Saturday, November 9, 2013

ALL AMERICAN GIRL

Competitive running is a lot like baking a cake. Find the proper ingredients, mix them together, allow proper baking time, and finish with a successful product.

Baking involves the work of a human being and a bunch of inanimate objects. A baker has the desire to create a perfect dish. If a runner has the desire, dedication, and enough "baking" ability, success may be achieved at any age and at any level.

For the past seven years, I have had the privilege to serve as head cross country coach of Penn State Schuylkill, a branch campus of the Pennsylvania State University. Our campus, tucked away in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, has a population of only about 1,500 students. Often, it is difficult to attract athletes for a non-glamorous sport like cross country, but for the past three years, I have been fortunate enough to have coached athletes who have won our Penn State Athletic Conference State Championships, and qualify for United States Collegiate Athletic Association National Championships.

Last year, I coached a young freshman girl, who decided to begin her running career when she was a senior in high school.

Haylee Burnhauser immediately bought into my philosophy of "quality miles." Too often, in my opinion, coaches concentrate on long, meaningless junk miles, in this case, for races of 5 or 6K distances. Rather, we focus on shorter, high quality miles for our workouts.

Haylee runs hard almost every day, including in her workouts a steady diet of hills, and an weekly interval session. I never have her run over 6 miles in a training run.

In 2012, Haylee finished second in our state, qualifying for Nationals in Lake Placid, New York. As a freshman, I hoped she would gain valuable big race experience at Nationals. Instead, she ran a stellar second half of the race, held on the Biathlon course from the 1980 Winter Olympics, moving up more than a dozen places, for a 9th place finish, and earning Second Team All American status.

Having won her state meet in 2013, her expectations were high. This year's national meet was to be held on a golf course in Syracuse, New York.

The night before, at the pre-race banquet, Haylee received her Academic All American award. Besides her running accomplishments, she maintains a 3.60 Grade Point Average in a difficult radiology program.

Race day dawned with Syracuse-like weather conditions. Snow squalls reduced visibility to zero, and the winds swirled the frozen precipitation like a white tornado.

As the athletes warmed up, the snow had stopped, leaving a slushy residue on the slick grass. A biting wind reduced the brisk 36-degree temperature.

A savvy pacer, Haylee positioned herself around 25th place, within striking distance of the leaders, as she passed me at the quarter mile mark. Clad in tights, a headband, and wearing gloves, her strides were long and relaxed.

At the mile mark, which she reached in a time of 6:18, she had moved up to 12th place, with her strength, the final 2/3 of the race ahead of her.

The top three runners had broken from the pack, and the goal of the next few competitors was to place in the top seven, thus achieving 1st Team All American honors.

At the two mile mark, Haylee had moved up to 9th place, exactly where she finished last year. her strength, however, is usually lies in the final mile.

Family members, and friends, who had donned "Haylee" T-shirts, lined the final half mile, cheering wildly. Her anxious coach positioned himself at a spot with approximately 100 meters to go. As I counted, she had moved up to the coveted 7th place, but...a strong, determined runner bore down on her. Animated and loud, I implored her to "Drive right through the finish line."

She did.

With long, loping strides, she covered the 6K distance in 24:58, a personal best, 1.8 seconds ahead of the 8th place finisher. She had run a gritty, determined race, in miserable conditions. She had adhered to my mantra of having "Confidence in your training."

Haylee Burnhauser, Academic All American, was now a First Team Athletic All American. And, she's only a sophomore.

That's icing on the cake!