Story written by Eric.
I had a high school trainer whose approach to athletic development was an eight-year one: The first four years of high school were meant to tease you into learning what your strengths were, and the following four years of university running were meant to have you develop a bonafide strategy to utilise those to their fullest potential.
This likely sounds like nearly every one of your own experiences, with the only difference between yours and mine being the location of your school and name of your trainer.
I competed in a very difficult league my final two years of high school, one which ultimately produced a world junior record-holder the year after his graduation (my grade-12 season).
It was also a league which placed three of five cross country state meet qualifiers and had two state 1.600m finalists to showcase to patrons who had both payed (Cerritos College) and had lined up the Woodward Park course to cheer on their favourite Division I athletes and teams my grade-12 season.
Making it out of league was tough enough. Having to race the same guys in a dual meet, league meet and, ultimately, at the section championships just to get to state was a tall order, and one at which I only succeeded twice my last year before going on to bigger and better things at university - or at least that was the plan, anyway.
I'm sure you've got great war stories to share of your own - and, by all means, please do so at the bottom of this blog, as it would be great to read about your own personal experiences as well.
My trainer made several correct moves in the four years and eight seasons I was under his care. He must have, otherwise our team would never have nearly won the Northern California Cross Country Championships my grade-10 season, and we'd never have put up four-consecutive individual varsity men's league champions in my years there.
He helped two kids ahead of me - and one in my own class - break 15.00 for 3-miles, running 14.30, 14.32 and 14.48, respectively in the same race my grade-10 cross country season.
Moreover, I don't believe I'd have progressed as nicely as I did, from running a 11.18/5.18 double in my first-ever races (grade-9) to finishing my grade-11 season with 1.57,0/4.21,0 personal bests.
He even managed to help me dip under 2.00 my grade-10 season and establish a record (1.59,7) for that grade which has not yet been broken in the 22 years since I borrowed a teammate's spikes and placed second at the league finals.
He was a very wise man, was the trainer, but I wondered then - as I have done on occasion following that chapter two decades removed - if he held back too much in his attempt to ease us through high school, and, yet, had pushed too hard on another end - and here's why.
Magically, I got by the first three seasons on less than 35 miles a week. I never ran on Sundays, and I was never asked to, either. Everything I accomplished in track was done by running "pace", and never anything faster. He discouraged picking up the "pace" in practice sessions, and I only recall a single workout where the 400m splits in a repeat session ever dipped below 64-65 seconds.
Having run a 4.21,0 my grade-11 season was done off of pace workouts like 8x400m with 2.00 rest at 65 pace, or 4x800m at 2.20 pace with the same recovery.
For strength work we did do some hill repeats (our high school was located next to a steep incline approximately 400m long which led to an entire canyon of mountains which appeared to take one to the end of the world if one dared to run that far - which I never did) like 6x600m inclines at 1.40 pace with a jog back down for strength, but I never hit the weightroom like other kids in the league were doing.
I changed plans on my own the summer leading up to my last fall season with the team.
The previous two summers were spent running summer track here, there and out yonder, keeping the same base as I'd had through the spring and contesting a distance 100m less than I had to during the school year.
My final summer before graduation was spent running longer distances, and running every day - something unique to me, and something which I'd not discussed with the trainer. I found myself covering greater distances in my fartlek sessions, and entered the fall campaign in excellent shape.
Then injury struck me. It was untimely and, it seemed unnecessary.
I had pushed one particular workout a bit harder than I had in the past, because my new strength level seemed to afford it, but developed tendonitis in my right knee a few days later after dropping my easy runs from 7.20 pace to 6.45 pace - something which felt natural and which the body seemed to crave.
I was out for three weeks, and, when I returned was put on a slowman's workout plan to ensure the injury didn't re-occur.
In short, I didn't find myself recovered until the 2-Mile Postal Championships - an event run on the track. I ran a 17-second personal best that day in Los Gatos, CA, and finally saw light at the end of a long, three-and-a-half year struggle to be a good cross country runner.
Two weeks later, I dropped my personal best on our home course - a 3,1 mile hilly one which sucks the life out of any runner exercising bad pace judgement during the first 1km - from 17.24 to 16.33 - a time which isn't fully appreciated if one hasn't run the course. The time bode well for high hopes to place at the sectional finals two weeks later, and it was the third-fastest ever run by anyone in my school's history.
Four weeks following my Postal race, I had managed to place second in league and second at the section championships, but I was out of medal contention at the state meet, running 45 seconds slower than I anticipated I would.
I was at the top of the lead pack and in great command of my own race during the first mile, running alongside David Scudamore and ahead of Louie Quintana and eventual winner Bryan Dameworth until something happened to me which would eventually become the story of my high school career and hold me back the first year of university as well: well-meaning pace work would always fall short in the end when competitiveness was meant to take over and push me over the top.
I died a terrible death the final half mile - not so much due to a lack of training, but because my body's efforts to stave off a cold were insufficient -- a sign that I pushed myself beyond recovery the week leading up to the first-ever cross country state meet.
Has this ever happened to you?
For some odd reason after running a 16.33 5km three weeks prior and a 15.09 to get to state, I fooled myself into believing that I was on target to run 15.15 on Woodward Park's storied course, and, with that, likely earn a top-three placing on the podium. I truly wanted to compete with Dameworth and Goshu Tadese, but my sense of pace was slower than was theirs.
I mentioned that this lack of adaptability hampered me in track as well, and it surely did at all the wrong times.
I was invited to compete in the Arcadia Invitational 1.600m in April after having run a solo 4.20 at a meet in Northern California; I'd won by 12 seconds after running "pace" the entire way around (66-64-66-64). In fact, the fastest workout we'd done up to that point was 8x400m in 66!
A kid from Southern California kicked me long into the shadows of the evening when he stopped the clock just under four minutes 10 seconds after the gun sounded. I got boxed in, pushed and then pulled to 63-2.07 splits - 13 seconds faster than my pace workouts, and three seconds too fast for the open 400m workouts we had been doing before the meet. I finished with a new personal best - another 4.20, but had not fared well against the best in the state of California.
Two weeks later I set another personal best at 3.200m, running 73-69-69-73-73-73-69-69 for a 9.24,0 at UC Davis. The "pace" workout was just at the clip we'd been practicing on the track, 4x2.21 for 800m, but I was a miler, not a 2-miler. The personal best was good for the journal books, but wasn't going to do me a whole lot if I couldn't translate that into a faster mile.
My trainer wasn't into the long, hard workout schedule, nor was he a fan of much speedwork, either. His idea of getting turnover into my legs was to triple in most dual meets (1.600m/800m/4x400m), with the latter two races either run un-evenly or at a fast chase pace.
By the time the state final rolled around at the beginning of June, I had run 50 races that final season, and none of them faster than "pace". My qualifying round was run in 64-63-64-63, which was equal to the two 2.07 800m times I ran with 10 minutes rest in a workout the prior week.
The state final, as was Arcadia, was a gun-to-tape barn-burner which hurt my tired and untrained legs, as they attempted to run at 2.06 "pace" and negative split with the 2.01 effort the winner was able to negotiate the second half of the race.
Like the state cross country meet, I fell off the fast finishing pace and failed to medal in the state 1.600m final.
My trainer fulfilled one duty in keeping me hungrier for better things as I entered university, but I believe he fell short in providing me the tools necessary to actually compete at my best on a championship level - one which the university athletes were competing on in "B" races.
I believe the best of trainers have a focus on making an athlete competitive, keeping them focused on the fun which running and racing bring and taking them up to a moderated level on par workout-wise with the collegiate choices available to them.
My trainer had the best of intentions and was a fairly knowledgeable student of the sport. Unfortunately, he applied too much pressure on the break pedal and not enough on the gas.
The result was a career which saw me take 1.03 off my first mile time, but one in which I did not win one, single, solitary gold medal from league through the state meet my final three years - or six seasons.
High school was about having fun as well as developing mind and body, but the tendency is to feel as though one fell short of their goals if the point was simply just to make it to a state meet or two.
Photo Credit: Mike Sadler (Image on BBC)