Another Year, Another Successful Season: Cross Country at YU
“Now bid me run; and I will strive with things impossible."
Tuesday, 6:10 a.m. It's 35 degrees outside. I have a midterm today. I went to bed at 1:00 last night. It's really warm in my bed. But none of that matters now. C'mon eyes. Time to open. It's time to run. Alright Nike, I'll Just Do It. Alright Under Armor, I Will. With my body still sore and aching from the 12 miles I ran on Sunday, I lace up my shoes and get ready to meet the rest of the team for Tuesday's speed workout at the track by Yankee Stadium. By the end of this workout, most of us will collapse flat out on the edge of the track. Some of us will dry heave, but we probably won’t throw up - we know by now not to eat too much the night before a speed workout. By the time lunchtime rolls around, we'll be ready to go back to sleep, but no such luck. It’s on to a full day of class. Just another day in the life of a cross country (XC) runner during the season.
Tuesday, 1:30 p.m. It's 97 degrees outside. It's the middle of July, and it's humid. The Sunday run was 14 miles this time. I've been making sure to drink plenty of water since yesterday, knowing this run was coming. Maybe I should've woken up early to try and beat the heat, but too late for that now. At any rate, it's important to train in all conditions. Or so I tell myself, trying to justify sleeping in a little. Time to head over to the track, to run 12x400m in heat that has me sweating before I even start moving.
For the men and women of Yeshiva XC, this is what the cross country season looks like. Training is hard and unrelenting, and these months become a constant struggle to maintain the balance between pushing ourselves to the utmost while avoiding injury and overstress. For a competitive runner, that little twinge in the Achilles tendon that refuses to go away can quickly turn into acute tendonitis. The nagging pain in the shin might just be a stress fracture. It’s a constant dance to stay fit and healthy, and just one more challenging factor in the life of the competitive runner.
Training begins in earnest around mid-March. By the time pre-season training camp comes around the week before semester, the team plans to run a 65-70 mile week. This objective does not happen overnight. Week by week, the team builds the mileage slowly and carefully, getting to an average of 50 miles a week during the summer. The Sunday long run builds up to 14 miles during the summer; Monday and Wednesday runs to about 8 miles. Tuesday is speed day, meaning around 6 miles of grueling sprints and repeats at the track. Thursday is a hard tempo run, Friday a shorter recovery run, and Shabbat a much-needed reprieve.
In 1978, John L. Parker wrote a small novel called Once A Runner, trying to capture the heart and essence of the competitive runner. "You don't become a runner by winning a morning workout,” he wrote. “The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many days, weeks, months, and (if you could finally come to accept it) years. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials. How could he make them understand?” Originally sold out of the trunk of his car in race parking lots, Parker’s novel was destined to become a cult classic, a must-read for the aspiring young runner. For new guys on the team, we joke that it's mandatory reading, and counts as team practice. For us, Once A Runner reminds us of what it takes to improve. I think that’s the hardest thing for people outside the sport to understand. When people see us stretching outside of Rubin Hall after a run, we often receive the question, “Oh, is there a YU Running Club?” For many people, running is something everyone does. Plenty of people run regularly to stay in shape and keep the stress off - just look at registration numbers for the thousands of 5K’s, fun runs, and Turkey Trots across the country. But for us, running has transformed into something more. Sure, running keeps us in shape. Sure, we enjoy it. But somewhere along the way, trying to hold a 6:30/mile pace for 12 miles, running starts to represent more than just a way to stay in shape.
This year, the YU men's XC team captured the HVMAC (Hudson Valley Men’s Athletic Conference) title for the fifth year in a row, with an average team time of 30:06 for the 8k course. Dov Levine, Yitzy Markel and Yossi Lipton were all named athletes of the week or month by the HVIAC (Hudson Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Conference), and All-Skyline team members. Over the course of several hard years, the YU XC team has grown to be a force to be reckoned with, and our runners regularly finish in the top ten spots of our races.
When we line up at the starting line of a race, nervously adjusting our spikes and checking our Garmin watches, there is no fooling ourselves. In this way, running is not like any other sport. There are no lucky breaks on these five miles. There are no excuses. The only thing that matters now is how much more worn out your shoes are than when you bought them. It brings to mind another memorable line from Once A Runner: “What was the secret, they wanted to know... And not one of them was prepared, was truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes.” All that matters now is if you pushed the pace on that speed workout that summer, if you kept to those 55 mile weeks during the heat of August. The beauty of cross country, as well as one of its greatest draws, is the dedication it takes to improve. Cross country is listed officially as a fall sport, but that's really only part of the picture. For every one of the five miles that we run in a race, we have run hundreds if not thousands of miles in training. There are no magic tricks or shortcuts, no burst of adrenaline or 5-hour Energy that can mask a lack of training. If we slacked off during the summer - if we missed one too many runs during season, or didn't get in our miles - it'll show. The satisfaction of a season of XC does not come in a sudden burst of glory, or even at the finish line of a race. It comes only in retrospect, from looking back at the calendar and seeing how far we’ve come.
Scott Jurek, legendary ultramarathoner who has won almost every race longer than 100 miles in the world, writes in his book Eat and Run that "Running is a hard, simple calculus. Run until you can't run anymore. Then run some more. Find a new source of energy and will. Then run even faster."
Shuey Mirkin (YC ‘17) has just finished his second season with the YU Maccabees Cross Country team. During this time, the Macs placed first in the HVIAC conference twice, and finished second and third in the Skyline conference, respectively.