There is no such thing as an “offseason” for distance runners. Cross country sets you up for indoor track, and indoor track sets you up for spring track. We runners only get a few weeks off before we are back on our feet training all summer. Running is a lifestyle; it tests your limits and your threshold for pain both physically and mentally. I believe it made me the man I am today.
For some people, running comes natural to them, while others have to work a little harder to get to the same goal. I believe that no matter how much talent you have, it still requires self-motivation and a lot of hard work to get to the next level. For me it came naturally, as I started running track when I was seven years old, and I was eight when I joined my first cross country team. Thinking over all my years of running, one season in particular stands out in my mind.
My junior year in college started off a little rough. I had a great summer of training and I was expecting to light it up once cross country season got into full swing. Our team usually fired on all cylinders when we got back to school each fall. Training was great those first few weeks because everyone was excited to be back. I think it had something to do with running in groups and talking about their summer, and in that excitement we forgot about the pain in our bodies.
This particular season I decided I would run with a teammate whom I trained with all summer. Just like him, I never considered myself a cross country runner–I was more of a miler on the track–but I was able to hold my own in an 8k or 10k race. After several weeks of solid training, we ran our first cross country race.
It did not go well for me.
My expectations for myself were high, based on the training I had put in, and I had to force myself to put it in the past. I knew I shouldn’t let the first race get to me…after all, it was early in the season. By mid-season, however, I was getting a little nervous since I still wasn’t racing as well as I expected, but it seemed like my coach knew something that I didn’t.
One particular race turned everything around for me.
It was a cold and rainy day. The course was also hilly and muddy, so I knew we wouldn’t have the best footing. I was patient during the first half of the race, staying towards the middle of the pack, being careful not to run too fast on the hills. I knew I would go into oxygen debt quickly if I didn’t relax. The relaxation and patience paid off in the second half of the race; I passed my opponents one by one and finished with a pretty big kick. My time was slow, due to the conditions, but I was happy about result. It felt like I turned a new leaf, and sometimes that’s all it takes. From there, I got stronger with each race for the rest of the season.
As I mentioned before, I’m a miler on the track…not really a distance runner. At best, I can hold my own on the cross country course; a good race for me meant being number four or five on the team. Given that most of the season I was around sixth or seventh (with the exception of the last few races), my coach thought it would be a good idea if I was an alternate for the NCAA Regionals in Kentucky since the race distance is bumped up from an 8k to a 10k. He knew that I was a miler, and running a 10k might have been a little out of my range.
The seventh guy on our team was sick a few days before the trip and really didn’t sound too great the day before the race. My coach took me aside after doing our pre-race run and mentioned that I should be prepared to go out and race the next day. I told him that I came on this trip and have been prepared to run all season so if he needs me to fill in, I was his guy. The next morning, coach told me “You’re racing.”
This meet was no joke. Unlike most of the season, NCAA Regionals had us running against athletes who eventually went on to go professional, and some even went on to the Olympics.
When the starting gun went off, the race went out faster than any 8k race I have ever been in. The first mile pace was around 4:45. I knew that it was a fast course, but I wasn’t sure if I could handle this pace. I finally found a teammate, the same guy I trained with all summer, and we worked together and settled in knowing that it would be just a matter of time before some of the pack came back to us after going out so fast.
We were right.
Halfway through the race, my teammate and I were leading our team. While this was great for us, it meant the rest of our team was not doing so hot. Two other teammates came together with us and we worked with them for a little bit as they moved up towards the front of the race.
My time through 8k was 25:50, which was my fastest all year, and I remember feeling great. I finished the last 2k with a strong kick and a personal best 10k time, as well as being the 4th guy on the team. Our team was 10th overall, which was our personal best in the last 4 years so we were all very happy. My coach told me I really stepped up big when it counted, and from then on he knew I was a different runner during championship season.
That race and season set me up perfectly for a track season filled with personal bests, a conference championship, and an opportunity to compete at NCAA Regionals in the 1500m individually. In the end, it didn’t matter how I started the season, because sometimes all it takes is one good race to turn everything around.
My high school coach always said that when you have a bad race, it just fuels the fire for your next race. I always remembered that through my running career.
Editor’s note: While this story is about Anthony stepping up out of his comfort zone (from track to cross country), it should be noted that he was an exceptional miler. His personal best 1500m run was 3:46. After graduating with honors, Anthony went on to become a licensed CPA and is now an accountant for a private equity/hedge fund in New York City. He attributes much of his success to the self discipline he developed from collegiate running. When asked if he recommends college athletics to young athletes, his answer was “Without a doubt.”