Longwood Athletics: The offseason that wasn’t

longwood logoBy Catherine Hanson
Longwood Head Cross Country Coach

All seasons must end, not only for the body to recover after withstanding the grind of a full cross country season, but also to allow our student-athletes to shift their focus to academics. Typically our season tapers off just as classes ramp up preparation for final exams, and it’s important to give my athletes time to work out of the mental rut that a semester’s worth of 7 a.m. practices can create.

Recovery and reflection are crucial pieces of an athlete’s development, but those processes begin only at the completion of a practice, race or season. Every athlete will tell you their sport is the most grueling, but – and I am admittedly biased as a longtime competitor in various forms of marathon – cross country is a special case. The sheer volume of work that runners put in every week during the season takes a significant physical and mental toll, and it’s normal – and healthy – for any athlete to want to take a breather, if only for a short time.

Even after a 2014 season in which we hosted a remarkably successful home meet on the Longwood Golf Course, placed eighth at the Big South Championships thanks to a COMPETITIVE effort from our men (CAPS intentional!), set eight personal bests at the Lehigh Invitational and nine more at the University of Richmond, I knew my runners needed a break. At least, that’s what I thought would be the case.

I always hold individual meetings with my runners on the bus ride home from the regional meet, which this year was in Louisville, Ky. I typically go over what each runner could expect over the coming weeks in terms of training and weightlifting, give them my perspective of their season and talk about what areas they need to improve on to develop going forward.

But as my runners rotated in and out of the seat next to me, I realized with each exit interview that I didn’t want this season to end. This was the best season of my 12-year coaching career, and how could I – as their coach – want a season of so many career bests, academic accolades, team pranks, shenanigans, dinners and activities to end? It turns out, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

A lot of our athletes run a turkey trot after the season ends, which I begrudgingly support despite my concern of how preparing for yet another race affects them in the face of upcoming final exams. This year our team was on track to post a GPA over 3.0, so I was prepared to give my blessing for the turkey trot once again. That’s when my men’s team threw me for a loop. They wanted to keep practicing. Every day. At 7 a.m. Voluntarily.

The majority of my guys, who had just capped a grueling season of six meets and whom I had just sent on their way with a proverbial “Atta boy, get’em next year” pat on the back, wanted to keep up the grind.

Athletes at this level are unique animals. Those that want to be successful will be. Athletes who want to train will find a way. Faced with an entire team telling me that they wanted to keep working and continue to do so as a team…who was I to stop them?

That Tuesday, I shivered through a dimly-lit, 23-degree morning and walked into our team room where I found those same runners, dressed and ready to go. I knew then I had a special group. I only became more certain of that later when we did our last 1,200 repeat on River Road and I watched that squad huddle together and chant “GO WOOD.”

Two weeks later, I was enjoying family vacation over Thanksgiving break. I received a text from one of the guys about the Foot Locker Regional meet, which four of them opted to compete in. They did so in homemade uniforms as unattached participants, since technically they could not compete as a Longwood team. But despite their affiliation as individuals, they went as a unit and banded together to post four 5K personal bests.

“Wow,” I thought. What an amazing group of dedicated runners to put the effort, resources and energy into going to this meet and running the best race of their lives. It was a testament to what we have created as a team, a testament to what potential these young men have and a coach’s realization that some seasons can be the best in her career and they don’t come in winning championships all the time.

The Monday after Thanksgiving, I sent a reminder email to the team that it was now time to rest. Track season will soon come. Nothing will be lost that can’t be regained. Fitness will come easy with what the squad has.