On Any Given Day
Abby was totally gassed. She wobbled down the finish chute of the 5k time trial, limply grasped her finish card and immediately dropped to all fours, head buried in her arms. A dedicated track sprinter, she had agonized half the summer, and then decided to run cross-country for a season. We had talked about using cross-country for her eventual track transition to the longer sprint and 800 meter distances because, quite honestly, being highly competitive at coming out of the blocks was not in her long-term future. The single-season contract I discussed with her ("try it once") was a serious sacrifice on her part-and one not without risks. Our attempt to extend her speed-endurance without eroding anaerobic abilities would involve a variety of altered workouts, but when it came to racing, there was no way I was going to convince any meet official to break her 5k into three one-mile segments with complete rest between. So she lingered on the ground, perhaps reconsidering the bargain.
Abby would never, of course, reconsider. Abby finishes what she starts. She makes commitments-then she keeps them. Two tired races later, she admitted she was still "learning how to pace myself as a distance runner."
I was standing near the fence gate where the runners exited after finishing their VVS 5k race. I was trying to group our team in the growing mass of tired runners, coaches, parents and spectators. Most of our guys were in.
"Where's Sean and Matt?" I asked, noting the absence of our lead runners, both top-4 finishers in the race who'd long since shuffled tiredly down the chute.
"They're still out by the finish line," one of the team members told me.
Sure enough, both racers, after a close four-man leader battle for 3.11 miles, had turned around and stayed to shake hands with the runners who followed them. All the runners.
That took a while.
Pat was barreling through the first circuit of the finish loop on Baldwinsville's fast 5k race course. It was one of those preternaturally warm late-summer days served up just to spite the inevitable advance of autumn. Faint clouds of insect hatches swirled and shifted above the school grounds. Yellow jackets roamed patches of golden rod astride the trails.
Pat took a deep breath as he muscled a turn and inhaled one of them. The yellow jacket was not happy.
"How'd that feel?" I asked him after the race while he massaged his cheek.
"It hurt," he said of the inevitable and oddly placed bee sting inside his mouth. "It still hurts--a lot."
"Wow," I said. "What did you do when it stung you?"
"I bit down and crushed it," he said, allowing a slight smile. "Then I spit it out."
Once the team members returned from a fartlek run on our training trails, we grouped them for L.A.T. It's an old Skaneateles drill dreamed up by Coach Reed. Thirty seconds 'up' at a mile to 3k pace, thirty seconds 'down' in recovery for however many minutes. The dream day comes when you watch the runners cover almost as much ground with the downs as the ups.
"The first whistle is a down!" I reminded them again. I remind them every single time we run the drill, smug with the assurance that someone in some group on any particular day will probably forget and charge out on the first 'down,' only to endure the derisive hoots and hollers of teammates.
They set off pacing as the skies threatened rain. One of them, Nick, was coming off an excellent race performance the day before. A promising freshman, Nick's effort was not only a seasonal PR, but it temporarily pushed him from the 10-11 spot on the team depth chart all the way up to 7th.
At the first whistle, Nick shot off, leaving his group of laughing veterans behind.
"In hard interval training, I need to start focusing on staying strong and consistent in the latter stages of the workout." That's what Jack had suggested in his Race Analysis. The day's work, coincidently, was all about that maxim of training to your weaknesses so you can race with your strengths. Long intervals at 10k pace with hill sprints between. Both were challenges for Jack, but he'd thoughtfully absorbed my ad nauseum lecture, the summary of which was "speed before speed endurance." His efforts on the speed side of development--hills sprints and 'sticks'--were showing progress. But its translation to the longer efforts was a more protracted project, and it wasn't happening fast enough for Jack. "Stay with it," I'd encouraged him more than once, even as he added A.M. weight-room drills to improve his ballistics.
On the final interval, with temperatures spiking at 86o, he fell off the back of the wagon, and his training group, already tiredly assembled in the shade, cheered him home.
"Good effort," I told him as slouched to a stop. Jack frowned and shrugged his shoulders. Then he turned and tore up the hill on his final sprints.
By any measure, summer preparation was significantly improved for Allison. More miles, more days running, more 'time on feet.' The motive we never discussed, but the impetus seemed clear. Allison simply wanted to do a better job, to see what could be there as a runner, to sweat and struggle toward potential. Truth be told, it wasn't about making the varsity top-7 or 'going states.' Neither of those was likely to happen (at least this year). She pushed with none of those carrots for motivation.
Allison had something better-and she owned it fully. Out of the finish chute recently with a personal course record and seasonal PR, she allowed a slight smile and then went her way. State and team rankings be damned. There's always room for more like her in our sport.
The temperature in early Fall had soared. For part of the afternoon, it hovered only a degree or two below the 'stop-practice' level. Our planned workout had been curtailed, the run-work re-routed through the shady portions of our training trails, and the threshold segmented in halves to provide a quick water break. I told the troops that when they heard the whistle, they had a few minutes to get back to our base and their water-bottles before lining up for the second half. With the whistle, Coach Gangemi and I watched runners tiredly shuffling in, gleaning with sweat, heads hanging.
That's when Allison jogged by.