Thursday, March 25, 2010

Blog Roll: Robert Chapman reports from XC worlds in Poland

Rob blogs on flotrack

Another beautiful day in Poland. It has to be close to 60 degrees this afternoon, and the athletes are all raving about the weather. Even Ben Bruce, a native Californian, was basking in the glory of doing a track workout today with no shirt.

But a strong chance of rain is in the forecast, and if it does rain, it will likely cause a drastic change in the way the race is run. The course is VERY flat, but is still a little soft from all the snow melt recently. I would compare the footing as being similar to the footing at the Terre Haute course, site of several NCAA Championships. It is a natural grass surface – definitely not a golf course, and if it rains, will be very soft and muddy the way NCAA XC has been in some recent years. There are several places on the course where sand has been trucked in to cover sections where the course was torn up (probably from the Polish championships) or to cover railroad track crossings. These areas are almost like running in beach sand now, and if it rains, will turn to soup. Many of the athletes here are hoping for rain, as the conventional wisdom is that it will slow the race down up front and make it more of a strength race.

You can sense some visible excitement from the senior women’s group about their chances Sunday for a team medal. They all appear quite fit. Metevier, Flannagan, and Lewy-Boulet each did a track session yesterday, and looked very smooth. Brown and Hastings had a session this morning at the track and said they felt good. I think it is very realistic to think they can get a bronze.

This concept of expectations is something that I am preparing to talk about with the junior men tomorrow night. It is an exciting time for US distance running, and these young men are going to a part of the continuing resurgence. But in races like this, there is always that balance between dreaming big and going for it, but also being realistic about what they can accomplish.

I used to talk each year to our incoming college freshmen (and I give a similar talk now to new post-collegiates to our Brooks Team Indiana group) about needing to constantly reset your limits. What you think is fast, is not fast anymore. Nine-flat for 3200m was pretty fast in high school. In both the junior 8k and senior 12k, the first 2 miles will almost certainly be run in under 9 minutes by the leaders, mud or no mud. Nine-flat is dime a dozen at this level. So for these young guys, there is this very delicate balance between knowing their limits and capabilities, but also preparing their mind and body to attempt to go beyond those limits in a championship setting.

Those of you who have read the book Good to Great may remember a section about the “Stockdale Paradox.” Jim Stockdale was the highest ranking US POW in the Hanoi Hilton prison camp during Vietnam. He survived something like 8 years, despite being repeatedly tortured and being singled out because of his rank and the burden of command. In the book, Stockdale talks about what enabled him and many other Americans to survive in truly awful conditions. In the end, what made Stockdale and these other men “great” was a two sided paradox – they had to retain an unwavering faith that they would prevail and get out in the end, regardless of the difficulties they were facing, but at the same time, they had to confront head on the most brutal facts of their current reality, whatever they might be. When asked who didn’t make it out of the camp, Stockdale replied “that’s easy – the optimists.” What he meant was, they guys who said (and believed with all their heart) that they’ll be out by Christmas, then when Christmas came and they were still imprisoned, fell into such despair that they didn’t survive their ordeal. Stockdale said that they “died of a broken heart.”

So what does this have to do with World XC? In many ways, the attitude that US distance running needs to have to progress to the point of being successful at this meet is encapsulated within the Stockdale Paradox. We need to keep a steady faith that we can come to this meet and win at some point in the future. But at the same time, we have to be rational and confront the reality of our situation. We can’t lie to ourselves. We can win this meet at some point, but we can’t put a deadline on it. We’re not getting out by Christmas…..

In the meantime, we have to keep the faith, keep developing the talent base that we have in the US, nurture the junior athletes over here, plus the new young talent like Smyth and Bahus, and we have to do everything we can to enable Flannigan and the big dogs to perform at their best on the day. The lesson I will try to give to the junior men is that being here is about both the process and the outcome. It is a World Championship and (like it or not) they are keeping score, so the outcome of what they do is important. But perhaps more so for them and the future of US distance running, I hope they will give equal weight to the process involved with being here. If they can come back to this meet as a member of a senior team, with the knowledge and experience of how to run with the world’s best, they might just beat the world’s best.


--Robert Chapman