Thoughts From Three: Once More For the Rain

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."

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"A team is not a chance happening. It is a group of people in which the rhythms of teamwork are blended into the rhythms of life."

                                                                                                                                                                                                       Coach Joe Vigil


Phillip Levine described it as "the gray dishwater dawn," and that is what we have. Throw in rain, lots of rain, and my decision to move the workout from the maturing mud slicks of our home trails to the high school track makes more sense by the minute. We've at least whittled down some variables.

Nothing has changed by mid-afternoon except the accumulated rainwater. The runners shuffle out to the track, most hidden under foul-weather gear and, as Will Freeman instructs, "braced" for the intervals ahead. The day before was the last of a short "aerobic refresh" period following leagues, and when they returned from their sun and clouds run along the Erie Canal in T-shirts and shorts, I warned them that more than the weather was going to change. Now, it's an ideal day to layer challenge on challenge. Step-Up 400's are on the agenda, and huddled under the leaky stands for partial protection, I explain the minor tweaks that will keep the workout moving as efficiently as possible.

No one needs a refresher on the logistics of the cones. Starting at the furthest cone back from the finish line, they run a lap hard, step up ten meters to the next cone, another lap hard, another step-up and a third hard lap and the set is done. Today it's the usual four sets scaled back to three, our only major concession to the rain gods. Two quick laps, fence drills and hard striders back and forth on the puddled front straight-they are ready and group behind the first cone. Rain may blur the vision, but it hasn't washed away the memories. Will power applied to raw speed-endurance--that's the demand they remember. "I actually like step-up 400's," Peyton had claimed the previous day after I announced the plan. Now, at the start, she looks as sodden as the rest. We'll see.

The runners bend into the slight breeze that has risen along the backstretch. The rain riding that breeze slants to match them. Any gaps in the groups throughout the intervals contract as they quickly re-form in the short step-up zone, gulp a few breaths and go again. Before even starting, Tammi was wary of the work and the weather and whatever else--so we had to talk. Now, though, she's hammering. Peyton's doing O.K.-and maybe she's right. Peter wears his relaxed, poker face as he parts the weather bearing down on him. Everything's fine. They've settled into their paces and made peace with the weather, which is lousy and getting no better. The environmentalist, John Muir, reputably used to climb mountain trees in the throes of a Sierra Nevada storm simply because he wanted to experience the full force of the elements. He didn't shy from the extremes of weather; he reveled in them. There is no revelry here, but then again, no lack of dogged determination. I'm thinking of Freeman's idea about learning to be "comfortable being uncomfortable."

In the second set, yes, I'm barking a little, telling some that they can manage the efforts, which is just another way of suggesting they ignore those inner voices of trepidation or concern or even fear that are chorusing in the rain. For a short while we sense a slight cessation of the monsoon, but then, as though the clouds were merely drawing a breath, it pours again. My umbrella tilts not above my head but over the clipboard perched on the med kit by the finish line, a more valuable use of its function. "Wow, you gotta love this!" I shout as groups finish and walk around recovering from the second set. I get looks.

With no good reason to stand around drenched, they launch into the third set. They are digging down now. They know the only way out is through. Charge the interval. Heave a few wet breaths on the step up, go again, and again until it's the last one. Splashing through the track's film of draining water, they finish their third set and, group by group, congregate. I make an off-hand-though intended-remark about how inviting that temporary pool riming turn one is looking. Then I redirect them to their remaining tasks. They cheer in the last runners and call out time totals to Peter, who records them under the umbrella Mike holds over him. The rain pounds on Peter's shelter, and he tries not to rip the damp clipboard sheet with his pencil. Times registered, they all begin a short two lap clockwise jog. As foul-weather days go, this has been memorable. Heads are held a little higher than before, despite fatigue and soaked clothing.

In a workout under these circumstances, you are not looking for the times. You are looking for the moments. They may come at different points in the practice and in different guises, and their value usually will not be immediately apparent. Tammi had hers early on, solved it by pushing through doubts and then got to work. Max's came later when he fell off his group's pace but plowed on, refusing to give in or give up. And there were smiles in the rain after the last laps when they were most tired, signals, it seemed, that although the conditions may have been bad, they weren't bad enough to stop them. Books and articles about team 'buy in' flourish. They describe effective ways to create that necessary condition but are fuzzier on how to know when the job is done. When exactly does a group of individuals become a team? When does their immediate sense of themselves move from singular to plural? It's different every time a season begins. This year, mud and rain were important elements in that process.

Coach Vigil wrote: "When an athlete decides to become a part of a program, he/she is going to expend a lot of time and energy. These are valuable gifts, perhaps the most important an athlete has to offer at that point in their lives. The coach has a huge responsibility not to waste these gifts on improperly developed workouts that lead nowhere. If the athlete can understand the synchronizations of the training, the education and the fellowship he/she is involved in-if athletes can see how it will ultimately help them get to their goal-they have found the biggest motivation of all." And the daily reward.

At the end of the second cooldown lap, the runners find me directing them to stop along our temporary shallow pool. It's an easy task to synchronize a team jump. Then one of them remembers the remark. He rears back, accelerates off the track and goes in head first. Then another, and then another, feet first this time, sending up a wall of water. The rain continues to pound down. With each plunge, ohhhs and ahhhs and cheers rise up.