Thoughts From Three: Rain, More Rain—and Then...

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."

"At a certain point, you keep going to going to see what will happen next."

James Galvin, The Meadow

It was another dreary morning. The gray clouds were limp, saturated rags we burrowed under, like voles. The forecast for the day was-what else?-rain. Not heavy sweeps of water or thunderboomers that might at least offer sunshine at the tail end of a passing front. Just the slow, relentless drip-drip-drip of an incipit declaration. Puddles in the driveways, spongy playing fields, the abstract impressionism of meteorological maps splotched with rain clouds--all insisted: this is your future; get used to it. 

To be sure, such conditions are challenging for a while, and what you come to expect in the first months. We shovel snow off our March track as an expression of optimism and assurance. We take the hypothermic, early-season meets in stride. But there's not that same bravado in May when dreading another wet extended forecast. At an early May invitational, athletes and coaches were forewarned of possible thunderstorms to combine with windy and chilly conditions. When, in a rare gesture from mother nature, the rain held off, the most overheard remark from layered-up athletes and coaches was "At least it isn't raining." So, we'd been reduced to celebrating 'at least.' For too many weeks, the season had served up 'Cross-Country Weather.' November cross-country weather. 

Around here, it's not hard to envy the southern latitudes of T-shirts and shorts. But the relentless rains had hidden more than the sun. They had obscured the evidence of persistence. At the mid-May league championship, I stood on the infield before the 800m event, patting Alana on the shoulder and telling her, again, how good she was and how well she'd do if she put herself in the game with a strong first four hundred. The wide-eyed look I received was the same one offered back in the cold indoor track months, her neophyte running season, just before she'd go out to tackle her first 3000m or 1500m. Now, though, something else flickered behind that wide-eyed response--and I had seen it coming. At a breezy, wet early May invitational, she'd done what most don't want to do in the 800m, which is push hard that third 200m when the mind's afire with calculations, too many of them alarming. Hers was a labored finish that afternoon but a personal best time. Five days later, she was chased down by a teammate in the final 300 meters of a 1500, but because of pushing the pace early, she notched another personal record. Conventional wisdom dictates you coach athletes to strive for even-paced racing so there's a little something left for the end of the 1500m, and less diminution of pace in the 800m. But Alana's moxie was something I'd decided not to tamper with. I was hearing the echo of Canova: every event is an event of extension. In the season's ahead, I figured, we'd let a developing aerobic base catch up with boldness. 

Just a week later, she was at another 800m. Her finish time did not place her in the upper echelon of the league, but times don't always tell the right story. When the gun went off, the runners jostled and bumped around turn one, and I was not surprised to see Alana clamped on the chase pack that had already been gaped by a streaking F-M frontrunner. I was no longer surprised to watch her effectively maneuver to stay in touch with faster runners, coming across the 400m mark smartly, on pace for another PR. Out of turn one on that second lap, she swung wide and picked off one of the chase pack. Along the backstretch she passed another and suddenly was threatening to take over 2nd.  But also not surprisingly, a lack of accumulated running seasons intervened. Her form broke down slightly; the turn-over decreased. Down the home stretch, Alana was, again, struggling. One girl re-passed her, then another. Alana was pumping furiously until, fifteen meters from the finish, reaching too much, she inexplicably crashed down, hitting the track and the inside rail. Stunned, she rolled over. I shouted for her to get up. "Finish!" I yelled, and she stumbled her way across the line in 6th and still managed a credible time. I stood by her as competitors came over to ask if she was O.K.  Fine, she told them, and a quick glance found only minor abrasions, no blood. On the infield, a teammate rushed up and commiserated, telling her, "Oh, I'm so sorry for you; that was so bad."  The entire effort, start to fall, fall to finish, quickly replayed in my mind-a full effort, and them some. "No," I heard myself interrupting, "That was great!"

Natalie, all season, wanted to race the 1500m in the Open Qualifier. Too few appreciate the small fraction of all competitors in any particular section who make it that far. At that same league meet, Natalie raced a tactically wise bookend race for a scoring finish, but doubt in the third lap left her two tenths of a second shy of the standard. Both of us were disappointed, but then I asked, "Try again at Sectionals?" The answer came immediately. 

Less than a week later Natalie lined up for her last chance. No wind, no rain this time. A cautious start left her stranded in a big pack on the first lap. I waited. Lap two found her positioning in her group, measuring and calculating. She came through the 800m slightly faster than her previous attempt and pushed into that infamous lap three. I wondered. She had calculated a three-lap split that would give here the chance, if she held up in the final 300 meters, at the standard. My job was to shout out the split, so when I barked out a number two seconds below target, she'd just raced lap three almost four seconds faster than her league effort. She'd gambled. I saw that sense of urgency on her face now that the time was possible. Natalie was gassed, but she willed herself around turn two and down the final meters to capture the standard with a good half second to spare. I found her on the infield. She smiled as I approached and extended a fist bump. "Nice, you did it," I told her.  "Yup," she answered quietly and smiled again. 

What coaches too seldom get to enjoy is the moment--or moments-before the great performances when the athlete decides to go for it, to take the risk. It's never as simple as being told. No matter the amount of cajoling and encouragement that coaches deliver (convincing themselves of an overated power to inspire), those moments are private to the individuals, and thus no other credit is due. Though we always coach toward those moments, it's ultimately the athletes who decide when and where. We provide the opportunities to properly prepare, we instruct and sometimes insist, then we symbolically cross the fingers and wait. 

And every spring it's worth the wait.