Thoughts From Three: Big Changes

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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"Attention is the facility through which we encounter the world directly.

           If such an encounter isn't possible, then attention has no official role to play."

                                                                Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head

                                      Where you headed from here?

                                    I don't know.

                                   Cain't get lost then.

                                                                  William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways

After each of the hard summer team-run intervals, the neophytes, bent over, listen to the veterans. They watch too. They are searching for cues about how to read their own exhaustion, their own dread about the difficult efforts remaining. They already know that pain gets your attention. It won't-like so many other modalities of modern life-be mollified, distracted or ignored. With the help of their older and wiser teammates, they are learning to negotiate their pain, to form a relationship. 

Language is sparse in those moments, but a little goes a long way. "Let's go" a vet grunts to his partner as they inch toward the start cone, their recovery minutes spent. And those three words can express a universe of declarations, including there's still work to be done, or we're good, we're O.K. Those pain relationships evolve from memory and determination. Muttered softly, "We can do this" neatly circumscribes just about everything a coach could ever offer for motivation. 

The abbreviated language of pain-and enduring pain-comes slowly to the reticent or fearful neophyte because, as Matthew C. Crawford wrote, "to be good at this kind of conversation you have to love the truth more than your own current state of understanding." From dismay to discovery. From discovery to experience. From experience, wisdom. The vets, because they have wisdom, are merely reminding themselves: yes, you can. The newbies, starring out at mental terra incognita, are quietly not so sure. Most, though, are willing to venture forth. 

For any engagement with the safe pain of run training, those initial differences in language-a cogent yes we can versus the drawn out non-verbal doubts of silence-those differences are critical to what comes next: decisions. Matthew characterizes the language of resilient veterans who push on: "This is, of course, an unusual priority to have, which may account for the rarity of mastery in any pursuit."

Most neophytes show up on our first day of official team practices. Some don't. 


"Come on, take a chance. Live a little!" 

Some of my runners--more of them former than current--have heard my half-joking admonishment during a tough workout or just before stepping on the start line. But an avoidance of risk often freezes them. Some fear the freedom to be solely responsible for their running decisions. Consequences of that, both perceived and encultured, loom too large.  Coach Alberto Salizar once remarked, "I like to see runners who aren't afraid to blow up." He meant the risk-takers. 

Risk comes in all shapes and sizes. I've suggested that runners 'go' in the toughest meters of their races. That risk will be accepted or denied in a matter of minutes, perhaps seconds. "You're ready to move up a training group," is a risk issued as a complimentary declaration, one with lasting repercussions for the athlete--and often resisted for exactly that reason.  I've suggested to some that they give up other pursuits so they can 'try' a particular running season, one that would strategically develop necessary skills or fitness-or simply enlighten. That's a slow-motion risk, one fraught with time for second-guesses. 

All the definitions of risk, whether as a noun or a verb, are negative. The deck seems stacked. But we know all the clich├ęs about the potential rewards for taking risks. Most of them are true. And: "Process before result," insist Simmons and Freeman. So, if there is no risk-taking in the process, you can never expect it in the results. 


Runner: What do you mean we're doing "40 minutes hills?"

Coach: You're running the hill loop circuit for 40 minutes.

Runner: Continuous or as intervals?

Coach: That's up to you. 

Runner: How many loops are we expected to complete?

Coach: As many as you can in 40 minutes.

Runner: So, then, how long do we have for our recoveries?

Coach: As long as you think you need.

Runner, eyebrows rising: Can we take long recoveries?

Coach: You can, but then you'll have to answer to your teammates. You're accountable to them.


Justin comes over the small rise in the tree-funneled Outer Loop, a moving silhouette in the evening sunlight that has snuck through leaves. He guns the slight decline into the finish and bends over. Maybe I should tell him about how impressive his advance as a runner has been this summer, a summer of miles. But I don't want to disrupt his moment. He doesn't need my noise. His heavy breathing is symphony enough. 

Most coaches, call it what they will, are attempting to create and sustain what Crawford terms "an ecology of attention." An ecology of attention explains why some coaches gravitate toward those runners who seem to "get it," who are invested or committed(and athletic) in ways that makes instructing them pleasurable and productive. The sport has their attention. Most coaches dream of-and some have produced-programs close to creating a total ecology of attention-"all in" athletes only. That standard is the one, if coupled with competitive success, that we typically celebrate.  But hegemony of attention by athletes, a team purity of sorts, usually comes at a cost. In achieving and maintaining that ecology of attention, there will be losses, subtractions or omissions.  "All in" usually means that someone's going to be left out. 


By Day 3 of team practices, it's clear the work, at least, has their attention. There's a lot of it, not necessarily intense, but substantial in volume. We have more? their eyes seem to speak when told of the next block of work, the next drill. In a circle during a short break, I come at it obliquely. "We want you this season," I tell them, "to master the time and to master the efforts." One follows the other. Scattered commitments chip away at the time available to be a runner--and time is exactly what's needed. Achieving breadth as a maturing young adult does not effectively occur by simply accumulating cursory experiences. It's about the values acquired by delving deeply into smart choices, even if those choices eventually change.  Runner X is privately and politely asked why the summer mileage was low. A job, is the justification for a shallow introduction to our current running season. Some of the experts have argued that the major driver in youth culture today-for good and bad--is the pervasiveness of distractions. We know them by their sterilized synonym--choices. We lose runners every year to enticing distractions. 

Mastering the efforts is, of course, a more tangible task. Right now, it's anything but the abstraction of choices. It's in their face. It's a Friday, Day 5, and the density of work for the week has caught up with some--weary legs and wary expressions as they wait for what comes next. "O.K.," we tell them toward the end of the morning, "You have the cones set for your L.A.T. drill. We'll start with 8 minutes this season. Remember, 30 seconds up, then 30 seconds down on the whistle. And we start with a down." I stand in the middle of the playing field with Coaches Gangemi and Palmisano to blow the whistle and watch. By the fifth minute, body posture and ground contact time indicate more than a few are struggling, but a couple of guys and girls are showing something different. During the downs, they are clipping by others because they have the fitness, and they've heard my stories. They are already are pursuing that nearly impossible goal of matching up/down paces. For anyone invested in run-training, it's a beautiful sight. 

The week has gone well, though some of the runners might currently disagree. They just need to make the decision to stick with it-these months, this chunk of time--and successful seasons will result. The current hip word is agency, that perceived control over one's ability and ones choices in order to further one's end in the world. We are talking about having the ability to immerse oneself in an investment, and Crawford identifies the irony there when he writes "....genuine agency arises not in the context of mere choices freely made...but rather, somewhat paradoxically, in the context of submission to things that have their own intractable way...." Like the preparatory miles, the hard hills, the exhausted speed, and the mental risks of training/racing that a good season of running demand. 

What coaches want is to eventually wed athletes to the noble and necessary elements of their chosen sport. Ultimately, we hope the athletes achieve, as Crawford describes, a state where "the judgements of the discipline have become [their] own." It's not hard to determine when that's occurred. You know it when you see it.