Thoughts From Three: Time Check

After the success of Jim Vermeulen's XC Journal in the many falls of Cross Country, we've asked again for him to provide some news and notes once a month. Think of these as the thoughts that cross the mind of your average coach. Up from Section 3, we present you with "Thoughts From Three."

Time Check

          With still almost a calendar month to go, we have honored most of our odes to summer: the heat index alerts, the thunder-boomers meandering like lost soldiers across upstate, the evenings of team runs liquid with humidity, insects and the orange diffusion of imminent sunsets. That's gone. Ahead are the unpredictable seasonal adventures, cooling territory where any coach with rigid assumptions about what's down the trails may be on fool's errand.

          This season, my uncertainties have been amped up. Carly and Emily are off to their D-1 college programs. On past teams, they created a large umbrella under which teammates could, if needed, shield themselves. That umbrella has been closed, taking its protective shadow. The underlings are now in charge, those who will make the season what they can. And the boys team confronts one of its most unique situations in years. Six of our top seven runners from 2017-and eight of our top ten--wore caps and gowns in June. Those loud, good-natured afternoon arguments along the training trails have been silenced by graduation. Thick as thieves they were, but they've stolen away, leaving memories and opportunities for the others left behind--if they take them. Carpe diam. With both nascent groups, I can't predict what's going to happen. So now the fun starts.

          My primary job for many on these 'new' teams will be to teach time-or more accurately, an appreciation of time. Time is the most indispensable element of any training program. It takes time to complete the proper workouts. It takes time to weave seasons together into a running year. And it takes a lot of time to create a running career. Though coaches don't usually overtly state this to athletes, what the good coaches convey through attitudes and practices is the message: you can obtain personal success as a runner if you want to take the time. Time, unfortunately, is what so many young adults have been conditioned to think they don't have enough of. With Abby the other day, there were some tears amid practice. Not for what was hard but for self-imposed high expectations still unmet. I gave her a pat on the shoulder, reminded her that what she was admirably trying to accomplish wasn't coming to her overnight-or even in a season. Then I thought of a speaker's comment on a recent podcast: "Millennials are not entitled. They're impatient." That's proven out. Each year across the state, many potentially excellent distance runners in our sport are lost simply because those raw talents expect excellence to come to them more quickly-and with less pain. I know I yearly add to that list.

The first leg of our particular adventure-because too many did not start with it this summer-is taking the time to become a runner, a runner worthy of the sport. We know their summer mileages, so we know who did or did not put in the time required in becoming a runner, their primary ode to summer. Simple as that. For some, now we must take that time to put in those miles before any decent racing is going to occur. That's likely to ruffle the feathers of a few team members and parents, but one comes before the other, and at least we have a plan to accomplish becoming a runner as safely possible-though it's never a sure bet.

Becoming, though, is the easy part, the work often buoyed by enthusiasm and initial rapid success. The most important and difficult stage comes next: being a runner. And that requires an affinity for-and deep identification with-the process that unfolds over time.

For sure, being a runner is hard. Beyond the brutal requirement of cultivating a love of prolonged physical/mental pain, being a runner requires an appreciation of ordinariness, an anti-teenager attitude if ever there was one. Take a close look, however, at any highly accomplished middle-distance runner's lifestyle and what will stand out is not the glitz and flash but the glaring routineness of their days. Promises daily made, daily promises kept. That slow--and sometimes indistinguishable--return on investment you get with time is why every year, a substantial number of cross-country or track hopefuls settle for one-and-done. Forget that "it's no fun" excuse. The specter of required running-time daunted or intimidated most of them. Being a competent runner requires, first and foremost,the personal appreciation of running-time. Which is why, over the years,I've had to ask some: Your summer weeks include 168 hours, and you couldn't find even 6 or 7 of those to run?

Good things take time. We have talked to the runners about those notions of immediate, residual and cumulative training effect. The goal, always, is to expand the young person's frame of reference from the immediate--the limited focus on a single day's exhausting work--to at least the residual, where days and weeks of training types come together properly to produce a fitness worthy of cross-country running. There are always some wary eyes with that suggestion, but wary must learn to work and wait.

Invariably, some of that needed time is lost to injuries which could have been prevented with more 'summertime.' Old story. Some of it is drained away by conflicts of one sort or another. And still more is simply the slow recession of a runner's promise by the half or three-quarter measures of effort which delay full potential further into the future, a constantly receding horizon.  A little time lost here, a lot lost there. Lost time adds up, and then it is subtracted from what might have been. Not always, though. Mia comes up at a Monday's practice, says she feels lousy, and I mentally log a lost day and send her out on a light run. She returns ten minutes later. "I threw up in the woods," she tells me, then smiles. "I feel much better now." She goes back to the workout, and we've rescued some lost time.

Time: "the measured or measurable period during which an action, process, or condition exists or continues." That implies endurance, which itself means "to exist over a period of time or indefinitely." What we're talking about, then, are young people taking the time to do the things that good runners do. A simple concept, really, but Jim Brett Bartholomew once reminded others that "simple does not mean easy."  

One thing is fairly certain, however, about conscientious coaches and the runners they guide-there are always more miles planned for the weeks ahead-and those will require duration. The weekly agendas speak, and the fundamental question they ask of those on the roster is this: do you have the time?