Virtually every other year that I can remember in my ten years as a coach at Saint Ignatius College Prep, the news of a snow day at this time of year—while attractive as a day off from school—would pose problems for us.
We are in the closing weeks of our indoor season, preparing for the Chicago Catholic League Indoor Track Championships that are less than two weeks away.
Snow means our outdoor track is covered and unusable at a time of year when we have hopes that it could be available for practicing hurdles, baton passing, and jumps. Snow means neither our sprinters nor our distance runners can do track workouts on the snowy track, something we like to do in preparation for our most important indoor meet.
Snow means we miss a day of school and therefore a day of practice when we need to practice.
But this year, when our principal announced over the PA system at the close of school yesterday that an approaching March snow storm would mean no school today, I just smiled and cheered with the students.
Our team is really running and competing right now as well as we could ever hope. Snow on our track and a missed day of practice for us probably means similar problems for our competitors. They are trying to catch us right now; they probably need the practice more than we do in order to do so. I also know that most of our boys will be out running in the snow on their own today; I suspect that not all coaches have that confidence.
What our boys have accomplished so far this season is unprecedented for us. On Sunday our team produced a surprisingly dominating performance at the ICOPS Invitational. It is probably true that it was a slightly weaker meet in terms of overall depth than it has been in some years—especially in the distance events. The relay events were a little bit weaker, too, perhaps. There were some quirks and luck involved in a few events for us.
But our Saint Ignatius boys scored 120 points, the highest point total that I can find for this meet, which I have attended for ten years as a coach. The second place team, our CCL rival Providence Catholic, scored 61 points, with other CCL teams trailing them: De La Salle, 57.5, Brother Rice 43, Mt. Carmel 31, Loyola 29.
Overconfidence is not a problem that our Ignatius boys know at all well; we are used to being the chasers, not the front runners. Last year we were second in this same meet to Providence, but that strong performance gave us some clues that we had a chance against Providence in the CCL meet. In a surprise come from behind performance, we won the CCL indoor meet as an underdog.
This year we are now the overdog. And we could shoot ourselves in the foot with some overconfidence, perhaps. Managing success is a new skill for me to learn as a coach.
The margin of our ICOPS victory, in a meet when we ran some of our best runners in only one event, suggests we have some options that we usually would not have. In the outdoor season, our conference holds its frosh soph championships and its varsity championships on different days—so the younger boys get to compete in both meets if they are varsity-caliber. But in the winter indoor meet, both the frosh soph and the varsity championship meets will take place on Sunday, March 17, with events alternating between varsity and frosh-soph races. Boys can only run in one meet or the other.
We keep separate records for the frosh soph and varsity meets, as well. So even if you are a sophomore, you can’t set a frosh-soph record running in the varsity meet.
We have two young runners who have a chance to set indoor frosh soph conference records—if they run the frosh soph meet. At ICOPS, they were big point scorers for our varsity team. Sophomore Andrew Weber ran 9:58.86 for 3200 meters to finish second; freshman Dan Santino ran 4:29.61 for third in the 1600. The Frosh Soph conference mark for 3200 is 9:56.97, set by William Hague of Loyola in 2010; the 1600 mark is 4:39.90 by Rob Glavas of Brother Rice in 2006.
Are we confident enough to weaken our varsity team and enter our two strong younger runners in the frosh soph meet to give them a shot at those records? This was not a problem that we expected to have to consider before last Sunday.
Our early success, especially the great performances of our distance runners, raises another issue. Are we running too fast too soon?
We have a long track season that stretches from January to May, when the really important meets loom—our outdoor CCL championships on Saturday, May 11, and then two state series meets: a sectional qualifying meet on Thursday, May 16, and the state meet in Charleston on Friday and Saturday, May 24-25. We want to be at our best in May, not in March.
We have a pretty standard plan that we follow year after year in our training for the long season. We are following our normal plan; our boys have not been doing anything differently this season. But our results have been better than other years by a large margin.
As a bench mark, we expect boys to begin our indoor season running better than they ran during the previous indoor season—but still well behind what they had run at the end of the previous outdoor season. We don’t expect new PRs during the indoor season, and we don’t train to accomplish that.
This year, our boys are basically beginning in the indoor season right where they left off last year at the end of the outdoor season. When Dyestat.com went live this week, we discovered many of our early season efforts put us at or near the top of the Illinois leader boards. The Illinois Prep Top Times site has another set of leaderboards populated with a large number of meets; we sit near the top of many events on those boards, as well.
We are hoping, of course, that this just means they are way better than they were last year. We have reason to think this is true. We know we should have finished our cross country season a little bit better than we did as a team. Our current results are in line with what we thought we should have accomplished in the fall. Our boys also, apparently, did a great job of preparation for the current track season in the months of November, December, and January between cross country and track. They did this work, incidentally, on their own; I had barely a word with them during these months.
Our trip to the Jesuit Invite in Washington, DC, perhaps, injected a new level of incentive at an earlier point in the season—the end of February—than in past years. The ICOPS meet in March, in past years, has been the first meet in which we tested ourselves. We were obviously ready for that test this year.
Like many other coaches, I can insist that we really haven’t begun our hard training yet—the training that is supposed to produce fast times at the end of the year. We did some tempo running once a week in the first month of practice, along with our long runs; our weekly totals hover around 50 miles in the winter for our top boys, sometimes a little bit more for the boys who get a long, long run in on Sundays. A couple weeks ago we started phase two of the five-phase season plan, adding some faster running once a week—llike 12×400 at about 3200 goal pace, with a pretty long recovery jog, for example. Our races amount to a second workout on the track at this point of the season. When we don’t race, we might add a second workout.
But it isn’t just a matter of workouts, perhaps. There is a mental aspect to “too much too soon.”
Our boys, to be sure, are a little bit giddy with their success this season—no different than their coaches, perhaps. But senior co-captain Jack Keelan took a moment in a team meeting on Monday to remind everyone of the big goals. “The real goals are at the end of the season,” he reminded us. “We have won some meets and that’s great. But we haven’t really accomplished anything yet this season when we look at the big goals we still have ahead of us.”
Keelan, incidentally, doesn’t even look at the leader boards. He just shrugs when we report to him about those rankings. His message to his teammates is clear: Rankings are fine, but you have to do it on the track.
We have things that we do to protect against too much too soon. As a pretty hard and fast rule, we do not compete in the Illinois Prep Top Times meet, often recognized as the “unofficial state indoor championship,” at the end of March after our CCL championship meet. Many of our boys will qualify for this meet—especially this year. But the CCL meet is about as high as we want our boys to be in March. We don’t want another big effort that early in the season.
We actually take a three-week break from competition from mid-March to early-April when we begin competing outdoors. We will, however, train hard during those weeks. It is our way of taking a step back physically and mentally in order to prepare for a big second push.
We will find out in a few months if we have been running too well too soon. What we hope lies ahead of us is some new territory. Our early results suggest that our team should be competing in May for points at the state meet in a number of events. In my ten years at Ignatius, we have never had more than one athlete score in the state meet in any year.
The snow is getting harder outside. I should be grading papers on this gift of a snow day that allows me some catch up time. I have some results work to catch up on, as well, for our track team.
Instead, this snow day gives me too much time to think about problems that, in fact, are the results of another wonderful gift: our great results so far this season.
Sometimes we get too many gifts.