You’ve been waiting and preparing since track season, through almost the entire summer, leading up to this moment: The start of the 2011 cross country season. For most schools, practice has already begun and the first meet is sometime this week or next week. Regardless of what kind of shape you’re in, it’s time to get down to business and start working hard toward your goals, and the foundation starts with a strong first few weeks of practice and a first meet performance to build on. Your performance in the first meet shouldn’t be something you should dwell on, especially if it is disappointing, but you should compare it to your results last season to judge where you stand right now and where you hope to be by the end of the season. Think of the first meet as a benchmark race; if you perform well, it will only boost your confidence and if you don’t perform well, you have more incentive to work harder and make improvements. Coaches of all sports have repeated the popular quote for years, “You learn more from a loss than a win” and the same holds true for cross country. A runner who has an outstanding first meet performance may become overconfident and decrease their effort a little over the next week in practice, but one who had a disappointing performance just has more room to improve.
For runners who haven’t competed in an actual cross country race since last season, even those who ran distance races during track season, the first meet may simply be an adjustment race to get back into the cross country rhythm. This is why it can be valuable to compete in a few open XC runs during the offseason, especially in the earlier part of August right before the season starts. The transition back to cross country competition is obviously easier for those who run distance events, but there are still different strategies you must use in a cross country race as opposed to a 1500 or a 3000 on the track (When I competed in high school track, there was no 5000 meter race in our meets). There is the different terrain, uphill and downhill slopes, and a lot more competitors in the same race. This can be a tough adjustment to make in just one race, so you shouldn’t expect to coast right back into cross country mode and fix your weaknesses in the first meet. Your primary goals for the first meet should simply be to get adjusted, make yourself comfortable and compete hard but don’t beat yourself up if you have a bad race- the season has just started and you have plenty of time to improve.
It is common, as I witnessed several times during my running career, for a runner to be frustrated because their first meet time was slower than their best mark from the previous season, and to think their ability dropped down because of this. The truth is that runners rarely start out the season on fire, and some take until the end of the season or even the next season to see that considerable improvement. Another thing to remember is that sometimes uncontrollable factors, such as stress level and simply how your body is feeling that day can influence the outcome of your race. Many of us who watch collegiate and professional sports notice the media portrays the best athletes as the ones who perform the best at the most crucial moments, for example Derek Jeter or Michael Jordan’s performances in championship games. However, the majority of athletes that you aren’t hearing about are performing at their average or below average in these situations. In the 1972 Olympics, Steve Prefontaine, who is now considered a legend of American running history, was the clear-cut gold medal favorite in the 5000 meters, but he happened to have one of his weaker performances the day of the Olympic race and stumbled to a 4th place finish. The gold medalist in this race finished with a mark eight seconds slower than Prefontaine’s personal best. Considering his ability as well as his vigorous, long-term Olympic training, Pre’s disappointing finish in this race was most likely due to him having an “off day” as many of us call them. It wasn’t because he wasn’t ready, or that he didn’t have the physical ability to win the race, it just simply wasn’t his day.
What you should focus on are the factors you have control over. Things like giving 100% effort in practice day in and day out, preparing yourself for each particular course and strategizing your pace for each mile can give you an edge and keep your nerves under control before the race starts. From a psychological standpoint, your mind should be relaxed with total focus on the race ahead. When you’re getting to that last mile and the fatigue really sets in, just remind yourself that this part of the race is the most crucial to stay composed and make your kick toward the front of the pack.
Hit the ground running in your first weeks of practice, establish yourself in the first meet, and then use that benchmark to set goals throughout the season!