Ohio State track and field and cross country head coach Robert Gary will represent the Buckeyes as coach of the Team USA junior squad at the 2011 IAAF World Cross Country Championships March 20 in Punta Umbria, Spain. Gary will be keeping a daily blog at www.OhioStateBuckeyes.com leading up to Sunday’s championship race, updating fans on the team’s progress and the experiences of competing at the sport’s highest level.
Sunday, March 20
Race day is finally here, and as you can see, Percy was ready!
I stressed the to the team last night to have everything set and ready to go so we could head to the course early (anybody who knows me knows how important that is to me). The junior boys started off well at the beginning of the day by barging our way onto the shuttle bus to the course — this was the first of several victories for the day.
A couple of the South Africans started playing music on their phones on the way over and the excitement began building. What a spectacle … Again, I was fortunate to participate in a couple as an athlete, but I may have been too focused to notice all of the happenings around me.
We arrived at the course about 90 minutes before the start. Different from most domestic races in cross country, the call room period is quite early and we were trying to mesh six different warm-up routines to get prepared to race. The guys did a very nice job and I was a bit surprised they weren’t more nervous — I know I was!
If casual spectators could see how chaotic and busy the call room is, they wouldn’t believe it. Again, the guys did a good job of going through their routines as best they could. The national staff members and all of the other team coaches were really helpful throughout the day. As an athlete who liked to wait until the last second to head into the call room, I should take this opportunity to apologize to all the coaches I had on the national teams! I am truly sorry to have put you through the stress of missing my race when its one of your primary functions.
Once the guys went into the call room, I tried to get water bottles to them by throwing over a little fence, but officials were not thrilled — they threw it back at me immediately and I was glad they weren’t armed!
I wanted to get out onto the course and I knew I was going to have to be shady to get into the infield so I could watch the guys up close. I preceded to hurdle two snow fences (easily the most athletic thing I have done since making the Olympic team in 2008) and assured a security guard that “I’m a junior boys coach”. If he understood what I said, he would’ve probably clubbed me, but I said it with such an air of assuredness that I think he was scared to bother me.
The race started and it was crazy — the boys 2k split was 5:20 and another African got it started with an agreed upon 26-flat first 200 meters. An ongoing bet we have been arguing is whether any of us could lead the first loop for a million dollars — this seemed even less possible upon witnessing things.
For our team, Craig Lutz was just off the very first pack and held tight throughout. A very nice grouping for our 2-4, and Justin Vilhauer attempted to move from the back (which he was successful in doing). One of the lows of the trip was watching Erik Olson suffering from injury, falling further and further back, and me having to persuade him to drop out around 6k. His competitiveness was certainly not questioned, as it was obvious he didn’t want to to post a “DNF”. I even texted Coach Dunn at Stanford and informed him I made him drop, because I was very concerned about him doing long-term damage at that point — his father agreed as we tracked him around the course.
Highlight of the day was certainly watching Shalane Flanagan, and moreso for me, watching the women’s team run as a “real” team. They packed up like college cross country and ran with every intention of winning a medal, which certainly left all of us involved excited and proud.
On a personal note, and being one of the very, very few weekends that I have free throughout the year’s entirety, it was awesome to see former Buckeye Brian Olinger in his USA gear lining up against the best in the world. From walk-on to Team USA is quite a journey (and hopefully just a start for the next two years)!
Overall, this has been a wonderful experience. I feel extremely honored, and I am beyond excited about my position at the world track championships this summer. It is hard being away from family, but I feel it will be good research for my son once he breaks the world record in both the 400m hurles and steeplechase!
Tomorrow may very well be the worst flight plan in the history of aviation (I am last to leave Chicago until every junior athlete departs), but the week was certainly worth it. Thanks to the junior boys team and USATF selection committee — I hope I did a good job.
Saturday, March 19
It is 9:00 p.m. in Spain. It seems considerably warmer than it has been since our arrival, though this could be a result of my gross lack of fitness.
We went to the course as an entire team for pre-race and pictures. The set-up here with the trails, location of hotel, etc. continues to impress me. There was a celebrity run today (I shook hands with Sebastian Coe and Fermin Cacho) and quite a few fans at the course. Those not familiar with European meets (cross country or track) would think them much more akin to college football tailgates as far as pageantry and partying. Several beer gardens have turned up at the course as well as little restaurants, games for kids, and more, which gives it a real festival-type feel.
However, the race is now inside 24 hours and you can tell the tone is starting to change for the four teams. I attended the technical meeting today and it was very short and concise. I think the NCAA should use the same protocol of written questions submitted 24 hours earlier that the meet management answers (or not) from the front with written explanation.
Tomorrow, my biggest job is to remind the team of the logistics of the call room and keep everyone together (and hopefully calm) in a very hectic environment.
I almost always try to pick three things to focus on for a pre-race speech — being careful not to contradict any of their coaches race strategies, I advised:
1. Get organized and packed tonight. This includes having your race numbers pinned on, spikes in and ready, medal stand suit packed, plenty of water bottles, etc. This cuts down on any last minute frantic moments that can affect performance.
2. Running for Team USA is special and you will remember it forever. This team is so talented, and I won’t be surprised at all if they make future national teams. That being said, all opportunities to represent your country are precious.
3. Stay PURPOSEFUL for the entire race. Be careful going out too hard, but be equally concerned with thinking you’re going to be able to roll up half the field over the last 2k loop. This course is much harder than I people think.
The floor is pretty quiet tonight, but I know there are some very nervous athletes lying in bed right now. I must admit that I am nervous as well, but mostly just excited to see how all the teams do and to watch the greatest runners in the world battle each other in the simplest sport there is!
The hardest race in the world is tomorrow — be ready!
Friday, March 18
Everything seems set and ready to go. It has been exciting as more and more athletes arrive. For Team USA, there are a number of personal coaches that have also showed up.
I really try to stay out of the way as far as “coaching” even the junior boys. Much more of my time is spent trying to just keep them informed of practice times, protocol, etc. Before we departed, I emailed everyone regarding specific training sessions.
Several Team USA administrators have remarked it the 2011 squad is one of the tightest teams they’ve ever seen. The other coaches sometimes have to track someone down from their team who may be on own for a bit, but the junior boys are always all together.
Most everyone ran easy today around noon and we then had a “cultural excursion” to go on tour of Christopher Columbus’s three ships. As an athlete, I always liked seeing the area, but I am certainly respectful of runners who don’t want to become drained or tired. This was a fairly short tour and it was pretty interesting. Honestly, I have no idea how CC made it — ships were very tight with a lot of people/provisions aboard (great opportunity for a picture right now, but had technological difficulties).
Back for dinner and had another team meeting to review pre-race day. Team pictures at the course will wrap up the day.
Thursday, March 17
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! There have been very few that I have not spent in Chicago, but beautiful weather in Spain will have to do. I left with distinct instructions for my son, Percy, to celebrate accordingly in my absence — not sure if that is Guinness in his sippie cup, but he enjoyed himself at the parade for sure.
Can’t say I didn’t feel the two-a-day from yesterday throughout the day, but I still managed another run. The vast majority of Team USA did some sort of short fartlek to get a feel for course as well as get to get their legs back underneath them in anticipation for the race. I had Brian do 4:00/3:00/2:00/3 x 1:00 surges on 2:00 recoveries. A few of the junior boys did some 1000 meter repeats in similar fashion. It is hard not to feel motivated with all the great athletes arriving and the course beginning to be set-up. They mowed the grass down quite a bit and positioned the logs onto the course. There will be three sets of thee, 18-inch high logs 1with 8-10 meter spacing on the 2k loop. They aren’t much now, but when you’re inside a pack or fatigued, they can become just one more potential rhythm breaker.
The set-up they have here is great for the athletes. All of the teams and even the parents of a few and their personal coaches all stay in the one resort – seems that everyone is here now, even the Kenyans, whose arrival was pretty coo). The resort is beautiful and meals have been excellent. You can turn out of the hotel and be on trails in 400 meters, or jogging to the course through the short cut I found takes about 10 minutes (junior girls can get there in eight). You can walk out the back of the resort and a 500 meter bridge puts you onto one of the biggest beaches I have seen – quite a few runners have begun using as ice bath fairly routinely.
We have dinner, team meeting, and planned staff meeting on the agenda this evening. The plan is to do something ‘cultural’ tomorrow to get team out of hotel, so I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes. Enjoy your St. Patrick’s Day!
Wednesday, March 16
As tired as I was at end of first full day after travel, I still didn’t fall asleep until midnight and awoke at 7p. This would usually be three hours more than I usually sleep in a night, but my typical first night in Europe is closer to 12 hours.
Brian Olinger and I made an early trip to the course this morning to run a couple laps. Based on our run, I think it is going to run a bit harder than most people are remarking due to 3×3 logs you have to jump per lap, fairly soft footing, and rolling hills. Having run at the world cross country level a couple times, I know that the competition forces you to be unable to run tangents and you have to be mentally prepared to “move” inside a huge mob of runners all having gone out very hard!
After our run, we came back for breakfast and our first full team meeting now that all the senior team had arrived as well. It is really exciting to be around the strong women’s team as they’re talking about trying to win a medal here!
Following the meeting, I killed time and held off a “nap” — which would’ve been five hours and been disastrous for sleeping later — by going over to watch U.S. senior champion Brent Vaugn complete a session at the course — he looked strong and ready.
With a practice with the juniors and my first two-a-day in probably five years looming, I stopped and had coffee on the way back. The team and I met up and jogged over to the course to give the junior boys a chance to see the course for the first time. I was forced to pretend like I was super coach and hold t-shirts while they ran, but I really needed the break from running. I pretended to “check out the course”, but in reality, I sat down on one of the long jumps and promised to get in shape again. This will undoubtedly mean tomorrow will be a day off…
While it might be a day off for me, tomorrow looks to be the day that most of the team will get in their last small workout before racing Sunday.
Tuesday, March 15
After more than eight hours in Chicago, a flight to Madrid highlighted by the movie True Grit and me being the only one to watch Cher and Christina Aguilera in Burlesque (I can’t sleep on international flights, so I’m starved for entertainment), and missing our original flight from Madrid to Seville, we are finally on a shuttle for the final 90 minute trip to the hotel where Team USA will be staying. As you can tell from the picture below, everyone is pretty wiped out and only the true insomniacs have still not yet slept. We will have a meeting for itinerary and team guidelines before getting out for a run, dinner, and some serious sleep.
Despite the long travel and delay, the trip went well. Ammar Moussa was the only one whose luggage didn’t make all the connections, but I’m confident it will be here tomorrow at the latest. Have to say he handled things very well!
If you’re interested and have some questions, feel free to email me and I will do my best to answer over the next week. We have an excellent staff and the athletes seem extremely excited. I’m very impressed by the camaraderie already — nothing like representing Team USA!
Monday, March 14
There has been a ton of traveling lately. Having just returned from the NCAA indoor track & field championships last night, I am now settled at the airport gate for the first flight of a long day; I depart Columbus this morning and then have a long layover to hopefully gather up the team in Chicago before an evening flight to Spain.
I am very excited for this meet as it is a much smaller group than last year’s Team USA squad. It is a great honor to have received the appointment and even as a coach, anyone who says they don’t get a special sense of pride when they receive their national team gear is either a liar or a silly person.
I have tried to stay in touch with the team regarding my primary function of logistics — most of the questions have centered around internet access and flight day(s). Obviously, I will try to facilitate any and all training needs of their respective coaches. At this point, it’s probably more important to monitor their bodies with the travel and try to focus on generating a race plan.
For those who have never run at a world cross country championship, it is a wild race. Somewhat similar to the NCAA Pre-National meet for athletes not looking to win, it is a real test to keep focus as it truly is the hardest race in the world — you could very well be having a great race, but find yourself buried in the field without being able to see the front of the pack. In this respect, it can be hard to not get down on yourself during a race!
To be honest, I’m not sure how the junior team will do overall, but we seem to have a very excited group with many of them remarking that they can land in the Top 30. If that were to happen, traditional scoring would place the team in the third or fourth-place range.
Joining me on the trip will be former Buckeye Brian Olinger, who will be competing on the senior team. This should be valuable for both of us, as Brian will have his coach alongside him as he competes and the team and I will benefit from his knowledge and experience. I’m hopeful the same scenario occurs this summer when I am the distance coach on the men’s side at the world championships in Korea.
More from Spain tomorrow!