It is amazing how fast winter break goes by. I had an ambitious list of goals to achieve over break, yet despite achieving many of them and having the opportunity to spend significant time with family members I don’t get to see often, I am left with the feeling of not having done enough. As we turn from one year to another, we are reminded of the essential truth: there is never enough time. Which is, in part, my excuse for not having written a blog for so long. I can assure you that not a day has gone by since my last blog that I have not thought about running and coaching (indeed, not a day has gone by that I have not run). In fact, the other part of my excuse for not having written is that Coach Westphal and I have been at work on a presentation we will be giving at the Illinois Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (ITCCCA) winter clinic next weekend. This invitation actually was extended to Coach Westphal before this past fall’s season concluded and is a tremendous honor, as we will have the opportunity to share our program’s philosophy and training with hundreds of distance coaches from across the state. The challenge of putting together two one-hour lectures on what makes HCXC unique has been rewarding – it has allowed me to think out how what we do may be of value to other programs. Coach W and I plan to do a practice run-through of our presentation next week for any current athletes who are willing to be our test group. In the meantime, if interested, you can download a draft of our powerpoints at this link: http://itccca.com/january-clinic/2015-clinic-speaker-list/
In addition to preparing for this clinic, I’ve spent a little time each day over break reading about running-related topics, and thought I’d share a bit about what I’ve encountered and thought over. The longest text I read was a book which I received as my history department secret santa gift. Fortuitously, my ‘santa’ for the second year in a row was Mr. Chris Korfist who is the one member of my department who I most enjoy talking to about track and cross country (in addition to being a beloved teacher, he is nationally renowned for his knowledge of sprint training). Last year, Chris picked out two books for me, “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle and “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein, which inspired me to write a blog post entitled “Running and Calvinism” which you can read here: https://sites.google.com/site/hctrackxc/Home/coach-lawrence-s-blog/2014-track (scroll to the bottom – it is the January 6, 2014 entry).
This year, Mr. Korfist presented me with “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” by Steven Kotler. This book is not, on the surface, about distance running. Instead, the author suggests that the most cutting-edge research in the world today is coming from work done on action and adventure sport athletes. It is in this realm, more than in conventional sports like football and basketball, where people are pushing the limits of what is believed possible. Using advanced technologies, scientists have been able to determine what is happening in the brain when an athlete is climbing a giant mountain face without ropes, is surfing a 100-foot wave, or is BASEjumping. These athletes are able to do the impossible because they have entered a mental state called “flow” in which part of the brain that signals fear shuts down and the athlete can push out thoughts of past and future to focus singularly on the task at hand. This leads to a natural high, a feeling of near euphoria. The book then discusses how the state of flow can be used to fuel advancements in human achievement, not only in sport but in any field requiring intense concentration.
Endurance athletes merit only a brief mention, with the author suggesting that many distance runners may experience brief periods of flow during races or longer runs. Running Times actually published an article recently about this: http://www.runnersworld.com/racing/locking-into-flow?adbid=551000008376344577&adbpl=tw&adbpr=16031688&cid=social_20150102_38107847
I have never been one to tout the spiritual/mystical benefits of distance running (it’s 99% grind, at a minimum) but I now think I have a better grasp of what is happening neurologically on those few rare occasions where athletes accomplish a huge breakthrough yet report having experienced less pain than in previous slower races. I would not say one should train solely in the hopes of achieving flow, but it is certainly an added bonus and an aspect of training and racing I’d never previously considered.
Beyond discussions of ‘flow’ the book presents research that supports much of what we already preach: that the highest achievements can only come with the taking of risks, that one is likelier to push beyond their own limits when they have social support, that believing something is possible literally makes it more likely to be achieved.
What is possible in 2015? Our team has already met to discuss goals for the coming year. We’ve agreed that, for track, we hope to set new school records for most guys on the distance squad breaking 5:00 for 1600 (current best is 35) and 10:30 for 3200 (current best is 19). We want to have every guy on the distance squad set a personal best this track season in the 800, 1600, and 3200. Looking ahead to Cross Country, our main goal, as it was this year, is to be better than any previous team. We are humbled in the knowledge that even if we achieve this goal, it does not guarantee another state title, though that prospect looms as another major source of motivation for us.
What makes a goal more likely to be achieved? This was a question addressed for a more general audience in a recent article I read on slate.com about how to keep New Year’s resolutions: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2014/12/new_year_s_resolution_tips_how_to_start_exercising_and_lose_weight.html?wpisrc=burger_bar
In reading this article, I was struck by just how much being a member of a team contributes to a greater likelihood of being able to accomplish one’s aims. Let’s consider the author’s 5 suggestions:
- Have a goal
- Be realistic
- Be part of a group
- Be positive
It is humbling to know that this article was aimed at the millions of Americans who are not as fortunate as we are to be in a team situation where the above 5 suggestions occur as a matter of course. Be honest: on these cold winter days, it is undeniably more manageable to get through your run when you know there are going to be others right there with you. The one aspect of track that I like more than Cross Country is how easy it is to measure progress. Goal setting is easy because you have a benchmark for how long it has taken you to run 4 or 8 laps at max capacity before – thus, you can realistically determine what your new time could be. And a positive attitude will make it more likely to occur.
As for me, my resolution for 2015 is to focus more on what I am grateful for and less on what I am annoyed by, frustrated with, or angry about. I came upon this resolution after reading that people who do this are happier, and after reflecting on a conversation with Coach McCabe where he mentioned his practice of going through in his head the things he is feeling grateful for each night before bed. Seems like a sound practice to me.
In that spirit, I am grateful to begin the year in good health, doing work I find fulfilling and returning home each night to a lovely wife and home. Though there will never be enough time for (I may not be able to blog as frequently this track season as I will be taking an on-line graduate course in addition to my normal teaching and coaching duties) I will strive not to lament this fact but to make the most of the time I do have. All the more reason to run faster!