Last Thursday I spoke with a group of female cross country runners at a suburban high school just southwest of Chicago, in reality to promote my books - but I came away from the session with another notion. One that we as coaches need to sell more often.
At the end of my talk I offered my second book to the runner who could identify the world record in the women's mile. Hands shot up, the few extroverts in the classroom willing to take a stab. I heard 5:07, 4:58, and 4:40 from various girls, guesses petering out as I continually shook my head. A runner on the JV squad shrugged her shoulders, taking a crazy stab with a 4:08. I nodded.
I quickly followed up, asking how many could break 62 in the 400m? Two hands went up. "Well Faith Kipyegon ran even faster than that four laps in a row." The whites of their eyes were as big as frisbees, each person calculating the enormity of the accomplishment.
This morning's amazing performance by Tigist Assefa in the Berlin Marathon is challenging for me to comprehend - the 2:11:53 far beyond anything I could have guessed. The former 800m specialist, who only started running marathons in 2022, averaged 5:18/mile, splits that are astounding.
We need to encourage athletes to think of big goals, that amazing things can be achieved with a dream - plus hard work and dedication. I'm NOT saying we should pretend that such times can be achieved by every athlete. But every athlete CAN demonstrate tremendous improvement, run times which at one point seemed impossible.
As coaches we need to plant a seed in minds of young runners - that last year's 67th placer at the state cross country meet COULD be an all-state runner this year - maybe even in the top ten. Kara Goucher, a 3-time NCAA champion and 2-time Olympian, didn't break 5:00 in high school, nothing about her prep career indicating she would ever achieve so much.
Twenty-five years ago I would have bet a million dollars (I can only wish I was that rich) no woman in my lifetime would break 4:10 in the mile, and yet today's world record is more than two seconds under that benchmark. The same could be said the same of Gudaf Tsegay's 14:00 in the 5K. Wow.
The first sub-4:00 I saw in person was Jim Ryun's 1967 anchor on the 4 x Mile at the Drake Relays, the split of the Kansas runner that day hard to fathom - four sub sixty laps. Last summer, in St. Louis at the Hoka Festival of Miles, I watched four high school boys break 4:00 in the mile while standing at the edge of the track, the enormity of the feat stunning.
So speak up. Let athletes know what you think they are capable of achieving. Like Columbus, its hard for them to see past the horizon, for a teenager to comprehend that 90% of an iceberg is out of sight. It's our job to help them dream - so let them know what is possible. Get started today!