Written by Andrew Simmons for ATRA’s Summer 2017 Trail Times Newsletter.
As a young coach, the opportunities to learn and grow come along as frequently as turns on a track. These opportunities eventually create wisdom and experience, and is one reason a coach of 30 years will coach more based on past experience than “by the book.” Experience takes time, as well as diligence to grow athletes to a level that allows a coach and athlete to mature and realize their best potential together.
At 29, I’m beyond grateful to be coaching amazing and talented youth and adult runners, of which the training approach can be a diverse and rewarding. What gives me the most satisfaction as a coach is best described, and witnessed in a smile of exhausted joy. There is this brief moment after crossing the finish line when emotions collide. This emotion can be overwhelming and lead some athletes to tears of joy, others to a broad smile. As a coach, it’s what comes after that moment that gives me energy and purpose – it’s when I get to look that athlete in the eye and ask, “So, how’d it go?” Whether a good outcome or a bad outcome, it’s the reaction that follows which tells me everything I need to know. Whether through tears or smiles of exhausted joy, I can see a runner’s passion.
I was fortunate to recently travel with one of my athletes, Mary Fox, to Gagliano del Capo, Italy, for the WMRA International Youth Cup – a championship-level mountain race for 16 and 17-year-olds. This would be her first mountain race, and she was cautious and nervous leading up to the race. I’d like to share the experience we carried with us from Italy.
Young athletes have the world coming at them at 100 miles an hour, throw a few plane trips, a language barrier, a bit of jet lag, you might as well make that 1,000 miles an hour. On top of that we’re asking these athletes to literally run right into it. This mounting pressure can crack the toughest kids.
What got me most was watching Mary’s perception change; every plane flight took her further and further from her comfort zone. When we landed we were greeted by team staffer Nancy Hobbs, who we both only knew by e-mail. She greeted us warmly and helped us get settled. The next day was when I really saw Mary grow and change.
We had been the first to arrive on site and waited expectantly for the other six members of Team USA – five athletes and another staff member – to arrive. In a comical fashion, the remaining team members all but poured out of the van that was bisected by a giant cardboard tube filled with banners for the race. Luckily it was only along for the ride during the last 30 minutes of the trip. Watching Mary meet her teammates took a weight off my shoulders. It was as if these girls had known each other from birth. It was only the next day that I knew I could truly relax and let her observe and analyze the course.
The goals for the following day were to dissect the course and learn the best places to pass fellow competitors, or safely recover from a climb. Coach Mark Weeks and Nancy were beyond essential to the team. I watched them talk athletes through the physical rigors, as well as the mental focus required for the course making it an absolutely critical component of race prep and strategy. The last technical climb had Nancy demonstrating a hands on knees technique that would allow athletes to lower their heart rate yet climb like goats – telling them to think about what was ahead and prepare mentally and physically for the final push.
I got into the van with the team and it was the first time since we arrived that I saw fear. However, the fear I saw wasn’t just on Mary’s face – it was in the eyes of all three boys and all three girls. It was a healthy fear, a respect for the course, and an understanding of what was in store for them come Saturday.
When we arrived back at the accommodations, the scene had gone from quiet and calm to a festival. This bit of chaos came from wave after wave of arriving teams. Each team stayed in different quarters on the grounds and soon flags, and towels were used to identify the country that had taken roost. It was a welcoming way to stake claim on the property, but no doubt a subtle way of marking territory.
It was over the next two days that I would see a calm come over Mary and the rest of the team. The team grew closer, and I saw in Mary true happiness – especially once she got in the sea. We allowed 90 minutes of easy swimming the day before the race to unwind and loosen up. Getting to swim in the Mediterranean was a major bonus for Mary and one that produced a big smile.
It was now the evening before the race and the opening ceremonies were officially upon us. As a spectator watching the parade go by, I got to see another side of what it means to be an athlete racing for your country and getting to show pride for a place you love. The true pride on the faces of these athletes with the stars and stripes held high had me feeling even more grateful for the opportunity to be in Italy for this event. I’m not sure if it was the sun shining in my eyes, or the humidity of the sea breeze, but a few tears may have found there way down my cheek. I was just really happy to be there. To be on centuries-old cobble streets while watching country after country wave their flag, shout, and chant; I knew what I was experiencing was special.
As the ceremony came to a close we headed back for the final meal before race day. I knew this was when we would do final discussion of the course, and go through the details. This is where so many athletes can overanalyze a situation and cause themselves significant anxiety, and literally lose sleep when it matters most.
To my relief the course talk was brief, and the details were covered, broad strokes were painted and the potential anxiety I was concerned about was lifted. I told Mary I wanted just five minutes with her before she turned in. On the walk back to her cabin I simply asked her, “So, what’s your strategy?”
In races past we’ve talked about splits, and breaking down races into digestible pieces, and dialing the race in mentally. It was as soon as those words left my lips that this paradigm shifted. She smiled and looked at me and simply said, “I’m just going to run.”
I knew at that point nothing more needed to be said. I left her by saying, “Stick with your team, and stay conservative on that first loop.” It was as we parted that I knew she was in good hands – she was mentally and physically ready. The words, “I’m scared,” were the furthest from my mind at that moment.
As the girls left their cabin on race morning, I could tell they were in Go-Mode. All three were a tenacious mixture of focused and relaxed – ready to unleash on the climbs, and race the downs – there was nothing left to be said. I headed down to the course early and gave Mary a quick hug, looked her in the eyes and said, “Good luck, you’re going to do great.”
I’ve found that in these moments before a race, it’s better to say less and mean it, than litter the conversation with anecdotes, or thoughts as they just clutter the mind. I didn’t want to break her focus.
I had positioned myself at the top of the junction to the first and second loop, so I didn’t see the start, nor Mary until she rounded the cobbles below me. She grabbed a water bottle like it was the only one she’d see all day. Throwing most of it on her chest and getting a few drops in her mouth before relieving the bottle of its duty. Her face held the persistent scowl of a person on a mission a determination that I had only seen in her most critical races. I knew she was giving it 100 percent, still conservative but pushing herself into a very tough place.
It was the moments prior to seeing her that I could feel the tension in the air from the other Team USA supporters. As mentors, parents and coaches we are inside the minds and bodies of our athletes. We know all too well that anxiety we feel as the gun is raised, fired, and the rush of the first 200 meters. As the teams stampeded through the course I could tell that everyone around us was waiting and anticipating. The moment Mary left, Myriah (Joslin’s mother), and I sprang into action to get to the next part of the course. Myriah got the jump on me and was leading the charge of parents and spectators to the road climb on the course.
We’re now in the final 500 meters. To reach us, the girls had descended the course and instead of turning at the cobbles, ascended them to a sharp left hand turn leading to a very technical hands-on-knees climb dumping out onto yet another climb, this one on pavement. Legs and lungs burning, the girls would crest a hill and quickly descend at full speed, before cranking a left turn up the final climb of the course. This is where races are made and lost – the critical moment.
The lead girl – an Italian – came past us having broken free of the pack she had been part of, and was striding up the hill knowing she had to simply hold on to maintain her position to the finish line. As Joslin turned the corner Myriah erupted in what can only be described as a highlight reel of motivation. As Joslin cleared the 500m to go mark – Soleil came through with a pack of girls – she was in distress but we could see that relief was on the horizon for her. We gave her a positive boost and saw her change gears one last time before the finish. In no time, Mary was coming around – heels high and arms pumping – this is what she came for. Notorious for her kick she withdrew the last remaining daylight between her and the next pack. A very exciting moment as I knew she had saved something. She launched an attack and cracked the whip at the top.
Myriah and I shot off in the opposite direction to catch the finish. We saw Mary cross the line and shortly there after crumple like a leaf. All three girls were bent over in exhaustion, grabbing water bottles to pour over their heads and down their backs to cool them from the nearly 90-degree heat . The finish line quickly went from celebration to triage as girls cascaded through the finish line, some staying upright, others collapsing. This race pushed these girls beyond there physical and mental limits.
It was here that I finally got eyes on Mary, and her exhaustion let only a small smile through, but a reward nonetheless. In true Mary fashion she said, “Well…I didn’t get last.” This was very true. Team USA would go on to finish 5th among the 13 scoring teams with Joslin finishing 11th, Soleil in chase for 18th, and Mary on a mission in 27th.
I asked Mary, “What would you change, what would you do differently?” Mary responded, “Nothing, absolutely nothing – that was everything I had.” Days later, I know this experience was worth every hour spent in flight, every mile run in training, and every careful decision made in planning.
We often hear the turn of phrase, “it takes a village.” It was our village that took us to Italy and gave way for us to prevail. I know Mary and I both want to thank the Fox Family for the support, as well as the team at Golden High School for sending along positive vibes and great training, and to the team of coaches and athletes at the Golden Running Academy. The send off pre-race was top-notch. Not to mention all the positive comments on Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook. I shared everything with Mary and it was always returned with a smile.
As a coach – I’m most thankful that I get to have these opportunities – they allow me to grow and better understand not just what I’m coaching – but who.
Andrew Simmons is an USATF Level 2 endurance running coach for Lifelong Endurance, specializing in ultra marathoners, youth, and distance runners. To find out more information on Andrew and Lifelong Endurance visit www.lifelongendurance.com, or on Facebook at Lifelong Endurance.