On Saturday, September 3, our official 2011 competition season got underway at the Leavey Invitational in St. Charles—sort of.
There are actually three big events on this opening weekend of the season: First, after practice on Friday, we handed out our uniforms. There were already boys asking about their uniforms two weeks ago, not long after the first practice. I got at least one email and had at least one conversation with parents about what exactly the boys would get for a uniform, and whether it would cost money. (It only costs money if the uniform is lost.)
Boys like to get their uniforms–even the older boys who think it is time for us to get new ones.
Event number two: After practice and uniforms on Friday, the boys loaded their cars and I loaded up a van to take them to a pasta party at the home of senior Clifford Vickrey, who lives in Lincoln Park, not far from the zoo. As seems fitting given the personality of this particular team as it has begun to take shape, it was the first pasta party in the six years that I remember with water balloons and super soakers. I got there a little bit late, perhaps, and the water balloons did not continue flying around out the windows of the Vickrey home into their backyard for very long after my arrival.
Finally, event number three: We have our first big cross country meet —“the real thing,” as our older boys tell our freshmen.
The day of that first meet began with my 6:30 AM arrival at Saint Ignatius, where there were boys already waiting. We filled one Gatorade cooler with ice and another one with ice and water in the training room. We collected my bicycle and the team tent canopy from the athletic shed. We loaded a big bus with a smaller group than I had expected—about 13 of us—and we were underway on the 1 ¼ hour drive to St. Charles at about 6:50 AM. The rest of the team, apparently, would meet us there.
Every year after this meet I ask our boys if they really want to meet so early and drive so far to run. And every year they tell me, yes, because “St. Charles is real cross country.”
The entrance to Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve is a narrow access road of about a half mile in length. Out the window of the bus when we arrived, we pointed out the course to the newcomers–a mowed swath of grass cutting through a waist high sea of prairie grass and other brush on one side of a field near the road, and then on the other side of the field it heads into a stand of tall trees. In those trees is a parallel path that runs along the other side of the field which basically returns the runners to where they started the race—and the first mile mark. We have nothing like that in Chicago.
Collecting our timing chips and meet information when we arrived, I talked with Denise Hefferin of St. Charles East who explained that they had made a change in the meet this year. In the frosh soph races, she said, we could have unlimited entries—not just seven. “I know that I have no idea who my top seven frosh soph are at this point,” she said. That made sense to me, too.
It was hot already. We arrived at 8:05, with our first race at 9:00 for the “open” boy runners, which in this case would now be the upper class runners who did not made the top seven varsity team. Instead of quickly preparing approximately thirty runners to start, as we had expected, we only had eleven for this first race—and most of them had run this meet and others before. They had to warm up. They had to tie their timing chips to their racing shoes. They had to put their racing shoes on and get to the starting line for some final sprints and warm up. We huddled to say a group prayer and sent them to the line with a “1-2-3 Wolfpack.” The first race was underway with about 300 boys storming across the prairie field.
Getting the twenty-five freshmen and sophomores ready was more of a chore, and it began while the open racers were running. Sometimes we describe this group as our “squirrels.” They seemed to be running about everywhere. We gathered what seemed to be a good number of them and gave orders to head out as a group on the course to run the last mile and a half as a warm up, after the last runners of the open race had passed through to that part of the course.
But after the open racers had all finished about fifteen minutes later, I discovered more than a handful of boys who had either missed that message or ignored it. They had not yet warmed up. So we gave them an alternate and expedited warm up plan because the race was less than thirty minutes away. Ten minutes later we gathered the full group together to hand out their timing chips and put on their racing shoes. I gave them some last minute advice: “In this heat, a more conservative racing strategy might be better than an aggressive one. Start slower than you might have, and then if you feel good, go faster.”
The younger group, not surprisingly, had a more difficult time attaching their chips then the older boys had. We added a twist tie or two here and there as we checked that their shoes were tied tightly. But the younger boys, too, made it to the start area in plenty of time, huddled for a prayer and cheer, and our freshmen and sophomore boys were among two hundred and fifty boys who thundered off across the prairie at the start.
Did I mention that it was hot? I had looked at the forecast early in the morning, and by 10:00 it had said the temperature would be in the mid- 80s. But perhaps it was already warmer than that in the forest preserve.
By the 10:00 start of the freshmen and sophomore boys race, there had already been two girls races. Bicycling about the course chasing the freshmen and sophomore boys, it became clear to me from the agitation of the park staff working at the meet that something was wrong. Traffic in and out of the park on that narrow half mile road was backed up and stopped in two directions. They were trying to bring ambulances into the park, and it wasn’t easy to do so.
Our boys in the sophomore race performed well. Our top two runners finished 16th and 17th, running the entire race stride for stride together, as we had suggested they do. Sophomore Taylor Dugas edged out sophomore teammate Chris Korabik at the finish, running 16:52 and 16:53 for three miles, a personal best by about a minute for Dugas and by about a half minute for Korabik. A freshman, Andy Weber, was our third runner in 17:25, a good freshman performance. Overall, when the final results were tallied, the team was fifth. A top five finish had been our goal for the meet.
A few of our boys clearly underperformed—perhaps affected by the heat. But on the hill above the finish line with about 300 meters to go, where I like stand to give encouragement for the final finishing effort, all our boys were still racing, a sign that they had kept something in the tank.
The girls varsity race went off on schedule at about 10:30, as we were gathering our frosh soph boys after their race. Some were dismayed when we told them that they had to do a little bit more running—a cool down, as it is called. It wouldn’t be cool running in this heat, their eyes told me.
Our varsity boys didn’t need much watching or instruction as they warmed up for their 11:00 start.
About fifteen minutes before race time they made their way to starting box 19 and did some sprints. We huddled in the field in front of the starting line and knelt for a prayer, delivered by one of our captains, Peter Devitt. We broke with a “Wolfpack,” and I sent them to the start.
Taking my bike up the hill toward the access road, I could see the start in order to start my watch and then hurry up the road to the half-mile mark. It was our expectation that our star runner Jack Keelan would lead the race from the start. He was excited and had been running too fast in practice that week because he was so anxious to run fast. A half-mile time might be important to him, I thought, in case he was really running too fast on such a hot day.
I debated with myself whether I had made a mistake talking with him the day before about the 2006 course record of 14:31 by Evan Jager of Jacobs, now a professional runner for Nike and an Olympic hopeful. I had seen Jager set that course record in my first year of coaching cross country at Ignatius. He went on to win the IHSA state championship. If Keelan gets anywhere close to the record, I thought, people will sit up and take notice. But maybe he shouldn’t be so ambitious on such a hot day.
As I waited for the start, I realized that I was standing in a parking lot full of ambulances. There were also firemen standing around with latex gloves on their hands.
I waited a while longer, as the boys on the starting line continued to run warm up sprint after warm up sprint. The 11:00 starting time of the race had already passed. There was some kind of delay.
Finally, the announcement came: “All boys’ coaches please report to the starting line.” There Denise Hefferin gave us the news. The parks officials and the fire department officials in charge of the emergency response had canceled the varsity boys race because of the excessive heat.
They were not necessarily concerned about having big problems with the boys, Hefferin said, but they had brought six ambulances to the site already. There were no more ambulances and crews available in the area in case a boy had a problem in the varsity race, and there were also apparently concerns about whether there were openings available in the local emergency room. They did not appear to have had any input into the decision, but the race organizers from St. Charles East said they had to accept it. And they also understood it. As Denise Hefferin told us, “We really can’t risk the life of one boy who might get into trouble just to run the race.”
It was clear that some coaches were upset at the news. Hefferin anticipated the complaint that the varsity races should have gone first, because, as one coach said, “The varsity race is the most important race.” She explained the order of the races. The race organizers made a decision a few years ago to run the open races first, then the frosh soph races, and then the varsity races. Heat is not an uncommon problem for Labor Day weekend. They run the less experienced and less conditioned open runners first at Leavey, in the coolest morning temperatures, because this is the largest group of runners and probably the group most at risk in the heat. This puts the varsity boys last in the order. It was not likely to change for next year, she said.
I found our boys intelligently huddling in the shade under a tree. They were disappointed at the news, of course. I had asked if the boys could run the course on their own, and of course had been told, no. We bent the rules a little bit and snuck in a practice, sending the boys out into the wooded part of the course to run some repeat miles at faster than tempo pace. They did so obediently, with no complaints. They returned to our camp hot and tired.
When I spin it for the boys this week, this is what I will tell them. One possible criticism of our schedule might be that our varsity team races too much, especially early in the season. Loyola, for example, and York both start racing in the next two weeks, long after many other schools around the state. So we can look at it that way. Now we are on something more like that York schedule.
We should also note, finally, that our boys handled the heat really well, with no big troubles. A few boys clearly did not perform at their best in the heat, but that can happen in the cold, too. The way our boys handled the heat says something about their good work in practice, too.
Before we sent the boys home, we had a short meeting with instructions for the long weekend ahead. As we have done in previous years, we gave them Labor Day off from organized practice. This seems fair to families and to the boys who have earned a day where they don’t have to make the long trek to school for practice. We’ve been at this for almost a month now, six days a week, and so this is a hard-earned day off, in a sense. It also seems fair to my family and my wife. We need to spend some family time together, too.
But as we told the boys at the end of the meet on Saturday, this should not be a day off from running—just as Sundays should not be a day off. There will be some weeks ahead when we tell the boys to take a Sunday off. It is important, however, that all the boys learn how to do some running on their own. They have to do this in the summer and in between track and cross country season if they are going to be committed runners. So Sundays—and this Labor Day off from practice–are a good place to start. What we tell the boys who do not know how to do this yet: Find a path on the lakefront, or in a nearby forest preserve, or in a town that has a few miles of sidewalk to run. Run for 15 or 20 or 30 minutes in one direction, and then retrace your steps back to the starting spot. Another option: Map out a one or two mile course in an area where you know the roads or parks. Then run that loop for four or five or six miles.
For boys with aches and pains of various kinds, we do tell them to take a day off. But for the majority of our boys, Sunday runs are an important part of their training. And Labor Day should not be a day off from running, just a day off from traveling by train, bus, or car to campus for an organized practice.
Next week, we take a three-hour Saturday drive to Peoria to run the Peoria Woodruff Invitational on the state championship course at Detweiller Park.
The weather forecast calls for cooler weather.