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Return to X-Country Coaching – the Joy

The first hint of fall for most people is when evening temperatures drop into the 50s and you have to don a sweatshirt or sweater. In my case, all I need to do is see a group of high school or college kids running on a path or trail. It’s summer training yet in less than a month, we will see them daily for morning workouts. This is the 6th season that I have joined the ranks of cross-country coaches. I have written about some of the experiences over some past seasons. One thing rings true about cross country. It has a certain joy about it that sets it apart from track and many other sports. That joy brings me back

The late summer training in August is similar to the horse trainers in Virginia, Kentucky and elsewhere. For them it’s the two year olds on their first paced gallops. Do they have a possible 3 year old that can race? Before anyone cringes thinking that I am equating young horses with kids, just go with the sports metaphor and comparison. In August, we keep a keen eye out for the new freshman or the new student to the school who may have run track but skipped x-country his or her freshman year. Somehow it’s that first run beyond a warm-up jog that catches your eye. It can be how they stick on the shoulder of a veteran runner at the end of a rolling 5 mile run. Sometimes, it’s the look on their face after that first up-tempo 1200m circuit. They are not fazed, not doubled over in pain. There is no moaning and request to sit out the next interval. They merely give you that nod in the affirmative when you ask them if that felt OK. Not a lot of conversation. Just that nod and they walk over near the older kids on the team. That is when you know you might have something or someone who can jump in and contribute on the top 7.

Coaches are always looking and doing projections into the months ahead. Can that fair-haired freshman boy who is so thin you are afraid the wind gusts on an open plain will blow him off the course be able to stay health for 3 months of pounding and training for 5- 6 days a week? Will the junior girl assume the role you envision of her becoming that #1 runner? You see the speed and the gained strength. What will it take to convince her to push that first 2 miles in her next race and see what happens? Then you look at the freshman boy who has grown 8 inches in one year. He stumbles forward when he runs. He clings to a group of other freshman boys during runs. He just wants to make it and blend in. But you see something that brings back memories of a 115 lb. freshman with long hair and not much else. He blended in too. That blending-in carried on for a couple more years but then something clicked and that once semi-visible athlete was 20 lbs. heavier and light years more confident. He becomes your #1 runner and earns a spot in the State Meet. On this August day, you look at today’s awkward freshman boy and you pause a second time. You smile and tell him to hang in there. Compliment his form and tell him to put the shoulders back and relax those arms. You simply hope that maybe in 2-3 years, he will blossom and some switch in his brain will propel him forward to being a confident and competitive x-country runner.

The other joy of early season cross country coaching is the get-away to camp. For the West Springfield HS team (Springfield, VA), we continue a tradition that started almost 40 years ago by the long-standing coach who hailed from nearby West Virginia. His idea was to take away the top 12 runners of each gender and experience tough runs, learn to become a group or team and to lie out personal team goals for the coming season. For me, the escape to Cacapon State Park in Berkeley Springs West Virginia is cross country in its purest and most fun form. You survive a mountain run, enjoy several runs each day along streams, fields and forests, and relax with teammates and coaches. Each day is about running and getting to know your teammates and how a formidable top 7 can attack some goals and achieve success. During that week when the girls arrive first and then the boys take the 2nd half of the week in the rented cabin, the coaching staff also plots what could lie ahead for the fall season. We know that someone not at this camp is going to emerge and become a vital top 7 team member. It happens every year, so we have to plan or at least envision that occurrence.

The fall 2015 season begins. Over an 8-week period, we race quad meet or developmental meets that involve the JV boys and girls. The goal is fairly simple. Get each athlete to race faster than the last Quad meet and learn to run with teammates. Some of the fastest KJV runners point to the season-ending JV Festival Meet where it’s their last shot to earn a post-season roster spot. That meet concluded last week. Now our West Springfield team is preparing for the path to States as we always envision it. It’s not simply the Conference (formerly District), Regional and State meet in succession. We put the emphasis on “earning a State Slot” for the teams. That philosophy only goes so far. You need the talent to hit those times and places at the Regional Meet to get to States.

Our season. In a nutshell, we are doing better than expected. Our Boys Varsity team was the state 6A Runner-up one year ago with 6 seniors. It could easily be considered a rebuilding year, but we took saw that sliver of a chance that we can end up being a lot faster and better than expected. We won an invitational in North Carolina in driving wind and rain by one point. More recently, we got beaten up on a faster course with faster competition. We are hopeful that the semi-dead legs two guys exhibited have gone away. We could grab that final spot to States. The Varsity Girls has been like a patchwork quilt. Take a seasoned senior who has explosive 800m speed and coax her into thinking she can run a much fast 5K. Add in three juniors who may someday realize they indeed can run fast. Pump up the budding sophomores so they can possibly contribute and close the cliff-like gap between #5 and the #6-7 duo. Lastly, cross your fingers that the talented junior who splits time in the sport of soccer will give it her all in the post-season. When you add up that mix, we have a Girls team that can get to States.

So the Joy of cross country lured me back. It’s always something new each year as the faces and personalities change. The hills and rolling fields with a cut trail is all you need. Give me a call and I come back.

Weini and Drew – Can Two Virginia prep runners win National Titles in the same year?

From the same region of Loudon County Virginia yet one is far from home

Weini Kelati (center)

The role of the assistant coach in cross country regardless of age is similar. We assist the team and follow the direction of the head coach. Sometimes your roles are more defined due to your expertise. Then again you have to help the head coach in other ways especially if a world-class talent drops on your doorstep and you have to “not screw it up”. That is how I would initially feel if Weini Kelati had moved 30 miles further east of Leesburg Virginia. In the fall of 2014, a talented girl named Weini (Why-knee) moved to the U.S. to go to school while living with her uncle. She came from Eritrea, the former war-torn country adjacent to Ethiopia. She had credentials that would make any coach drool. That 9:06 3K for starters. Across Loudon County are two parents who have a large family of boys and girls, some adopted and the rest their own. They are both former star runners and were the coaches of Alan Webb, the American record holder in the mile, in his freshman year. Their eldest son Andrew or Drew is on the path to challenging for the Boys National High School title.

Drew Hunter

I had the privilege to watch the speed and determination of both Weini and Drew in a late season cross country invitational in Winchester Virginia. It was held on a course that saw over 1500 Civil War soldiers killed in the latter stages of the Civil War. It is aptly named the 3rd Battle of Winchester. The course is accurately measured assures the Meet Director, as fast times are produced almost every year. This year was no exception.

Weini blasted out the first mile in 5:05 or so and kept on pushing the pedal to the point she had a lead of over a minute coming to the final 200m. It was a minute lead over a no-slouch runner too. In 2nd place that day was the defending VA 6A State Champion and NXN Southeast Champion Rachel MacArthur. Another 40 seconds back was last year’s freshman sensation and 5A State Champion Heather Holt. Never had I seen 3 girls who were State Champions or the runner-up (Weini Kelati in VA’s 4A race in 2014) go head-to-head and finish 1-2-3. Weini’s time was 16:29 for 5K and shattered the course record set by a girl I helped coach 2 years earlier in Caroline Alcorta, now running for UNC-Chapel Hill. The time is the 2nd fastest time run in cross country this season in the U.S.

Thirty minutes later it was Drew’s turn. He did not sit back. Out he charged once the pack hit the trail in the woods that make up the battlefields of the 3rd Battle of Winchester. The 4:40 mile pace was fine with him. In fact, he dipped the pace into the 4:30s when it became clear he could run under 14:30. When he went by me he let it all out. The singlet and shorts were flying and he was too. His final time was a U.S. #1 time of 14:20

Keep an eye out on Drew and Weini. They may hail from different corners of the world, but their cross country success was born in Virginia.

The “Border War” turns 10

State vs. State Competition showcases the best of high school cross country

Wearing a singlet in high school means representing your high school team in track or cross country. It was a prideful thing. You were proud to be a Bruin, a Spartan or a Wolverine. The Battle of the Potomac XC Championship extended that thought to focus on the state or entity (as in the District of Columbia) where you came from. It was all about “repping your home”. Pride and state rivalry were the focus back in 2006 when American Running’s Dave Watt and his two co-chairs Hal Danoff and Bruce Gross came up with the idea to showcase the sport that is one of the best antidote to youth obesity and youth overweight. They used the Nike event “The Border Clash” as the model. Nike’s Chairman had provided financial support to the earlier American Running Honors Galas and the hope was that he’d continue to support a youth running event that was modeled after the one pitting Oregon vs. Washington in a high school x-country race. The first year took some barnstorming and just being a campaign huckster to convince kids, parents and coaches to give this new post-season running event a try. There were 115 willing runners in the first year. The dual start worked. The Red MD Nike Singlets vs the Navy Blue VA singlets made it appear to be an oversized dual meet. Throw in the fresh barbecue chicken that is the staple of Smokey Glen Farm and we had something.

Over the past 9 years, there has been steady interest each year to run the event simply nicknamed the “Border War. We use the name XC Border War on tees and web materials, yet everyone knows it is the “Battle” of cross country pride for the states of West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. They all border the Potomac River, hence the “XC Border War”

The 10th running of the Battle of the Potomac promises to be just like prior years. Sure there are athletes who come for the chicken dinner, others covet the Nike singlet and then others want to race the rolling hills and enjoy the trifecta of racing, a singlet and barbecue chicken.

For information, registration and photos go to

Enjoy the cool air and fall colors.

–The American Running Staff

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