Thoughts From Three: The Corona Diaries

After the success ofJim 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."

"Proceed as the way opens."

Quaker proverb

On February 15th, even while enjoying a family vacation in frigid Ottawa, I was thinking spring. There were the usual audacious plans for some of my track athletes. As I glided down the Rideau Canal with other cold-hardy skaters, I was calculating the possible 4x800 splits that would surprise some athletes who were expected to achieve them. I thought about how to turn indoor track promise for some throwers into warm-weather reality. A lot of excitement, sweat and serendipity lay ahead of those windy canal shivers. A month later, however, instead of last-minute roster additions, Coach Mercado and I were preparing the four-week training plans for all the team athletes we would not be coaching until mid-April, if ever.

Wrapped within the upheaval of a school year and a track-season-likely-lost, though, lies opportunity. As one writer described, the virus had created a virtual "pause" in society, and that pause has offered my athletes the chance to dampen the daily noise and to use social distances to find themselves. The goal, though some may not envision it, is to emerge on the other side of the pandemic with stronger appreciations and less-distracted convictions. For the athletes, this uniquely stripped-down form of daily life presents the chance to appreciate what it fully means to 'be an athlete.'

Marinka dropped me a note:

As a first-year track athlete, I was excited for this season of challenges and opportunities. When quarantine ruined all my plans, I was quite frustrated that there would be no training and workouts with my teammates and friends. I worried that I wouldn't be able to keep up with the training schedule provided to us or be motivated enough to complete them. However, my dedication and desire to get better won. With the help of my FitBit, YouTube, and family support, I keep on working on my endurance, speed, and decreasing my recovery time, and I'm improving in it. Every afternoon, I go for a 'morning run'. One of the benefits of quarantine that I love is sleeping in. After I do my homework, I do different workouts and stretches, targeting different areas of my body, such as core, arms, and legs. These workouts include crunches, pushups, and burpees, etc. Around 6 or 7 pm, I go for another run in my neighborhood or Nine Mile Creek. The biggest challenge with these commitments is to keep pushing myself while working out alone.

Despite the challenges, I learned that life doesn't always go as planned, and we must adjust and adapt to it.

Hear, hear.

Ironically, the "New York Pause" has given me some time to lean back and simply appreciate my runners for their investments in the sport. One can normally observe those in practices and meets, but the quaint notion of a "community of runners" becomes an ironic functioning reality when you get to read about it from afar.

Justin described:

This week and these coming weeks are going to be very challenging for myself and I'm assuming my teammates as well. I've tried to keep it mileage-based, just like the summer before Cross country season, but I've only been running once a day unlike the doubles of the summer. This makes it so then I don't lose the training that I've gained from my cross country and indoor seasons. I've been trying to do at least 4 miles a day and get in 2 speed-based days a week. I've been doing workouts like fartlek runs and timed runs for the lighter side of things and I've been doing a longer LAT type workout (Minute up, Minute down, 20 minutes) for speed based training

Even though I'm able to get the training in there are still a few big obstacles, not being able to run with teammates every day like during practices. Another obstacle is that I'm not really training for any big meets or invites right now, so there is nowhere to display my training. I've been able to overcome these obstacles by knowing that I'll be ready as soon as outdoor track starts back up in mid-April and developing a daily routine every day. I try to run at the same time every single day so then I develop a habit of running every day and so there's no getting used to the training that I'll be doing this outdoor season.

You are rewarded as a coach when presented with brief windows into the manner by which athletes strive to live a small portion of their lives as something special-as a runner-and then let you know about it. Lauren wrote me:

It's day 7 of "Coronacation" and to say the least it's been a new challenge with all of the change that's occurred. As my coach has said, "You know you're a runner when you enjoy going out for long morning runs" - and that's what I've been doing. It all depends on the day, but I've planned workouts for myself that involve getting that long-distance training and miles in, as well as some hills and faster based training. I usually rest about one day a week and always keep the "80/20" training method in mind as I plan out what I'd like to accomplish for the week. Jesse Owens, a 4-time Olympic medalist for track and field once said, "We all have dreams. In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort." As I read this quote it really hit home to me, and I realized if I really want to get better, it's going to take lots of hard work, and a shortened season won't stop me.

The coronavirus has been undeniably a huge obstacle in a number of ways. Not only has it postponed the outdoor season, but it's made training more difficult. With the virus worsening, it's becoming more and more difficult to organize runs together because of social distancing. However, aside from having online school each day, I've made it a priority to get daily runs in. I've gone on runs with teammates a few times, but the other times I've been alone.

Some of the workouts I've done have included runs around my neighborhood, hills in the neighborhood next to mine, and long runs at the canal. At the canal I try to run between 4 and 8 miles at a relaxed pace because every mile counts. For the faster paced workouts, I've made it to the track to run up-tempo workouts like step up 400s and 2/2/4's (2 200 meters and then a 400-meter lap). My plan is to continue a variety of running workouts to become a stronger runner and start to include some strength workouts into my routine. Lastly, I miss getting together with my team for practice every day, and that's one of the hardest parts of being quarantined. My teammates are my biggest motivators and some of the best friends I've made at West Genny. I'm looking forward to the many more jokes on our neighborhood runs, pasta dinners with garlic bread, and even the pre-race nerves with my teammates soon. I can't wait for what the 2020 outdoor season brings!

The steady dwindling of our season, with a potential start-date pushed back a third time to May 15th, had been preceded by the probable loss of an athlete who'd notified me she decided to forego Outdoor this year. These things happen. The rewards derived from the sport stop equaling or exceeding the investment required. A calculation ensues. The importance of a commitment is, after all, a determination that can go either way. She had emailed shortly before our start date to explain something I'd suspected for a while.

I have decided that I want to take this outdoor season off. I have been struggling in school and I need to get back on top of my grades and homework. I am really upset that I will be letting my team down, and this decision was really hard for me to make. I know I'm supposed to be the leader, and I want to be, but I feel like I am falling out of the events that I am used to running. I think the time will also be able to help me clear the mental stress that I have. I am going to continue to go on runs.....

This was the part where the coach is supposed to remind a reticent athlete of all he or she means to the team, of how much he or she can accomplish, of how much he or she actually loves the sport. That's what we're supposed to do. Out of respect, I didn't. I simply returned her email:

Thanks for letting me know. Best of luck with the remainder of your school year.

Coach V.

A few days later, she contacted me again, saying she was trying to work things out, and could I allow her to start a few weeks later than teammates? I replied that I respected her commitment in all her previous seasons. I told her that some of my fondest coaching memories the past two years had been watching those occasions when she took big risks in races, just let herself be driven by desire. I told her about all the encouragement and support she'd given teammates in the past. Then I told her she needed to be there Day 1 if she wanted to be on the team.This is a rough patch I think you can successfully navigate, I wrote.Talk things over with your folks. If you want to participate this season, your coaches and teammates will be supportive--and we'll see you Monday. If you need to focus solely on schoolwork, that's understandable--school comes first.

A day later, she emailed to say she'd see me at our first practice, but then the word came down and those practices were put on indefinite hold. The '4-week plans' went out to all the team members for their solitary training. Outdoor Track became a loose web of solitary efforts. A few weeks later, I heard from her again.

Hi coach. So, I wanted to email you because I wanted to update you on the past two weeks with my running. Lately, I haven't been feeling passionate towards running like I used too. I felt like I lost my potential. With the help of my friends, I decided to run again last week, and I still felt like something was missing. Today was the first time I ran in a week, and it was the best run I had in a long time. I went 8 miles....I think I finally found my passion again, and I am going to continue to train and prepare for the track season if it happens, and if it doesn't I will train for this coming cross country season.

We may just rescue the end of the school year, but daily team practices and meets will likely not be included in the come-back. But such it is that the loss may have allowed some team members to discover those deeper convictions and those resilient commitments. It may simply be the result of understanding that, at times, the pause is as important as the push. And since coaching is teaching, I could easily offer my distance runners a one-question final exam: Briefly describe what you've learned this spring about your running.