Friday, August 17, 2012

Your First Race!

Your first race is probably coming up in about a month. Yikes! What will it be like? How do I warm up? When is my race?

If you are new to cross-country, you will have many questions like these. Your first race might be just a small gathering against a few other schools, or it could be a huge invitational. Let's review the different kinds of races you will probably run.

Dual or 3-Way Meet
This kind of meet is simply a race against one or two other schools. There won't be many runners, and the timing and scoring is likely to be done by hand. Announcements will be made informally, with one of the coaches simply shouting something like, "OK, varsity girls, your race starts in 10 minutes!" Once everyone gets to the starting line, one of the coaches, who will act as the starter, may give some basic instructions, like an overview of the course or a reminder not to cut in front of another runner. Then he or she will step out of the way, and say something like "Runners to your mark; GO!" Off you'll go. When you finish, the coaches who act as scoring officials will have some way to record your place and time. The old school way is to have the runners stay in a line in the order they finish, and hand each runner a popsicle stick with the number of their finishing place on it. You will take the stick to a scoring table where someone will record your name, school, and place. Once everyone finishes, they will tally up which team won the race.

Center Meet or League Meet
This meet is similar to a dual meet, but involves more schools. With more schools, there will be more runners and they may split into more divisions (e.g., separate freshmen and sophomore races instead of a frosh-soph combined race). The starts may be a little more formal, but will still probably be done simply by a coach from one of the participating schools. The scoring logistics could be the old school method described above, or it could be a little more formal, like using bib numbers with tear-off tags.

These are big, sometimes huge, events with dozens of schools competing. The atmosphere is usually more formal (and exciting!), with announcements made by experienced race announcers over loudspeakers, perhaps more than one race for each division, and more formal scoring and timing (often using electronic timing chips).

Runners often feel differently about these different types of meets. Some runners like the smaller meets because they're more down-to-earth, but some don't like these because they might feel they are obligated to perform better, maybe even win. These latter runners may like the bigger meets better because there might be less pressure to win, given the tougher competition. Some runners don't like the biggest races because they worry about getting trampled.

Warming up should be easy - your coach will tell you what to do, but it will probably be about the same as what you do to warm up before every workout.

How to Race
I will write more about specifics of racing through the season, but your best approach is to listen to your coach. He or she will probably have some specific recommendations for specific races. Often, early season races, especially smaller ones, allow opportunities for runners to try different approaches like starting out faster or slower than you would otherwise.

"When is My Race?"
This is something that, as a coach, I hear more often than anything else. My usual answer is, "I have no idea." That usually isn't completely true, but the reason for it is that meets usually have an order of races, but not specific starting times. Each race starts a few minutes after the previous one ends. Because you never know when any given race will be complete (i.e., when the last runner will finish), you don't know when the next one will start. There can also be technical glitches that slow things down. The best solution is to listen when your coach tells you the order of races, then keep track of where the meet is, how long each race is taking, etc. After a few meets, you'll get the hang of how they go.

Watching the Action
One of the best things about races is that you will have a chance to watch your teammates and other runners race. Besides the fact that cheering for others is fun, you can learn a lot about racing by watching others. Where do various runners position themselves in the pack, and how does that work out for them? When are the most successful runners speeding up on a specific course? When does everyone start their sprint for the finish?

Let the season begin!!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Don't Step on the Banana Slugs!

Many high school cross-country programs offer a "running camp" during the summer. Last month, I helped take 28 student-athletes to a camp. It was a fantastic experience for everyone!

There were several purposes of the camp. The obvious one was to be able to get some focused training time, away from whatever obligations everyone has at home. Another major purpose was team bonding, which is more than just getting to know each other better. Other purposes included learning about our upcoming season and mental training techniques such as visualization. The camp was open to anyone, whether they were on the team or not.

We left town on a Sunday morning for the 1½-hour drive to the camp. The camp was located in a spectacularly beautiful part of the San Francisco Bay Area between Palo Alto and the Pacific Ocean. There was no cell phone service in the area of the camp. No one seemed to mind.

Camp "Wildlife"
What did we do at the camp? Our typical schedule was to wake up at 6 AM and go running at 6:30. What?! 6 AM?! Yes, that's pretty early for teenagers to get up during the summer, but you know what? There wasn't a single time in the five days we were there when we had to drag someone out of bed who had overslept. Everyone was very motivated to get up and run. Why? The early morning runs were some of the best times of the camp. The forest was just waking up, the fog was collecting in the redwood trees and dripping down onto the ground, and - best of all - the early morning was the best time of the day to find banana slugs!

After breakfast, there was some free time, and then we had a meeting at 10. We did several different things at these meetings. For one of them, I walked everyone through a simple visualization exercise. I wrote about visualization in another post last season, and this was a chance for everyone to try it in real time.

Once the meeting was over, there was some more free time before lunch. After lunch, everyone tried to digest their food quickly because the main workout of the day was at 2:30. At this workout, the most advanced runners would run all the way to the end of the trail that we ran on - the round-trip distance was ten miles! The less advanced runners started the week running for 40 minutes, and then worked their way up to 60 minutes by the end of the camp.

After the tough workout of the day, there was more free time, which was used to swim in the camp's beautiful pool a few times. Other runners enjoyed playing volleyball on the sand court or ping pong or making friendship bracelets or playing the guitar and singing. After dinner, we had another meeting, where we did things like going over what our competition was going to be like in the upcoming season. We also had some "circle time" at a couple of the meetings, where everyone shared their experiences of a good or bad race or something funny that happened to them in a race. During one of the evening meetings, each person got up in front of everyone and announced what their goals are for the upcoming season. Each person also had the option of saying how they feel about running, about being on the team, etc., which several people did.

Finally, the day ended with some kind of social activity like group games or a campfire with s'mores. One night, there was a talent show, which was very impressive and, of course, fun. It was lights out at 11 PM (although it's rumored that some of the runners stayed up talking a little later than that).

That's a lot of miles!!
At the end of the camp, some of the runners made a chart on one of the white boards in the meeting room that tallied up all of the miles everyone ran. Many of the runners were amazed at both their own accomplishments and those of their teammates. Everyone left the camp with a huge confidence boost because of all of their hard work, not to mention having made new friends or strengthening existing friendships with their teammates. Most importantly, the camp served as one more experience that made everyone want to continue running.