are ready to go, so with a small and enthusiastic crowd of parents gathered nearby, Del sounds the horn and they shoot out. The 2012 competitive season is under way.

     I bike into the back field to exhort the runners and shout out one/two mile splits while Del manages the finish. Our field has already burst into its annual presentation of goldenrod, a feast for the eyes unless you suffer the wrong allergy. Exiting the woods loop near the mile mark, Kal and Nate have opened a slight gap on Jack, Ethan and Mike—which is not the race plan. The outer and inner loops of the back field do nothing to close that gap, but as they plunge back into the woods on the reverse loop, Will is advancing through the following pack, picking off teammates at a steady pace, racing a huge chunk of time faster than his previous year’s trial. A 2011 mid-JV runner until Manhattan, Will had then won his Big Apple JV race and finished in the team’s top-7 during subsequent championships. He is already ahead of that schedule this season—another good sign—but his teammates are conceding nothing, and Will sees only the backsides of Kal, Nate, Jack, Ethan and Mike across the finish. Our team depth has begun to emerge.

     With Laura completing an alternate run and Lindsay on the precautionary sidelines with a sore hamstring, the newcomers and other girls’ veterans take center stage. They’ve run the summer miles; they’ve lifted weights, done the drills, then pushed hard in our pre-season team practices. Now is the first opportunity to bring all that together--and despite what we’ve seen and surmised, everything is yet to be proven and it’s still just possibilities and potential. “Hope had kept him going, but it was the doubt that gave him joy” Christopher Tilghman wrote of one of his short story characters. Watching the girls race unfold, I have to agree. Sometimes the not knowing is the most exciting part of coaching.

    Five kilometers later, however, we know a lot more. We know that newcomer Sara is the real deal. Pacing with the girls front group through a conservative first mile, she moved in front on the back field’s outer loop and took honors for the girls at the finish line. We know that sophomore Elise, close behind Sara, has everything it takes to become a major team competitor--and top sectional runner. We know that Alycia, running a minute and a half faster than her 2011 time, is bringing the senior leadership the team needs. And we know that Eva, with a  5th place finish for the girls, is going to impress both teammates and competitors alike this fall.  The girls’ team is clearly a work in progress, but progress is not in short supply.

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/harrier003.jpg     Still, when they return from their twenty-minute post run and strides, there remains an admixture of relief, satisfaction and disappointment etched on various runner faces.  “Spend time with the Race Analysis I will e-mail you,” I tell them when we assemble in the school cafeteria. “Make a plan for improvement, then put this race--whether good or bad--in the box, close that box and move on.”  With all the aromas of brunch food wafting from the nearby tables(courtesy of our Friends of Wildcats parents), it’s not hard tell what really holds their attention.  Time for food….

 

Photo credits: Coach Vermeulen/Fred Leff

 Week 3 – ‘Moments of Doubt’

     It’s Labor Day—so they will labor. Circling back from weekend holiday events, all but a few converge on our summer Erie Canal practice site for perhaps the final time this season. To my thinking, they’re lucky. With the swirl of adjustments they’ll make to start school—new daily schedules, altered sleep patterns, the reintroduction of academic pressures—we decline to add a weekend invitational to the mix. This will be a training week. Racing can wait.

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/harrier007.jpg    With the group gathered at tables under the covered pavilion that’s home-base when at the canal, Del and I lay out the week ahead, and then briefly reflect back to Friday’s time trial. Amid the considerable positives, a few things are bothering us. Several of the Race Analysis responses  indicated runners disappointed with not responding well at key junctures of the time trial. We all know the situations: a competitor overtakes and passes you; a competitor uses a strategic surge and pulls away; your competitor simply holds a pace longer into a race than you think you can. These are the potential moments of doubt all runners sooner or later face, some more frequently than others. What do you do? How are you going to respond? More often as not, the response leads more to the character or attitude of the runner than to his or her physical abilities. We can train race responses. The will to respond comes from the runner. So it’s a good thing to have a runners irritated that they did not respond, that they allowed themselves to be passed or left behind. I talk to one of those after we complete core drills and prepare for the night’s tempo run. “Practice it in training,” I tell him. “When the moment comes to either push or fall back, make the decision to go. You can.”  Thinking of that runner and others, Del warns the entire group about the dangers of allowing negative thinking to creep into races, creating foregone conclusions. His solution is simply: “Don’t do that.” They then churn off down the canal tow path on their three or four mile assignments.

     Freed from the expectations of a Saturday race day, we slip into a comfortable hard-easy practice pattern. Tuesday, the mileage stays up, but the intensity drops with a variety of aerobic training. We end faster, though, with our ‘sticks’ drill where runners accelerate over a series of wooden sticks placed at increasing distances. Sticks are both prescriptive and diagnostic. Besides speed/turn-over development, it tends to bring form issues into high relief. For our freshman surprise, Sara, that means heel-striking. She tries to pendulum her feet down the increasingly spaced sticks and winds up looking like a majorette prancing out onto the football field for the half-time show. We all have a laugh about it, and I give her tips on changing form which she immediately adopts for a visible improvement—she’s a quick study. Following the drill, they’re off on a short cool-down as the Modified runners arrive for a late practice and bring the rain with them. We’ve timed it just right. The modies are not so lucky.

     “You can only do what you can do,” Garrison Keillor once insisted, “but you’re responsible for that much.” In a way, that’s the tone of the week—get at it and do what you can do, do what you’re responsible for. They nail a hill repeat workout on Wednesday, with some comparing a similar summer workout almost a month prior. Lindsay pushes herself relentlessly, lopping almost 15 seconds off her previous 1000 meter interval average and over a minute on her accumulated time. For Bridgett and Alycia, it’s a ridiculous 20 second improvement on intervals. On the boys’ side, all of our top runners have dropped 10 or more seconds. Del doesn’t have to ask while I’m smiling to myself and offering up low-fives to the tired runners.

     Following a Thursday at the high school for easy running, weights, drills and strides, we are back on the Camillus Middle School trails Friday for an advance to the mile distance in interval work. Following Wednesday/Thursday half school days, this is their first full dose of school, and that means waiting to see if the Sports Shuttle Buses will deliver all my runners on time and together. Glitches prevent that, but the two disparate groups are soon synchronized, warmed up and ready to go on our interval loop. The assignment is simple and relatively conservative: three miles, or approximately 5000 meters of work at 5k race pace in mile intervals. As groups form, Lou and I are quietly approaching several runners and talking moments of doubt. Specifically—practice the hard decision to, when necessary, go.

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/cov.jpg     The warmish, humid weather moderates when the sun disappears behind clouds. The groups sequentially step to the line and surge off, disappearing down-trail around a curve, racing toward the woods loop they will navigate before circling home along the outer loop of the back field. With the interval distance increased and the total recovery time reduced, we wonder how the runners will react. The boys’ front group is, in fact, hauling and all business, but a freshman foursome of Hunter, A.J., Dominic and Tom have also banded to push and pull each other through strong miles. They’ve been warned they will ‘pay their dues’ this first year, but it certainly looks like they don’t mind. “Are you sure this is a mile?” Del asks after listening to some of the interval times. “It’s a mile,” I assure him.

    And it is, after all, a matter of accumulations. They’ve heard me say that again and again. Accumulated miles of training, accumulated seasons. There’s no way to rush the process, and the ‘ah-ha’ moments of elevated distance running performance are few and far between. Bill Aris of F-M stated it succinctly when suggesting that, in his highly successful program, “the process is the goal.” So true. There is, in the end, the work. And if you expect to succeed at distance running, you’d better love the work.

     We’re seeing evidence of that. We’re seeing less doubt and more confidence. Work ably accomplished, the tired runners mill around the car, sipping water and logging the interval times we will use for analysis and future reference—another marker workout. They still have easy running and they still have core, but we already know this week’s ending on a high note. Del is a race guy who derives great pleasure from watching the runners he’s trained pop the big competition performances. But he stops as team members pace away on their cool-down run. “You know,” he asks, “how you say a great workout is sometimes as exciting as a great race?”

     “Yeah?” I answer, wondering where he’s going with this.

     “Well you’re right,” he says, smiling.

Week 3 – ‘Moments of Doubt’

     It’s Labor Day—so they will labor. Circling back from weekend holiday events, all but a few converge on our summer Erie Canal practice site for perhaps the final time this season. To my thinking, they’re lucky. With the swirl of adjustments they’ll make to start school—new daily schedules, altered sleep patterns, the reintroduction of academic pressures—we decline to add a weekend invitational to the mix. This will be a training week. Racing can wait.

    With the group gathered at tables under the covered pavilion that’s home-base when at the canal, Del and I lay out the week ahead, and then briefly reflect back to Friday’s time trial. Amid the considerable positives, a few things are bothering us. Several of the Race Analysis responses  indicated runners disappointed with not responding well at key junctures of the time trial. We all know the situations: a competitor overtakes and passes you; a competitor uses a strategic surge and pulls away; your competitor simply holds a pace longer into a race than you think you can. These are the potential moments of doubt all runners sooner or later face, some more frequently than others. What do you do? How are you going to respond? More often as not, the response leads more to the character or attitude of the runner than to his or her physical abilities. We can train race responses. The will to respond comes from the runner. So it’s a good thing to have a runners irritated that they did not respond, that they allowed themselves to be passed or left behind. I talk to one of those after we complete core drills and prepare for the night’s tempo run. “Practice it in training,” I tell him. “When the moment comes to either push or fall back, make the decision to go. You can.”  Thinking of that runner and others, Del warns the entire group about the dangers of allowing negative thinking to creep into races, creating foregone conclusions. His solution is simply: “Don’t do that.” They then churn off down the canal tow path on their three or four mile assignments.

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/harrier006.jpg     Freed from the expectations of a Saturday race day, we slip into a comfortable hard-easy practice pattern. Tuesday, the mileage stays up, but the intensity drops with a variety of aerobic training. We end faster, though, with our ‘sticks’ drill where runners accelerate over a series of wooden sticks placed at increasing distances. Sticks are both prescriptive and diagnostic. Besides speed/turn-over development, it tends to bring form issues into high relief. For our freshman surprise, Sara, that means heel-striking. She tries to pendulum her feet down the increasingly spaced sticks and winds up looking like a majorette prancing out onto the football field for the half-time show. We all have a laugh about it, and I give her tips on changing form which she immediately adopts for a visible improvement—she’s a quick study. Following the drill, they’re off on a short cool-down as the Modified runners arrive for a late practice and bring the rain with them. We’ve timed it just right. The modies are not so lucky.

     “You can only do what you can do,” Garrison Keillor once insisted, “but you’re responsible for that much.” In a way, that’s the tone of the week—get at it and do what you can do, do what you’re responsible for. They nail a hill repeat workout on Wednesday, with some comparing a similar summer workout almost a month prior. Lindsay pushes herself relentlessly, lopping almost 15 seconds off her previous 1000 meter interval average and over a minute on her accumulated time. For Bridgett and Alycia, it’s a ridiculous 20 second improvement on intervals. On the boys’ side, all of our top runners have dropped 10 or more seconds. Del doesn’t have to ask while I’m smiling to myself and offering up low-fives to the tired runners.

     Following a Thursday at the high school for easy running, weights, drills and strides, we are back on the Camillus Middle School trails Friday for an advance to the mile distance in interval work. Following Wednesday/Thursday half school days, this is their first full dose of school, and that means waiting to see if the Sports Shuttle Buses will deliver all my runners on time and together. Glitches prevent that, but the two disparate groups are soon synchronized, warmed up and ready to go on our interval loop. The assignment is simple and relatively conservative: three miles, or approximately 5000 meters of work at 5k race pace in mile intervals. As groups form, Lou and I are quietly approaching several runners and talking moments of doubt. Specifically—practice the hard decision to, when necessary, go.

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/cov.jpg     The warmish, humid weather moderates when the sun disappears behind clouds. The groups sequentially step to the line and surge off, disappearing down-trail around a curve, racing toward the woods loop they will navigate before circling home along the outer loop of the back field. With the interval distance increased and the total recovery time reduced, we wonder how the runners will react. The boys’ front group is, in fact, hauling and all business, but a freshman foursome of Hunter, A.J., Dominic and Tom have also banded to push and pull each other through strong miles. They’ve been warned they will ‘pay their dues’ this first year, but it certainly looks like they don’t mind. “Are you sure this is a mile?” Del asks after listening to some of the interval times. “It’s a mile,” I assure him.

    And it is, after all, a matter of accumulations. They’ve heard me say that again and again. Accumulated miles of training, accumulated seasons. There’s no way to rush the process, and the ‘ah-ha’ moments of elevated distance running performance are few and far between. Bill Aris of F-M stated it succinctly when suggesting that, in his highly successful program, “the process is the goal.” So true. There is, in the end, the work. And if you expect to succeed at distance running, you’d better love the work.

     We’re seeing evidence of that. We’re seeing less doubt and more confidence. Work ably accomplished, the tired runners mill around the car, sipping water and logging the interval times we will use for analysis and future reference—another marker workout. They still have easy running and they still have core, but we already know this week’s ending on a high note. Del is a race guy who derives great pleasure from watching the runners he’s trained pop the big competition performances. But he stops as team members pace away on their cool-down run. “You know,” he asks, “how you say a great workout is sometimes as exciting as a great race?”

     “Yeah?” I answer, wondering where he’s going with this.

     “Well you’re right,” he says, smiling.

Week 4 – Glass Half Full

The Beginning:

Monday, and the weather has turned cooler, offering hints of what’s coming. Let it happen, I say. Summer’s had its due; this is XC season.

Practice today is a medley of units. I talk from the tailgate during attendance, providing the outline for the week, explaining the differences between racing dual meets and invitationals. The vets have it down, but the newbies need reminding that not all races are created equal. Dual meets and league standings, I tell them, build race experience and tactics, please program supporters and, in the eyes of many, justify the sport. Invitationals are where individuals demonstrate big-meet excellence and where teams make their mark on a sectional or state level. Both will determine successful seasons.

What’s on the plate for the day? Well, there are uniforms to issue; there is planning to make the Wednesday dual meet run smoothly for both schools; there is the emergence of ‘foot blister issues’ with several runners;  there is busing that has to be changed for this Saturday’s invitational meet. At some point, actual coaching may occur.

“Folks,” I tell them, “today you are going to do some interrupted running.” Blank stares. “That’s another way of saying segmented tempo runs.” I then explain the simple concept: 25 minutes of tempo-pace running over trails with short recoveries between 5 minute bouts. The stronger/faster runners are given 8, 8 and 9 minutes bouts. It’s just another way of getting at the same thing, and we don’t need the precision of the track for this work. They need, in fact, to feel controlled over trails because we may be asking some of them to do exactly that during Wednesday’s dual meet.

          Del and I monitor the runners while we walk the Woods Loop, looking for overhanging branches to clip and inspecting the trail. The dry summer has eliminated a number of typically questionable sections. Albeit a little too compact under foot, the course is in the best shape we’ve seen for years. Times should be fast this season, something the athletes certainly won’t mind. The groups stride by as we walk and groom, offering opportunities for quick pointers about form or to merely inquire what percent of the work they’ve completed. We finish and return to the basketball court as the training groups pace in.

          ‘Shoes-Off’ foot-strengthening exercises follow on the playing field nearby. Team members drill and watch the modified runners cut a large circle around them on their whistle drill. This is a planned interlude between their tempo work and what’s next: hill rises. Several runners had been asking for them this past week. They get their wish. Del lines them up below the 120 meter rise while I wait on the upper end. I pull out my cheap Casio 30 fps camera and make quick movie modes of runners to check the form development we are working on. The theory is that hill sprints will enhance knee drive and transfer that into muscle memory. There’s the other side, however, where the inclines illuminate mechanical weaknesses.  As they power up and jog down, the camera records both.  

 

The Middle

No crisp autumnal weather for our dual meet opener. Summer has reasserted itself, and we order the runners into shade between their warm-up routines.

Description: 091212-Girls-BackLoopThe boys toe the start line with a large crowd on hand by cross-country dual meet standards. As Del sends them off with the horn, I bike into the Back Field and watch the front group measure out the tempo pace prescribed for the day, hitting their marks at the one and two mile marks and running tightly grouped. I periodically radio the race progress back to Del and watch for any problems with the following runners. None, fortunately, develops, but I miss the finish which apparently provides an unofficial Wildcat record with a two second 1-5 runner compression.

With all the boys in, Del issues final instructions on the line for the girls’ runners, signals the backup timer, and raises the horn. The loud blast propels them off as I jump back on my bike and head into the field to monitor and report. They’ve circled the opening loop and gained the terrace above the softball field by the time I glance back. Exuberance has—at least initially—trumped the race plan; front-runner Laura is already ten to twenty meters ahead of the lead pack. She’ll settle down, I assure myself, and bounce down a back trail to set up in at Three Corners where I can watch the runners arc into the Woods Loop. Laura approaches, followed  by a group of Wildcats. As she passes the next four check points, my question to her is the same —“How’re you doing?”—but her answer assumes an unsurprising trajectory. A comfortable “O.K.” at Three Corners becomes “Alright” at the mile mark, followed by a more informative “It’s hard” entering the Inner Loop of the Back Field. At the two mile mark she simply declares “I feel awful.” There is no answer to that. She’s running strongly at a consistent pace—although faster than planned. But after all the rehab of the spring and summer and then the set-backs, she’s earned at least awful while proving once again that nothing of any value in distance running comes cheap. Nothing.

 

The End

Description: 091512-VVSIn-DawnOnTheBusWe arrive, finally, at Saturday. Along the way, and amid all the preparations for our first invitational, I’ve dealt with a personality conflict of dangerous potential and then quietly questioned another runner’s intent for what appears to be, day after day,  ‘just showing up.’ In the back of my mind during that private conversation is the distinction Coach Aris draws between participating and contributing. Asked correctly, it’s always a fair question: why are you here? Sometimes young runners are not so sure and the dual loyalties of the coach—one to the athlete, one to the sport—are put to the test. This test, I sense, is going to end well.

Dawn finds us heading east to Vernon-Verona-Sherrill High School, needing extra time to wake and jog out the reconfigured course before mid-morning races. Off the bus at the site, we pick a team tent site, and athletes pull on extra layers. The cool weather has returned, and teams in the early races sport mid-season clothing. The girls team groups up and heads out for their warm-up and inspection of the course.

By 8:50am, they are in spikes and on the line for final preparations. Del directs the strides and sprint-outs. I leave with the five minute warning to take up position on the course. The new configuration allows multiple sightings of the runners and reflects the forward thinking of the VVS staff. For us, it’s a typical first-invitational effort. The new runners don’t quite know what to expect, and the vets are wondering how they’ll compare to other opening races. Twenty to twenty-five minutes later they know. As they gather outside the finish paddock, most are satisfied, some are not, and all are relieved. Baldwinsville runs an excellent team race to win handily. We finish second and several assumptions are validated. Of our top 8, four are freshman and two sophomores. Serendipity strikes as Cathryn, who ran 21st for the team against Oswego, leaps up to the 7th spot. Young and evolving—this team is going to be fun.

The poet John Ashbery once warned that “…seconds will call upon you…” The boys charge off in their Varsity II race at 10:10am, and by the time they pass me at the mile mark, their fate for the day has been largely determined. The seconds are piling up against them. Running against a strong and veteran Baldwinsville team, I had warned them at the line, “they will try to punch you in the face that first mile; they are going to take it out hard to see if you can stick with them.” After B-ville had placed their top 4 ahead of our #1, and while we grouped post-race and Del and I talked with various runners about their efforts, one offered the comment, “Coach, B-ville went out really hard in the first mile.” I sighed and told him he ran well.

And they had. With one of the top-5 racing sick and another off-form, others had stepped up and made efforts to compensate. They’d placed 4th in the 58 team merge. The race had provided a good baseline from which the season can build. The girls, too, had taken measure of themselves and found reasons for optimism. We told them later that they had a lot of work to do, but they both had a lot to work with. The glass is half full

 

 

Week 5 – The Work

Practice

          Over the weekend, I play a mental game. I imagine the season is over, team and individual goals accomplished, the glass full. Then I analyze backwards for what we did to get there—how competition was managed, which athletes were brought along as planned, which athletes pleasantly surprised us, and then how we fought against lackluster seasons and talked our best talks to divert disappointment or complacency.  I conclude how important it was this season to pare down the element of chance but that chance, especially with young runners, is inevitable and makes its own demands. The rules must be fluid for working with young runners. Some need to be endlessly motivated, some need merely to be educated and directed. And a few, sometimes, finally need only to be left to the consequences of their determined choices. The stage erected for all that subtle drama is, of course, the training, the work. It’s all about the work then, isn’t it, I ask at the end of my mental game. Yup, I answer myself.

          So Monday they are working. Coach Delsole and I had set up a training itinerary for the week, but on further review it appeared that Friday was overloaded, so I’ve shifted a short drill to today and made it the centerpiece around which other work will be wrapped.  Following warm-ups, drills and a fartlek run, they perform our ‘shoes off’ strengthening drills on the school field, then group for the L.A.T.

“Ten minutes,” I tell them when asked. This could probably be called the short-and-sweet drill, only it’s not so sweet. It does, however, deliver a lot of bang for the buck, though we use it judiciously because of the anaerobic fatigue and byproducts that result. It’s a Skaneateles favorite, according to Del who previously coached there with Jack Reed. Thirty seconds ‘up’ at 1500/1600 meter-plus pace, then thirty seconds down as comfortable as possible. For some, this means an oxygen-gasping jog; for others, like previous state champion Bill Gabriel and his sidekick John Delallo, this meant little more than coming slightly off the gas pedal. The downs reveal as much of running character and resolve as the ups.

“The first thirty seconds is a down!” booms Del, holding his watch and whistle. Predictably, someone who is either over-enthusiastic or inattentive bolts on the first whistle and gets laughed back into place by the others. But then it’s all business. Up and down they go to Del’s whistle as I wander side to side, watching, cajoling and taking form shots to analyze later. This is the drill where a cold(we’ve had plenty of those) or an off-day is shoved into high relief and usually results in someone falling ‘off the wagon’ while silently praying down the number of ups. It’s also the drill where runners display hidden talents or determination. Lauren, today, stands out in that regard, leading her group and prompting anticipation of the added team depth when she parlays training efforts into race. Little do we know…

With the final whistle, they pull up, some slumping over, others with arms up for maximum oxygen retrieval. They dutifully grab the nearest cone used to mark out their L.A.T. oval and walk back to their team spot. The boys’ front wagon has stretched today but not broken. The front-runners for the girls had been spaced into several groups, but have run well. We’ll take this. Some put trainers back on while others sip water, then all set out on a general condition/restoration run. Day 1—a good one--is just about in the books.

         

A Meet

901912-WG@Auburn-PondThe team members board their respective buses, and we get off on time for an away dual meet against Auburn. With their home course under renovations, they’ve temporarily moved out of town to rural Everest Park, so we wend the upstate back roads to that site. In the mottle of fields and forests along the way, leaves are turning and birds are flocking in anticipation. The last color is draining from the field corn, and aside from hitting traffic through Skaneateles, it’s a relaxing fall preview.

 The race site is equally scenic: open fields and woods framed against the tilted topography of the Fingerlakes. A reeded pond reflects blue sky. Even the athletes are impressed. As we exit the bus, I tell them: “Hey, this is why they call it cross-country.”

But the work is at hand and a tight schedule leaves little time for idle admiring. We hustle the boys out onto a course inspection and warm up while Coach Delsole and I check with the Auburn coaches to ensure our order of races.

The boys line up for an earlier 4:45 start. They’ve completed their final sprint-outs and wait, impatient. With an eventual whistle, they’re off, shooting across an open field and quickly disappearing around a block of trees. Emerging momentarily from an initial back and forth section, they plunge out of sight down toward the lake while I walk to the pond with spectators and parents. I’ve already found the girls team and warned them their start time has been moved up. Nothing to do but wait for the boys’ front runners to charge back into sight and hope that sight includes plenty of Wildcat blue.

091912-WG@Auburn-FinishRiseKal and Nate emerge up the hill first. Jack and Auburn’s lead runner are battling, followed by that string of blue I’d hoped for. A steady stream of runners passes the pond to the cheers of the crowd and then disappears into the upper loop. Not long after the final competitors pass the pond, the front runners circle back and take aim on the finish. Kal surges past with Nate close behind. Jack and his Auburn rival are still locked in a close contest, and as they aim up the tilted finish, Jack nervously checks over his shoulder until deciding to just put down the hammer and go. He claims third. It’s an automatic win, but the rest of the runners don’t care about that and charge up into the finish chute exhausted, legs wobbling from the burn on that final rise.

The girls are already on the start line and scream their teammates home. Then it’s their turn. With the start whistle, Laura shoots off, not interested in any challenges, leaving those to teammates. She commands a sizable lead over the Auburn front-runner on returning from the lower loop, with Lindsay and Sara racing the third and fourth positions. Five more Wildcats follow. Little changes around the upper loop except the distance to the finish. Laura circles the pond a final time and powers up the rise to claim an important victory on a tough new course. After all the trials of her injury and rehab, I’m thinking just two words: welcome back. The progression is ahead of schedule; she will be heard from this fall. And the youth movement continues, with freshman Sara running a strong final loop for third place and only two seniors in the team top-10. But one of them is our fifth runner Lauren. The girls mill around the finish area with family and friends, then group for their post-run and strides so they can get to the Friends of Wildcats XC tent for snacks and drinks. It’s been a productive day.

 

Our ‘Invitational’

092112-ManhattanMiles-2            On Friday, they arrive with their spikes, as instructed. They sit in a semi-circle under cloudy skies as I explain how the day’s training session will unfold: the warm-up, the tempo preparation, the interval route they will cover. It’s what we call Manhattan Miles because of the way the course approximates, in miniature, the historic Vandy circuit—flats to hills to flats. They appear relaxed, confident and ready for what is—since we have no Saturday meet scheduled--the real challenge of the week. “This is your invitational,” I tell them. “Bring your best.”  It’s show-time.

          Both Coach Delsole and I consider Manhattan Miles one of our favorites. From the start point atop the back field hill, we can watch them charge around the Outer Loop’s autumnal colors, then plunge up Dirt Hill, not to reappear before circling a figure eight of hills and descending the connector trail to complete the loop as we bark out times. This one’s on the clock, and the goals are both time and compression.

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/1.png          They jog into the back field and, preparations complete, arrange themselves into training groups. Del and I make some ‘adjustments’ to the groups and so issue unspoken challenges to several runners. The boys’ front runners signal a team member who’s been steadily improving in a lower group:  “You’re with us today,” they tell him. The message is clear. With everyone in place, I send them off in thirty second intervals, each group instructed what to subtract from their final watch time. In my back pocket are results from the same workout run in previous seasons. I’m hoping they can approximate some of those times laid down by Federation Championship qualifiers but have set no targets other than to “run hard.”

          And they do. The boys are all business. A ten second compression for the first mile shrinks to seven seconds on the second, then six for the third effort. Will, ‘invited’ up front for the workout, logs the 6th fastest average and is followed by Matt and Logan, both who have decided to make their presence felt in the team top-10. Everyone has been busting butt.

092112-Rainbow-1          In workouts, I always enjoy upward surprises, and today those come in the form of a small squad of girls who leap-frog their averages above the training group ahead of them. Bridgett, Allison, Megan and Madeline feed off a group synergy that leaves Del starring at the stopwatch and smiling. Lindsay walks over after her miles to make sure we know she’s gone fifteen seconds negative from first to last interval. “I’m just letting you know,” she says with a smug smile. Up front, Laura had lopped almost fifteen seconds off her second mile. “Too fast,” she complained. “No it’s not,” I countered, knowing the times in my back pocket. She hammered the third, looking more and more like last November’s version. The big work done, they all load water bottles and extra shoes in the back of my car and head out for an easy run. We’ll crunch the numbers and sort the averages later, but it’s obviously been a good day.  And they’re not finished. We meet them at the base of School Hill for sprints, short 8 second bursts for neuromuscular development. The sky clears while they churn up the hill and walk back down, jabbering and joking, already content with the day. Another short cool-down afterward brings them back into a full circle for leisurely stretches as a rainbow spreads its full arc to the east. A sign for the big competitive week ahead? We’re hoping….

 

Week 6 – Test-taking

Monday, Monday. We are at the track because, as I remind the troops, it’s been a month since their last controlled tempo run and because the week presents no other feasible opportunity. Plus, the weather’s cooperative: seasonable temperatures with little wind--a good day for a tempo run. But after finishing our meeting for goal-setting, warming them up and starting their twenty minute test, I’m thinking I’ve made a mistake. I’ve asked them to run without watches, to sense pace and effort levels internally, but even the better runners are pattering along with their suspect interpretations of tempo pace. Coach Delsole and I, standing on opposite sides of the track, simultaneously start barking out our displeasure. It’s a lethargic looking bunch, I conclude, until we check the watch and make some mental calculations. Almost all have improved significantly since their prior track tempo. Still, for many high school runners(or at least ours), Mondays don’t seem the day for tempo precision.

Tuesday on the home course is a day of relaxed running and falling leaves, but by Wednesday the place is a three-ringed circus. The parking lot is stuffed with cars and buses for our dual-meet races against Central Square, a modified football game and soccer practice pick-ups. I’ve already coordinated with the football coach about our opening loop, which runs dangerously close to his playing field. For the soccer traffic, I took care of that problem years ago. I re-routed a section of the course circling those playing fields. That eliminated athletes meandering across our trail and, on game days, soccer parents annoyed at being told their lawn chairs sat right in middle of our 5k course.

092612-Boys-Dirt Hll            At three, I race out of school and motor the Forester around the back trails, setting cones to direct runner traffic, scaring deer from the woods trail. The modified coaches erect the chute, I organize the score-table workers and we’re set to go. On schedule at four-thirty, Lou’s horn sends off the boys modified runners, followed twenty minutes later by their girls. I’m in the back field on my bike monitoring turns and runners, and it’s a good thing because a West Genesee girls pulls out near me in tears with knee problems. Immediately after, a Central Square girl halts, gasping with an asthma attack. After radioing in, I calm her enough to walk slowly back to the school area, where we meet her coach. By then, the varsity boys are completing their start-line drills, so I pedal over and offer a few words. Nothing much to tell them except to have their race plan firmly in mind and then execute. “And if Plan A doesn’t work, have a Plan B,” I say. “Let’s go.” With McQuaid only days away, we could attempt to dictate strategies and paces, but those complications could cost them more than the supposed benefits. Race smart, race controlled, I’ve said.  Coach Delsole and I have not penciled in the Thursday/Friday workouts. We’ll do what the teams tell us they need tomorrow. I leave them to Del on the start line. Front-runner Kal is out with Pink Eye, so there’s opportunity for others to step up.      

            “There are no dress rehearsals,” my brother-in-law used to say. By the time they thunder past me at the mile mark, the boys are boring ahead like there’s no tomorrow, with two in front of the Central Square front-runner and two in hot pursuit. A following string of Wildcats surround several of their opponents as they charge up the back field hill. What strikes me as they wrap around and enter the inner loop of the field is their composure. Almost all our top runners are under control and moving confidently. The only exception is Ethan, who’s bothered by a sore calf muscle but still battling. As they exit the field, I bike to the base of Dirt Hill, a blandly named feature of the course which typically elicits more emotion that its name. Eight hundred meters out from the finish, Dirt Hill is too late in the race for strategic recovery, too early for a final push. It’s not long, just in a demanding place for runners. Ours have learned to love it.

092612-Girls-InnerLoop            “They’re at the hill,” I radio Lou as Nate and Mike, the day’s big surprise, approach. Jack and Will have closed on the Central Square #1, so I turn and bike up the connector trail, determined for once in my life to see a finish. I crest the hill just in time to watch those two push ahead into the third and fourth slots near the chute. A 1-4 finish without our lead runner is a good day’s work, and the athletes are rightfully excited with their times, two of which are course top-25 marks.

                The girls’ performance is similar. Lindsay leads a lonely charge out front, and they take the first five places with a now familiar shake-up in the finish order.  Today it’s Elise with a strong second place effort which lends additional evidence that their overall team strength continues to grow. Alycia, our senior leader, powers home in the fifth position and teeters down the finish chute. “Where are my girls?” she gasps, giving hugs all around. Still, there’s always something. Allie sits on the grass astride the chute, discouraged. “Both my feet went numb,” she explains woefully. We talk through several possibilities—posture, foot-strike patterns. Coach Delsole wanders over and listens to me for a moment before asking the question: “Are your spikes tied too tight?” It always pays to think of the obvious.

 

            Saturday. Show time. I can say this: I seldom board a team bus following a major meet fully satisfied. Understanding what happens is one thing—like how an athlete can, for no good reason, eat grapes before a race and suffer stomach cramps that ruin an effort; or how athletes can fritter away the preparation minutes removing from their race flats the spikes they were instructed to take out the night before; or how others, not believing what the coaches have told you multiple times about big-meet realities, instead run with a dual-meet strategy that leaves them bogged down far back in the pack. Hang around long enough and there’s not much we coaches encounter from young runners that we have not seen or heard before. Understanding and appreciating, however, are two different matters.

            Following some bus adventures, we arrive later than expected, which forces the girls JV runners into sped-up preparations. The others enjoy more time to investigate the course and soak up the atmosphere: masses of runners and spectators that some of the neophytes have yet to experience. It’s good preparation for those competing at Manhattan in two weeks.

            The girls’ JV racers manage to make their start and negotiate the various loops and turns and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that is McQuaid. The venerable Bob Bradley, former McQuaid varsity coach, race director and now announcer, stands on a platform mid-field like an orchestra conductor. Right on time, the girl’s varsity takes the gun for their large-school seeded race. By the time the front runners loop back around past the mile mark, I’m happy with at least one development. For her first major race since January--and in a field of exceptionally strong front-runners--we’ve given Laura no instructions other than to run a smart, hard effort. And that’s exactly what she does, racing as hard as her training allows and finishing top-10. Others can be disappointed if they want; I’m not. She’s still ahead of schedule. We’ve lost one of our top-5, sitting out with knee soreness, but the others also run strong. Our story-of-the-day is Lindsay, who finishes 18th for seeded schools with a monster PR. Later, she files her Race Analysis:

Race Strengths: I think I got a good start by getting out fast and holding a good pace the first mile, which helped me through the rest of the race. And even though you couldn’t see, I mentally tried to push myself harder in the second mile.

Race Weaknesses: I dropped back a little in the middle if the race.

Changes That Will Drive Improvements: Strides and hill sprints/rises for speed and turnover. Longer intervals for more race pace workouts.

092912-McQuaid-KalStrickland            I want to congratulate the girls for good efforts, but even as they are finishing the boys varsity runners have taken their start line positions and begun final preparations. I monitor them while Del is gathering up the girls competitors. Because of our split duties, I’ll see few—if any--finishes today. The boys’ line swells with late arrivals and by the gun, our runners are crammed shoulder to shoulder. The gun empties the gates, and they charged across the middle field. As they will report later, a few get swallowed up in the masses but work their way back throughout the race. Others take the risk and move out hard enough to find their proper positions. We don’t score the top-5 I was hoping for, but the clock provides smiles. Kal and Nate break 16:00 and all top-5 runners work their way into our WG McQuaid top-20 list. For good measure, the boys, like the girls, run the second fastest Wildcat team time ever, and Kal clocks the fastest 9th grade race of the entire meet.

By late afternoon, the final boys JV runners power home and another McQuaid is in the books.  We all gather at the team tent for snacks and are joined by a large contingent of alumni who’ve traveled here in support. It’s a fine statement of what the program has worked to become, and they have a lot of fun exchanging memories. After we’ve struck the tent and made the early evening trudge back to the buses, any disappointments begin to ebb. The might-have-been’s have had their time; now it’s just the work ahead—and that’s what’s satisfying about this sport. We always have goals to be modified, objectives and strategies to be reworked. No matter what, the runners can analyze, plan and move on. There are first steps to be taken, no matter you’re starting point. Our athletes know this. We do too. Outsiders who see mostly results and not process sometimes fail to appreciate the resurgent opportunities offered athletes to either build on what’s good, or improve on what’s not.   The door’s always open….

 

 Week 7 – Always The Work

Monday

“What do you think about front-loading the week?” Coach Delsole asks. With no Saturday invitational and a non-Divisional dual meet on Wednesday, it was, I thought, already loaded with training intended to build into the pumpkin month. “They could do an L.A.T. after the hill circuits, maybe eight minutes instead of ten.” That’s Dell’s way of suggesting. Hill circuits made tougher with L.A.T. for dessert—that’ll be a rough Monday for the runners to digest. But they’ve improved steadily in their ability to absorb the work, and for some of them, Wednesday will not entail racing. “Sure,” I agree.

            On the drive to work, the roadside foliage had presented a metaphor. The trees this fall are offering little dramatics, with no sudden bursts of broad-swatch colors that jolt the visual senses. Instead, just a slow, steady transformation to full color. Following solid but non-spectacular performances at McQuaid, both teams seem to be charting a similar trajectory. An improvement here, a step up there, additions out-numbering subtractions--building a season steadily week by week, experience by experience. It’s supposed to work that way, and the question is always the same—will it? We’ll know in November.

            “None of the secrets of success will work unless you do,” goes the saying. So they work. The thousand meter hill circuit, a muscular figure-8 marker workout route over alternating easy and tough terrain, also allows honing proper downhill technique, which we remind them to practice. Right off, we spot some runners whose hearts don’t seem into the work--a Monday slump perhaps. One of the top runners is falling off the wagon—and I don’t consider it an option. “That’s not where you belong,” I quietly bark at him after the second interval.  “That’s not where you can train. I want you up with the group.” He responds and ties for 3rd fastest average of the day.

There are other good moments. Following a low-grade but persistent illness, Abby is strengthening, clipping off the intervals thirty seconds faster than the previous month and running the third fastest average for the girls. Race-readiness will develop next. And it’s easy to lose track of runners further back in the pack, but this day Andy stands out. He’s jogging between intervals to recover, shepherding his group to the line in time and lopping 14 seconds off his previous average on the workout. Impressive stuff.  The proof is in the pudding; the boys’ average 19 seconds faster on the circuits that they did in early September; the girls come in 21 seconds faster. Only three team members run slower averages. I have to hustle off early to serve on an educational panel discussion at LeMoyne College. Del has the L.A.T all to himself.          

Tuesday

            They’re in cross-country class today. Off the shuttle bus from the high school, I direct them into the large-group instruction room at the middle school and distribute results of Monday’s hill circuit workout. “Every workout tells a story,” I say, guiding them toward ‘the numbers’ for several runners. “Not to pick on anyone, but we’re family. It’s O.K. to critique each other’s performance in search of improvements.”

We look first at Lindsay’s good example of a ‘bookend effort.’ What I don’t mention is that she nearly threw up following the second interval, then doubled-down her efforts for the remaining three.

First

Last

Watch

Ave.

Range

T. Time

1

2

3

4

5

9/5 Ave

 

Lindsay

 

 

3:55

0:07

19:36

3:53

3:55

4:00

3:55

3:53

4:12

We briefly discuss Annie’s disciplined even-paced workout—though the question is whether she can push herself evenly at a faster pace.

Annie 

 

 

4:14

0:04

21:14

4:13

4:16

4:17

4:13

4:15

4:47

Katie presents an interesting question:

Katherine

 

 

4:57

0:17

0:47

5:03

5:03

5:05

4:48

4:48

5:02

I draw my own conclusion, allowing Katie to set the record straight if she’s misinterpreted. “I’m going to guess that Katie was moving along under good control those first three intervals and then realized she had a lot more in the tank that she thought she would. So she stepped on it those last two.”

Matthew

 

3:37

0:31

18:05

3:22

3:26

3:35

3:53

3:49

3:43

And Matt’s work offer’s a special instance, one where I surmise that once you ‘fall off the wagon,’ running alone is tough—which happened to Matt. “There’s no one there to keep you psychologically sharp, so the negative messages can seep in,” I suggest.  “You need teammates around you. Did I get that right Matt?” He merely nods.

            Class dismissed, they separate into teams to discuss team goals, then head outside for warm-ups and drills, segmented general conditioning runs, strides and plans for the Wednesday dual meet. For me, tonight is another late evening, this time a meeting in Dewitt for Indoor Track representatives. Time flies.

Wednesday

Description: DSC_0725Dual-meet race day. This one will not count in the divisional standings and simply adds another race to an already over-scheduled season. We could have kept runners in the meet and ‘assigned’ them paces, but as Nate correctly points out later, “It would have been hard not to race.”  So our other runners will get an opportunity to carry the scoring and make the morning announcements at school; front-runners stick to the training schedule. The decision works.

There are a few exceptions. Laura needs the race to achieve the 6-meet rule for sectionals. Senior Day has also brought their expected requests to race that last home meet. This year’s twelve seniors have contributed a total of 44 varsity seasons, and there’s no way I’m going to deny those requests. Before the varsity races, they will also be honored for their commitment and traverse a symbolic final chute comprised of high-fiving, cheering teammates.

Most of our boys and girls front-runners have completed a hard, speed-tinged fartlek workout by the time the Baldwinsville teams arrive. The modified boys and girls teams both win their contests, with the boys modies still undefeated on the season for duals. Coach Wojtaszek has done some research at my request. Their impressive invitational winning streak dates back to 2008.

Description: 100312-Seniors&ParentsAs expected, the boys get handled by the strong Baldwinsville squad, but our competing guys deliver a lot of excellent times and efforts. We’ll take the ugly newspaper box score in exchange for rewards down the road. The girls losing score is closer, but the rationale—and the result--is the same. Both will have their chances against B-ville later in the season.

Friends of Wildcats Cross-Country has erected multiple tents and put out a big post-race spread in honor of the seniors and the teams. Darkness descends amid the aroma of chilly and other goodies. The gas lamps come out. No one wants to go home.

 

Thursday

If it’s Thursday, we are at the high school. There is a regeneration run to be completed, weights to be lifted, drills to be conducted. But I arrive to note that the JV soccer players are setting up on the grass infield. I should have checked the sports schedule--game today. That changes things. While they complete warm-up laps, I mentally re-adjust the afternoon. The 1500m pace drill will come first, though I’d rather it follow the neighborhood run. That will get us off the track. We can substitute our leg drills for those we normally do in the stands and finish the track drills on the grass up by the weight-room door. We’ll make it work.

Friday

Description: 100512-BoysFieldThe fallen leaves crunch underfoot as we walk the training trails. Today, it’s into the Back Field for Bingham 800’s. This workout comes from the Bingham High School cross-country team in Utah and is simple and straightforward: 5-6 x 800 meters at a chosen pace(typically 5k goal pace) with a 1:1 recovery. We’ve used it for MVO2 enhancement, pace sense and as an effective marker workout to monitor progress. The fact that the Inner Loop of our course is 847 meters and with proximate enter/exit points makes for easier logistics. Throw in calm winds and rain-less skies, and you have the ingredients for a solid training day—assuming the athletes bring the mental mind-set for performing repeat 800’s over tough terrain.

            And they do.  Their mission—if they chose to accept it—is to find their 5k target on the pace chart, slide over to the 800 column and run that pace effectively through six 800’s. After the second interval, however, it becomes apparent that most aren’t interested in training that slow. The front group is rolling in 10-12 seconds faster. I’d shown Laura her average for Bingham’s at October’s end the year before—and she is about 13  seconds under those. But it isn’t just the front runners; some of the most impressive efforts are coming from our middle pack team members. Del and I station ourselves on the trail where we can monitor both the finishes and starts. The spirit of the work is contagious. We shout athletes up; they shout up each other. The boys’ front group is stuck like glue, separating out only on the last interval when Nate decides to finish harder. Their only regret is missing Jack, who’s home sick. Laura barrels across the finish on #6 and then, bent and gasping, declares it the best hard workout she’s had in a long time and expresses pride in her five second compression. Another runner, Hannah, had requested a move up in training groups before the workout, and she finishes eleven runners higher than her depth chart number would have predicted. With the last runners off the course, they mill around my car, taking water and changing to trainers for the remainder of the workout. When Del offers a group congratulations, they spontaneously applaud themselves.

            Days like these are invaluable, not just for the training effect, but for the forged sense of common struggle and common purpose. You can see the effect in the relaxed smiles, the casual gestures and the hand slaps. Where all this good work takes us is yet to be determined. But with both a dual meet against F-M and the Manhattan Invitational on the plate next week, the set-up is just about perfect.

Saturday

E-mail to Jack:

Jack,

You're down one very good workout that you needed. If you are well enough today, you should get in repeat 800's, either on the track or trails. If not, rest and get in a quality long run tomorrow. If you do run intervals today, tomorrow would be a good shake-out GC.

 

Coach V.

 

Immediate e-mail reply from mother:

Hi Coach,

Jack is out doing the workout at CMS right now. 

Have a good weekend

 

Week 8 – Critical Mass

Preparations

          It will all boil down to how well you perform in the big meets—how many times have our runners heard some variation of that? The answer is many, with the important distinction being that such a message passes through a variety of filters, each with his or her own name. Racer A understands the intent, puts the heart into the work and keys for the result. Runner B hears the words, which for one reason or another on race-day drown in a sea of qualifiers—my ankle, my head cold, my warm-up, my sick dog, my whatever. Runner C knows what you’re saying and just doesn’t buy it. Running is what he/she wants to make it on any given day—and that’s that. Runner D is simply mystified by how incredibly hard it is to be a full-potential runner compared to other sports that offer half-times, time outs and sidelines. We love our majority ‘A’ runners, but we coach them all.

            Monday brings a variety of news, some of it unpleasant. Laura has a muscle strain in the hip that will sideline her—time undetermined. Wednesday’s dual meet is definitely out. Manhattan is in jeopardy, but we have to wait and see. Two team members e-mail they will not be able to attend the Columbus Day practice due to ‘conflicts’ in plans. I e-mail back that their alternate plans will also conflict with their ability to race on Wednesday. One shows up.

            Prior to the workout, we talk about the week ahead, which should be an easy one for both teams. After all, it’s only defending state champs Fayetteville-Manlius on Wednesday and then relaxed Manhattan races on Saturday—right? Once they visualize their full plates, I offer the realization that they also walk the fitness tightrope from here on out: high fitness but high vulnerability. “Yes, you’re in great shape, but it’s also easier to get sick, so take extra precautions with sleep, nutrition, hydrations.”

            Segmented tempo runs on the back trails go well. The boys’ front group is tight. The girls front runners are more strung out, but each effective. Eva, returning from knee issues, runs comfortably and confidently. Mary is also running stronger, though she wanders off after the second interval and bends over, looking like she might lose her lunch. “You O.K.?” I ask when she returns. She shakes her head yes and answers, “I feel bad. When I get on the back loop, I feel like I’m going to throw up.”  I simply shake my head, and then she smiles wryly. “But other than that I’m good,” she says and walks back to her group.

            We finish with strides and core drills. The meets are a day closer.

Dual Meet

            What do you do with a dual meet against F-M? Well, the first thing you do is adjust goals and expectations. Tuesday, we ran a good practice of low-intensity volume and the boys were uniformly intrigued by the opportunity to measure up against F-M. Since none were being held out, they wanted to race rather than try to dial back. So race, I told them; we’ll use Thursday and Friday as necessary to prep for.

            Fayetteville-Manlius High School sits on a hill, and it welcomes all the weather that happens to pass through. What was passing through when we arrived was wind-driven rain. The modified racers caught some of it, but by the time our boys’ varsity toed the start line things had improved a tad. With the whistle, I watched them disappear down into the back reaches of the course, knowing we’d see little of the race but the final thousand meters. I chatted with Laura while waiting and wondering. When they returned, our boys had made a race of it, taking four of the top eight positions. And with two of our top guys running fifth and eleventh for us—off days each--it was cause for optimism. The girls were not so lucky. A long line of green Hornets was broken only by Lindsay in 7th. Still, the solid efforts had been apparent, and on the dark ride home, thoughts ran forward.

Manhattan

            My cell phone dies just before the Lincoln Tunnel, but we arrive midtown ahead of schedule for our ‘walk’ up 5th Avenue. “Stay together,” Coach Delsole reminds the runners as they gather on the sidewalk off the bus. “If we lose you, there’s too much paperwork involved.”  5th Avenue via Rockefeller Center takes us up to 57th and Niketown for a short stop and some overpriced gear purchases. By 2:00pm, we’re headed north to Van Cortlandt and the course preview that is especially important to the new runners.

IMG_8868            The relaxed Friday atmosphere at the course site always stands in stark contrast to what follows on Saturday. Our runners pile off the bus, soak up the atmosphere and head out onto the course. Laura stays behind, tests the sore muscle with a short jog on the flats and reports back. “Do you want to decide now or tomorrow?” I ask her. Tomorrow, she tells me—but we both suspect what the decision will be.

            The runners return. After strides, they gather for the traditional group photo, then load up. The ride to the hotel is a short one, and Coach Delsole and I are impressed with the ease of our day so far. That’s a karmic mistake. We arrive to find rooms and room keys arranged for only a third of the team. They mill around the lobby while the desk clerk scrambles and I do a slow burn, reminding myself that it is not the fault of the clerk. I arrange a meeting with the manager later, and after an hour everyone’s in a room.  Following a low-key and enjoyable team dinner at the hotel, the day ends without further incident. The room check comes at 10:00pm. Everyone is in.

            The first thing coaches do in the morning of a Manhattan race is look out the window. In almost two decades of Manhattans, I have been greeted some mornings by cold, driving rain but others by uncomfortable, energy-sapping heat. This one’s perfect: clear and cool, with almost no breeze. The weather variable has been removed from the Manhattan equation.

IMG_8866            We arrive at the site to the usual fanfare of buses, athletes and crowds. Once the bags are down and the team tent set in our usual area, the veterans bolt to the T-shirt concession where lines already rival the Porta-Johns. Several team members get started on equipping runner bibs with safety pins. One tacks up the day’s race roster while the first squad heads out on their warm-up. This moment, when special trip becomes familiar meet, offers my first sense of relief. Now it’s racing, why we’re here. The excitement of the contests ahead is dampened only by the inevitable decision not to race Laura. It’s not a hard decision really; weighing the pro’s and con’s creates a lop-sided consideration, with far more to lose than gain. She’ll be a cheerleader today.

            “Once we start the races,” I’ve told them. “You’re only going to see Coach Delsole and I at certain places.” Each squad has its captain whose responsibility is to get runners to the line in time for final preparations with Del. And they know where to meet me when they wobble out of the finish chute. Other than that, they are mostly on their own.

            Race by race, our team members charge off. One group strains to the finish even as another is charging from the start across the flats. Van Cortlandt is historic, but not necessarily for its spectator visuals. While mass starts with a city silhouetted in the background is stunning, once runners disappear onto the graveled cow path, only the quick glimpse of them over the bridge into the back loop—if you can hoof up there in time--breaks the long wait. The greatest struggles of the runners, the most intense personal battles with fatigue, self-doubt and competitors provide drama in that solitary back loop for only birds and squirrels. But that---and the intensity of pace--is exactly why Vandy is such a trial by fire.

            Many step up, running personal Vandy bests; a few falter. Unfortunately for us, several of those who falter are in the boys’ varsity race. The result is a poor team performance based on their potential. I’m not happy because I know how well the training has gone and I know the health of those runners--which leaves only the mental component. Someone once said, in effect, that fitness is 95% and the mental aspect only 5%, but since the 5% controls the other 95% mental is everything. Watching bad races also brings up coaching choices. Either wait and talk later or strike while the iron is hot and the experience alive in the mind of the runner. I speak frankly with the boys’ team while parents watch and later privately with one runner who underperformed. He has no immediate answer, so I’m hoping a later race analysis will provide one. And to the group at large after we board the bus for the long ride home, I say “from this point in the season, you will be racing mostly above the shoulders.” It’s another way of saying the same thing: make the 5% control your races, not sabotage them. We need everyone not only physically but mentally on the same page. We need that critical mass.

            The value of a lost opportunity may still be realized. Other meets, now more critical, lie ahead…..

 

Week 9 – Digging a Hole

One Workout

            The word can be confusing. On the one hand, coaches and trainers often explain “pain” to runners as the flashing red light which warns that you better stop or something really bad is going to happen. On the other, the T-shirt slogan declares that “pain” is temporary--mostly because it would just look weird as “Discomfort is temporary….” So we qualify. Pain that doesn’t go away quickly is that bad pain. The other pain is the price you pay many days to be a distance runner. Today I’m telling them about the latter. Today there will be that kind of pain.

            Our school hill circuit is nothing fancy, but it runs well as a workout whether bone dry or a sloppy mess. Dry is better only because a wet workout day creates a beaten path that leaves evidence for days, sometimes weeks. Three of the four ‘hills’ in it are more rises than hills, but they add up. Two up/down loops on what we call School Hill behind the main building then stretch out into the first 200 meter ‘flat’ where the objective is momentum and biomechanics. Then a short steep ‘up’ to a turn-around and another 150 meter flat across the school grounds ends at the base of the final hill, the steepest and longest, the leg-burner. A .45 mile circuit, according to Mike’s GPS watch.  Do that three times with an 80 meter walk/jog back to the start and you have a set. Put three of those sets together and you have the core of a hard training day—the kind of effort those T-shirts advertise.

            We talk before the work begins. I mull over Manhattan for them. As Coach Delsole has reminded me more than once, teenagers get over a bad race a lot faster than coaches. That’s generally a good thing, but it’s our job is to decide when to let that happen and when not. Today, I hold the boys varsity squad back from the warm-up run to talk to them directly. I am direct about how two of them dropped the ball at Manhattan and let the team down. “You guys are in a hole now,” I tell the team that started the season with aspirations of qualifying for November’s Federation Championship. “Your only chance to make Feds is to run strong at Marathon this Saturday. If you don’t, Feds is gone. And then if you do that, your only chance is to run at F-M in leagues. If you don’t, Feds is gone. If you do well against F-M, then you have to run as a top team at Sectionals. If you don’t, Feds is gone.” The mantra makes the point, and not wanting to waste any more time, I send them off on their warm up.

Description: E:PhotosXC 2012101612-PracticeIMG_8915.JPG            When the opening run and drills are concluded, the runners congregate at the base of School Hill. The boys front-runners have created a large group or, as we call it, a big wagon. Fine by us. They understand our expectation that everyone stays ‘on the wagon’ with consistent efforts. This is a team without an established sectional or state-level front-runner, so pack-running and compression of times both in racing and in practices is critical. Mutual responsibility is what makes it work. Success requires everyone. They get that.

But the boys’ big wagon soon develops problems. They gun and gut the first set together, but in the second, two runners fall off the pace. And it’s not for lack of trying. The top runners are just pushing that hard. Of course, Coach Delsole and I aren’t making it any easier either. Several runners who either lose focus or aren’t practicing at their race positions hear it from us. It’s that kind of day. “Don’t let yourself be gapped on the flats!” Del bellows at runners several times as they hit the first reach. I command others to push harder to stay with their groups. We aren’t the kindliest of coaches on this day, but the moment—and the work—demands focus and effort. Up, down, up, down, across the flats, then pounding the last hill—they do it again and again and again, gasping and grimacing. The boy’s top runners hang tight.

Description: E:PhotosXC 2012101512-PracticeIMG_8884.JPGAll in all, it’s probably the hardest they’ve worked this season. By the final interval, Kal has decided to go. He leaves the others behind in the first flat and, legs churning, drives the final hill with his face taught and determined. Wobbly, he stands atop the hill as his teammates finish closely behind.  The girls’ front runners have been more separated. No wagon for them today. And Abby, too, has left her group behind in the final circuits. The reason? “I didn’t want to wait that long between intervals,” she explains.

Once the last groups power their final hill, they all set off on a long cool-down. Relaxed stretches replace core drills, and all I have to say to them is “good job today.” But it’s unnecessary. They already know that.

The Lead Up

            Mid-week slips by, autumn days of color and calm weather. The runners re-coup from Monday’s hard training with Tuesday general conditioning runs and light strides. Wednesday the intensity increases with tempo training, the back fields and woods loops providing a tapestry of trail-side attractions. It wouldn’t be hard to ‘sell’ the sport to non-runners with those visuals, but I’m not sure scenery is high on the list for our athletes exacting out paces on their prescribed routes.  Several who missed the Monday training complete an alternate hill workout. Laura runs soft loops, testing the hip muscle. Thursday at the high school for neighborhood runs and weights, with all its manicured stadium grass, seems drab by comparison but leads into a pre-race day with the fingers crossed about weather. It rains hard much of Friday, so I seize the opportunity and herd the team into the middle school to discuss our Marathon Invitational course and have them complete voting for team awards. We emerge to clearing skies. They head off on a relaxed run followed by strides and stretches and final instructions for Saturday. For this one, the hay’s in the barn.

The Meet

            There are multiple reasons we prefer to close our invitational season at Marathon. It is, of course, an opportunity for us to compete against Southern Tier teams outside our section. It’s also one of the grandest cross-country settings we encounter all year, and we also appreciate the tremendous organization and efficiency of the meet organized by Coach Todd James. Our athletes’ and teams’ efforts there have been mostly positive over the years, with opportunities to enter both the seeded and unseeded contests as well as the JV races. In that way, more of our athletes are thrust into scoring positions. They don’t seem to mind; some even profess an affinity for this tough, tilted strength course that can be downright brutal if wet and muddy.  

            The downside for me is that with multiple races, I am glued to the start line while Coach Delsole handles mid-race sites and the finish. Because of the course loops, however, I do see the runners in one race several times even as I am conducing line drills with the next squad.

Description: E:PhotosXC 2012101512-PracticeIMG_8885.JPG            With the team tent erected and sidelined runners completing bib preparations, Del and I head out to our positions, leaving squad captains to deliver their groups to the start line on time. First up is the boy’s unseeded race, and I remind them following their team cheer that they are definitely in the hunt. Off quickly with the gun but cautious with the first mile that has suckered many a runner, they measure out strong races and place 2nd behind Corning’s strong second squad.

While they are battling their way around the course, the seeded varsity crew arrives at the start line to begin final drills. They know what is on the line: a shot at #6 state-ranked Corning. More importantly, Marathon offers a chance to begin climbing out of the hole they dug with a mediocre team performance at Manhattan. Longer spikes are in to control the mushiness at several points on the course. As the start official shouts out the count-down minutes, I caution them one last time about controlling the first mile, remind them how good they can be and leave it at that. “Guns up,” I radio to Del, who wants an unofficial watch on the runners. With the crack of the starter’s pistol, they are off.

            Most coaches can count on one hand the important races when a plan perfectly concocted is then executed perfectly. The sport effectively seals off runners from coaching during the duration. We can’t pull them over mid-race to reinforce race strategy or mental attitude. Aside from some shouted instructions that many runners swear they never hear, we become spectators. As my former AD observed, “Once the gun goes off, they’re on their own.”

Description: F:PhotosXC 2012102012-MarathonIMG_8942.JPG            On their own, however, the squad reacts well to the up-front power of the Corning team. When they circle back to the start line following an opening loop, everyone has positioned well, with the top-5 all inside the first fifteen runners. Will has gone out a little soft, but it’s certain he will work himself up in the middle mile--which he does. Mike and Jack are right there in the top group—a good sign. They disappear down the tilted topography. I won’t see them again until the final 1000 meters of the course, when much of the race will have been determined and only guts ‘n go remains….

            The perfect scenario would have presented all our runners elevating and the team scoring a surprising upset. More realistically, I was hoping they would challenge the course and register that team race which makes them believe: we’re on our way. That they accomplish. All five scorers place in the top-20 with a 1-5 thirty-second compression. Corning takes the prize but our second-place squad walks away with mounting confidence. All our squads except girls seeded varsity place first or second. For boys varsity, the rest of the season remains a tall order--and the clock is ticking--but this is what they’ve sacrificed for since June: a chance to be in the hunt.

 

 

Week 10 – The Hard-won Lessons

Monday

Jobs need to be completed before the day’s work can begin. Kal, Ethan, Laura, Lindsay and Meg line up before the modified teams in the middle school’s large group instruction room. We’ve interrupted their uniform returns, and stacks of pizza are cooling in boxes, so my runners speak only briefly but positively about making the transition from modified to varsity next fall. Then it’s outside for team pictures on the terrace section of our course--smiling faces lined against a backdrop of golden leaves.

Tempo’s on the docket, this day a cut-down version of 9, then 8 to 7 minutes segments of slightly increased paces with a short recovery between. With the warm-up and drills complete, Coach Delsole and I head into the backfields to monitor the runners and mull over the week ahead. The work goes well for the athlete, and with a stride session to finish up, I expect this to end in the ‘ordinary’ category until a parent arrives to register a complaint about something we’ve told her runner. It takes a lot of effort to explain that what her runner hears about being picked up on time from meets and what we actually said are two different things. Just another reminder of how anything can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Tuesday

The weather is lousy with driven rain, so I schedule some indoor time to take care of team business. With the aid of distributed maps, Nick volunteers to talk through the league championship course that we hope will remain firm and does a fine job. Then I pass out this year’s team evaluations and instruct that they leave names off, write what’s on their mind but provide useful information.  Unlike year’s past, this one has been simplified and based on our Race Analysis form. Three questions: 1)What did you like about the season; 2) What didn’t you like about the season; 3) What changes would drive improvements to the program? They bend to the task as Lou arrives and are finished in 10-15 minutes. We re-assemble outside where I distribute several college recruitment letters to junior and senior runners. Then, as the rain intensified, they are sent on their warm-up. This is the weather we’ve been fortunate to dodge most of the fall.

Wednesday

Meet Day. If you know your runners, you may have the results of the meet before the start gun sounds. Perceived attitude, body posture or sometimes messages from the home-front(“his dog died last night”) is all the information you need to predict a sub-par performance. Then you hope that #6 is ready to step up. Sometimes, however, the ‘read of the runner’ or the team has to wait a half mile—but seldom longer.

Our league championship course makes the in-race determination easier. By the time they charge around the opening loop of school fields and navigate the up/down rise just beyond the start line, the boys varsity runners are at the half mile. By then, the F-M competitors have done what they can do well and what I told our boys they would: taking it out hard enough to make a statement. Several of the lead Wildcats who grind by Coach Delsole and I are grimacing and refusing to look at us. They know they are not where they should be in the opening pack, and this looks to be a long day for both them and the team.

And it is. Despite the fact that four of our top-5 average fifty-two second improvements over previous PR’s on the course, they cannot recover from that gun-shy start and finish second, far behind the state’s #1 squad. My thoughts are mixed, but the biggest disappointment is in not properly preparing them for the mental demands of this race.  You can take a loss to a better team. Putting a mentally tentative squad on the line is both frustrating and inexcusable.

The girls’ varsity pushes hard against the wave of Hornets, and their finish pack earns them second place. Lead runner Laura had asked about racing, but her training is more important, and she remains on the sidelines preparing for sectionals. One of the most satisfying moments of the day comes in the boys JV race. Following a difficult summer of interrupted training and subsequent up/down performances this fall, Matt finally comes into his own with his new spikes on. Not waiting for anyone, he charges out from the start and takes control of the race, leading an enthusiast group of Wildcats as determined as we’d hoped for the varsity. Coach Aris and I are standing near a wooded section of the course just beyond the two mile mark. Matt comes barreling through, misses the leaf-covered turn and, headed off over an embankment, gets shouted back on course by me. Wheeling, he takes several steps through the underbrush to regain the trail, loses his footing and comes crashing down in front of both of us. Rolling over, he pops up with mud on his leg and an embarrassed grin.  “Well, at least he’s smiling,” I tell a smiling Coach Aris as Matt flies off down the trail.  That’s the only mishap as the JV’ers roll to a 24 point victory and several huge final-meet efforts by squad members. An F-M assistant good-naturedly ribs me after about “sand-bagging” the race, but team times fall pretty much in order. That’s just racing, I’m thinking. That is what’s fun to watch.

A gloomy, cloud-covered dusk has clamped down on the course by the time we finish our après-race snacks, courtesy of our ‘Friends’ supporters, and board the buses for the dark ride home.

Thursday

It’s always a strange day—the day after leagues. We shrink to ten runners per team, the allowable number for sectionals. The majority of the team members arrive for their ‘exit practice’ with an admixture of melancholy, satisfaction and, for some, relief. They’ve been at it, I remind them, since June, and I count the five months for dramatic effect.  They began in the dwindling days of spring, traversed all the moods of summer and advanced far into fall. It’s a long time for a scholastic runner, but if they’ve done it correctly and to the best of their ability, they have a right to any—or all—of those emotions.

We stick to the routine. This time, however, I do not analyze the league championship team results but instead pass out copies of the meet results that contain my addendum: last year’s performances for those that raced and a computation of the average improvements in times of girls and boys teams. Over ninety percent of the runners have individually demonstrated improvements, some dramatic. But there is a marked disparity between teams. The boys’ average improvement is significantly greater than the girls. I give them my simple reaction to that: why?

“I don’t have the answer,” I tell them, “but I want you to think about it, and I plan on finding out.” Warm-up complete, they group for a light run—the last for many—that’s followed by weights, drills and strides on the football field grass. The day has been unseasonably warm, almost summer-like. Some of those finished runners linger after, some hurry off. For a few moments, Coach Delsole and I meet with the remaining sectional squads to remind and re-focus.

Friday

Coach Delsole’s cell call reaches me in Chapel Hill, N.C. I’m down there making wedding arrangements for my son, and Del is running a favorite interval workout of both athletes and coaches: Manhattan miles. One reason for that is because our vantage point for the workout puts us atop a small hill starring out over colorful autumnal fields and forests. So I’m feeling a little gyped. The runners have done just fine, though, Del reports. The times sound solid, and I’m glad we completed the workout in front of the expected miserable weather next week. Productive practices may be hard to come by once the ‘Frankenstorm’ hits. We may even have to get creative with indoor work. They will take a rest day tomorrow and come back with a solid long run on Sunday while the weather holds. The disappointments have been shed; the determination is renewed; the next race lies ahead.

I’ve missed an e-mail analysis that came in Wednesday from Aakash, whose season has concluded:

Strengths: I stayed conservative and really pushed the middle and last mile! I had run with a pack today and pushed myself with them to stay on the wagon! I used the hills to my advantage and the back train-bed the second time to pick people off and get away and in front of the guys that I was pushing with the whole race! I knew when and where to pick up, and didn't get mentally down on myself, and pushed till I finished the race. 

Weaknesses: I may have gone out conservative for a bit too long in the race till I started pushing! And I really should have gone a bit faster the first mile, and not have conserved as much! 

Comments: I will be coming to practice tomorrow and finishing up my season with one last practice.  I will be taking the rest of the week off and start running again next Monday while going to the gym to stay strong and fit so that I'm ready for the indoor season! Thank you so much for the awesome season and helping me push to become better I've improved every race comparatively to last year by over a minute and 30 seconds, I really kicked some butt this year and I'm going to stay consistent during the off season and make something happen in indoor like it did this season of XC! You’re the best, Coach. Thanks for being there for me and supporting me so that I could reach my goals. I couldn't thank you enough!

            That’s a good enough reason for coaching……

 

Week 11 – Finish Lines?

Monday

We are hoping to steal a workout. The weather maps and forecasts indicate we will have just enough time before the first touches of Hurricane Sandy. Ours too, is to be a hybrid, combining elements of interval, hill and speed workouts under restless but safe skies. With that workout in the back pocket, I reason, Tuesday and Wednesday can play out as it must and our sectional competitors would still be fine.

That is the plan, but the plan begins to unravel in early afternoon when school evening activities are cancelled. I’m hoping against a domino effect of over-caution but am surprised when an athlete texts me about 2:15 that high school students are being sent home. I call the A.D. No answer. I call the high school main office. No answer. My school will be open with activities until 6:00pm, so I’m perplexed. Where are my runners?

The answer arrives with another text. An car accident has damaged a sub-station and knocked out electricity to the high school. They are home, and my stolen practice is over before it begins, so I in turn head home to e-mail suggested workouts to the runners and plan for the remainder of the week. By 5:30, when winds had begun slanting the trees and delivering heavy rains, disappointment over a lost workout is moot.

Tuesday

            We don’t dodge a bullet. Judging from the news reports, central New York dodges more of an artillery shell. We wake to sporadic rain and moderate winds. That’s it. The schools and businesses that peremptorily closed last night are wiping egg from their faces. The rest of us go to work.

            Our practice has been shifted to the high school in case of the heavy rain and wind still possible. We can complete a track workout and get into the weight room to lift. Down to twenty runners for the sectional race, the team does indeed feel small. A lot of the team’s personality is now enjoying a short transition before resuming training for winter sports. For those who remain, it’s time to do the work.

            The main task for the day is power running in the form of step-up 400’s. Another straightforward workout session, it involves three cones from the start line backward in ten meter intervals. Runners start at the first fly-zone area, run the 400 at the prescribed pace, ‘step up’ to the next cone with a few gulps of air and do it again twice for a set of three 400’s. A one lap recovery jog separates sets. “Just three sets at 5k or faster pace,” I instruct them. Will, a baseball guy, has never run them before and looks pensive. Ethan remembers the track day they completed five sets. “That was tough,” he admits. Laura pairs with Lindsay and the rest put together their wagons. It’s windy and wet, but all in all we’re a lot better than many other places in the Empire State. They toe the start line and set off.

            With each group on their own watch and aiming for negative splits across sets, Coach Delsole and I can watch and analyze—and bark out the occasional form instruction. Even with the team slimmed down to its best performers, I can almost a guarantee there will be variety of reactions to the work, as precise and regimented as it is. And sure enough, someone’s had a really bad day at school, an anchor she now drags around the track. Another is feeling punkish. Lack of sleep? Illness coming on? I hope neither. Still, most of them motor with purpose, their repeats passing with metronomic compression. They finish tired but not exhausted—what we were aiming for.

            Following a recovery run out in the neighborhoods, we share the weight room with baseball players logging some off-season strength training. It’s a dedicated bunch but also a reminder of how specialized many high school sports have become. Runners, of course, have the opportunity to compete year-round in our run sports--but at least they don’t subtract themselves from other sports to do so. There’s the rub. The final stop for the day is the school cafeteria, where we assemble for some paperwork. I distribute race plans for the athletes to complete. We want to know what they hope to accomplish at sectionals. More importantly, we want them to know what they want to accomplish. It’s a simple question format: what are your time, place or other goal and what strategies will you employ to reach them? Heads bend to the task and the athletes, for the first time all afternoon, are quiet.            

Wednesday

            For the rest of the week, we are following the medical credo: do no harm. How to pull that off is not always so clear. Drop the volume but keep the intensity some insist. Back off the intensity, others claim, and maintain volume lest you signal the body to begin shutting down. If you look hard enough, you can find conflicting advice from the ‘experts’ about how to prepare for major races. Those conflicts speak to the still-imperfect science of running. Elite teams typically settle the question by training through sectionals. This year again, we don’t enjoy that luxury.

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/fin05.jpg            It’s a raw day—cool, damp, overcast. But the wind’s down and the rain’s relented—so we’ll take it. The runners wander in from the shuttle bus, drop their packs and begin to assemble just as ‘Batman’ arrives. Leave it to Nick. The car’s a nice touch, but I’m wondering what workout advantage he will enjoy in costume.

            “Increasing intensities,” I explain to them. They’ll run first at general conditioning pace, then some at tempo pace and finally finish fast with short hill sprints. It’s no surprise when Lindsay walks over with hand up in question mode to ask if we can run the tempo first. “Well, what’s your reasoning for that?” I ask her. “I don’t know,” she admits after a short pause, so I explain at length the reasoning behind progressing slow to fast following Tuesday’s hard work. “O.K., O.K,” she finally interrupts me, smiling. “You win.” Smiling right back, I tell her, “Lindsay, I didn’t know this was a contest.” The runners gather into their groups and set off into the back field to do their work.

            “I was hoping for one of those clear, crisp mid-autumn days,” I complain to Coach Delsole as we monitor the comings and goings of runners from our Three Corners base.  He merely shakes his head. Batman handles the runs pretty well, but he doesn’t appear particularly faster or stronger to me. Guess that idea’s out for Saturday.

Thursday

The boys have had enough. All season, Alex has cruised out in front of the group, always ‘winning the warm-up,’ looking for all the world like our #1. I’ve already got him pegged as a college 10,000 meter guy who will eventually run marathons. Over the course of the season, Alex has been unable to break into our top seven, but he owns the warm-ups—until today.

I’m bundled up with waterproof layers and in a desultory mood as they begin a preparatory mile run on the track. Right away, however, it’s clear something’s different. Around turn one, Logan is shooting out in front of Alex, followed closely by Kal, Jack and Nate. It doesn’t take long to figure this out, and by the time they’ve cruised around the half mile, surging in front, I’ve decided to join in. “Two to go!” I yell at the trio, fingers waving, “You can do this!” Others passing at more appropriate speeds smile and laugh. Alex plugs by, poker-faced.

Into the gun lap, they surge, and issue is settled. Alex is going down. Four hundred meters later, Logan bursts across the warm-up finish line, arms skyward. His conspirators follow and all exchange high fives. As Alex cruises in, pace unbroken, Logan walks over and offers a sportsman-like handshake and hug.

Alex good-naturedly shrugs his shoulders and smiles. I’m guessing he’s already planning a new streak come indoor.

Friday

            Another day of damp and drizzle. Sandy has been persistent as well as destructive. Nothing about the early day—a relentlessly thick blanket of clouds and intermittent rain--suggests the afternoon will be any different. And it isn’t. When the athletes arrive, we take time in the large group room of CMS. I return their Race Plans for review, then discuss the nuts-and-bolts of what’s likely to be a muddy slugfest at VVS on Saturday. Todd Bauer and his crew prepare a course as well as anyone in the state, but there are limits. The important points given the athletes are these: forget the September VVS invitational; this will be an entirely different course for its altered physical/mental demands; bring extra everything—layers, socks, hats, gloves. With a projected map, we talk our way through the course, remembering features, suggesting new strategies for the expected conditions. “That’s where you have to fight the negative thoughts,” Laura cautions about the back field loops leading to the two mile mark. She should know, having run a muddy VVS at the 2011 state championship. I flip up the latest state polls and suggest the possibilities of going after our state-ranked sectional competitors. “If the conditions are a challenge you gladly accept,” I tell them, “then those conditions become your advantage.” 

            They head out for a short run just as the cold rain returns--and then intensifies.

Saturday

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/fin02.jpg“It’s a long way from June,” I mention to Coach Delsole as the bus barrels through a cold rain shower along the Thruway. We have our full complement of boys/girls sectional squads as well as other runners who, their seasons’ finished, will serve as support staff. Additional runners, as well as a host of parent supporters and well-wishers, will make the trek to V-V-V-S High School for our sectional championship races.

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/fin04.jpgThe sun breaks out when we arrive—and then as quickly disappears behind an ominous bank of clouds. That becomes the pattern for the day. We caution the runners on layers—better to run a little warm with top and tights than a little cold. But with conditions constantly changing, it’s tricky. The course itself, though, has been well managed, and in spite of the week’s weather is in reasonable shape. Time to lace up the spikes and race.

Following check-in and warm-ups, I leave the girls on the line with Coach Delsole and head out into the course, joining other coaches and spectators at strategic junctions. At least three dramas will unfold for the girls. This is Laura’s first race since early October, and the goal is simple: make states. No time goals, no position goals, just control the first mile, move as able the second, gut out the third. Lindsay also wants states and will have to run the perfect tactical race—and then some. And the girls’ team wants their best effort of the season to set the stage for 2013. Simple.

From my distant point, I see the runners shoot off the start line. Shortly, they arrive, with F-M packing the front ranks and Laura comfortable among those following. Lindsay, though, is too far back and will have work to do. Same for other team members. Once they pass, I join a race of spectators to the mile mark where Laura and Lindsay have both moved up, but one of our top runners is visibly struggling. I pick them up again at a mile and a half and then near the two mile mark. Laura has by then advanced into the top-7 and is racing for all she’s worth. Lindsay has overcome much of her early deficit but needs more if she’s to finish as a top-5 individual qualifier. “You’re #8!” I yell as she passes. “You have time!” She does, but not much.

I hustle to the final rise overlooking the track’s finish area and wait. Laura passes in 6th and bound for another week of work and states. But Lindsay, despite an all-out effort and a personal record on the course, will fall two places short of qualification and wait another year. And the team, with it’s top-5 runner slowed by a sore knee, finishes 5th but a credible 9th in the 55 team sectional field.

There’s little time for conversation with the girls at the finish area. The boys are on the start line, prepping. Theirs is the final race of the day and the weather, if anything, has chilled, with clouds and blustery winds once again locking up the sky.  If the boys want to remain in the Federations conversation, they need a strong showing today against three state top-15 teams. I don’t have to tell them that. Instead, I simply remind them of how far they’ve come, what they can do, and wish them well. Then I head into out onto the course.

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/59765/fin01.jpgThe months compress into minutes. The guys appreciate that this could be their last race of the season. For seniors, there’s an additional layer of finality. But in the end, it’s their race. Coach Delsole and I can want it for them, but only they can deliver. Kal and Nate take it out hard, perhaps a bit too hard, but this is the championship race. At the mile mark, our top-5 are close enough and far enough up. It’s just a matter of letting their individual races unfold as a team effort.

At the two mile mark, they are pushing through strong winds and snow pellets. The team is still running strong, but not in a position to challenge Baldwinsville or Liverpool. F-M powers in front of everyone. Will, who started more conservatively, has moved into our lead runner slot and has suddenly placed himself in contention for an individual states qualification. I hoof over to the rise to wait on his arrival from the final woods loop. He crests the rise ten meters and two places out of the fifth individual spot with five hundred meters left. Fast finishes are usually his strong suit, but his middle mile effort has taken its toll and he cannot mount the surge to track those two runners down. He crosses the line in 10th but, like Lindsay, as the 7th individual finisher. Only a sophomore, he will get more chances. The team makes a run at it, but takes 4th. They are, however, also 4th overall in the 63 team merge. Does that build their Federations case? No one knows. It’s out of their hands now. Others will have to make their case.

In the raw cool air, Friends of Wildcats XC has set up an apre-race food spread which includes hot chili and soup. We linger, not feeling a rush to depart. Except for the V-V-S and Section III crews, the place has emptied. When I finally call the bus around, the athletes and supporters are ready to call it a day. After we clear our site and board the bus, and I ask the athletes to listen up as I offer results and congratulations. “Folks,” I tell them as we pull out, “except for our seniors and Laura, Wildcats Cross-Country 2013 starts tomorrow.”

Sunday

They are out on their own runs today. Laura has fought hard enough to earn another week of training and competing—our survive-and-move-on strategy. The boys’ top-7 have decided to stick with it and play the odds of a Federation Championship bid. For all of them, the practices continue and uncertainty becomes a primary motivator—the blessing and the burden of all runners. They will keep the work going into the chill of autumn, hoping for one more chance at that perfect effort, that perfect race….. 

 

Coach Jim Vermeulen, West Genesee Varsity Cross-Country

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The Salazar Effect: A lasting impact?

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By Jim Vermeulen, guest columnist
February 28, 2013

LetsRun.com Editor’s Note: We received the following piece unsolicited from NY high school coach Jim Vermeulen after it was rejected by another website for being ‘too delicate.’ Considering we’ve never been afraid of upsetting potential advertisers, we immediately became interested. We read it and thought it was interesting and asked the author for a bit of clarification as to what his main point was. He responded:

My short essay is merely meant to pose a few questions in light of the excitement over the accomplishments of Salazar’s coaching arrangements and the affect of such arrangements on the development of scholastic distance running in this country. It’s not just the Oregon Project, of course, but the OP is creating the buzz currently. We ought to questions the trends, whether we are cheerleaders or skeptics. My central question is whether the trends toward greater scholastic runner visibility (via meet sites, Flotrack, Milesplit,etc) and the increased potential of scholastic runners opting out of school programs is ultimately positive for ALL of scholastic running? I believe that’s an open question, and I will, with all due respect, disagree that “the talent rises to the top….”  It does, given the right support and/or expertise, but we all know that there are very talented runners out there who, if they chose to no longer compete for their school, would certainly not have the finances to access quality coaches and to bankroll big meet travel. No knock on Mary Cain, but if most high school stars decided they could not compete for their home programs, their parents likely could not afford to hire a private coach and jet them to big meets about the country. My point is that Nike (and others) could, if they wanted, support aspiring programs and/or athletes in innovative ways, this in addition to financing the elite athletes. As I said, it’s a topic worth discussion.

Enjoy.


On the long drive home from the recent Millrose Games, I decided something for myself about Alberto Salazar and the Oregon Project he currently directs. I decided I am an Alberto Salazar fan—though a qualified one. Innovators such as Salazar do what innovators are prone to do. They push the envelope in searching for solutions, in this case an answer to the underbelly softness of American distance running in the 80’s and 90’s. Innovating usually means irritating those content with–or invested in–the status quo. Salazar and the Oregon Project have certainly raised eye-brows and ruffled feathers in the past decade, and American distance running is the better for it. So good for him, and good for Nike for plumping down money to build a hyperbaric house and for financing various methods of improving the training and competing of American distance runners. Sure, Nike is padding their bottom line, but runners benefit. And as the saying goes: “what isn’t tried, won’t work.” Of course there are those who do not agree. Salazar certainly has his detractors, but whether you applaud or criticize him and the Oregon Project, if we expect to advance the overall ‘health’ of scholastic running programs in this country, then loving or hating Salazar’s practices and achievements with young prodigies such as Mary Cain is not the central issue.

Many are agog at the emergence of [insert your adjective here] middle-distance runner Mary Cain. With Cain now withdrawn from her scholastic school programs, breaking national records at a dizzy rate, serving the focus of NY Times articles and being “advised” long distance by Coach Salazar, the running media is conducting its required love affair with this extraordinarily talented young lady. And a lot of scholastic coaches already speak of her in extraterrestrial terms, as though describing a runner no longer one of ‘us.’ This is how the star system works in the other ‘popular sports,’ and so scholastic running can pat itself on the back for having finally achieved that level. Good for us. I suppose we deserve it, though there is always that gypsy curse which goes something like “may you get what you want.”

Driving home, however, I wasn’t thinking much about another Mary Cain record or the supposed belief that a scholastic/collegiate superstar system will revitalize American distance running and improve the medal count at the next Olympics. I was thinking about other things. Using the quiet travel time, I was anticipating the fast approaching outdoor track season and whether Kristen (not her real name) would summon herself beyond recent disappointments and graduate with a season to remember, not another one to rationalize or forget. As the passing mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania framed my car windows, I was wondering whether Colleen (not her real name) could, with a slight shift in attitude, see herself as the superior runner she can be—and then become one. And I was thinking about Kyle (not his real name).

Kyle arrived at our district this past Fall, the latest stop along his dysfunctional foster care placement tour, the fourth or fifth (I’m not sure) district he’d known in the past three years. Coach Delsole and I didn’t need to have the full details of his background; we didn’t care about any of his labels or so-called special needs; we merely wanted to coach the guy who showed up every day with enthusiasm and desire, the one who, by season’s end, added ten feet to his shot put PR. Despite some rough patches, Kyle had, we’d come to believe, finally found a home for the remainder of his scholastic career. He deserved at least that much, and we were glad home would be us. But two days after his final meet of the season, he was gone, whisked abruptly away to yet another ‘home’ in yet another district following a disagreement with his foster parent, one that almost any other parent would have handled better. And so now I was thinking of where to send his Most Improved team award.

As the miles drifted by, I was, in other words, absorbed with what the majority of scholastic coaches tirelessly devote themselves to—trying to make our sport work for the vast spectrum of young adults we confront season after season, year after year, almost all of whom will never compete at Millrose. Their connection to Salazar, Rupp, Cain et. al. is at best tenuous, so the pertinent question, it seems to me, is this: can Salazar and all those others provide a positive ‘trickle-down’ effect for American scholastic distance running? I certainly hope so—and we should expect nothing less for all the attention and opportunity they enjoy.

But it is just as possible that the publicity gush about the latest high school prodigy will merely fuel stratification between the haves of the distance running world—those with access to elite coaching, programmatic and technological benefits–and the have-nots. American culture, we know, too often tips that way, erecting its modern versions of the medieval cathedrals that the rest of us are expected to stare up at and adore. Star worship, though, is typically a poor substitute for systemic innovation, support and change.

Here are my hopes: that Nike and others like them are willing to spread their wealth more widely and sponsor not just elite athletes and programs but some broad coaching initiatives that will foster more of the talent which resides out there in urban and rural districts alike. There are ways to do that, and it’s patently obvious that superior talent requires superior coaching and programing. I also hope the growing media coverage of running will take at least some occasions to swing the cameras away from the top of the heap and focus occasionally on ‘the others.’ The surging popularity of track and field allows them to take those chances. And I hope we all seize opportunities to build the base as well as the pinnacle of the scholastic running pedestal.

American distance running has recently taken some important steps toward mainstream popularity. There need to be more.


Biography: Jim Vermeulen is the head track and cross-country coach at West Genesee in Camillus, N.Y. His article, “Managing Teams With A Big-Tent Philosophy” appeared in the Fall 2012 edition of Track Coach. Comments? Email us and we’ll forward them to the author.

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Cross-Country Journal 2013– Week 1

(Published in www.ny/milesplit.com)

 

(Note: Week 7 is missing due to lost files)

August 19, 2013(Monday):

Day 1

     It was, of course, really only day one for a few of those runners massed before Coach Delsole and I on this clear, comfortable upstate morning. The shouts of soccer players bent around the building that separates sports at our middle school training grounds. Everyone was excited, but most of the runners had been here all summer, assembling several nights each week in the coolness of evenings to run trails or head out on long runs through farm-land fit for Rockwell paintings. Those were the months of relaxed anticipation and comfortable expectations. Steady miles and school-less tomorrows—some on the team considered it a separate and very special cross-country season of its own.

            And some, unfortunately, missed a lot of those miles for one reason or another. So now, fueled with a desire to power into our official team practices and prove their mettle, we had to protect them from themselves. If we didn’t, eager minds would lead unprepared bodies directly to injury. So I was standing before those runners, relaxed in the shade following their warm-up run, and explaining(again) the rational and requirements for those who would be placed in our Foundations Training Group. Runners who failed to complete at least 50% of their summer mileage targets, runners who never reported any mileage, runners coming off injury or those who joined the team late—those would form our ‘FTG’ for the first month of the season. Training mileage would be progressively monitored. High intensity training would be virtually eliminated. They would, in effect, complete their own mini-summers.

            “This is not punishment,” I reminded them. “We just want to ensure that you develop fitness steadily and safely. We don’t want you hobbled on the sidelines in three or four weeks. Once we see you can train safely, you and Coach Delsole and I will talk about whether you are ready http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/85692/dfg.jpgfor racing. This is going to mean you will miss some early races, but we want you running well at the end of the season, not broken. Missing the mileage this summer does, however, mean that you will not have the season you could have had. That’s just the way it is, so remember that for next year. You will, however, have a safe season.”

 

Earlier, during attendance and introductions, I had quietly noted some MIA’s. We were not surprised by most of the no-shows. Those were the names without faces who had not attended the pre-season meeting in June, had not joined us for any summer runs, had not submitted summer mileage logs. They were gone before we started. A few others had been quietly removed from the roster when I received e-mails that began something like: Coach, thanks for the opportunity, but…. Calling cross-country a no-cut sport is a misnomer. We simply have a longer try-out period leading to self-selected cuts. It’s called summer.

All the girls on the injury log, however, were already moving back toward full workouts. I had only to announce that Kal, a top runner for us as a 2012 freshman, would be out for the season. A recent bone scan had confirmed what was already suspected. He had suffered a non-running back injury late in spring and would be in a back-brace well into October. The boys’ team were offered their first significant challenge.

Updates and introductory information finished, we arranged them in groups for a course run. The instructions were specific. “This is not a time-trial,” I told them, “Start under control at 70-75% effort. Build into the distance. You want to see what summer’s done for you.”

Some didn’t listen to either me or their bodies and ran too hard. Some found summer hadn’t done enough for them because they hadn’t done enough that summer. But a sizable number looked pretty darned good. At the end of a moderate volume day, we had our starting point.

  

August 20, 2013(Tuesday):

Mileage – 1

            As the joke goes, a hot-air balloon enthusiast drifts off course over a Maine farmer standing in his one of his back fields. “Can you tell me where I am?” the ballooner shouts down. The crusty old farmer squints skyward. “You’re up in a balloon you damn fool,” he shouts back. 

            Only two days in, we didn’t know where we were as teams, but there was no need to ask because it really didn’t matter. Mileage mattered, and that was always a controllable commodity. Laura had reinforced the tone for the teams when we talked about her fall season following a summer team run. “I don’t want racing goals,” she had insisted. “I want training goals first.” Coach Delsole and I had said about the same to the runners in June. Don’t expect us to talk about what kind of teams you’re going to be this fall, we told them. During the summer, we’ll be talking about what kind of training we expect you to complete instead.

            On the menu for the day was a training goal: a well-run segmented GC session. It was another lesson learned from finally paying attention. Take a 30-40 minute GC run that for some runners too easily degenerates into a talking jog session. Break that work into segments, with runners launching out on a 1.5-2 mile loop, then returning to a ‘base’ for 30-40 seconds before launching on another. Do that and the paces improve. We get to prescribe routes and check on runners after each segment. They wind up with more quality mileage.

            The weather was perfect—cool, sunny, no bugs. From our Three Corners base in the back field, the groups surged out, returning to take a quick hit of water, re-group and then listen to Coach Delsole describe their next segment. The FTG group went three segments, everyone else four. They zipped them off like clockwork. We had only two athletes sitting out the practice. One was still waiting on a mandatory physical, feeling slightly chagrined—as he should have. The other had managed to flip off a boating tube that weekend and suffer a concussion which meant a week at least on the sidelines. That was a new one for my list.

 

August 21, 2013(Wednesday):

The Long Run

            “Hey guys,” Nate announced to his boys’ front group as they exited the canal tow path, “you know we just went through the first mile in 6:30.” Coach Delsole was smiling after hearing that. The morning’s team long run was off to a good start.

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/85692/stg.jpg            One February evening, while watching our athletes warm up for an indoor invitational at the Onondaga Community College track, Coach Delsole and I had come to two decisions. One was that we meet the cross-country team for only two days a week during summer instead of our previous four. We wanted to give back to athletes the opportunity to develop self-initiative and discipline, knowing full well that some would and some would not seize the golden ring of summer training. The other decision involved workouts. We thought about the two best to conduct as a group. One choice was easy: intervals. The other made me think back to a previous sectional steeplechase record-holder and national top-10 finisher. Kerry had trouble finding long run partners, and she also had no trouble explaining why when I asked. “I run them too fast,” she told me. But after years of gathering Monday reports about team members’ Sunday independent long runs--a staple of many programs--I concluded Kerry was simply running hers correctly. The long run is foundational. We needed to ensure the foundation, so we decided to arrange a weekly team long run, all the way through cross-country season if necessary. For those who showed on Thursday for our summer long runs, the results had been sensational.

http://cache.milesplit.com/user_files/230613/85692/dfgh.jpgBy the two mile mark, as team members approached my monitor spot, the running groups had already strung into discrete clumps along the early morning shade of Thompson Road. As each passed, busy with its particular topic of conversation, I reminded them to check their time and calculate approximate paces. I was also on the look-out. Coach Delsole and I had talked to several runners beforehand about challenging themselves to faster paces--and this would be the last chance to make adjustments. One runner, however, didn’t need any adjusting. Elisabeth had taken a huge step forward in hooking up with Nicole, and she was running at least thirty to fifty seconds faster per mile that she’d ever paced on a long run. When I let her know that, she just smiled and continued on her way to a potential runner ah-ha moment.

Hiding in the next huge group, however, were Maria and Bridget. I drove up Warners Road a half mile, pulled the car over and waited on the runners’ side. Elisabeth and Nicole strode by, still running confidently. When the clump arrived a hundred meters back, there was no way to discretely present the directive. “Maria, Bridget, I want both of you to pick it up and join Elisabeth and Nicole. Get going.” By the time I’d returned to my car, they had pulled away from the group and shortened the gap by twenty meters. When I passed them, heading out to check other groups, the four were together, joined by Rachel. And just as quickly they split. Maria, Rachel and Bridget had found the new gear to their liking and pulled away on their own. They would run their fastest paces ever for a long run.

Discoveries seemed the order of the day. By the time I had checked everyone through the three mile point and then driven up to join Coach Delsole at the VanAlstine Road cut-off for the Foundation Group runners, the boys front group was long gone, arcing off into the small town of Warners for their circle-back along the western tow path of the canal. “Nat was hauling,” Coach reported. Nate would finish the morning eight miler two and a half minutes ahead of the next runner, but the top seven would all come in at or under seven minutes a mile, a good start to the training season. Laura, running her own seven minute pace, had nothing to say to Coach when she passed except “I feel great.” Exciting efforts were not in short supply. Maria, Rachel and Lindsay all ran strong together, but Bridget had pushed a minute ahead of them in the final miles, surprising both us and herself.  After striders, I congratulated her and asked how it had felt to increase the pace after the two mile mark. She merely smiled. “It felt better,” she said.

 

 

August 22, 2013(Thursday):

Mileage - 2

     This was a moderate day. I brought my dog Harley to practice, and he was his usual bi-polar self, either leaning contently into my leg or racing through clumps of runners trying to make new friends. He amused most of the runners and annoyed only a few. Better him than Coach Delsole and I.