Muscles tighten, expand and contract. Legs flex and bend while tendons stretch, only relieved when the athlete takes his next step. The hammering put on the body during a cross-country run only rivals the pressure put on the brain.
As the men’s cross country team settles into its 2010 campaign, not only will the athletes’ bodies take a beating, but their minds will as well. What is not always visible can often make or break an athlete’s performance in a race. As they take step after step, something has to cross these athletes’ minds. Senior Tyler Gustafson said more than one thing goes through his head.
“I think about a lot of stuff,” he said. “The pace is the main aspect I think about. Then where my teammates are. There’s a lot to think about between your pace and position in the race.”
Head Coach Jim Nichols touches on the metal aspects involved in preparing with the athletes, but it’s left up to each individual to make sure they are ready when it matters.
The runners like to pack up, as they find it beneficial not just for knowing where their fellow competitors are, but for moral support as well. This came in handy for graduate student Billy Way, who led the South Hill squad at the Penn State Spiked Shoe Invitational on Sept. 11.
“I ended up going out and running with [seniors] Dan Craighead and John Davis for about the first four miles,” Way said. “Just being around them, it was nice to feel the support of running in a group with them.”
Coping with injuries for most of 2009, Way said he had several thoughts, and even worries, going into the race.
“The race at Penn State was my first 5.2-mile race in a long time,” he said. “I was actually kind of nervous if I was going to pace myself OK and if I was going to come out too hard, so that was kind of in the back of my mind.”
Junior Dan Craighead said he often cannot even remember what he thinks about during the race, but he does believe the buildup toward competition is key.
“I try to think about everything I’ve done before the race to get ready,” Craighead said. “That gives me a lot of confidence, remembering how much work I’ve done and that racing is the fun part.”
By getting a map of the course beforehand and even arriving at the location a day before to jog the course, the athletes are given all the tools needed to be mentally ready, but distractions can run rampant — especially in cross country.
Where the team is in its season also can affect a runner’s mentality Gustafson said.
“How important the meet is, the amount of people in the race and the intensity of the race are all distractions that can take away from the primary focus,” Gustafson said.
Way said distractions can also come from pre-race activities. Runners have to get the right number to wear on the uniform, find their box and deal with the customary pre-race jitters.
Way said the biggest distraction can often come from a runner’s own body.
Way, who was a sport psychology major and ran track and field as an undergraduate, said he knows the feeling well, as he missed track events throughout his collegiate career because of injuries. Way, in his first season running cross country, said he does some visualizing the night before a race and tries to keep up his positive self-reflection to focus on the mental and physical grind from the start to finish.
“Obviously it’s not a very pleasant experience to put your body through a 5-mile sprint,” Way said.
As the Blue and Gold prepare for SUNY-Cortland’s Jack Daniels Invitational on Saturday, they will keep up with the fine tuning not only their bodies, but their minds as well.
“It’s not necessarily how hard a person can run,” Gustafson said. “But how hard they can run when they’re tired.”