Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Book Review --> Harriers

Harriers: The Making of A Championship Cross Country Team , by Joseph Shivers and Paul Shivers. The two boys (cousins) ran on the Salem High School Cross Country Team. They were selected as part of the 2005 Fresh Writers program . The program encourages high school students to consider literary careers and funds a summer co-op program during which period this book was created.
Harriers is a story of trials and tribulations with an ultimate success. Told from the point of view of high school runners on the team, it reads well. I ran cross country for 6 seasons (2 high school, 4 college) and then having coached at the high school level for another 6 seasons. I found that a cross country team is always a diverse collection of characters. The challenge is for the coach to harness the energy and mindset of the group to focus on the collaboration and cooperation necessary for the team success. Coach Almond was new to Salem. Like most young coaches, he was a runner and familiar with some of Salem’s history. He makes this clear in his introductory talk with the team:
“I want to take this team back to where it was in 1993. My ultimate goal is for us to win a State Championship, and for Salem to go to state every year. I don't know about this year yet, because we are starting practices so late.” Late? The first race wasn't for nearly a month. “All the good teams start in early June. That's when we'll start next year. Really you guys should be running all year. I don't want a bunch of kids who are doing others sports that are doing run cross country ‘to stay in shape’. I want you to be committed to running. Because I want Salem to be the best.“  P 7
While I understand Coach Almond's reasoning for these statements, I don't agree with it. The success of the program can be measured in championship titles or banners, or it can be measured in the number of people in the program who continue to run for the love of running. He seems to be of the first school of thought. I prefer the later. Track and field has an advantage over most sports in that it truly can be open to anyone who wants to try. You can compete in running, hurdles, jumps or any of the throwing events. While cross country teams can be diverse, everyone does one thing together. Hence, I think cross country is probably the best single team sport.
Most cross country runners perceive that the outside world does not care about their sport. Beyond the casual congratulations from a teacher or neighbor, success generally goes unnoticed. They can run through miles of stinging rain to win a meet, but they will still get less newspaper ink than the local football team. The day can be beautiful, but most potential spectators would rather spend Saturday morning sleeping in, than standing around to watch a race.  P 17
The lack of recognition is inherent in the sport and American society. A good program can use this to their advantage.
The Quaker's began jogging around the field in the center of the racetrack. A wall covered with ads for beer and cigarettes encircled the dusty oval, and beyond that stretched acres of grass. The State Cross Country Course began and finished inside the stadium, before the crowd, but most of the race took place outside in the fields. Almond had run here three times, and explained the entire course as his runners jogged sections of it. There were no wooded paths and no spirit-crushing hills, just the stadium and the rolling plains around it. The Quakers knew it would was one of the fastest courses in the state.
The course began and ended on the infield of the racetrack itself, and contained two loops that stretched outside the stadium. Only coaches, athletes, and the press could get on the field; casual fans watched from the grandstand.  These spectators would all be cheering for their own hometown runners, but Almond told his boys that during the race, it would sound as if the entire crowd was cheering for Salem. P 71
The cross country course is the common item for all teams. No matter the preparations, and there are many ways to prepare, the course is the one thing everyone will run on. The weather needs to be considered as part of the course. It can transform a nice grassy plain into a quagmire or into a winter wonderland.
Once the four of them had finished brushing their teeth and performing their other nightly routines, they climbed into bed to rest before their biggest race so far. Almond had taught them that “the night before the night before” was the sleep that mattered, but Paul still did not want to be groggy the next morning. P 77
It was good to read this line. It had been passed down by my own coaches. I have written of it before as something that you need to consider as part of race preparation. It makes a good deal of physiological sense to me.
Virtually every cross country runner opens each race with a sprint to establish position. After a few hundred meters of sprinting, he settles into his race pace, the one he will maintain until he kicks at the finish. The experienced runners at State understood this process, most of the eventual winners took the lead in the first straightaway. Accompanying the lead pack were the overeager kids who were so excited to be at State that they forgot that the race lasted three miles. These tenderfeet would fall away from the frontrunners like scrap metal from a rocket upon re-entry. P 80
The difference amongst runners is defined (for me) along these two levels. One, in understanding the race and what it requires from the body. This comes from experience. You can be told this but it really doesn't make any sense until you actually run it and see what happens. The second in running with this level of pain, really discomfort. The better runners do so. It separates the cream from the crop.
During the post workout meeting, Paul decided to take the stage. Guys, I had a terrible workout today, he said as Almond looked on with curiosity. But I saw ten other guys run fantastic workouts and kill themselves for the team. So I have to say that today was a good workout because the team improved. Almond was stunned. He had perceived the boy as spoiled and self-centered. The speech surprised Almond but it was not an epiphany for Paul. He had run for his team in the past, shared success with them, been happy with their accomplishments. But now he was buying in completely, giving 100 percent to Salem, and keeping Paul Shivers’ success off the list of priorities. Paul made the statement for Almond to show him that Paul was no longer running for himself. P 103
On each team I have been on or associated with, I have seen this occur. Running is a good sport to bring about this kind of self-realization, self-understanding.
Ahead of them, their teammates continued their assault on the front pack. As the four Quakers nears the start of the second and final lap, they saw Almond and Wilson standing several feet off the course. “Neigh-eigh-eigh-h-h-h!” Wilson let out his trademark horse impersonation sending chills through the four. He had whinnied like that throughout workouts during the season, and to the Quakers it was almost a subliminal command to run faster. “Horses don't care about fatigue,” Wilson had said one day, “horses care about winning.” P 135
Good analogy here with the horse quote made effective with the mimicking of the horse sound. The effectiveness of cheering along a course is dependent upon hearing the cheer and reacting with it. The horse sound is different enough to make it stand out in a crowd and electric enough to spur some action.
The negative thought was finally changed into an “advantage” by Almond. “Do you remember last Monday, when we ran in 35-degree rain?” he asked the boys. “Everyone went even faster than his goal times. Weather doesn't matter; I don't want to hear about the weather.” That workout had showed Almond's fanatical side, his belief that every burden a runner takes on in training is beneficial. P 145
Coaches meed to be mindful of the mental state of the runners. As much as they would like to believe that cross country is the primary thing that the runners are concerned with, it hardly is. Running is a way to get away from family, school work, and life in general. Taking the opportunity to frame workouts in a positive manner helps provide the extra spark the runners can use to be at their best when the race starts.
He often preached about synergism, and how none of the Quakers would be as good without his teammates. The boys fed off each other's energy in workouts and races, and held out their hands for teammates who had fallen behind. In the two-minute intervals between repeat workouts, they encouraged each other and high-fived. They ate lunch together and hung out on Saturday nights. But beyond actions and activities, the boys shared a camaraderie forged over the months and miles. Several were each other's best friends. They sacrificed daily for each other, and --- more importantly --- the team.  P 158
Pick up Harriers. It will refresh your memory of those cross country days, or bring you into the exciting world of high school cross country. It may even inspire you to try a run through the woods.
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