Mind Games

Nov. 2, 2001

by Jack Ferdon, writer
The Santa Clara

Cross-country races are the foreign films of spectator sports.

If they were televised, they'd get lower ratings than C-SPAN or a hockey game. The only people who go to watch a cross-country meet are either related to or going out with one of the runners. To the average sports fan, cross-country is just plain dull.

And it would seem that the sport is equally boring for the runners themselves. While soccer and basketball players run miles during the course of a game, they get to think about what their next move should be: jump, pass, shoot, etc. But cross-country runners' only options are to run and run faster, which doesn't do much to relieve the tedium. Or so it appears.

But a closer look reveals that the boredom of the long-distance runner doesn't exist. The members of Santa Clara's cross-country team have plenty to occupy their mind during the five rugged miles they normally race.

For one thing, they're not out there on auto-pilot, just letting their bodies stride along. The runners study the other teams at the meet to know whom they should be ahead of and they keep this in mind during the race.

"You're always looking ahead during the race to see who is in front of you," junior Jenny Smokey said, who helped the Broncos take the WCC championship last weekend with a seventh place finish.

Junior Thomas Chapman, who placed fourth at the WCC meet, agreed.

"If you see the guy you are supposed to be ahead of, you need to pick him off," he said.

But cross-country runners don't just try to run faster to beat an opponent. They can dip into the runner's bag of tricks to help their team.

"Sometimes I run fast up a hill just to tire out the guy who's with me," Chapman said.

So, like football and basketball teams, a coss-country team needs to have a good game plan before it heads into a meet.

"A lot of racing is strategic," sophomore Benjamin Gauen said, an eighth place finisher last weekend. "If you space out just for a moment, you can be out of it like that."

Racers also need their wits to keep themselves from slowing down or stopping, which their bodies desperately want to do. Last weekend, the men ran about five miles at a clip of about five to five and-a-half minutes per. The women ran almost three miles at a pace of six to six and-a-half minutes. That's fast. The runners can't do this without ignoring their bodies' pleas for mercy and putting themselves through pain. So toughness is important, too.

"Mental toughness is the most important part of racing," Smokey said. "A lot of times you're in pain and you want to stop. So the toughest runner is the one who is going to win the race."

Other times, however, it's the body that tells the mind what to do.

"I like to stay relaxed during a race and listen to my body," Gauen said. "When you hear that impulse that tells you to go for it, you've got to go."

But it's not always easy to concentrate on all this stuff. For example, Chapman has had trouble with tunes that get stuck in his head.

"It's usually a song one of the guys was singing during warmups," Chapman said. "I'll have the beat going with every footstep. I have to run at a quicker pace just to get rid of it."