On Sunday, while my CSU teammates were slogging away at the Labor Day 15K in Burlington, I was in Concord. Mass., presiding over the first day of cross country practice at Concord Academy. In the morning, I felt guilty knowing that the heat and humidity probably made it a brutal day for racing, but by the end of the day I felt every bit as exhausted as if I had run a race.
Monday was the second day of practice, and we all melted in the heat. The plan was to head over to Battle Road to take advantage of the shade and the running surface.. But even there, the heat and humidity were oppressive. When we made it back to campus, everyone was a little catatonic.
The first few days of practice are always hard to get right. I probably spend more time thinking about and preparing for this weekend, than for any other day of the year. That’s because I want to strike the perfect balance between being “inspirational” — encouraging big dreams and possibilities — and creating a safe and non-intimidating atmosphere for the newbies who aren’t at all sure about this running stuff. It’s in the nature of the school and the program that we always have a wide range of abilities and levels of commitment. Figuring out how to address that diversity and build a coherent group begins on the first day, and depends on a hundred little details, including the words I choose.
Over the years I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it is about high school running that appeals to me so much. It has gradually dawned on me that I actually value this mix of abilities and experience. I don’t know what I would do if all my athletes were already “serious” committed runners, training all summer while fielding offers from college running programs. Honestly, I think it would be kind of boring. But the experience of seeing kids who never thought that they were athletes discover their inner Shalane Flanagan or Steve Prefontaine — that never gets old.
For me personally, the beginning of cross country also means the beginning of a marked shift in my regular work hours and sleep schedule. Because practice is in the afternoons and I need to get in eight hours of work before I head off to school, I find myself staggering into the office as early as 6:00 a.m.. At least the commute is easy at that hour.
One thing I’ve dreaded is that impact of coaching (and working) on my energy to write. Maybe you checked the blog on Labor Day and were disappointed not to see a post. Sorry about that, and sorry in advance for the days ahead when I recycle some old material or skip a day entirely.
If you happen to visit the blog on one of those days and see the same thing that you saw the last three times you checked in, think of me presiding over some crazy hill workout or driving a mini-bus full of kids to Battle Road or devising new barefoot drills to keep shin splints at bay or organizing food for a team pot luck or trying to tell ninth-graders that they’ll take 2-4 minutes off their 5k time by the end of the season… and think about how much material I’m gathering for future blog posts!