My teams are in trouble. Not deep trouble, but we need to iron out some issues. In cross country, the top five runners from each school constitute the score. Each runner gets a single point for their finish (one point for first, fifty-one points for fifty-first, etc). Low score wins. Perfect score is fifteen points: 1-2-3-4-5. From a time point of view, it's best to have as few seconds as possible between the first scorer and the fifth. Thirty seconds is a nice number, particularly if your number one is at the front of the pack. This is called the spread.
Our spread is now 2:05.
In a big meet you can put a hundred runners from other schools inside that number, driving up our score substantially. It happened to us last weekend at the world's biggest cross country invitational. We literally have eight weeks to fix this. After all the hard work of summer and the lofty goals we set for our season, nothing matters but reducing the spread.
How to do this?
Aye, there's the rub.
Frankly, there's just enough time. But this is where the coaching gets complicated. The weekly mileage, intensity, rest, and type of workout (tempo, interval, fartlek, and on) need to be a precise mixture. This doesn't take into account heat, air quality from forest fires, exhaustion from staying up too late for homework, and the dozens of other variables that can lay an athlete low. I spend far too much of my non-writing time and energy looking for ways to win.
Sometimes, right around 3 a.m., a little voice reminds me it's just high school cross country. Or that I should pray more. Or that I have so many other great things happening in my life it doesn't make sense to lose a minute of sleep.
These are the dog days of the season, that time between summer base miles and November championship racing. A lot of people say that championships are won in the summer — and I agree. But that's an oversimplification, because this mid-season push to sharpen and right the wrongs is when coaching is needed most. Since I'm a competitive person, and like to think I'm a pretty solid coach, it becomes a matter of pride to make these next eight weeks magical.
The morning hours spent researching and writing are a time of hyperfocus, when it's easy to set aside those constant calculations and ruminations. That's about six hours of my day. That leaves eighteen more to fret.
The thing is, if it wasn’t cross country, it would be something else. I think there’s something in the human condition that requires us all to obsess just a little about something at all times. If I really want to take it to another level, I would say that this distraction comes from the part of us that needs a coat of armor. We’re all afraid of something. Pretending we have more control over events than we do is a steely way of playing God, thus making us more powerful – or so we think.
Whether successful or not, the season will come to an end in early December. Which leaves seven months to the start of summer practice. As bad as all this feels right now, and as much misery comes with those sleepless nights, I will start counting down the days to that next season the minute this one is through.
It's a sickness. It really is.