As Green Day once said, "Summer has come and past." However, I doubt any cross country runner worth their spikes has ever said, "Wake me up when September ends." Gone might be the glorious days of summer running and the official morning practices that herald in a long listless August day. But September is when cross country starts to come alive, which really serves to cement its status as the best month of the year. The beginning of the school year slides cross country practice into its extracurricular spot and makes the balancing of school, homework, practice, fueling, hydration, and rest necessary. Still, Runners settle into the rhythm of racing, temperatures begin to dip (that is, except for Griak, which seems to be consistently, inexplicably, the hottest weekend of the season), trail runs turn into leaf collecting expeditions, and fitness begins to progress, with times not so far behind.
However, unlike the last 100 meters of a race, and despite what it may feel like at the beginning of September when your coach says, "The season is 1/5 of the way over!", the cross country season is not a sprint. There are 11 weeks from the first official day of practice (August 13) to Sections Week (October 21-27), and if Minnesota runners compete at State, Footlocker or Nike Regionals, that gives them a season that ends solidly into November. So although time does fly when you're having fun, the cross country season is hardly blink-and-you'll-miss-it fast. It's more like a 5K, with three parts, plenty of room to make up for error, and a few crucial moments where the likelihood of success can turn on a dime.
The First Mile: August 13-September 23
Where exactly your team's "first mile" falls in the season can depend on racing schedules and training, but for me every year the first couple races fall into this idyllic blur of warm weather, potlucks, team bonding, and lots and lots of bees. Like the first mile of a 5K, this is the fun part and it goes by all-too-quickly. For the first month of the season, most runners are getting back into the swing of things, remembering how to race, how to hurt, how to be disciplined, how to adjust their hydrating and fueling schedules with school. And just like in the 5K, where you can't win a race in the first mile (although you certainly can lose it), no team or runner can have a truly satisfactory season by performing their best in this first month or so. Still, here there is room for missteps-injuries, training adjustments, bad races-and room to shake them off.
The Second Mile: September 24-October 12
The "second mile" is undeniably where the grind sets in and where the fatigue starts to hit. Most runners have settled in to the familiar routines of runs, core, and stretching, but after over a month of strenuous training a little adjustment is required. In a proper peak, this is where times may begin to stagnate as runners try to break through to the next level of fitness. In the 5K, this is the place where it starts to hurt, and where the discipline built up earlier comes into play. For me, the second part of my season begins the week of the Roy Griak Invitational. The buildup for Griak carries through into November and all the way to Conference, which I think is a gateway to the final stretch of the season. This is a time to double down and prepare for fall's last crucial races, but the stakes are not do-or-die. In 2017, for example, our Edina girls squad finished eighth at Roy Griak, substantially behind Saint Michael-Albertville, only to come on strongly one month later at State to earn second place. The important part about this part of the season is that runners begin to look ahead and focus on what needs to be done in order to achieve success.
The Third Mile: October 12-???
For all that you could consider these last weeks the end of the cross country season, or the last 1.1 miles the end of a race, there are a lot of things to pack into this "third mile". Everyone hopes they will run their best at the end of the season, because that's when it matters. And it is true for many runners that seconds begin to fall off their times as meets like Grade Levels, JV Championships, Sections, and State roll around. Still, nothing is over until you cross the finish line. Come on too early, and a runner could spend State chasing their Sections performance-the equivalent of starting your kick only to fade before the line. Come on too late, and runners risk missing Sections or State altogether, or finishing only to feel like they could have done better. It's a tricky balance to keep, searching for the payoff to months of hard work and miles. Still, the reward for making it to the end of the season can be huge.
The end of the season is, thankfully, far away. A lot can happen in the months before November comes creeping around. This part of the season is a time to for teams to build up, to bond, and to prepare. For now, we should all enjoy September, but remember that as the weeks march on there's still a lot of fun to be had and time to improve. Especially as the weather gets colder (and better for running)!
As always, as we move through the season, if you have any stories you think should be shared, I'd love to tell them. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.