Track season started at Saint Ignatius last Tuesday, with a team meeting and our first practice. It will end, we hope, on Saturday, May 31, in Charleston, IL, at the IHSA state track meet.
The first week of indoor track is always a challenging one. We have to deal with the vexing problem of paperwork as boys who did not compete in fall sports turn in IHSA physical forms—or quickly schedule exams so that they can get the forms completed and get back to practice. They have had almost six months of the school year to complete that paperwork, but they wait until the day practice starts to remember it. Our rules require that we turn them away from practice until the paperwork is complete.
Just finding a place to practice is always a challenge in the winter. Our winter practice facilities have never been good, and it is always a battle to re-claim a few previously open spaces around the school—on the edge of the wrestling gym, in stair wells, and in school lobby areas—from the other teams that have been using them. As an in-season team, we get dibs on the space, now, but last week other teams who are out of season but doing conditioning—lacrosse, soccer, and football, for example—were using those spaces. We sometimes literally have to move them out. There are other headaches: Our athletes also do not have lockers, yet, and so we have to find secure places for their backpacks, coats, and bags.
Our practice space challenges this year were complicated by another factor. Our distance runners generally run outside every day, but they need space to meet and stretch before running, and to meet and do core work afterwards. Our sprinters generally warm up with a run outdoors, but then they need indoor space to drill and condition. For ten years our boys and girls track teams have used a wide hallway in our oldest classroom building as a practice space. This year that space got new plush carpeting—and we got the order to stay away. Our initial consternation has ended with smiling faces. The practice space emergency prompted our athletic director to request the use of some space over at the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago Physical Education Building (PEB); settled into our old routines, we had not even considered that option for many years. We will actually have use of the indoor jogging track there now for a short period each day—but valuable time for us. In addition, we are making arrangements to rent some space at the Mercy Home indoor soccer facility, about a mile from Ignatius, for three days a week.
We have never actually had an indoor practice space where our sprinters can run even a 30-meter fly in the winter. We have always done our conditioning running up stairs—and then drilling in the short school hallway space. Now our boys will be able to sprint before we get to the first meet. Access to the PEB jogging track means we also have a place where our distance runners can get in some miles when the weather won’t allow them to run. Our policy is to start exercising some caution when the temperature dips below 20 degrees, especially when combined with wind chill. At that point we keep the boys nearer to school, running loops close to campus around city blocks; the University of Illinois-Chicago usually does a pretty good job of snow removal on its sidewalks around campus. On alternate days we have some treadmills we share with our girls team. Now in a snow or cold emergency we can at least get 40 minutes of running done indoors on the PEB track.
All things considered, last week was a pretty good start for the first days of practice. We had a large turn-out of over 60 boys. After four days during the week, we had a smaller turn-out for an 8:00 AM Saturday morning practice when we had access to gym space—something we never get during the school week in the winter, when basketball teams take all the gyms. Butwith in the first week of practice, on Saturday morning, we taught all our new sprinter boys how to use starting blocks, we got new and old boys over some hurdles, and we’ve already got some routines and basic programs established for our sprinters, our distance boys, and our throwers.
That productive first week was, of course, too good to be true. I’m writing on a Tuesday morning while comfortable at home, because we have had two days of frigid cold temperatures which cancelled school. No school, no practice. Assuming we have school tomorrow, it will likely be a little bit like starting over again—but without having to send boys away because they don’t have their paperwork complete.
Missing two days shouldn’t really be a big problem. We have always conceived of our winter track season as a preparation season for the spring competitions, when things get really serious. Our distance runners are generally doing base training in the winter, putting in lots of miles and slogging along in the snow-covered city. Our weekend indoor races give them a little bit of opportunity to run harder and faster—and keep them interested. We will do a little bit of up-tempo training, “Phase two” work in our Daniels-based program, in early March before our indoor conference championship meet. Our sprinters spend a lot of their time running up what we call the “Iron Stairs,” doing basic conditioning that will be their base for more speed training once we get outside in the spring.
But last year we added an event in February that kind of jump-started our competition season a little bit earlier than in past years. A benefactor named Ray Meyer, Ignatius class of 1951, offered to fly the team to Washington, D.C., so that we could compete at the Jesuit Invitational track meet which brings East Coast Jesuit schools from New York City, Baltimore, and the D.C. area together at Georgetown Prep, located in North Bethesda, Maryland. We had six weeks of practice, and three weeks of early season meets to get ready—and we were just barely ready. Falling behind early in the meet, we stormed back by piling up points in the distance events to narrowly win the meet, 101.5 points to 97, over second place Fordham Prep from New York City.
This year we will make the trip again, February 20-22. The second time around the task of booking flights and hotels, as well as planning local transportation and meals in a distant city, was a lot easier. We’ve made a few improvements in our planning. As a special treat, we will be travelling with a special guest. At Ray Meyer’s suggestion, we invited former Olympian and indoor world record holder for the mile, Tom O’Hara, Ignatius class of 1960, to join us on the trip. O’Hara and his wife, Joan, will help chaperone and squire our 25 boys on United airlines and around D.C.
But we will make the trip this year with only five weeks of practice preparation–and with just two meets under our belts. Now, because of the current Arctic blast, that will be five weeks minus these two missed school days and practices.
We have been excited for the season to get underway. More than other years, it seems, I have been perusing indoor track results—at the pro, college, and high school levels. The Nike Oregon Project team have been featured on Flotrack the last two weekends, as Galen Rupp and Mary Cain took aim on records. On the East Coast, the high school winter track season starts in December. Our competitors at the Jesuit Invitational have been competing in earnest already, while we don’t start until February 8. Last week Fordham Prep and Xavier posted two of the fastest 4×800 relay times in the country (7:57.79 and 7:57.89) while running in a qualifying meet for the New York Roadrunner Club’s Millrose Games. I actually watched that race live on the internet.
Our team will be a good one, after a historic 2013 season in which we won the Chicago Catholic League championship for the first time since 1991, repeated as IHSA sectional champion, and then finished fourth in the IHSA 3A (big school) state championship meet. We will lose our big point scorer at that meet, Jack Keelan, state champion in the 3200- and 1600-meter runs. But we return the 3rd place finisher in the 300-meter hurdles, now senior Conor Dunham. We think we have some state-level talented boys on the team who might be able to make up at least some of Keelan’s lost 20 points from last year—senior jumper/hurdler Chris Hawkins, senior jumper Sheldon Pierce, senior distance runners Chris Korabik and Taylor Dugas, and sophomore distance runner Dan Santino. We surprised people last year with our strong performance at the state meet; we surprised many people again last fall with our state-qualifying cross country team. We think we can do it again.
Let’s hope that we have school tomorrow so that we can practice.