Thoughts From Three: What Summer Is

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."

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What Summer Is

"We stand in the rain in a long line

waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.

You know what work is-if you're

old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it."

                                                          "What Work Is"  Phillip Levine

  I tallied the damages an erratic winter and a soppy spring had inflicted on our cross-country training area. A tree down across the Woods Loop trail. A mushy, muddy slop where drainage was funneled across the base of the Outer Loop's short hill. Tall, prairie-like grass waving in the wind across a trail section the maintenance mowers could not safely reach. And inside a dish-bowl of trees where winter snows and spring water normally retreat by late May, there was now a shallow lake among the timbers, a perfect incubator for insects and a scene suggesting bayou boats and alligator hunters. As we re-routed runs and runners on our late June team run, we understood who was merely borrowing this land and the weather that actually owned it. There would be work ahead to get the place ready for the Fall season. 

That is fine by me. Once the draining and drying occurs, the fallen tree removed, the overhanging branches cut and the trails mowed down to their former selves, the beneficiaries will not be neighbors passing by and merely enjoying a well-manicured lawn. My sweat equity these warm weeks will allow others to briefly borrow this place in the Summer and Fall-and do their work. 

Work. It is work for runners to push themselves out of bed early for summer miles through morning mists, often alone. It is work to convince teammates to turn left onto that longer long run, to validate with footsteps that something far away in the season so definitely depends on something right now. "Their fate in November is determined in summer," wrote Coach Reed. The right and necessary kind of work always has a purpose, whether you believe or accept that purpose or you don't. "Be not simply good," Thoreau once suggested. "Be good for something." We want the runners ready for the hard trails ahead, prepared to be a credit to their team, their teammates and especially to themselves. Work is the only path to that possibility. You can't wish or water down what the right work is.  I saw a slogan on a shopper's T-shirt recently. It read: "Training is the opposite of hope." The work, if completed correctly, exchanges anticipation for hope--and it obliterates the need for excuses. 

Summer training for Fall cross-country is, of course, so much at odds with the current culture. That's the one that still preaches ease, kicking back, finding the easiest way to everything. The annoying truth of our contrary cross-country sport is, as the saying goes, "There's no shortcut to any place worth going." 

Which is why it is so important, sometimes, for coaches to harp or cajole or insist, whatever the risks. For those of us with histories, most can take pleasure in fondly recalling the invested runners of our past who eventually came to understand that if you want to be your best in this sport, there are, indeed, no shortcuts worth following. There is only the work. 

Summer, then, is simple, we tell our runners. Accumulate TOF-time on feet. Measure it in miles if you can, in minutes if you must. The smaller percent of the necessary faster stuff-the 20% of that 80/20 strategy--that we will provide during our team runs so you can share it with others. For the rest, the 80% of easier efforts, the solitary morning runs or evening miles into the lengthening shadows with teammates-that is more difficult to legislate. Those miles must be an expressed desire, not deference to a directive. We understand that the simple goal of summer is, for some, difficult to achieve-to get to the place where you look forward to your daily runs. But, as a summer runner, when the daily work is no longer the means but becomes, in fact, an end, those runners have already arrived at a significant destination. The miles become pleasurable investments, time worthy of itself, not just dues. One of my favorites from mountaineering days was an Off Belay magazine cover with a climber and the superimposed words: "Time spent climbing in the mountains will not be subtracted from the rest of your life." Summer runs can be the same. 

A few years ago, following one of winter's big snow-punches, a friend wondered why, given lake effect's well-earned reputation in Central New York, I did not spring for a snow-blower. I had the idle cash, but I thought about my faithful shovel, its bladed edge dulled by repeated encounters with cold macadam on frigid mornings. It worked so well. Because I already have my tool, I told him, and I can make the time. 

Runners, of course, match the only tool they have-themselves-against the work required under summer suns. Then they decide, one way or the other, if they are still interested in the task. Summer is, then, a chance to understand--and come to value-diligent physical work, just enough of it hard. That's what, in the end, the sport is anyway. So that's what summer is, the opportunity to appreciate that quiet voice in the back of the head, the one that's always reminding: there is value in the efforts because nothing good comes cheap.