These days high school running programs encourage kids to train together during the summer months. This is valuable in terms of team confidence and building an aerobic base. Cross country coaches have long recognized the value of summer running programs.
Our coach at tiny Kaneland High School where I started running offered rewards for summer training. It was impossible to get the team together because the communities that fed the school were miles apart in different directions from the school campus. So Coach Rich Born created incentives instead. Earning a 500 mile or a 1000 mile summer running t-shirt was a true badge of honor. Coach always said, “If you can train through July, that’s the toughest month.” And he was right.
I never made it near that mark of 500 miles. Not even close. For one thing, the country roads near my house were patrolled by packs of angry farm dogs. There were no leash laws and the packs of barking hounds would emerge from farms with jaws snapping and howls yapping. I wanted nothing to do with that. Plus I was lazy.
Honestly, the shoes we had to train in were pathetically thin. Somehow several of my teammates would train all those miles in shoes fit for ballet, and little else. They would get their coveted tee shirts come fall. Yet I beat all of them in the season. The fact of the matter is that training is highly specific. Long slow running doesn’t always translate into racing success.
During the summer I’d train once a week if I was feeling good. But trucking around in that summer heat felt insane. Instead I played baseball, and kept in some sort of shape with that. And basketball too. I rode my bike everywhere I went in Elburn, and did a paper route at 5:30 in the morning that required about six miles of cycling, all told. So I got plenty of aerobic exercise. That might even be a better approach for many runners. Certainly the sport of triathlon has illustrated that cross training has some beneficial effects.
It also helped our cause in the “good old days” taht we walked a lot. Mostly to the houses where the cute girls lived. Infatuation is the best training motivator ever.
Time to run
In fall I’d show up and suffer through the first two weeks of practice. Coming into my freshman year, I had no idea what the training would be like. I had not “trained” a step all that summer between eighth grade and high school cross country. In fact, I was determined to go out for football because that previous fall I’d won the local Punt, Pass and Kick competition and moved on to regionals. I thought that was what football was all about. And of course, I was wrong. My father knew that I was a tough kid, but not cut out for football. I weighed 128 lbs., for one thing. Even when I graduated I weighed only 138.
Yet the real reason he did not want me going out for football was his distaste for the sport and its capacity for injury. He also disliked wrestling for its grunting methodology. None of my brothers either wrestled or played football as a result.
The flow sports
We played soccer, basketball and baseball instead. My older brothers excelled in those sports back East in Pennsylvania. But then we moved to Illinois for my father’s work, and there were no soccer or baseball teams at Kaneland High School. So my brother Gary ran cross country the fall of his senior year, and played basketball and ran track that spring. He had no choice. He’d been yanked up by the roots when he might have starred back in Lancaster, but out in Illinois he had to put down new roots.
I’ve always admired him for that. But it didn’t really register with me that he’d done cross country the year before. I was too busy with a new school to care. And he certainly did not do any summer training that year, in 1970. So he gutted it out and did a damn fine job.
My father knew that I was likely more the runner type. So he shoved me in the locker room with a stern warning; “You’re going out for cross country, and if you come back out of that locker room, I’ll break your neck.” And that was my introduction to the sport of cross country.
And you know what? I loved it. So thanks, dad. Because it produced a lifelong activity that I hope to continue for many more years.
But I didn’t love it quite enough to suffer much in summer between those years in high school. In college, I was much better. By the time my senior year rolled around, I was putting in weeks of 40-50 miles during the summer. Yet my roommate that year put in more than 1000 miles, and for the first five weeks of the season he was one of the top-ranked cross country runners in Division III. He won our major invitational and a few others as well, recording times in the high-19:00 range for four miles and below 25:00 for five on some tough courses.
By mid-season, however, he was feeling the effects of all that mileage. It got tough for him to train without injury. That went for all of us, to a degree. Yet we all managed to pull it together for nationals that year, and placed second in the nation, but not a week too soon.
It’s made me look back and question how much running is the right amount for scholastic and college runners during the summer months. The famous York High School distance running program created by Joe Newton has won numerous state titles over the years. Yet few of those athletes, who put in between 5000-1500 miles over the summer, has gone on to do much after high school. Perhaps they’d simply had enough of all that running stuff by the time they graduated?
My teammates at Luther College often commented that the Illinois runners who came to school there were often burned out. That might have been due more to the competitive schedules of Illinois high schools at the time. We had 18 meets during the fall season. Some weeks we’d race Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. In college we even had a competitive season of 13 meets. That’s a lot of racing actually.
Our training in high school typically reached 55-65 miles per week. In college that ratcheted up to 75-100 throughout the fall. That would sometimes be carried over through winter, and then honed to sharpness with winter and spring track. So training hard through the summer months was frankly insane. You simply can’t train that much all year round. The body needs a break.
These days, competitive schedules are somewhat reduced. The generation of athletes that came through those competitively intense programs perhaps realized it was hurting kids in some ways. Yet it’s difficult to say. The times posted in state meets were often better in terms of overall quality in the first 25 runners.
Few athletes have approached the three-mile cross country mark set in Illinois by Craig Virgin back in 1972. So the record still stands.
Most high school cross country teams now have formalized summer programs in which entire teams train together. Perhaps with the increased mobility and access to cars, that is possible even at schools like Kaneland, one of the largest geographic school boundaries in the state of Illinois. The local kids here in Batavia are running six days a week all summer. That will certainly build a base for those kids come fall. It is symptomatic of all sports to conduct year-round training programs.
Perhaps I’d have been a better runner with more summer mileage back then. It would have helped to train with a team, that’s for sure. Yet somehow each fall I’d rally to race against the best runners I faced, many who put in the summer miles, and managed to keep up. My times in high school cross country reached 14:49 for three miles in cross country. In college I ran a 14:40 three mile time on the track and a 9:19 steeplechase. My best 8000-meter time in cross country was 25:12. Not national class, but not bad either.
When it comes to summer running and fall competition, I always think of two runners from St. Olaf college in Minnesota. Their names were Matt Haugen and Mike Palmquist. If our team raced against them in early September, we’d wipe the course with them. But come November, they were both typically individual All Americans. They knew that the season was a crescendo, not a march. Perhaps they ran some over the summer, but not all that much.
Of course, they both had natural ability. And those who do not possess so much might have to rely on the big mileage summer months to help them compete. So there’s always the question: How good does summer running really make you, versus runners who are simply talented and will do their best once you get them running in the fall.