Thoughts From Three: Rainy Day People

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."

"Rainy day people all know how it hangs on a piece of mind."

Rain Day People - Gordon Lightfoot

I am holding the dirtied recruitment letter that slipped from my clipboard the previous day and flopped into mud. Wiping it off, I smeared a pattern of streaks, gobs and dots on the rectangular paper envelope that, now dried, resembles an impressionist piece of natural art that's still unclaimed by its owner. 

So it's raining again. Limitless low, dirty-grey clouds bunch up overhead and squeeze themselves, soaking everything for another day. Our back trails, treaded down by the season, are a slurpy, slippery mess where every turn is an adventure. The boys and girls runners, now down to ten each for sectionals, huddle under the building overhang we call home. I tell some tales of runners before they were born who huddled in this same place, this same weather, and then I explain why we've moved the practice onto the grassy school grounds for the day. Rain falls and heads nod as I detail our return to a hill circuit workout completed in year's past. The modie's are gone, so it's safe. We have purposefully waited for the end of their season because, the previous fall, those impressionable youngsters watched our longer, September strength-building version of the workout, and some of them got scared about what lay ahead if they moved up to varsity. "Yeah, it was about ninety that day," one of the veterans remembers, smiling wistfully. 

Today, however, is more urgent, a reflection of calendar and weather. There aren't many afternoons left before their sectional championship, which will be the end of the trail for almost all. I've already told them that 95% of their fitness improvements are complete. The greatest improvements now would be mental. So even as the volume and the recoveries of the work are strategically reduced, the intensity is amped. A trio of half-mile circuits to a set, with minimal recovery, accomplished as fast as they can go without cratering-that's the directive. The total volume's about 5k, and the footing, to be sure, is unsure. Some of them smartly brought spikes, and those go one.

If the reps today are controllable scenes in this runner drama-and sets are the acts-we have only partial control over our stage.  I've moved one of the cones out into the gravel driveway that curves behind the gym so we're not treated to runner wipe-outs when they turn sharply to labor back up School Hill a second time. There's not much I can do about the rest. They will stomp down a rain-soaked path across the playing fields that should be visible for at least a week. 

It's all fun and pent energy the first circuit. Luke initially surprises Matt with his strength along the spongy course, forcing the team leader to watch someone else first crest the final hill. Matt smiles, but he doesn't like it. Graye had been initially laying back in the boys chase pack, but on the last circuit of the first set he breaks out and goes on the hunt for Luke, who's now been gapped by Matt. Graye will close that distance in the second set and ultimately take Luke's spot. Quinn, meanwhile, is enjoying a banner day in the mud and ooze, pushing and keeping the chase group honest. And back of the pack, not too far off but alone, Justin gives it his best. It's good to see him there-and by that there I mean here, with the others. He didn't make the sectional squad, but he asked if he could continue training, if only as a substitute not likely to race. There are no guarantees, I'd told him. That's fine, he had replied. He reminds me the sport needs more Justins. As they all circle, first fighting and then using gravity, the sky momentarily wrings itself dry, but clouds still sag like damp blankets.

With several girls out for the day, I had gathered the rest into a single group. And why not? Bunching provides an assurance for me, incentives for them.  Their small squad charges out as best the footing allows, and my shouts at the bottom of the final hill attempts to counter their urge to sort themselves into a pecking order for the day. That's not what Coach Gangemi and I want. We want a clump. True to form, though, Faith pushes the group's pace, so the challenge is on. For that first set at least, the gap is small, though it's pretty clear during the set recovery that some are wary of the pressure ahead.

"This should feel like a race, folks," I remind them as they charge out on the second set. I don't know what they are thinking, but I know what I used to think in similar circumstances back in my own days when, left to right, front to back, I was surrounded by teammates who would nonchalantly bury me for any slow start or false stride, but who were also my very best friends. Standards and responsibilities and accountability coursed through those ancient workouts like pumped blood. The girls' front group has begun to stretch like an accordion, with two backing down in distress for different reasons. Emily can easily make the decision to stay back with them, but instead, on the long reach of the circuit's backside, she bears down, drives up and fills the developing gap. On the next interval comes the decision, and rather than run alone, she pushes up into the lead group. From the sidelines, this miserable day is feeling good, like one of those old ones. 

They fight the last circuits of their last set, their path now pounded into visibility. Standing at the base of the final steep hill under gloomy skies, the rain returns even as the chill deepens. But it's a reward just to watch their culminating work, their efforts. Anyone who doubts the grit of runners, regardless of talent levels, needs to join runners for days like these. Unfortunately, it's often that very level of necessary fortitude that keeps others away, sheltered from persistent agony by time-outs, side-line substitutions and half-times. If the mental toughness of these runners is not an actual skill, then in the long view it's something much more important. 

 We had, this season, students who signed up but then never showed up on opening day. We had some who sabotaged themselves with under-preparation that inevitably led to injury or diminished performances. We had others who could not, for one reason or another, make a 'home' for themselves in this sport, on this team. The critic and poet John Crowe Ransom once warned about myopically following "....a schedule of small experiences....", activities haphazardly chosen or just fallen into, that have no unified relationship to a desired end result. I suppose one coaching analogy would be warning runners against "junk miles" and lackadaisical training that serves no ultimate purpose. Another interpretation, though, takes a wider view-and that is questioning whether running and team participation actually holds, for an individual, enough meaning to encourage proper commitments.  Does it, in other words, 'fit' into a positive, imagined plan of that young adult's life, or is it just something to fill up the afternoon hours?  If running, in the end, is just a "nice experience" to be tallied, then it is indeed one of those small experiences. 

The runners who now bend low for breaths after cresting that final hill certainly know the day's been anything but "nice." But they can be assured their experience, one that began back in early June and found its way through three seasons, has been anything but small. 

That evening, all our coaches meet for dinner and begin program planning for the next years, analyzing what did and did not happen this season, pondering what might have been, mapping out what will, one way or another, improve. The hours are well spent in preparing to make our sport more than just a 'small experience' for more students. While we brainstorm recruitment strategies, I check the weather forecast for the next day's practice. Thirty-nine chilly degrees in the afternoon. At least it won't be raining.