Pack it up

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Sophomore John Walls, senior Lyndon Vickrey, junior Patrick Hogan, and senior Chad Larry race in pack formation at the 2016 Chicago Catholic League Championships .  Behind Vickrey is junior Trey Johnson.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

At the Palatine Invite in September, our team had a subpar race for the second year in a row.  In 2015 we finished 17th, after three years in a row when we had been in the top seven, once just 20 points from winning, and it was probably the day that our 2015 season stalled.  It really never got started again.  We ended the year with a fourth place finish at the Chicago Catholic League meet, after five consecutive years when we had finished first or second, and then a seventh-place finish at the Hinsdale Central Sectional sent us home instead of going to the state meet as we had done in 2010, 2013, and 2014.

We actually had better feelings after our 19th -place finish at Palatine this year.  Our boys had shown some improvement.  Our number one, junior Michael OBroin, had run a personal best 15:08 to finish 21st; he was emerging as a true number one.  Sophomore John Walls had run 15:52, his first race under 16:00 for three miles.  Senior Lyndon Vickrey, who had been slowed by a sore hamstring early in the season, ran 15:59.9, his season best.  Junior Trey Johnson dropped his personal best from earlier in the season by 22 seconds, running 16:05.  In the open race, junior Patrick Hogan had started slowly in fifteenth place at the mile, then motored to the race lead a mile later, and finally finished second in 15:56.5.  But in the top-level competition at Palatine, 16:00 still puts you around 100th.

The team wasn’t stalled, like last year, but they weren’t running on all the cylinders, either.  Four of them had finished within 25 seconds of each other, but they had not really run together as a group or in tandem at any point during the race.

For years we have paid lip service to “pack running.”  “You guys should try to run together more,” we have encouraged them time and time again.  At First to the Finish this year, we even had a plan.  They were supposed to go out aggressively but separately, and then they would  try and find each other around the half mile.  Then they could run together.  They never did find each other in the giant race crowd of 50 teams, and we finished 14th with 445 points.

We were talking about pack running, but we didn’t really know how to do it.

Our coaching staff had some conversations after the Palatine race.  This could be a turning point in the season—and for our program, which also seemed to be stalling.  Assistant Coach Steven Bugarin has always talked to the boys about pacing themselves more evenly.  A more conservative start, he felt, would allow them to race harder in the middle and at the end of the race.  Assistant Coach Nate McPherson said he thought we should think more about how to get the boys to run as a pack.

The group we are coaching now is cooperative and smart, and they do listen to us.  They are all good friends, and they run for each other.  They are similar in ability and in results, even if they were getting there by running separate races.  A pack-running approach seemed like something that would fit this team.

As it happened, there had been some twitter conversation about pack running the week before, after Neuqua Valley’s dominant performance at the Richard Spring Invite at Detweiller.  It had been a display of pack running by the team many identified as the master practitioners of the pack approach.  Late in the day after Palatine, McPherson emailed our team members a link to the Running Times articles of 2009 that followed Neuqua Valley through their championship season—and which put a lot of emphasis on the “pack” approach that they employed that year.

Our team needed something to kick it into gear, so that we could avoid another stall.  Maybe we should get more serious about pack running. So I wrote an email to Neuqua Valley coach Paul Vandersteen:

Paul–

We’re talking lots about pack running with our guys, and, like so many things, feel like we are not getting through.

But it is not like we are re-inventing the wheel.

We’re just not doing it right, we assume.  It is also just something we need to get better at to have it as part of our coaching repertoire.

It is something that would fit our team this year, certainly.

  1. I tweeted at you when an old Running Times article was referenced.  All we can find is the 2009 series on the team?  Did you write something else, yourself, and if so, can we get a copy somehow?
  1. Basic questions:

We use a rough VDOT chart to establish pace guidelines in workouts.  In our hard training period, now, we have a long Tempo or repeat Tempo miles on Mondays, and then pace intervals 8×800 or 6x1000s on Wednesdays.  These would be the workouts that we use to teach them to run together, right?

Do we tell the faster guys to slow down a little bit and ask the slower guys to speed up a little bit, and  then that brings them together?  Or does everyone slow down for the slower guys?  Or go faster to stay with the faster guys?

The basic thing that we have gleaned:  We have to practice this all the time in practice.  But again, that means slowing down the pace for some guys, and speeding it up for others?

How matched do the guys have to be to make this work?  We’ve got a group of 6 guys who are racing now within 30 or so seconds.  Is that matched enough?

We’ve got a number one way ahead of the other guys–almost a minute.  Does he freelance?  Does he run the workout on his own?  Or do we slow him down to practice with the other guys?

We are literally looking at video of your guys running together.  Is there a formation?  Is it two by two?  Or do we teach them to run four or five across?

I am happy to take a quick reference to something else if it is a pain to answer our silly questions!  Don’t mean to stick you with them.

But we are in a dogfight this year–we are probably number 7 right now in our Niles West sectional–and desperate to get to Peoria again.  It’s what our program really needs.

Happy to treat this as something private and off-the-record!  But actually, as a Q and A, or some kind of collaboration, we could also work on this as something we could use on our blogs!  I’m getting motivated enough to start back in on mine after a hiatus.

Thanks for your help if you think you have the time.

To be honest, just writing the email helped me to figure out a lot.  Paul’s reply was helpful, if short.  But the team celebrated as the “Pack Team,” it would seem if you believe Vandersteen, isn’t really a pack team.

Ed,

You are a man of many questions 🙂

Brian Newman was referring to the RW article series in 2009.  I never wrote anything myself.  In fact, our meet recaps are written mainly by my two assistant coaches, Mike Rossi and Jaime Janota.  Both are English teachers.

You might not like to hear my response….we don’t focus on pack running.  If you recall, my 2007 team never ran as a pack.  The only reason we ran as a pack in 2009 was I was trying to slow down Luke Verbus who always went out too fast and died.  You might recall that Aaron Beattie always ran by himself in front of that pack.  This was the case in workouts too.

Our guys pack up now because they are so close in ability level.  I think when it is all said and done, they will be within 15 seconds of one another.  Our ‘pack running’ is especially evident when the conditions are hot.  We run more conservatively the first two miles and then tell them to take off.

I do think our pack running is facilitated by running together in practice in ability groups.  When race time comes, they simply feel more comfortable working together.

I hope this helps!  Good luck closing this season out.

Best!

The team celebrated as the “Pack Team” doesn’t work at it that hard.  But they do work on it.  Here is a helpful video we found from the 2010 season:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nH22MYWRxMU

videoAs the video shows Neuqua runners in busy motion going left and right across the screen with a hard driving guitar riff providing some energy, Vandersteen talks about pack running:

“We really just encourage our guys to run together in practice,” Vandersteen says. “I refer to it as organized chaos.  I remember the first time I watched York run a workout, I got the same impressions.  It works.  I mean, we put them in groups, and some guys fall off, but you can’t worry about them.  You just gotta go with the guys who are feeling good that day, and let them work together and see what they can accomplish in terms of their goals for that day.”

The team leaders weigh in next.  First Taylor Soltys, who would help Neuqua to state trophies in 2010 and 2011 before moving on to run for Iowa:   “Pack running keeps everyone together, and  in a race situation, it is a lot harder to fall off the pace or wanna drop back when you have your teammates right there supporting you.  With pack running everyone wants to stick up and no one wants to be the guy who breaks off and ruins the pack, and so it is definitely a big motivator and keeps everyone up together and helps you to win races.  So we try to mimic that in practice.”

Vandersteen elaborates:  “There’s a definite translation.  If you let the guys—we used to do that.  We used to have the guys run the workout really hard and not work together.  Now we have them hold back a little bit and run together in practice because it translates to the meets.”

Josh Ferguson, an understudy for the state champion team in 2009 and then a top guy for the second place trophy team in 2010, also weighs in:  “We really like last year started using the pack running style, and it really like helped the team because they were all very close in times.   It helped us really just to stay together from the start of it and really kept everyone together and more at the right pace and ready to go and attack the last mile.  And we are really trying to use that again this year, and it really kind of keeps our team together.  It keeps everyone focused.  It lets people take the lead. and people stay behind, if they need to draft off someone else.  And so it helps everybody out.”

On Monday after Palatine, we called a team meeting.  We told the boys, quite simply, that we needed to do more work on learning how to run as a pack.  We showed them the Neuqua video from 2010.  We found some Dyestat and Illinois Milesplit video of the Richard Spring race this year.  Neuqua went right to the front of the pack at the start of the race coming down the hill at Detweiller.  At the half mile going round the pine trees along bus row, they had all seven runners in the top twenty.  But video from after the mile before going into the triangle showed them much farther back.  They had run hard to the front in order to stay together, it seemed, and then they had relaxed.  In fact, two other packs—including Mahomet Seymour, who finished second—had clearly moved past them as the Neuqua pack held back.  Coming out of the triangle, the Neuqua boys seemed to be back in forward motion, having moved up a bit.  At the two mile, the Neuqua pack is still together, and they have moved up into 2oth place.  Then the group is split up at the finish—but they had moved forward aggressively over the last mile:  Josh Mollway finished sixth in 14:59.9  with Jackson Jett seventh (15:02.4) and Jake McEneaney ninth (15:04.6).  Zach Kinne was 19th (15:12.9) and Matt Milostan 27th (15:21.5).

We told the boys our plan:  Number one runner Michael OBroin was going to freelance in our races and practices, running up in front.  But the rest of the team—as many as ten of them in practice—would be running the workouts together in a close group.  We put almost all of them at 63 on our VDOT pace chart.  That would be a step backwards for the top of the group, but it would be a challenge for the guys at the back to keep pace.  But their job, in practice and in meets, was to stay together!  We even looked at formations; Neuqua, it seemed, just ran two by two, side by side..

They were to take formation during our interval training.  They would run in formation during their long runs.  They would even run in formation during their sprints on the track after their long runs; this would be practice for the start of races, where the boys would run in formation from the gun.

A few boys asked some questions—good ones.  Then we went out to practice, and all week long during our training they did everything we had told them to do.

We debuted our new pack approach at the Pat Savage Invite at Niles West the next Saturday.  There were a few anxious moments.  Three-hundred meters into the race, on the left turn, our pack was pinched on the inside among 600 runners, having failed to get to the outside on the turn.  They were probably as far back as 60th place.  But there were sixof our runners together.  They came through the half-mile in a slow 2:45, probably in 50th place.

The mile was slow, 5:20, but the pack was moving up.  At the halfway point they were still in formation—and now they were up to 30th place.  OBroin was running with a group of six leaders at the front of the race.  Whitney Young had two in that group, as did Loyola, always our rival.  But everyone had noticed our pack chasing from behind.  “You guys are looking good,” said Billy Poole-Harris, the Whitney Young coach.  Whitney Young was running that day without one of their best runners, Clayton Mendez.  It would still mean something to beat them; they had beaten us by more than 200 points at First to the Finish, where they were fourth.

The lead group went through the two-mile mark in 10:16; our pack came through in10:44.  Our pack was running even pace, and they continued moving up as other runners slowed.  With a half-mile to go, we were winning the meet.  Four runners were still together—sophomore John Walls leading the group, with seniors Lyndon Vickrey and Chad Larry and junior Patrick Hogan following.    The Savage Invite runs two race divisions together and then sorts them out in the computer results—600 runners, big 3A schools in one division, 1A and 2A in another.  But the big schools dominate the front of the race.  Our pack of four had surged into the top 20, with four  Whitney Young and Loyola runners behind them.

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The Wolfpack enters the Niles West stadium.  Patrick Hogan runs with one shoe.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

The race didn’t finish as well as we hoped.  Whitney Young’s Charlie Nevins and Anthony Tuman both sprinted past our pack as the runners ran the last 300 meters on the Niles West track.  We calculated that as a sixteen-point swing—and the final score gave Whitney Young a win, 70 points to 84.  Loyola finished third with 128.  The previous week, at Palatine, Loyola had beaten us by 25 points.

Our experiment, based on our first week of practice and competition, had been a success.  “It just felt so easy,” said Chad Larry.

“It is so much easier to run in a group,” said Vickrey.

As it happened, the team had also dealt with adversity together.  Hogan had lost his shoe in the first mile of the race.  The pack had fallen apart briefly when Larry retrieved the shoe; he was worried it was the shoe with Hogan’s chip.  We explained for future reference that Hogan would still count in the results with or without a chip.  We thought Hogan might have simply stopped himself and fixed his half-flatted shoe, rather than kick it off as he had done.  After all, Larry had rejoined the pack successfully after retrieving the shoe.  But it seemed like the whole group had helped Hogan manage his difficulty—and they had kept him going.  He ran more than two miles with one shoe, but he had stayed with the pack.  The pack had actually almost fallen apart then, but they had pulled it back together.

Our concern with the pack approach was that as a group they had probably run a little bit too conservatively.  OBroin had run well at the front to finish third in 15:25, and then we finished 18th, 19th, 21st, and 23rd, with a four second split off Wall’s 16:09 to lead the group.  The even pacing had been good.  The soggy course had been a little bit slow, much slower than Palatine, but the boys hadn’t really run that fast.

We adjusted our training plan a little bit the next week.  We bused the boys to Washington Park, a 20-minute trip from Ignatius, to do some tempo running on what will be our IHSA regional course at the end of Octobor.  It would also be the site for our next race, our annual dual meet with our neighborhood rival, the team we see almost every day on the Chicago lakefront, Jones College Prep.  On the line at that race would be ownership for the year of the Sears Tower Trophy.

The Washington Park course is basically two laps around a 1.5 mile loop.  Our workout would run the boys around the loop three times, with a short break of a couple minutes between each loop.  We pushed the boys a little bit up on the VDOT chart, making the pace this week more demanding than the week before.

As an exercise in pack running, the day was a failure.  Too many guys fell off with the more aggressive pacing.  But actually, compared to other similar workouts of the past, the boys had still focused harder on running together.  They were disappointed that the pack had not held together.  They vowed to do better.

On Tuesday, for their long run, they reformed the pack.  Then before our interval work on the track on Wednesday, we held a team meeting—a pack-running refresher course.  On the track that day, nine boys ran 8×800 meters together, chasing OBroin in front of them.  The workout on the track posed some different issues.  We considered shifting the boys inside and outside each interval because they were running on the curves of the track; they rejected the idea.  They all had their spots, and they liked their spots.  They knew the person who was running next to them and in front of them and behind them.

The dual meet with Jones posed some special issues for the pack approach.  What if the Jones runners went out hard?  Do we keep the pack together and let them go?  How much of a gap can we let them get on our pack?  We made the decision to stick with the pack.  Our plan was to put our pack of four—any four– in front of the third Jones runner to win the meet.  Jones was a ranked team—number 22 on Dyestat Illinois, and they had been ranked higher earlier in the season.  But we had a plan and we were confident.

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Michael OBroin and Jeremy Adams took the race lead from the start at the annual Jones vs. Ignatius dual meet.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

We also made a decision to send OBroin into the front of the race a little bit aggressively.  He wanted to challenge Jeremy Adams, the Jones number one runner.  Almost from the gun, the two of them pulled away—first a little, then a little more.  They were closer, probably, to the pack then they would be in an invitational.  Adams won the race in 15:30, with OBroin trailing in 15:35.

Behind them, Jones formed a pack, and our pack closely trailed theirs.  The pace was conservative, 5:20 at the mile.  Midway through the race the Jones pack broke up as their number two runner Christian Reyes set off on his own toward Adams and OBroin.  Senior Joe Amoruso set out after him, pulling our group behind him, and a half mile later the two packs were together again.  Our pack, it seemed, could respond to an attack.

And with a half mile to go, our pack had the advantage.  We had four in the chase group behind Adams and OBroin, and they only had three.  In a final close sprint to the finish, and with a little bit of jostling, Walls and Vickrey finished third (15:56) and fourth (15:57), with Jones freshman Ian Bacon fifth (15:57).  Hogan (15:59) held off Reyes (15:59) for sixth.  Even though Jones senior Arthur Santoro (16:02) pushed past Amoruso (16:02) on the very last stride, Ignatius had won the race, 24-31.

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Senior Lyndon Vickrey with the travelling Sears Tower Trophy.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

The Wolfpack, literally, as a pack, had won back the Sears Tower Trophy.  Four runners had raced together through the entire race and had finished within five seconds.

On Saturday, Otober 22, we raced at the Chicago Catholic League Championships.  After a solid week of practice—the pack ran mile after mile together, and they ran race pace intervals on the Lewis University course on Columbus Day Monday and in a cold rain on the Chicago lakefront at 39th Street on Wednesday—our Wolfpack was the underdog in a match up with Marmion Academy, number 11 in the state according to Mike Newman’s Dyestat Illinois ranking.  We were unranked.  Pre-race we figured the score would be 50-58, in Marmion’s favor.  We would have to figure out how to overcome an eight-point deficit out on the course.

We figured that Marmion’s Michael Ronzone and Charlie Zimmer would race Loyola’s Paolo Tiongson and OBroin at the front of the race.  Marmion’s Sean Galle would finish in the top ten.  That meant we would have to put a pack of four in front of Marmion’s fourth runner, Andrew Lifka.  Our pack would run together for two miles, pulling all of them into the top fifteen or so.  Then the runners who were feeling the best would set off for the top ten.  At least one of them, we figured, needed to be in the top ten if we were going to win.

Our boys ran well—but we lost 45-54.  Fittingly, we lost because every member of the team ended up just a little bit short of what we needed.   OBroin was fourth, failing to split the Marmion lead runners Ronzone and Zimmer, who finished behind the winner Tiongson.  The Ignatius pack split up just a little bit before the two mile mark, but they had put five runners in strong finishing positions.  Sophomore Walls finished tenth in 15:35, a personal best.  Vickrey had moved with him over the last mile to finish 12th in 15:37, another personal best.  Senior Chad Larry ran a 30-second personal best (15:40) for 13th, and Hogan was 15th (15:52) as our fifth scorer.  Junior Trey Johnson was 20th (16:07) as our number six, but he beat Marmion’s fifth runner Jimmy Milder (22nd, 16:14), adding a point to their score.  Amoruso (24th , 16:20) was not able to stay with the pack, but he was close to Milder throughout the race.  At the end, though, he could not get past him .  We were chasing every point, and at every spot, it seemed, we let one get away.

Marmion won, in part, because of the great run by their number three, Sean Galle.  He wasn’t just in the top ten; he was fifth (15:25).  Marmion went second, third, and fifth, virtually unbeatable; it is actually remarkable that our Wolfpack still got close.  Another key was Andrew Lfka, who finished 14th (15:51), as Marmion’s number four.  We needed to put five runners in front of him; we only put four.  We also needed a little more help from the other teams, putting more points on Marmion.  Ignatius and Marmion took thirteen out of the top 24 spots in the meet.  We had six in the top 20, earning all-conference honors in the Chicago Catholic League; Marmion only had four all-conference.  They won.

But we are now a team committed to pack running.  We have figured it out a little bit.  It has made our team stronger.  It has given our team an identity.

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