Short Strides and Odd Thoughts: Traditions

 by Mike Smith


As I was prepping for this week before the divisional championships, I was reminded that the final weeks of the season are as much about tradition as it is about the final taper. For the past ten years we’ve gone into the last two weeks of the season with only the JV championship and divisionals on the schedules. Some teams look to get that one last big race in, to help unveil the potential those athletes possess before the big day, but we do it different.

We use the last two weeks to focus on the difference between where we are now, and where we started. Not only are we putting the final touches on the season, trying to make sure we’re in both the best physical but also mental state, a portion of this is to make everything automatic. To become autopilot and familiar. And with that comes some of our usual workouts, but also some of our end of the year traditions. That familiarity of conditions helps squelch the nerves and prep the mind and body for what’s to come.

In the last couple weeks we revisit workouts we’ve done before, either making them more challenging by adding more reps or simply reducing the recovery between the reps. Doing more at goal pace shows the athlete the value in their training and that what we do works. It validates the work they’ve done and how much they have progressed over the season. But it’s really the final week that tends to bring everything into perspective.

We start championship week off with the River Road mile. I began running this workout to show the athletes the fitness they’ve accumulated over the season and how that translates to the cross country course. If you can rip a solid road mile without going to the well, it shows that you are fit AND you can run pretty darn fast. The first time I instituted the workout, I had a female athlete I had trained for 21 minute pace but all of her races had been in the high 22s thus far. I was convinced she was trained, however I don’t think she was. With a PR in hand after the RRM, she ripped a 21:32 at Derryfield for 10 place. We’ve been doing this ever since.

This year, while the top end numbers might not be so good, the team averages are as good and with the girls, slightly better than we’ve ever seen. Three under six minutes, eight under 6:20, and everyone in under 7. For the boys we have five under 5:30. And this with the specific stipulation that it must be “by feel” and “under control.” In the past we’ve had people trying to kill it and I’m not sure that’s where we should be at for this workout.

Today’s activity has become a tradition since the Derrryfield School has offered pumpkins as the trophy for the Cougar Classic. I can’t be sure of this but it’s possible that since they have we’ve brought home at least one cucurbit every year. Kind of unwitting one exactly what to do with a pumpkin as they are a prize with an expiration date, we’ve chosen to uniquely dispose of the said cucurbit in the “Viking” way by giving it a proper and ceremonial burial which tends to include it being hucked off somewhere with some altitude and watch it explode into a million pieces. I hope Derryfield doesn’t read this and think we’re not appreciative of the gift, but rather the opposite. The kids look forward to this day probably more than race day itself, and it acts as a built in team building activity.

Tomorrow is our last set of 300s, this year to be run on the cross country course as there is a playoff soccer game happening inside the track. While not one of our harder workouts, the goal is simply to set race pace in the legs, in part to continue to show ourselves the progress we’ve made. We’ve done this workout two other times, kept the results of those stored on each athletes individual index card, and they’ll be able to compare both the times and the effort to what they’ve done previously.

But the day doesn’t end there. At six pm the kids arrive at my house for a pasta dinner we’ve been doing since the early 2000’s. Over time it’s evolved to include senior speeches, centered around what cross country and being a part of this team has meant to the individual athlete. Some of these speeches are heartfelt, some are funny, some are hilarious and somewhat inappropriate (much like a long run can be) and some are simply ingenious. (One time we had an athlete purchase the kids book “Everybody poops” a bathroom training book, and replaced poop with run.) There will be laughs, some crying, some admissions of both guilt and faith, and an overwhelming sense that the past eleven weeks have been absolutely worth it. And the evening will end with parent and athlete-made desserts and the last real direct discussion about the task ahead of us on Saturday.

Thursday and Friday will be our long run day and our race prep day (the long run being cut to 50 minutes) and will be pretty much automatic pilot. As coaches we will be there to give feedback and answer questions, but our main job will be of support, direction, assurance, and to remind them 50 million times what time the bus leaves and to make sure to pack their stuff early.

And then it’s Saturday. My day starts early, arriving at Manchester around 5:30am in the dark to set up our team area. Then at 6:30 it’s setting up the finishing signage and helping prep the course (primarily the last 300 meters off the finishing area, and then get ready to commentate the Division 2 meet. The troop will arrive around 11:30, and then it’s just getting and keeping the troops amped but not over amped for what is about to come.

These are the last week traditions that have developed over the last 23 years here at Mascenic. In the past, this last week has been full of excitement, anxiety, trepidation, and lots of nerves, but more recently I’ve learned, and I try to reinforce to the athletes, is the great opportunity before them and the knowledge that regardless of outcome, tomorrow will come and things will be alright. The success has already happened.

Good luck to everyone this weekend and get after it!

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