Training and Racing at the Commons
Once upon a time Kansas produced some of the best runners in the world, including Billy Mills, Jim Ryun, Glenn Cunningham, and Wes Santee. But it’s been a long time. What happened?
I don’t have the answer. It may be dumb luck, good or bad. It might be Kenya. Still, I can’t help wondering if part of the problem is that cross-country running is hard work, and it’s hard to get modern Kansas kids to work. (“My sport is every other sport’s punishment” reads a clever T-shirt. It’s true, too.)
Don’t let me kid anybody. I wasn’t a very good runner at Shawnee Mission East in 1965 and 1966. But I loved being on the team, and I tolerated the work. We had great esprit-de-corps. My best two-mile time was 10:30, and at the peak of my ability I was 10th-best on the team. I never ran a varsity race.
Here are the odd facts which got me thinking. When I turned 40, just for fun, I decided to train like we did in high school. I was already too old to tolerate two-a-day running workouts, so I made the second session on the Nordic Track. Otherwise, the intensity was pretty much what I remembered, including weekly interval and hill workouts.
That fall I actually won a race in Los Angeles (against fellow family physicians, so it doesn’t really count) by running 5K to the top of a hill overlooking Dodger Stadium and back in 17:26. That’s probably the equivalent of under 17 minutes on a flatter road course.
When I look at the times for 5K in the Kansas state championships, I have to scratch my head. It certainly appears as though an old fart who couldn’t earn a varsity letter in the 1960s could be competing successfully against the bigger, stronger kids we’re growing today. What gives?
Like I said, I don’t have the answer. All I know is my own experience. At Shawnee Mission East we were blessed by the most beautiful campus in the state, built on the side of a hill. When I see kids around Topeka running their “over-distance” workouts, lollygagging at stoplights on city streets, I realize how fortunate we were to train on a real cross-country course. On Saturdays we would go out to Shawnee Mission Park and run on the hills and through the woods (meets were Friday afternoons then). Sometimes we would run north to the Mission Hills golf course and onto the most beautiful springy turf my legs have ever experienced. We spent almost no time on asphalt. I don’t remember any team member ever missing a race because of injury.
I recently stopped by my old high school. To run our old course, you would now have to jump four fences. A new natatorium and baseball field have carved up the hill. Cross-country always has been the stepchild of high school athletics. Maybe with the arrival of bowling as a varsity sport it will get off the bottom of the barrel. That ticks me off.
When Dorothy and I first bought the pristine land behind our log cabin, 70 acres of native prairie, woods, creeks, hills and hollows overlooking downtown Topeka, my first thought was to build a cross-country course like I ran on in high school, something to rival Rim Rock in Lawrence. It took a few years, but we did it. I run on it twice a week, usually a 10K and a 5K interval workout, and I‘ve been injury-free. (I knocked out a branch of my sciatic nerve and couldn’t run for six months, but that was from planting a couple of hundred trees). Now I only suffer when I run on the streets because of snow, ice, or rain-- they really pound my joints and muscles compared to grass and trails in the woods.
Here’s my hypothesis: any team or individual who comes to the Commons for training two or three times a week, starting in July, will cut 5-10% off previous years’ best times, with fewer injuries. If I were a coach, with meets on Saturdays, I would make Fridays a recuperation workout, then come by the Commons for a hill or interval session after the meet and a 10K on Sunday. One more afternoon, Tuesday or Wednesday, would be ideal. If I were an individual, I would run team workouts as usual and squeeze in two more sessions on the weekend.
This I can absolutely guarantee: any course in Kansas is going to feel like a walk in the park after you’ve been running the Commons for three months. It will be painful for the first few weeks, and your times will suffer early in the season, but when you taper off toward the end of October your legs are going to feel light and strong.
On the PDF files following the map are directions for a variety of courses: 3K, 4K, 5K, and the 8K cyclocross route.I would be happy to meet you at the Commons on my ATV to show you the routes if that would be helpful, or set up a cross-country club in the summer for interested kids. Races can be scheduled in advance. There is room for 150 cars and 7 buses in the parking area. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 785-357-1854.