Thoughts From Three: Hours In Late Autumn

 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."

Hours in Late Autumn

    The afternoon sky is dull with clouds that seal the runners beneath them like an overturned bowl. Up the steep rise of Monte Vista hill, the dark macadam lies spotted with white smears of salt-melt left from the weekend's storm. Our sprinters push their intervals up one side of the street, then descend in slow trudges down the other. They are keeping to that short section of  Monte Vista Drive. The distance runners are matching them at a slower pace, but then continuing up and around the half mile level loop that circles the isolated drumlin's top where houses seem to float above the neighborhood below. A tiny tear in the clouds momentarily teases the athletes with splotches of sun--and then the afternoon darkens again.

          Layered up in warm clothes, Coach Palmisano stands halfway up the hill, monitoring his sprinters, edging them further off to the side whenever the occasional car climbs past or descends. I stay atop the steep, exhorting the distance runners as they began their up-and-around of the drumlin's summit loop---and cajoling or complimenting the sprinters as they labor to the top of their intervals, whichever works best. The day's gloom is at least graced by a lack of wind, a late November afternoon that, but for the athletes' heavy breathing, is shrouded in silence. Up the hill and headed into her fourth long interval plugs Haylee, a team neophyte who's agreed to try the distance group for a week and is now probably wondering what the hell she's gotten into.

          Haylee drives past doggedly. The sky drains to a deeper gray.


           After the distance squad bundles up and heads out for their fartlek run in the neighborhood, I set a combination of Banana Steps and speed ladder in the hall next to the gym. Once they return and rub trainers dry to satisfy the janitors, they'll run repeats on that curious combination before heading into the weight room for strength and mobility work.

    I then walk around to the front area of the school where Coach Palmisano has arranged his own three-ring circus for sprinters and throwers. Their stations emanate from a hallway intersection like fingers. Down the library hall, one group is charging, runner by runner, through an acceleration ladder monitored by our volunteer coach, Tim Huppman. Another south-angled-and longer-hall has three cones set. Coach Palmisano is explaining to that station's group about three sprints to the short cone, two to the one halfway down and a final surge to the lonely cone at the far end of the hall. They're supposed to race one to each side of the hall, step into the middle when finished and walk back to whatever comes next. I volunteer to monitor that group for a while but first duck around to a nearby stairwell where a third group is already heading up and down with plyometric hop sequences: double-leg, single-right, single-left. Many are our veterans and faster athletes, but that isn't stopping them from getting on each other's technique and rousing about the general demands of the work. "Hey guys," I call up, "do you want some cheese with your whine?" A few guffaw, and they keep on with the haranguing.

          Their stations will change every ten minutes. I interrupt the first hall sprinters momentarily to talk about keying elbow drive to improve arm carry. I watch for innate foot speed but also for speed that might merely be hidden beneath sloppy form. Several adults approach along another hallway with their yoga-class mats and cautiously step through the menagerie of runners. Every so often, someone in that ladder group hits a plastic rung with fatigued legs, skewing the thing as the group erupts with a "Whoa!" The stairwell boys have stopped complaining and are just breathing heavily. My sprint group's arm carries have improved even as they've tired, so I start back to meet my returning distance runners. The din of athletes fades as I veer around a corner. Coach P. calls out a ten-minute switch.


    Indoor work it is today then, if the wet hypothermia weather outside insists. There's sometimes a fine line between being tough and stupid. Distance is replicating a workout completed the previous year, but this time a month earlier. I'm thinking they're ready for the sets of descending long intervals and increasing intensities. And the volume's been reduced a little, so we'll see. Abby's been borrowed from the sprint group because, long range, she needs this work. Sprinter Pat is there too, just as an experiment.

    It's only two sets of three intervals separated by a recovery jog around the two hundred meter hallway oval. It still pleases me to have an exact 200 meter hallway oval, but I'll need to drone endlessly to "stay single file" during those recovery jogs so teammates avoid their charging teammates. Everyone by now can recite my run-the-apex-of-curves speech by heart, and we've coned the entire thing off to guard against the sporadic clueless students wandering our deserted afternoon halls.

          Once they've completed their "2 laps" of strides and sprints, I make sure the groups are right. Natalie and Mia and Olivia and Emily are together again, and I'm specific about what I want after hearing how two of them dropped off during a Monday speed-based workout with Coach P. "You're talented. You can," is the blunt message about digging deeper that I. Abby's in another group, and she'll provide a chase target for our newcomer, Alana, who just the day before, in answer to the question of what she did in the Fall, said "nothing." That's when I smiled and made plans for her next autumn. Matt, of course, is on his own again, but Zach and Aidan silently promise to do their best to keep him in sight.

          They attack their intervals-in this case the word fits. Bodies blur around far corners. Athletes bend between intervals, shaking heads and sucking oxygen before dutiful, single-file recovery jogs. A few feeble hand-slaps are exchanged after good efforts, and some encouraging words are mumbled between them. The meters of volume mount. They'd completed uncertainty intervals the week before, but today they know exactly what matters and what remains. By the end, Matt's wandering, hands on hips, eyes glazed, and Aidan's leaning momentarily against the wall. I tell Olivia about distance runner pride and to at least get up on her feet. Abby is down on all fours, a typical sight. Mia is too.

          We've been warned--us coaches--about the sons and daughters of the millennials. We've been cautioned there will be athletes raised so they struggle to understand what Coach Del Hessel meant when he wrote, "Do not request or expect things that you have not earned." There will be those, we are told, who assume their 80% efforts or qualified commitments will be automatically and continuously praised. Maybe. And maybe those folks are simply be the ones who inevitably command more time and attention than they seem to deserve. With this bunch, however, I'm giving high fives and fist bumps and pats on the back instead. From what I can see, there are none of those other people in this hallway today.