Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Annual freak-out

This seems like a good time for the annual reminder that the first few races of any cross country season are practically irrelevant, especially at the high-school level, and that apparently subpar efforts do not signify a lack of fitness or preparedness (excepting obvious cases, e.g., your kid doesn't train at all and decides to run the first race in scuba flippers). Feel free to point out a running idol who performs nearly as well in early September as he or she does ten or twelve weeks later; I'll be happy to add this to my database of such athletes, which is currently empty.

This is sort of a corollary to the "times don't matter" in cross country. Yes, they matter to a small extent between races on the same course, but that's it. Despite winning the Meet of Champs my senior year, my high-school team suffered significantly from having a coach who never shut up about heart rates and paces. The kids who ran well that November were the ones who couldn't do, or didn't give a shit about, math. I wasn't one of them.

This annual early-season panic qualifies as an epidemic and needs to be blasted into nationwide remission. Cross-country racing is very hard. If you're convinced you should be able to make immediate hay of the fitness you've gained in the summer, you're delusional. This doesn't even happen in track season, during which the ugliest variables have been neatly discarded. Please spare yourself the agony of fretting.

An invitational held in Nashua, N.H. today underscores this point perfectly. The course is the same one used for the New Hampshire Meet of Champions. Last year, the team that won this invite, Concord, also went on to win the Meet of Champions (Concord's first win at the MoC since 1987, when no one I know today was even alive). Concord was far and away the dominant team in the state, and the best to come long in New Hampshire in at least a decade.

Last year, their top five averaged 16:32 at this invitational. At the Meet of Champs, with the same runners at its disposal, Concord averaged 15:53. These are kids who were doing some unlikely mileage and long runs of 17-18 miles in the summer.

Today, Concord's top five averaged 16:02 in winning. (Bad news for other New Hampshire teams: their 6-7-8 kids, all of them underclassmen, finished very close to their fifth.) That looks like a slip from the 2017 MoC, but unless this squad winds up as part of a cholera outbreak before this years' edition, those kids are going to smash some event and venue records. Fortuitously, I'll be around to see the Div. I State Meet (10/27 in Manchester), the MoC (11/3 in Nashua) and the "New Englands" on 11/10 (also in Manchester).

On a non-trivial side note from this morning, Nashua South sophomore Cali Coffin, who was very good but not phenomenal last fall, stunned the 2017 "New Englands" and Nike NXN-NE champ, Julia Robitaille, by running away with the race in 17:21. (Julia ran 17:05 last fall on the same course at last year's MoC.) As a consequence of the attendant kamikaze start by most of the field, a senior girl whose training I have overseen in the past named Sarah Maple trucked through a 5:35 opening mile and hung on for 6th in 19:06, her fastest XC time. A year ago at this time, Sarah didn't even break 5:50 for a mile on the track until last winter as a junior. She led her Groton-Dunstable (Mass.) team to second place. Also, this might have been a case of some squeaky wheels getting greased; Sarah, her team's captain, asked me about a month ago if I knew of any nearby early-season invites held on fast courses, and I suggested she have coach look into this one without having any idea at all of they could let a Massachusetts team. (Groton is right on the Mass-N.H. border, no more than 20 minutes from Nashua.) Sarah's reward for being proactive in this way was the best race of her career, although after her season is all wrapped up come late November, 19:06 will look positively pedestrian.

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