Last week my team had two meets, with two days recovery in between. I also had two different teams show up for these meets, figuratively speaking, of course. The dramatic difference between these two “teams” made me reflect on how easy it is for distance runners to lose focus, especially when they’re tired. The important thing is learning how to get it back.
Team #1: Hansons Invitational
Saturday, September 29
We weren’t provided bussing for this meet. I was a little unnerved, wondering if the team was going to show up on time. They were expected to arrive at 8:00 a.m. sharp. When I pulled into the Delia Park parking lot at 7:45 a.m., most of the boys were already there, smiles on their faces, ready to go. We were the first team there. While the meet manager wasn’t even there yet, my varsity boys were already warming up and the junior varsity team was walking the course. This team was focused. I didn’t even have to ask the guys to warm up, stretch, or get their spikes on. They were a well-oiled machine. Right before the race started, the guys scoped out the competitors they needed to race.
When the gun went off, the guys raced tough. They grouped up well and paced very smart. Several of them had personal bests by close to 30 seconds. A competitor stepped on one of the Utica boys in the first 100 meters of the varsity race, causing one of his shoes to come off. He ran the entire race with only one shoe on, yet his time was still close to his personal best.
We ended up getting third place in a challenging field of fourteen teams, beating teams that beat us earlier this season. The guys were thrilled. We had a team meeting following the awards ceremony, where one of our captains shared a short speech he had prepared ahead of time entitled “Finding Your Greatness.” Parents took photos of the boys with the t-shirts and medals they won. It was a good day.
Team #2: Eastwood Jamboree
Tuesday, October 2
I arrived a few minutes before the bus did. By the time the guys made it to the tent, we had about five minutes before varsity warm-up was supposed to start, and some guys were still in the restroom. Instead of warming up as a unified group, smaller groups left in shifts. Junior varsity guys were playing video games on their iPods under the tent. Many of the guys didn’t even have team gear on over their uniforms. Normally they do their final warm-up as a group as they head to the starting line. At this meet, they headed to the starting line a few a a time. Many guys were talking about how the course seemed faster and a good opportunity for personal bests. No one talked about which teams they needed to race.
When the gun went off, the boys never grouped up. It was every man for himself. I saw some of them fixated on their watches more than running with the correct teammates and racing the correct competitors. I saw them settle in their positions or even lose places instead of moving up in the field. I saw competitors ahead of our boys that we beat a few days prior. The most disturbing part is they seemed unaware of it.
We finished fifth in a field of eight teams. After the race, a few guys complained about feeling heavy, lacking focus, and feeling dehydrated. One particular runner didn’t even seem bothered by the fact that he had a horrible race. During the team meeting, the guys barely paid attention. They seemed ready to go home.
How could I have such a different team a few days later?
I festered for the next 24 hours about this. I felt sick inside. First of all, I am a sore loser (although I don’t act like a sore loser in front of my team). Second of all, I was bothered by the fact that we didn’t meet our full potential. I knew we were a better team, especially after our awesome race at Hansons Invitational.
After much thought, I realized the devil is in the details. There wasn’t a single reason I could pinpoint. It was a collective lack of focus and lack of attention to detail. Each runner on the team had different details he had overlooked. At Hansons Invitational, the boys had it right. They stuck to our warm-up routine, down to the minute. They did everything as a unified group. They were well-rested. They were hydrated. They ate properly the night before at our team dinner. They raced according to plan, hitting appropriate splits at the mile markers and running in their race groups. The jamboree meet was on a Tuesday, following a full day of school. The boys hadn’t planned ahead to eat properly at school, bring snacks, and hydrate. Many of them focused more on running a personal best than running for the team. The irony is when they raced with the team in mind at Hansons, many of them had a personal best.
At practice the next day, we had another team meeting. We discussed what we could have done differently at the jamboree to be more successful. They knew what they did wrong. They admitted to lacking focus, which took a toll on the quality of their race. They also recognized how their success at Hansons was due to their determination, attention to detail, and working as a team. This team is young, and the jamboree was the perfect learning opportunity for these developing runners.
Distance running is not only taxing on the body, it is mentally draining. We will always have a multitude of distractions that become potential excuses to fail. The way to overcome this is to continuously remind yourself of your goals, plan ahead, focus on details, and to stick to routines that work. Neglecting the most minute detail can ruin your race. If running as part of a team, it is imperative to put the team first. If you race hard for your team, the times will come down. When you become a selfless teammate, that’s when you can truly run at the next level. And when a bad day occurs, which they do, learning from the experience is crucial. Don’t make excuses; make adjustments. That’s the only way we can become better runners.