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Developing a Tougher Runner

My first day of freshman practice at Iowa I arrived thirty minutes early, the rain which had fallen all day slowing my travel time, my father's dictum "always be on time" ringing in my ears. I was grateful when I finally stepped inside the Recreation building and was out of the downpour.

Coach Cretzmeyer was walking towards me as I examined the day's "5 x mile" workout on the cross country bulletin board. I was curious where we would practice. It was probably too wet and miserable to run outside - the 4:45's times he scheduled would probably be closer to five flat if we tried them under these inclement conditions. I turned to Cretz.

"Hey Coach. Are we doing the workout upstairs on the indoor track?"

He looked at me and grinned, his eyes mimicking the expression on his face. "Nope, where we always do them - at the golf course."

I quickly learned, that as long as there wasn't lightning (& sometimes when there was) we ran outside - even in torrential rain. Also, it never too cold to run outside, despite temperatures that started with a minus. With a smile, he claimed that's why the equipment manager provided us with sweats, stocking hats, and mittens.

"But it's..."

Cretz had an answer for everything. Snow pelting your face - wear a handkerchief. The thermometer is at +2 degrees - put on extra layers. It's lightning outside - stay away from light poles - although as a coach I never had the athletes run in such an environment.

Sometimes you have to show your runners how toughness is developed. It's not just by pushing yourself. It's by practicing in the worst of conditions - whether rain, or snow, or cold or even heat - letting them know it is just another obstacle that can and will be overcome.

If frigid winter winds were blasting out of the north - we ran south. If it was raining cats and dogs - there were dry shirts waiting for us in the van. If temperatures were below twenty, there was extra clothing. If it was hot or humid, we had water stops throughout the workout.

My athletes never asked if we were going outside - because they knew we were.

Teach your runners toughness isn't inherited. It has to be earned. I'm certain my athletes thought I was a little crazy. But in the years that followed, did they ever say I was cruel or demanded too much of them? Nope. Instead, they spoke proudly of the adversity they could handle.

I couldn't have been more disappointed when some of the runners in the women's Olympic Marathon Trials started a petition to change the time to 7am or 8am instead of the noon start (it's now at 10am) in Orlando - that it would be too hot - those complainers never considering TV money and exposure would be lost because they couldn't adapt.

In my opinion they don't have the toughness to be an Olympian, are unwilling to adjust to challenging conditions. Sure. You can run on the treadmill when weather sucks - but there are downsides. What happens if it's 91 degrees on race day? How about zero with a windchill of -19? The rain is coming down sideways and the course is filled puddles?

Is the race on a treadmill? The women in the picture above handled it.

I coached a high school team after I retired from college. I realize there are more constraints at this level. But to say it's raining too hard, or it's too hot, or too cold - not going to happen. We adapt, and we are safe. Provide constant water breaks. Ride alongside runners on cold days. Because the adversity is one way we develop toughness.

That's why runners in Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and the Dakotas always seem to do so well, states which have produced many Olympians - despite the adverse winter conditions. They prosper in weather many don't have the courage to face.

Roy Griak, the great University of Minnesota coach had a lot of adages, but he saved his highest praise for the runner who was, as he said with a smile - "snot-nosed tough." Would willingly face the worst of conditions or toughest of competition with no complaints.

Ask any of his former athletes if they were described as such. I guarantee it was a moniker they were proud of because it had been earned the hard way. Your athletes can earn that same sobriquet by facing a little more adversity. In the long run they will be happy they did.

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