The official distance for a high school cross country race in the state of Illinois is 3 miles. The best guys in the state will run close to 14 minutes, with many others running closer to 20 minutes or even longer. So needless to say, this is a long race. If I’m remembering correctly, my fastest high school time was 15:01. I won’t say I hated running a race that took 15 minutes of my time, but I wasn’t comfortable running that distance. I was a middle distance runner on the track, so I was more comfortable running all out for two minutes or less. It hurt a lot, but at least it was over quickly. It should be no surprise that I wasn’t happy when I had to move up to running 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) for cross country races in college.
Despite the uncomfortable distances I had to run in cross country, I wanted to be good. I wanted to win every race that I ran and I did everything I could to do that. I guess I was smarter than I remember at the age of 15 because I developed a strategy to get through those longer races with the best possible result. I know I wasn’t alone with this strategy and I’m sure many coaches actually taught their athletes to use it, but I thought it was worth sharing because it relates to really any seemingly big task we decide to take on in life.
Cross country courses were usually on golf courses, in city parks, in forest preserves, or on some random piece of land that had decent footing. The courses were marked off with flags and spray paint so they could be easily navigated.
We would usually take a bus to run the course we were to compete on the day before we were to run the meet. This gave us an opportunity to become familiar with the course. This helped us 1) to get familiar with the course so we wouldn’t get lost and 2) to mentally prepare for the race. I used it as an opportunity to break the course up into smaller pieces that would allow me to make the task of running a race for 15 minutes easier.
We used to run a course in Rockford at Searles Park (above). The race started in a big open field and ran a little bit downhill into a smaller opening that went past a pavilion and then into another open area that included a dog park. It ran slightly uphill next to the road you would access the park on and around small baseball fields and then back into the open space we started on. We did the loop twice and finished in the big open field we started in. This was the three mile course.
It seems daunting to me thinking about it now, but it seems less daunting if I break it into pieces. I used to think about it like this:
- The first mile is easy, we start downhill, there will be a lot of adrenaline, and I’ll be close to other participants and that will motivate me. No need to worry about the first mile. In fact, the goal is to not run too fast.
- The second mile starts near the baseball diamonds and there is a short downhill to get back into the big open area and then another short downhill where we started the race. So make it through the first mile and you’ll get a little bit of downhill running which will get you close to the 2 mile mark
- The 2 mile mark is where things get a little bit tricky. I’ll pass the dog park and will have a slight uphill back to the baseball diamonds. This is the real race, the 2 mile mark to the 2.5 mile mark. I need to focus on that part and run strong through that. If I can make it to the 2.5 mile mark with great confidence and in good position, the last half mile will be easy.
- I get a small downhill at the 2.5 mile mark. And then I run around the trees and turn the corner towards the finish. Once I hit the corner it is slightly downhill, I can see the finish so I’ll be motivated, and there will be a significant amount of spectators, which gives me my chance to shine. The situation will motivate me to sprint as hard as I can all the way to the finish
I used this strategy with all of my races, whether they were a half mile or 6.2 miles. And it really helped to make a large daunting task seem a lot smaller. I think this strategy can be applied to anything we decide to do in life. There is a reason you’ve had “clean the garage” on your to-do list for six months. It’s most likely that you open the door, flip the light on, take one look at the garage, and sigh. Because the task seems to big. What you could do instead is cut the garage into 6 different corridors. And say “today I’m going to spend 30 minutes working in corridor #1.” That turns something big into something small. And if you do that enough times, eventually you’ll have a clean garage.
I also suggest doing this with your to-do list. What is one thing that has been on it a long time that brings you some stress every time you think of it? Write it down. Chop the task up into 8 different parts. Then choose to work for 30 minutes on one part of the task. Feel the energy of getting started and cleaning up your life! I believe it will be a true catalyst to get more done.