Anyone that has spent time around a collegiate cross country team during the months of August-November knows that there are rhythms involved with the way in which a fall schedule unfolds. While these patterns can lend a degree of predictability to the direction of any given season, there are also many reasons that we run races instead of handing out championship hardware based on how things shape up on paper.
Regardless of how they are structured, the summer months of July and August represent the ‘first half’ of the season, during which time runners in our program lay down a large aerobic base, begin some strength-related workouts, pepper some strides into the mix and generally spend time logging miles and time on their feet in preparation for the season ahead. Over the past few years, more and more Aggies have made the commitment to spend their summers in Davis, where they can train with teammates instead of running on their own while waiting for the season to arrive.
Here at UC Davis, we refer to the period of time from report date (somewhere around August 20th) to the start of class (somewhere around September 22th) as the Running Honeymoon. Following the academic quarter system means that we enjoy over a month of training together as a team before anyone has to enter a classroom or open a book. This stretch of time, when we form the team dynamic, go to team camp on the West Marin coast, and get early season races out of the way, helps sets the tone for the remainder of the fall and allows us to put a lot of important components of the team together without worrying about the student half of the student-athlete label.
When the Running Honeymoon draws to a close and our days become filled with class, labs, group study, loud dorm mates upstairs, and all the other distractions that can detract from the runner’s lifestyle, we try to shift gears and focus on what I like to term the ‘racing season.’ This past Saturday collegiate teams got their first opportunity to begin playing the points game in an effort to win the lottery at season’s end and receive a berth for the NCAA Championship Meet in November. The Aggies stayed close to home last weekend, racing at the Stanford Invite and using the day as a means of assessing our fitness and racing tactics while also previewing the course that will be used for the West Regional meet this fall. It can be hard to resist the compulsion to chase points at any of the numerous inter-regional meets on any given weekend, and we will do so in mid-October at Pre-Nationals, but it’s also easy to lose sight of the reason behind why races are run when we become too focused on other teams’ performances and lose sight of the need to control our own races and destiny, accenting areas of strength and addressing those areas that need further emphasis.
When all was said and done, the Stanford meet yielded close to the results that we were expecting in both the men’s and women’s races, although we didn’t quite take the scripted routes to those outcomes in either case. The next two and half weeks will be spent going ‘back to the lab’ with both teams so that we can prep for our next two races of emphasis, the Santa Clara Bronco Invite and Pre-Nats. Much of the day at the Stanford Invite also features a full menu of HS races. As a former HS coach and current recruiter of HS talent, I would like to think that I will never tire of watching young runners compete in the formative stages of their careers. Aside from a few, elite programs, many of those HS athletes and coaches also remain free from having to worry about the need to amass regional or national points, although the recent trend surrounding the Nike Cross Nationals meet has begun to change the HS racing season somewhat. The HS races offer the full, and somewhat refreshing, gamut of competition levels, from future collegians to those that can barely cover 5000m while wearing heavy training shoes instead of competition flats.
Some of the elements of the racing season are universal and unchanged across ages and levels: the angst of making the travel squad (or at my age gaming up and entering a race); the potentially paralyzing power of the unknown that characterizes the minutes before every race; the release of the gun; doubts about whether you can hold pace and finish; and the relief and affirmation that accompany the reality of crossing the line and realizing that every second of racing was worth the experience.
It’s been a long time since I toed the line, and I have become very good at using the excuse of too much coaching to justify that fact. Just the same, I still get workouts in and advocate that every coach remain in touch with the competitive mindset that we so reflexively demand of our athletes. At some point soon I will have to put a race on my schedule, pull on a singlet and actually accept the objective reality that it yields. Until then, I’ll have to live the vicarious thrill of the collegiate racing season in which we are currently entrenched.