Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Movie Review: "McFarland, USA"

I was eagerly anticipating the movie McFarland, USA for months. As a high school cross-country coach, I was particularly interested in how this terrific sport would be portrayed in the film. As a Disney movie, you would probably expect that the emotion of the particular true-life situation would be well-covered, but who knows if they would get the running part right.

Overall, I think they did an excellent job. One thing I had to remind myself was that the story was from events in 1987, when I was not involved with high school running at all. My only year of high school cross country was in 1978, and I started coaching in 2010. Then again, people will see how the sport is portrayed and assume that the vibe is the same.

Here's what I saw that they got right:

Running cross country is hard. There are hills, rough trails, tough competition, and other challenges, so it takes a lot of hard work to succeed. The film showed the runners training very hard, and suffering in the races. The characters in the story succeeded partly because they already knew how to work hard, so all of that made sense.

They really do have a prison almost right next to the high school. I thought this might be an embellishment to make the story more dramatic, but a quick visit to McFarland via Google Earth confirms that the prison - with barbed-wire topped fences and all - is literally about a block away. I imagine that they probably do indeed run past the prison on some training runs.

They actually might use a pedestrian overcrossing of Highway 99 as a "hill." In the movie, McFarland hosts a meet, and the course traverses the freeway using a pedestrian overcrossing - the one hill on the otherwise flat terrain. Sure enough, there is one of these right near the school. If I were laying out a course for a cross country race in the neighborhoods near the school, I would likely use this feature. In fact, the "hills" we have the kids train on where I coach in Alameda, CA are bridges that link the main island with the peninsula part of the city, which rise a whopping 10 feet at most.

The portrayal of the Latino families as being friendly and family- and communty-oriented people is 100% consistent with what I know of this community. My dad spent his tween and teen years in the Central Valley as a migrant farm worker and had many friends whose families originally came from Mexico. His stories of these families is just like in the movie. Also, the families in the film were not recent immigrants, which I also understand is consistent with reality. This, of course, led to some funny moments when Kevin Costner's character didn't know that some of the people spoke English as well as he did.

But what did they get "wrong," if anything?

For one thing, they show one of McFarland's chief rivals as Palo Alto High School. This just isn't true, as Paly High is about 4-5 hours from McFarland - there's no way they would have been a frequent rival. I don't see any scenario that they'd be facing one another in a meet of the size they showed in the movie (maybe in a huge invitational or in the State Meet). I guess they needed to have a school with wealthy families, and people have heard Palo Alto fits that bill, but they could just as easily have made up a "rich" school for McFarland to run against.

The borderline trash-talking between the runners is something I have never seen. The runners I see either ignore the others (because they're busy talking with their own teammates) or happily chat with them. Actual current high school runners routinely congratulate each other without being prompted to do so.

Same with the coaches making snide remarks to the Kevin Costner character - none of the dozens of coaches I know would even think of doing that. In fact, one of the reasons I enjoy coaching high school cross country is that the coaching community is so friendly. It's quite common for experienced coaches to volunteer training advice to newer coaches so they can help their kids more.

The 1987 State Meet was held at the site where they currently hold it, Woodward Park in Fresno. It would have been pretty cool to actually film the movie there - I guess it was probably more expensive than just finding a park near Hollywood.

The film made it look like McFarland was the top team in the state in 1987. I don't know the exact times they ran, but they were actually the top team in the small school division that year. Typically (although not always), schools from the larger school divisions are stronger than those from the smaller ones.

One other thing was that the film made it appear that McFarland only had a boys team, but over the years, they have not only had girls teams, but actually had several girls teams that finished in the top 10 in the state. Cross country meets always have both boys and girls present (they don't compete at separate venues, like in, say, basketball), so it looked a little weird to me to see only boys running around.

Overall, though, this is a film that every cross country runner or potential future cross country runner should see. The cast is outstanding, especially some of the minor characters like the school principal (Valente Rodriguez) and SeƱora Diaz (Diana Maria Riva). Kevin Costner (as Coach Jim White) does a good job at not screwing up the movie - I'm not always a fan of his, but I think he does quite well in this role. The food shown in the movie... well, let's just say I left the theater drooling. I will definitely be buying the DVD when it comes out so I can share this movie with all of the high schoolers I coach in the future.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Winning Formula for the 800

Over many years of racing and studying others racing the 800m, I have figured out a formula that works great for succeeding at this distance. It's mostly a mental approach because the physical part of running for around 2-3 minutes is not that complicated.

Here's the main problem (which is also applicable to other distances, but to a lesser degree):

You don't believe you can finish strongly if you run hard in the middle.

First of all, let's backtrack to the beginning of the race. Everyone has about 7 seconds worth of energy to expend in a hard (almost sprinting) effort that won't hurt the remainder of your race, whether it's the 800, 1600, 5000, etc. So I tell my runners to go out hard for 5 seconds - not going for the full 7 seconds provides a little safety factor, both physically and mentally. But at the end of that 5 seconds, you MUST dial back the effort. The key to doing this is to make sure you are not "racing" the other runners. You should still be running somewhat briskly, but you shouldn't really be pushing the pace. Other runners may pull ahead of you here.

Before you know it, you'll get to the 200m mark, and you should be hitting this at about your goal time divided by 4. I think of the entire first 200 meters as a part of the race to largely ignore, in that - as long as you run that first 5 seconds hard - it will pretty much take care of itself. You will quite likely complete that first half lap just how you want to.

The next segment is very short: simply the 100m of the second turn. It's the only part of the race that you should look ahead to what is coming up. As for any turn, you should shorten up your stride, and don't worry if you slow down a bit because it's only 1/8 of the race.

The most important part of the race is the next 300m, which I call "The Middle 300." Starting on the home stretch (with 500m to go), work as hard as you can. The key to this 300m segment is that you get two straights and only one curve, so it's a part of the race that you should be able to run fast. Many other runners will slow down here because they are thinking ahead to the final 200, believing they need to "save something" in order to have a good sprint at the end. But you don't have to do that because you WILL have a good sprint at the end; everyone can sprint at the end.

During this 300m segment, you must have the mindset that you don't care how you will feel in the future (specifically, with 200m to go). The reason you can do this is that everyone will feel very, very fatigued during the final 25% of this race. So you can either be the same as everyone else in terms of where you are time-wise and fatigue-wise or you can be several seconds ahead of them and feeling the same level of fatigue. If you need a goal to get you through this part of the race, try to beat other runners to the beginning of each curve. This is actually an important tactic because you don't want to have to swing wide on a curve to pass a runner that you are overtaking.

The final 200 doesn't take any special approach - just run as fast as you can. Don't slow down on the curve, but try to speed up by increasing your turnover rate. Once you hit the straight, run like a sprinter with the best form you can muster.

One final key point is to be sure to give maximum effort all the way across the finish line. The 800 and 400 are races in which runners can almost literally become paralyzed within a very short distance of the finish line. I have seen 30m leads disintegrate within 50 meters because the leader "locks up" and almost can't move.

Will you get passed in the final 50 meters? It is possible, and if it happens, you can rest assured that the person who passes you should have been even further in front of you than they were had they run more efficiently. That is, it isn't a case of you not running well, but rather a case of a runner who is markedly better than you who just underperformed.

Good luck!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Running the Mile - OK, the "1600"

This week, our team has its third invitational of the track season. Only about half of the team ran in the first two because many runners had only been running for a couple of weeks. But this week, almost everyone will be running.

The newest runners on the team are, of course, just learning how to run the 1600 properly. Indeed, running this distance is a skill that has to be practiced in order to succeed. I put together a list of tips for those of you who are new to this race.

1. The Start. 
At the beginning of every race, your body has about 5 seconds worth of the kind of "fuel" that powers intense running, like sprinting. That fuel source is not available after the first 5 seconds of the race, even if you don't start fast, so you might as well use it. So start quickly, but only for about 4-5 seconds. After that, settle into your race pace.

2. The First Lap. 
Let the other runners go. Unless you're a freak of nature, you probably will be running with other inexperienced runners, and almost everyone runs way too fast for the first lap, then dies later on. One of the hardest things to do as a runner is to trust that you will catch up to other runners later, but it WILL happen if you run the correct pace on your first lap. Because of the adrenaline surge you'll get from the excitement of the beginning of the race, you will NOT run the first lap too slowly. It just won't happen. But if you run this lap correctly, you actually come through in a time a little faster than your desired average pace. Here's why:

Let's say your plan is to run 6:00 - that's an average of 90 seconds per lap. If you run the first 5 seconds "fast," you will cover about 30 meters. Let's say you then settle into a slower pace and actually complete the first lap in 90 seconds. Perfect, right? Well, not really. If you do the math, you'll realize that you are now running at a pace of 92 seconds per lap (because part of the lap was run at a faster pace). So you actually would want to finish the first lap about 1-2 seconds faster than your desired average pace, so in 88 or 89 seconds. Now, if you did that, you will start your second lap actually running at 90-second pace.

3. The Second Lap. 
As long as you ran the first lap correctly, you should be able to maintain your pace on the second lap. However, you will probably have to consciously work in order to do it, as opposed to the first lap, which should have felt easy.

4. The Third Lap. 
This is the hardest lap of the "mile" because you're tired, and you're thinking about how much farther you still have to go. Almost everyone slows down on this lap, and your goal is to minimize that slowing. So when you get to the back straight, focus on trying to speed up and catch other runners. Try to beat one or more runners to the beginning of the curve (since it's harder to pass on a curve - you don't want to get stuck behind someone who is slowing down). You may still be slowing down slightly, but if you ran the first two laps correctly, you will be slowing down less than others, so you'll overtake them. Also, most newer runners have a mindset that they'll run a little easier on the third lap, thinking that they should "save" something for the final lap. Don't do that. If you try to catch and pass people instead, you will probably only slow down by a second or two, hitting a 91 or 92, leaving you right on 90-second pace.

5. The Fourth Lap. 
This is when you simply run as hard as you can manage. Actually, I recommend starting your "kick" on the home straight before you begin the fourth lap. You don't want to get stuck behind other runners on the first curve of the final lap, so try to race people to the curve. If you follow this plan, you will certainly not run slower than 6:00, and will likely beat that by a couple of seconds as your adrenaline kicks in as you sprint for the finish line.

That's it - congrats!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Get that "Killer Instinct"

Before I go any further, let's be sure to understand that the phrase "killer instinct" in this context has nothing to do with harming anyone. I have often written about how great the sportsmanship is in the sport of cross-country, so we're not talking about anything that would hurt someone else.

What I do want to tell you about is a heightened level of mental intensity while competing, and even while training. When I was in college, there was a woman in my dorm who was the top badminton player in the country. She went on to compete in two Olympic Games. She taught several of us in the dorm how to play, and was laid-back, patient, and fun when teaching us. There were a few times when she and I played as a mixed doubles team in pick-up games.

This is where it got a little scary.

My friend became the Godzilla of the badminton court. She was 100% respectful and sportsmanlike in her words and actions, but there was a whole other level of intensity that was way beyond anyone I had ever played with in any sport. Way beyond. Did I say "way"?

When I reflected on this, both immediately after and years after, I realized that this is a characteristic of many successful athletes. They probably have physical skills that are somewhat greater than the rest of us, but not that much greater. The difference, though, is the level of mental strength and focus. These athletes feel an intensity so great that they will expend effort beyond what other people will do to succeed, both in training and in competition. The best ones are also "intense" about knowing when to back off to avoid injury, by the way - yes, it's possible to rest with intensity.

This is what I call the "killer instinct." It's analogous to a lion who is really, really hungry for that gazelle, and will expend enormous effort to chase it down. In cross-country, there are many times when there are just a couple more runners within catching distance, and if a runner can just give a little more effort, they can catch them and shave a couple more points off of their team score. Most runners will try to catch them; only a few runners will have that "killer instinct" to go beyond what they think is a maximum effort and actually catch them.

As most leagues around the country are winding down toward league and regional championships, it's time to bring out that killer instinct. For some people, it comes naturally; for others, it can be learned. Yes, have fun, enjoy being around your teammates and competitors, but when you head to the starting line, let's see that lion's gaze, searching for that gazelle.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Book Review: Cross Country 101 by Dan Martinez

One thing that I don't cover too often on this blog - OK, never, actually - is reading. Well, I just finished reading Cross Country 101 by Dan Martinez, which is a novel set at a Southern California high school. Why am I telling you this? Because the story centers around a high school freshman who joins the cross-country team. The target audience seems to be pretty much the same as this blog, which is, more or less, 7th-10th graders.

I really enjoyed the book. At first, I was suspicious that it was going to be an overly corny kid-with-football-dad-gets-bullied-but-succeeds-in-XC type of book. While it's true that that pretty much sums up the basic storyline, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't overly corny - indeed, it wasn't corny at all. Despite an intended audience much younger than I, I found myself entirely engaged with the story, and even rooting strongly for Eric, the protagonist. As I got deeper into the book, I found myself reading faster and faster, as if I were training and racing with Eric, and it was harder and harder to put it down each day.

I found some parts of the story foreign because I neither experienced nor observed any kind of bullying when I was in high school. I also never found that upperclassmen were mean or even unkind to the freshmen. This is also the case at the high school where I coach now - the coaching staff is constantly on the lookout for bullying and even guys or girls being less than nice toward each other. We're lucky we don't seem to have these problems. The parents I know are all very supportive of their sons and daughters running cross-country, too. In the book, Mr. Martinez handles it all very well, and it's great to see the team come together, as well as Eric's father get on board with seeing cross-country as a "real" sport.

Finally, if you have ever run at the State Meet course at Woodward Park in Fresno/Clovis, you will appreciate Mr. Martinez's accurate depiction of it in the book. I have never been to Mt. SAC, but he clearly knows what he's writing about for that course, too. Being able to visualize parts of these actual courses as Eric and the rest of the team race there is great fun and helps to draw you into the story.

Finally, I definitely finished the book hungry for more stories about Eric - what happens in his sophomore year? Junior year? Senior? Does he get recruited and run in college? This is a character that I found I really cared about, and I think you will enjoy reading Cross Country 101 as well.

Available on Amazon: Click Here

Dan Martinez's web site: Click Here

Monday, October 22, 2012

Rain Gear for Running

OK, I know many of you live where the weather has already gotten cold and wet. Where I live (and run and coach), however, it was over 80° for two of our workouts last week! Today is a different story - the first rain of our rainy season is here, and it is likely to rain for at least part of our workout today and maybe even tomorrow. So here is a recap of appropriate clothing for running in the rain.

After the Run
That's right. What you have to put on after your run is way more important than what you wear while running. That's because you will generate heat while you run, so you aren't going to get too cold during the run itself. But if you're wet from the rain, you will get cold very quickly once you finish. Always have a pair of sweatpants to put on, as well as a dry shirt and a sweatshirt, and maybe even a hat. If you know you'll be getting out of the rain before too long, then those items don't have to be waterproof (or -resistant), just dry. A good way to keep your clothes dry (if you're going to stash them somewhere outdoors while you run) is to put them in a plastic bag. Even a basic plastic bag from a shopping trip will work. A large zip-loc bag is best, but probably not necessary.

During the Run
Like I wrote above, you probably won't get too cold during a run in the rain. The joke I always tell our runners is, "If you start getting cold, run faster!" They laugh nervously, then speed up. Seriously, though, it is good to wear a shirt made of man-made fabric. You can get a fancy "technical fabric" shirt, or even a cheap polyester-based shirt - I've seen these for as little as $5-10. The advantage of these artificial fabric shirts is that they hold less water than cotton, so will keep you a little warmer. The other advantage, primarily for boys, is that they will cause less nipple-chafing than a cotton shirt. This is generally less of an issue for girls because sports bras fit relatively tightly, so minimize the friction between fabric and skin. But nipple-chafing is a painful issue for boys, so try to avoid it with this kind of fabric (although you can also put a little vaseline or even regular lip balm on them to help, too).

The other accessories I will wear in the rain are a hat and gloves. I wear a hat anyway to keep the sun off of my face, but in the rain, it can keep the rain off of it. Rain won't harm your face like the sun will, but it can be annoying. For gloves, I usually just wear a simple pair of lightweight cotton or polyester gloves - it seems I only need a little extra warmth, so even when cotton gloves get wet, my fingers don't get too cold.

What about something warm for your legs? Unless it's very cold - say down around 50° or colder - I find that I don't really need to wear running tights. It seems to be just fine to have dry sweats to put on afterward. But if your legs get cold, some lightweight running tights can do the job. People living in colder climates might need more than one pair to cover more variation in temperatures.

The Next Day
Whenever you get home, you need to start thinking about tomorrow right away. Why? Because it might rain again tomorrow! Unless you have two (or more) of everything, you need to get it all dried out for the next day. The good thing is that all this man-made fabric I've been writing about dries pretty fast (but may not be appropriate for your clothes drier). Unless your stuff got really muddy or sweaty, you can probably just hang up your shirt, gloves, hat, and tights (if you wore them), and they'll be dry by morning. Just be sure to wring out any excess water first.

To dry your shoes, take out the insole, then stuff them with newspaper. Before you go to bed, pull that newspaper out. If the shoes are still wet, stuff some fresh newspaper in them, and they should be dry by morning.

That's it - you're ready to run in the rain! If you have other tips, post them in the comments!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Research The Course

Last year, I wrote a post about the importance of knowing a course so that you don't miss a turn and go the wrong way. Another important reason for knowing a course is so that you do not encounter unexpected features that freak you out.

This week, the team I coach will be running a course with hills. The last thing you want to do is to start a race, run along smoothly, feeling great and then: OMG! Where did that hill come from?!!

Hills are no different than any other feature that might be on any given course, in that there are certain techniques to run them. If you know you have one or more hills in a course and if you know more or less where they are, you can plan ahead.

So, to continue the example I started above, the course that the frosh-soph and junior varsity divisions will be running this week starts out mostly flat for about a half mile. At that point, there is a fairly steep hill that goes for about a quarter mile. After reaching the top of the climb, the course heads out onto a loop that goes around the tops of the adjacent hills - the loop is about a half mile. During the second half of that loop, there are a few small, rolling hills. Then, you find yourself back at the top of the quarter-mile hill. Down you go, back to the path that you started on, and then you mostly retrace your steps to the finish line.

Since you know that there's a steep-ish hill at the half-mile point, it would be wise to not kill yourself in that first half mile. Then, knowing that there aren't any significant uphills after that point, you can pretty much run as hard as you can on the loop part and then all the way back to the finish.

I was able to race on this course a couple of years ago, and it was fun because, even though it is a difficult course, I knew what the terrain was like, so I was able to plan how to run it. Different runners may want to approach the same course in different ways, and I always encourage runners to make a plan of some sort and try to follow it. After the race, it is always important to assess how you did. Did you execute your plan? What parts worked? What didn't work? Was there a part of your plan that you did particularly well or poorly? Is there some other way you could have run it that would have resulted in a better place?

If you have had experiences where you have either had a plan and it worked or didn't work, or if you didn't research a course and had a bad experience because of that, please share in the comments.