Thoughts From Three: A Few Prior Considerations

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. Coach Vermeulen is also the recent author of The Middle Distances-Running Seasons and the Wildcats of West Genesee High School. 

Up from Section 3, we present you with "Thoughts From Three."

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" grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us."

Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

The interviewers at our pre-season Cross-Country media day had their questions for the athletes and coaches, and we supposedly had the answers that readers would find illuminating or, at the very least, interesting. Who is the hardest worker on your team, my young journalist wanted to know. I told him a lot of my runners are really hard workers. So he tried another. Who on your team, he wondered, is most likely to stop and help a fallen opponent? I told him there were probably 10 or 12 of them. It went on like that, and when the coaches' responses to those questions were later published, mine were not among them.

That doesn't matter much. As James Galvin wrote of a non-denominational pastor offering a sparse elegy at the burial service of someone he only knew through the published obituary, "the guy was just doing his job." I was just trying to do mine, which was to avoid sorting out 'the best' team members at working hard or at helping and instead appreciating that we have a lot of team members in those categories, and we gain little-or nothing--by ranking them.

Our Cross-Country season is officially on. The summer that's behind us now, those hot months which the runners worked hard at making a season unto itself, did, in fact, become a season unto itself. That was the hope all along. In mid-June, the girls' runners were assigned miles they could safely accumulate, and though those kinds targets are often only aspirational in a coach's mind, as a team they wound up running 96.2% of them. Team Runs twice weekly gave our summer crews the chance to share the higher velocity work necessary for better workouts in September. And we had more runners attending team runs than any of the past 7-8 years. It was, after all, the summer of smoke, with Canadian wildfires cancelling two of our runs. A lot of the others, though, were mint summer evenings of warm weather and fleecy cumulous clouds. No race pressures or time-limited seasonal goals, just the opportunity to become--and be-runners together. I only hope our 'fourth season' will, years later and in odd moments, be recalled by team members with quiet satisfaction.

But we're at it now. For many, it's on to what holds them back. Discussions about training come with practiced ease. There is scientific data and trusted anecdotal evidence to back up all those talks. They are easy. You just have to identify--and avoid trumpeting--the fads, the unproven gimmicks, the half-baked methodologies that won't stand the test of time. We've spent more of our time, though, exploring the mental side of training and racing. The runners are already getting a little tired of me going on about that, but resistance sometimes comes because 'going inside' for racing improvements is often more threatening to runners than just mindlessly nailing hill repeats. Some simply want to insist their brain sends all the right signals at the two mile mark of a hard 5k. Others, however, have noted the benefits of what Magness describes as "making space" when under stress to allow for measured reactions to fatigue. Responding rather than merely reacting. Less freaking out and dropping back. Some runners have even grown to like the 'mental mapping' I am asking them to learn as part of analyzing their own reactions to a race or a particularly tough practice-just so they understand what they were actually thinking in real time.

The reason for the harping is basic-runners should be able to identify what it is they want as a runner and then match that against what they demand of themselves when the going gets tough. Mismatches are what we try to spot. Runners who have the desire but have not yet perfected the means-those runners need the tools and the techniques and the safety of supportive teammates to solve their deficits. Sometimes, those with mismatches resist. American psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote of two kinds of human motivations. Deficiency motivation concerns itself with people gravitating toward what is missing in their life, whether self-esteem, competence, courage, love or other fundamental and daily aspects of being human. Growth motivation, on the other hand, is kind of a liberation, where those fundamental needs(include food, shelter and safety) are met and 'higher' needs can be pursued. Maslow might even argue that only growth-motivated people(runners in our case) are willing to take a shot, to risk something, in order to get better or learn something new about themselves. The deficiency motivated runner, on the other hand, is more often playing defense, readily providing reasons for why something can't change-more often than not because they are afraid to try. When the commitment experts talk about "resistant" athletes, these are the fearful folks they are usually describing. And fear emerges as all sorts of different behaviors.

Mastering the mental landscapes of wary young runners is how invested coaches really earn their pay checks, but those special cases should not overshadow others who are simply, day by day, giving it their best. Cross-Country done right is never easy, but it is always something ready to grant rewards. "Nothing to make you happy like doing good on a tough job," said Maime Trotter. I am expecting a lot of that this Fall, and one of my jobs will be to occasionally remind the runners to appreciate the risks they agree to take. Though it's a lot to ask of in-the-moment teenagers, they sometimes should just step back and take a moment to admire themselves. Not in the shallow Instagram way of prolonged selfies and theatrical staged events, but to actually appreciate how successful they often are at "doing hard things."

It was valiant efforts by the runners at a recent early morning threshold run along our Erie Canal tow paths. By the finish, the heat had soared. It was a hot one, and if we had not gone early, the runners would have accomplished little, if anything at all. After they'd left, I was loading the car as an older gentleman ambled by. He returned my hello, to which I added a comment on the heat. That stopped him, and we wound up having a 5-10 minute conversation about the weather, about how much great work Dr. Beebe had done restoring Sims Store and developing the tow path along the canal. He mentioned his son who had died tragically at the early age of 37, but I did not pry. The gentleman said how much he loved walking the canal, how it "gave him peace." I mentioned my own retirement from teaching and the enjoyment of continued coaching. "Good for you," he said before walking off. "Keep doing what you love."

That's the plan. I, of course, have already had the luxury of many new seasons. The team walking into practices every afternoon this late summer and Fall, however, will never appear again exactly the same in any other seasons. For our unique mix of teammates, this is it. Their one-time opportunity is the real drama. Nobody knows what will come of it. The story of their season will be written once, so we are obliged to make it the best story possible.