Thoughts From Three: The Miles Ahead

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."

The Miles Ahead

"Worthwhile ideas tend not to have as dramatic a fall, and stick around longer."

Steve Magness

"Best way to get where you're going is to be where you are."

Brad Stulberg

So, there is this:

"Optimism and pessimism are not arguments. They are opposite forms of the same surrender to simplicity. Relieved of the burden of complex options with complicated consequences, both optimists and pessimists carry on without caring about the consequences of their actions. Convinced of a single course...whether malignant or benign, both optimists and pessimists allow themselves irresponsible actions because they believe that individual actions have no significant consequences."

Paul Hawken, James Ogilvy, Peter Schwartz, Seven Tomorrows

Like many coaches, I try to offer the athletes at least some of the complexities involved with rising from average up into the realm of good--which is often the harder step than that from good to great. This particular hot afternoon, yesterday's meet behind us, we found some shade where the distance runners sat and listened while I held forth about what was missing. Toughness was missing. I told them that as generously as possible.

Once the races had been run, those were the moments to think about. An opportunity sacrificed here, a challenge unanswered there. And as I had re-lived all the races mentally, some with objective splits to corroborate impressions, a general sense had settled on all those recalled visuals and those rudely objective times. The sense was that, with some exceptions, they were not going at this in the spirit of competitive efforts, the kind that rewards all those arduous afternoons of workouts. "Dessert," Coach Delsole used to call races. When the guns went off, too many were merely engaged in enduring the meters, not enjoying the fight. The fight is the dessert. And that is the point of sport, isn't it?

For some, the troubling aspect of all this is how obviously the problems present themselves. In the rectangle sports, it is possible to slip a bit and allow teammates to take up the slack. But as an AD of mine once claimed about runners, "once the gun goes off, there's no place to hide."

None indeed. It's one of the raw and underappreciated privileges of our sport. To be exposed. To be wholly accountable. I used to think the primary reason other athletes shunned the middle distance sports was, simply, because it's hard, too hard. That may be true for those who deflect by arguing that running is "boring," but my former AD was also on to something. Who do you hold accountable, after all, when a race goes south? Do you scream at the watch or the F.A.T. technicians? Do you shout down the coach for that ill-advised move of yours in the second lap? Who is ultimately accountable? I think we know, and that is exactly the reason some athletes want nothing to do with the nakedness of standing alone on the start line.

A funny thing happened on the struggle through Covid seasons this past year. We began to receive some who had deserted other sports. The simple fact of new faces means it is important to understand why they chose to be refuges and then why they found us. The attraction might be that which scares others off in the first place. A sustainable accountability is the basis of our sport's competitive element. Time is time, after all. A race time is not subject to the whims of popularity or social fashion or, for that matter, Covid. If you gravitate to the sport of racing, you must apply your toughness to that incorrigible and indifferent time. 1950 to 2021. Freshman to senior. The clock levels things out. There are, apparently, additional athletes looking for that form of accountability. "Since we are basically ignorant about eventual outcomes," wrote Wes Jackson, "it is best to be students of the way the world has worked." He wasn't referring to sports, but the way our sport has always worked best is not to promise winning or popularity, social cachet or scholarships, but instead a method of improvement and mastery that is democratic and personal--and sustainable. We help fashion the conditions of young minds and bodies so useful attitudes can be recreated for a long while, maybe even a lifetime.

So to my group in the shade, I broke down that illusive notion of toughness, just to make it more accurately complex. I told them you need both physical and mental toughness, but that you can't be mentally tough to any successful degree unless you are first physically tough. I said that physical toughness must be both respiratory and structural, offering up the automobile metaphor of a massive aerobic engine mounted on a weak frame that is doomed to breakdowns. A few heads nodded. Mental toughness, I reminded them, can only proclaim itself in a tough body. For runners, will-power without muscle-power is just a momentary gesture.

They got down to that afternoon's work, and by the mysteries of synergy, then tallied two strong days of pushing and cajoling and jawing each other toward solid practice performances. After the second day, a raw and disagreeable affair, I gave high fives to a trio who had just blasted sets of long intervals with shared resolve. "Nice work," I said simply. "Coach," I heard, then turned to see Lauren, just off a rugged steeplechase workout of her own, standing with a fake frown. "Where's mine?"

It goes to the point that the kids are actually alright; our presentation of time is what's lacking. If we can, with the necessary cooperation of parents and administrators, keep presenting the situated thing that is the traditional work and sacrifice of distance running, enough athletes will want it and find us.

Running often starts as the cliché-one foot in front of the other-and then, in some, grows more scientific and psychological, becomes more appropriately complex. And because this is likely to be the summer of emerging investments by some of my troops, I suspect a number of them will carefully close the back door on early July mornings so as not to wake others, take a deep breath and head out into a light mist.