Thoughts From Three: Mastering The Mundane

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."

"Being great is easy, being good is harder."

Steve Magness

" travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive..."

Robert Lewis Stevenson

"Run the next mile first."


We live in a culture that celebrates and promotes those excitable moments of life. It surprises no one that we often imagine personal careers as the lauded hard-chargers, the go-getters, the highlight-driven personalities-in other words, being one of those persons defined by what actually amounts to maybe one percent of their lives. The grunt soldiers in Vietnam used to describe their long days as comprised mostly of mundane routines interspersed with the unpredictable moments of sheer, chaotic warfare. They feared the 1% while we've been trained to glorify and exaggerate ours.

Curiously, we sometimes coach that way too. Too often, we expect or assume that the fleeting highlights of successful competitions provide the athletes with all the motivation they need for the hours and the weeks of preparations. That cultural conceit is, after all, a fundamental assumption in the process of goal-setting: something down the road will make all those road miles worth it--or there's no justification for being where you are except to be approaching something even better. Rumors of glory are certainly a venerated American motivator. But then, every so often, you are brought up short by the promising team member who quits and, if being honest, would have told youyeah, I heard what you said about my potential and all that, but I just couldn't see the point of the work. Well, point taken. That is the reason coaches endlessly search for those who do, season after season, get the point. Certainly, to reside long in the runner's world, it follows that the other 99% of the athlete's long hours 'of approach' must possess its own purpose and power for the runners-its own meaning. Ironically, what our COVID-19 summer, amid all the displacement, the obstructions, and the losses, has offered our runners is time, time to learn and appreciate the simple joys of covering distances, those modest, unadorned and mundane miles of our sport. Morning miles through valley fog; evening jaunts chasing sunsets. "Most people who play sports don't get paid to do it," wrote Bill McKibben, "and no one else is watching; there's no external reward at all. You do it entirely for the meaning." Competitions, we understand, are the logical destinations, the rewards of the journey, but only the meaning will get you to the start line as a completed racer.

Before the official team practices begin in late August, my cross-country runners have twelve weeks to appreciate and master the mundane. It's all voluntary, of course, but if they want to be their best for themselves and teammates this Fall, they will have to master the solo miles this summer. Bill McKibben also writes about the potential of societies to learn how to "mature," that is, to focus on "economic and political maintenance and contentment" rather than conduct a relentless pursuit--and adulation of--"exhilaration and extension." From the runner's perspective, it's not a stretch to imagine all those low-intensity summer miles that build a fitness base--the ones achieved through a practiced lifestyle of daily runs, sleep, proper nutrition and hydration--as the achievement of a kind of runner's maturity, a maturity earned slowly and patiently while attentive to the moment. Muhammad Ali once reminded his fans that "I run on the roads long before I dance under the lights." He knew that without the roads, there would be no lights.

Summer is a good time to get back to-or discover-the basics. With runners, as with other sports, that means being athletic first. The ability to correctly perform the required and desired movements of running should be a primary goal of summer training. Though directed refinements in running mechanics are required for some athletes, the act of running itself 'teaches' much of that desired movement. With time, the body self-selects the optimal motion patterns for a person's size, weight and skeletal structure. With the miles, practice makes one, if not perfect, at least better, more efficient. It takes the miles, so the runner who can appreciate the long and the arduous and the ordinary--that is, the runner who has mastered the mundane-that person is on his or her way to a successful season.

This is not, however, just an exercise in appreciations. The physiology confirms the necessity-and the benefits-of all those quiet, now solo summer miles. 80% low intensity miles and only 20% of the faster stuff goes the training strategy. Steve Magness imagines all that primary, unglamorous running as the 'floor' of one's running theater, something every bit as important as those competitive 'ceiling' events, the races. "Confidence comes from having a higher floor," he writes. "Great performances might seem like they give you confidence, but it's of the fleeting type. Confidence comes from consistency. It's walking on to the stage and knowing that no matter what is thrown at you, you're going to show up and be pretty darn good. Focus on raising the floor, not just the ceiling." We know those kinds of runners. For them, consistently and patiently raising the floor is the 'good' that makes the 'great' not just possible, but predictable.

We are forever encouraged these days to "make it exciting," to "make it fun" for the athletes. And both directives are true and necessary for young adults if we hope to have teams to coach. But for a long time, the kids have been trying to tell us that once beyond their run-around-and-have-fun youth sport stage, their "fun" really isn't that beach type of fun. It's what Russ Ebbets described as the fun of achieving "the balance between mastery and challenge." It is the balance, he says, between the confidence of "I can do this" and the motivation provided by "what is this?" The 'this' is that unknown territory of personal greatness that the runner can reach when he or she is ready and able to 'go for it.' Both the confidence and the gambles require the 'floor.' Both are born of the mundane.

Mia e-mailed a few days ago. "Hello Coach V, how are you doing? I am super excited for cross country this coming fall. I love running so much. I've been running on the canal and on my treadmill a lot, especially during this pandemic."

Like most other cross-country coaches, I am trying to devise ways to create a sense of 'team' during our necessary isolation--and also ways to keep my prospective team members invested in the foundational running that will predict their Fall fortunes. To be successful as racers, our athletes this Fall will need not only to meet the challenges sufficient to their abilities. They will also need an appreciation now, this summer, for simply being out there making miles. Separated from each other by the virus, developing that appreciation is the biggest challenge for many of them.

At least I am not worried about Mia.