Cross-country runners typically increase mileage throughout the season to improve their times. But for senior Chris Gutierrez, the key to success is working smarter, not harder.
The cross-country runner has always been fast, but he has improved significantly since his freshman year. As a freshman, his first 8K was 30:58.4, and he did not score once during the cross-country season. Three years later, he’s averaging a 27:15 and scoring in every race.
The New Jersey native began his running career early, in sixth grade. At Hopewell Valley Central High School, Gutierrez won varsity letters in cross-country and indoor and outdoor track and field. He said he developed a critical attitude about his running in high school and tended to overtrain in an effort to improve.
“There’s always something that I could have done better, I could have always worked harder, I could have pushed myself more,” Gutierrez said. “This type of mindset can be helpful in moderation, but in the way that I used it, it became more negative than positive for me.”
He said his overtraining led to a series of injuries. In his senior year of high school, Gutierrez suffered a hip flexor injury, which prevented him from running for six months. He said it was difficult to watch others drop time while he lost time in recovery.
In his first meet as a Bomber, he said, he ran the worst race of his career, and later that day, because he said he was so devastated with his performance, he went to the weight room for two hours. Eric Sambolec, assistant coach for the men’s cross-country team, found out and from that point forward kept an eye on him.
Gutierrez said he took two months off from running during his freshman year of college to heal a stress fracture in his foot and lost more time his sophomore year recovering from mononucleosis.
He said there were times when Sambolec would force him to stop early during workouts in his freshman and sophomore seasons to prevent further injury.
“As a runner, pushing yourself harder and harder every day will really not make you better,” Gutierrez said. “If anything, you’ll get burnt out and more tired, and your body will not get stronger.”
Cross-country head coach Jim Nichols said injuries are particularly difficult for distance runners to deal with because they rely on consistent training to perform well in meets.
“At the start of his junior year, I gave him a simple goal: to be healthy for 12 months,” Nichols said. “I didn’t care how fast he ran, I didn’t care what type of performance he had. Yes, I wanted him to do well, but my goal was for him to stay healthy.”
In February, Gutierrez hit the 12-month mark. Two months later, during the track and field season, he dropped almost six seconds off his personal record in the 800 meters.
“That was huge for me because my entire collegiate career I was running 2:02; I finally broke a barrier,” Gutierrez said.
Sawyer Hitchcock ’16, Gutierrez’s coach-assigned “brother” from his freshman year, said in the beginning of his collegiate career, Gutierrez wanted to run well, but his legs couldn’t keep up with his mind.
“Now, his body has caught up to what his mind wants him to be able to do,” Hitchcock said. “Time has been good to him.”
Encouraged by both his spring performance and having one last year to race, Gutierrez said he committed to training over this past summer.
“I was very focused,” he said. “I made sure I was doing everything right, eating right, sleeping right. I think that’s been one of the biggest reasons I’ve improved this season.”
In order to get faster, Gutierrez said, he focused on the little things over the summer. He did extra push ups and abdominal workouts, stretched after runs and concentrated on eating the right foods.
He said he believed the biggest indicator of success was his weekly mileage. After waking up at 5 a.m. to go to his internship in New York City, he would come home, totaling about 80 miles each week.
In the team’s first three races, Gutierrez has been the Bomber’s second-scoring runner twice and third-scoring runner once. As regionals and nationals approach, the changes in Gutierrez’s times will be critical for the team.
Gutierrez’s goals for the season are to go sub-26 in the 8K and have the team qualify for nationals. Last year, the Bombers placed fourth in regionals, missing nationals by two places. Gutierrez said qualifying has been his goal since freshman year.
“This is it,” he said. “I’m trying to do everything right because I’m not going to have another chance.”