Thoughts From Three: Summer’s Sweet Spot

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."

To participate in a sport, to study, and to train is to believe in something:"

                                                                   Coach Joe Vigil

Claire and Zoe, gabbing and giggling, stroll right past the pavilion where the rest of their teammates wait for our evening run along the Erie Canal. They have to be called back, and with sheepish smiles, squeeze in at one of the shelter's picnic tables, sign the attendance sheet, and keep right on gabbing. 

Summer has finally championed itself. Maples and rangy oaks lean over the algae-doted canal waters and admire their reflections. A breeze stirs the mugginess like a drink, but it's bearable now for the more comfortable late-day temperature. With everyone that is coming, I explain the tempo run and why it is right for this time of the season and for this particular moment. 

August is young. The dogdays still lay in wait ahead, but already it feels like we've enjoyed a long and abundant and communal summer. The runners are here again, just as they have been in June, through July and into the stuffy now of our third month. Most of them have already embraced the notion that evenings running together will not be subtracted from the rest of their lives. In fact, quite the opposite. And even as some other teams are just beginning preparations for the season ahead, I remind our gang of the thousands of miles already behind their collective selves. This crew has already memorized the mist of morning miles and the soft glow of evening fields and the sounds of familiar neighborhoods. Truth is, to believe that you reap what you sow is not implacably a curse. Sometimes, like a road curving up out of a dense evening wood, it emerges as a blessing. 

Coach and I set them off on an Amboy-and-back, not exactly the most lung-burning of workouts, more of an introduction. Their tempo run is the next velocity up from the summer mantra of relaxed, accumulated distance. The workout type will replace some of those general conditioning runs in the coming weeks. For a few of the runners, sensing the right pace based on inner cues instead of watches or heart-rate monitors will be tricky. But internal sensing is a necessary skill, worth the practice. I've told the story of a former runner and coach who could, with a node, dial the difference between a 7:30 and a 7:40 pace on nothing more than his finely tuned mental metronome. A few of our crew seemed intrigued by that arcane skill, maybe even a little impressed. 

The runners slip out of sight around a gentle canal curve, so Coach and I walk down the tow path a bit and set cones for strides and sprints after. We chat up some dog-walkers and the occasional familiar face we encounter. It's a busy place. The community makes good use of this visionary labor of love that Dr. and Mrs. Beebe have shepherded from a dilapidated canal waystation with weedy tow paths to an historic treasure of rustic buildings and finely crushed path stone. No fish are rising in the turgid canal, but two fly-fisherman practice on the warm waters as though imagining mountain streams of trout.  

In a little time, Aidan comes gliding back into view. The others are further off and arrive at intervals. I am, as always, intent on who finishes where--and with who--and how they appear. You can infer a lot with that little if you know the athletes and have been paying attention. Though small, this is a good bunch who have taken to the daily runs and the longer plans the miles assumes. What we've asked them to do seems to fit into their summers, and these evenings are not a chore. Their presence drives home the point. With a little effort and enough time, you can train for a team that wins. But it's a lot harder to dictate a team that works. There have been summers where we could not make running together work for prospective team members. The miles were impositions, not inspirations. We blamed ourselves, but sometimes it is simply that the horses led to water choose not to drink. Coach Aris was right. The workout planning, basically, is easy. Many seasons, though, you spend up to 80% of your hours on developing and supporting the mental aspects of being a runner.  And if that percent seems high, these are, after all, young adults moving in a lot of different directions, often chasing ghosts and rumors about how best to matter, how to amount to something. For young runners, making distance running matter can be a tricky and time-consuming business. This summer, though, has been different. 

While the runners finish, a couple walking their pooch stop to comment about our group that has passed them going and coming.  "Well, that first guy was already in front when they went by in the other direction," the man says, noting Aidan's pacing with nodding admiration. "And he was even further ahead when he came back. He was pretty intent." 

"Yes," I tell him. "He has definite goals for the season ahead."

Coach walks down, gathers the waiting group for strides and sprints at the start cone and sends them back my way at the other end. I check for basic foot speed, for running mechanics that might be amenable to corrective drills or strength-building in the mid-section. After finishing, they set off on their cool-down, jabbering and joking, the day's work almost over. 

For some reason, I recall a conversation with a former colleague of mine, one where he described the year his rectangle-sport team won the high school state championship. He described the preparation of early morning gym workouts before school, the endless regimented practices, the punishment runs, the rigid rules for dress and personal comportment. He remembered everything about that quest for scholastic excellence. "But," he said at the end, "I don't remember having any fun." 

As the runners gather gear before leaving, Janaya comes up and shows me a photo on her cell phone. It explains why the girls group was a little slow in returning from their cool down. "You have to send me that," I immediately tell her. Coach takes a peek and just smiles. 

We are not, in the end, not asking for too much, just the regular efforts that indicate the runners can hold themselves accountable to the best traditions of the sport, can demonstrate a purpose-and find satisfaction in doing so. 

"That was nice," Coach remarks as the runners recede down the driveway to the parking lot and their rides home. I know he's talking about more than just tempo times along the tow path. I know we are, by the calendar, only halfway through summer-and it's a long way to November. The runners don't know how they will fare on the racecourses this autumn, and neither do I. What Coach and I do know is that, should they keep this up, should they continue to, as Coach Vigil likes to say, "bring a good attitude," they won't have anything to regret or second-guess across their final finish lines. 

So this seems a good place to be right now, a sweet spot in the evolution of a season they believe in--and one that has already granted some significant rewards.