Thoughts From Three: Days In Early March

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."

All afternoon, as the runners plied their pre-season threshold laps on our high school track, Canadian Geese arced northward above us in persistent and irregular V's. It was warm, with temperatures soring into the 50's. All but one small patch of melting snow had vanished from our lanes, the day a late-winter gift of considerable value. With their indoor coaches down at the start-line, Matt, Aidan and Peter ran long intervals in preparation for Matt's State Championship on Saturday. My volunteer group of runners, meanwhile, prepped for the season ahead, the one arriving on the wings of communal geese. My volunteers were hopeful in their T-shirts and shorts and could be forgiven for preemptively celebrating the approach of an always elusive spring. At one point in gathering for their work, while I lectured about the run as really a test of feelings("You want tofeel strong; you want tofeel powerful, tofeel fast but in a controlled and confident way."), one strikingly long V of geese had passed overhead. Someone in the group wondered aloud about their formation. Why, she questioned, do they fly that way? No teammate offered an answer, so I took a few minutes from their afternoon for an impromptu and brief discussion on the critical aerodynamics of Canadian Geese working together as they plied their long and arduous miles back north. Only a few of my grounded crew, I suspected, appreciated the metaphor. 

On another day, as I trudged the med kit, the AED, some cones and the measuring wheel out to the high school track, a group of my runners popped out the door to the high school cafeteria hallway and joined me for the walk to the start line. Along the way, Kate told me how hard her classes had been this year. "Well, you're a sophomore," I said with a tilt of the head, "just wait until next year."

"I know!" she wailed, rolling her eyes. Then she compared notes with Janaya on tough courses and tough teachers. 

There were some notable MIA's on this preternaturally warm afternoon of blustery but comfortable winds. Where were Lauren and Tammy? And would Tammy show after a week away on vacation? I put that out of mind and gathered the troops, all eleven of them, with one a new and unfamiliar face. "Do you want me to explain the workout before or after the warm-up?" The vocal vote was for now, so I explained their particular aerobic session and how it might seem strange to run brief 150-meter intervals interspersed with short jogs, but that the efforts would add up to a good aerobic training effect. They'd throw in some sprints at the end of the afternoon for the speed side. "And," I added, "you'll be the first Wildcats to ever complete this particular training."

"Oh, so we'll have the workout record?" Justin concluded facetiously.

"That you will," I told him with a nod.

They set out on their warm-up. As they circled turn two, out of the building popped some late-comers. It was the three MIA's and a few others. Our group had swelled. They chatted their ways around the track, but after only half a lap, my new hopeful had stopped. She walked slowly across the infield and explained to me how it wasn't feeling right for her, that she'd not been very active over the winter and that maybe it was a mental block or something, but she didn't think she could continue. I stopped her on the mental block part. "No, it's not that," I told her. "You're just out of shape; it will take some time." Then I suggested she pick a relaxed pace and complete a timed run in the outer lanes. Off she went-for one lap. Our second private conversation quietly covered that most basic requirement of track and field, which is running. I suggested she use the days remaining before team practices to run on her own after school for 10 to 30 minutes. "It's going to be hard at first," I warned her, channeling the German writer and statesman, Johann Goethe, "but easier as you become more fit." She thanked me several times before walking off. I didn't know whether to saysee you next week orgoodbye and good luck. 

Even the most veteran runners were taking a little time to gear into the correct pace, but it was easy to see that some groups were finding those paces quickly while others played it safe. This workout was terra incognito for some who were probably wondering how to 'feel' their way through it. Maybe they didn't trust me, but they were overly cautious and working the intervals conservatively. Too conservatively. So, I yelled at some to pick up the pace. With the first set complete, those cautious team members ran their mental calculations, realized they were going to be fine and notched it up in the second and third sets. I made mental notes of my own. 

"My shoulders hurt," Kate complained between sets. Watching her, it had been easy to see why. 

"You are carrying your arms higher than necessary," I told her, demonstrating a more relaxed elbow angle. "That high carry can cause muscle tension--not much, but nothing you want. And you're leaning too far forward." 

"Yeah, I know," she interjected wearily. "That's a bad habit." 

"Well, your shoulder muscles are working to counteract that imbalance in your posture. That could be causing some of the stiffness. Drop your arms a little and follow that notion of 'running tall.' See if it helps. And remember, bad habits can be broken, but it takes work." 

In the final set, I watched Sarah, Kate and Janaya ply the backstretch of their last lap. After all these years, it doesn't take more than a glance to analyze strides. It's just a variation of that you-know-it-when-you-see-it mantra-and Sarah's looked good, mechanically smooth and efficient, the kind of stride that can hold speed comfortably if she's aerobically talented and fit. And we were going to find out if that combination could be created. Besides outdoor, Sarah already was planning to run her first cross-country season in the fall. 

My veteran group barreled strongly across the finish, probably understanding what I saw, that they still had a lot in reserve. We gathered for a moment. "That first set was dog poop," I said bluntly, but with a smile, "but in the next two you really got moving." They accepted the mixed review and, after a relaxed cool-down, disappeared through the stadium gates. 

I watched them wander off into the majority of their lives. So much of what happens daily to these athletes-classes, tests, home and social lives-are taken for granted by them and others, which is fine because that at least allows the days to flow. We'd get nowhere if every moment or hour or task assumed a heightened hair-on-fire drama that demanded our full attention. Central Nervous System overload is what that would be. There's certainly a required time and place for that kind of drama, like when an athlete steps to the start line in a championship meet or stands before biology class to present a semester project report for 40% of the grade. We like to assume it's in those tough or challenging moments that character is defined or revealed. But that's not really true. Character resides in the flow that mostly passes unnoticed and uncelebrated. Who you really are typically presents itself in a quiet, private manner, while the public projection of character is too easily distorted or misunderstood. That's also why coaches can quickly name their go-to athletes, their long-term achievers, their leaders. They've been watching them all along through those mundane moments. 

That endurance-side training session, it turns out, wasn't goodbye and good luck for my new hopeful. Only three days later, she was back for our final pre-season run. She completed a percentage of the warm-up, where it quickly became obvious she was still not prepared to conduct even a portion of the day's workout, a speed-side affair involving 300's. I pulled her aside and issued the instructions: run x number of laps out in lane five. How fast, she wanted to know, and I told her (twice) to run comfortably at a self-selected pace that did not include stopping or walking. The first time around, as I watched my runner groups and evaluated biomechanics, she passed, determined and steady. She finished the job, and after her laps, I had her walk and take water while the others completed their work. When they started the cool-down, I instructed her to repeat her x number of laps. As my veteran groups circled under a cloudy sky, my hopeful finished again. "There," I told her, "not bad." She smiled again before stretching and trudging off. 

    The season may be looming. If the Coronavirus epidemic does not totally cancel us, and if my hopeful neophyte shows when our first day of practice arrives (now the better bet), we'll take those next small and mundane steps.