Benefield: Cross country runners getting an early start

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There is nothing like spending your summer fartleking around.

But for cross country runners, that doesn’t mean exactly what it might sound like to non-runners.

Fartleks are runs infused with changes in pace and terrain with the aim of improving fitness and staving off boredom.

Both are key for cross country runners as they spend their summer months readying for fall competition, because as area coaches will tell you, success come fall? It’s all about the summer training.

“Summer running will make or break you,” said Luis Rosales, Piner High’s cross country coach.

Rosales should know. The Piner High boys have won their last six league cross country titles.

“Cross country is all about summer running and your level of fitness. You have two and a half months of running under your belt,” he said.

But there is a gentle balance between guiding runners through their base training and not scaring them away with grueling workouts in the summertime heat.

Rosales said he keeps things light by hosting team events like a parent-led pancake breakfast after one run and a team barbecue after another.

And it’s always voluntary.

“It’s not like if you don’t go, you won’t make the team,” he said. “You come and go as you please.”

That said, Rosales said he’ll get 60 percent of his fall squad showing up regularly for summer workouts.

At Healdsburg High, the cross country team’s workouts are of such renown that athletes from other sports have started to join in, said coach Kelly Blanchard.

But it wasn’t always that way.

“When I first started, we’d have six kids,” she said.

Now, the Hounds’ daily offering of workouts can draw 30 athletes.

Different days mean a different focus. One day it’s fartleks, another day it’s distance, or tempo, or speed drills.

“You have to make it fun,” she said.

“We are really big with community,” she said.

“We just did a tie-dye party at my house the weekend before,” she said. “We had root beer floats, five guitars, singing … the team bonding is huge.”

Paul Braa, heading into his third season at the helm of the St. Vincent cross country squad, said he’s still working to show kids both the benefit and the fun of a summer workout program.

His small squad — they had nine runners last year — scatters to the wind come June.

Braa emails workout schedules based on a runner’s experience and fitness, then hosts weekly group runs. Sometimes he gets no takers.

But it’s kind of like building a base level of fitness — you lay the groundwork and hope it improves from there. One kid, three kids — 30 kids.

“I’m going to keep trying every week of the summer,” he said. “That is kind of my goal; I just have to stick with it.

“It’s a fine line. I don’t want to lose the kids,” he said.

Cross country is unique, because unlike fall sports like football that has passing league, or girls’ soccer and volleyball that are in full swing on the club level, cross country runners don’t typically have camps or leagues outside of what they get from their school teams. For many teams, that actually fosters a greater sense of camaraderie.

Some teams take summer trips together. Maria Carrillo High does a camp at altitude in Tahoe.

For more than two decades, Santa Rosa High’s team has spent a week at Humboldt Redwoods State Park, where two-a-day runs are balanced with playing in the Eel River. Parents stay home; help is provided by program alumni. Kids cook for themselves and sleep in tents.

“I know all of the coaches have some kind of a plan in place,” said Carl Triola, coach at Casa Grande High. “Every year I have tried a little harder to get the kids together.”

Triola regularly takes his kids to Annadel State Park, where they invariably run into the same kids they will see on race courses come fall.

“Any day you go up in Spring Lake you’ll see Piner, Carrillo and Montgomery,” he said.

The idea is universal — give kids both the program and space to get fit but also to get to know each other.

“It’s a tremendous asset to the kids, even if it’s just a minimum 30 miles a week,” Triola said.

Because the serious running starts at almost the same moment the school bell rings in August.

“They start school on a Tuesday and we have the Rancho Cotate Invite on a Friday,” Blanchard said.

Ask any veteran coach and they’ll tell you, cross country isn’t a fall sport — it’s a summer sport.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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