Nicole Iglesias noticed something odd as she made her way along the trails at G.T. Bray last September during the first cross country race of the season. Runners who normally left her behind early were just steps ahead. And Iglesias was passing runners who normally passed her during the course of a race.
“This isn’t supposed to be happening,” Iglesias remembered thinking.
Maybe not. But as the 17th running of the Canes Cross Country Classic 5K race unfolded, Iglesias found herself near the front of the pack of high school runners she competes against every week during the cross country season.
“I thought they were tired or something,” Iglesias said recently. “I’m having a good day, and they’re having a bad day.”
Actually, what Iglesias had was a good base.
She ran 300 miles during the summer months leading up to her junior year at Manatee High, and the benefits paid off immediately. It took Iglesias more than 27 minutes to finish the 2007 Canes Classic. She finished last year’s race in 23:48.
What’s more, she felt comfortable running at the faster pace.
“And I knew I could do better the next race, because I had the foundation from the summer,” Iglesias said.
You’ve seen them for weeks. Well-toned high school athletes running around the lake at Heritage Harbour on a Monday evening, or over the Green Bridge on a Tuesday night, or through the woods at Braden River Park on a Thursday morning.
If you happened to be in Asheville, N.C. during July, you might have spotted a few members of the Manatee High boys cross country team pushing themselves up the Blue Ridge Mountains in a workout during their stay at the Smoky Mountain Running Camp.
The motivation is simple: put in time in the summer for better times in the fall.
“If they don’t put the work in during the summer, they’re not going to have a good season,” Manatee High girls cross country coach Rae Ann Darling Reed said.
“Like trying to build a house without a foundation,” said Diana Nelson, who will be a senior this year at Manatee.
Iglesias and Nelson planned to run 400 miles this summer.
Across the river, Palmetto’s Jessica McKinnis prepared for her senior season by running 30 miles a week in June and 50 miles a week in July. McKinnis also lifted weights twice a week and added yoga to her stretching routine.
At Lakewood Ranch High, girls cross country coach Mary Quinn and a dozen or so members of the Mustangs girls and boys cross country teams met Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for three- to five-mile runs. On Tuesday nights, the Mustangs headed to Siesta Key Beach for the weekly 5K beach run. On Fridays, they ran with boys cross country coach Bryan Thomas.
The pace was easy, and the mood was light. The Mustangs sometimes played pickup soccer games after their runs.
“Just for fun,” Quinn said. “Also conditioning. Soccer is a good workout. Other days they’ll find a creek and cool off.”
The running wasn’t strenuous. The goal was quantity, not quality. Put the miles on the legs and get used to running in the heat for long distances.
“Once the season starts, it’s not a picnic anymore,” Quinn said. “We pretty much expect from Day 1 they are ready to go.”
Cross country teams can begin practicing Aug. 17. The first meet is Sept. 16. The season runs 10 weeks when you add the district, regional and state meets.
The goal, of course, is to peak during the last month of the season. But runners can’t build toward the postseason if they spent the regular season getting into running shape because they didn’t make the effort in June and July.
After the 2008 track season, Darling Reed asked Iglesias and Nelson to run 300 miles over the summer.
“I thought she was crazy,” Nelson said.
But the two put in the miles and turned in their best seasons.
“It was intense,” said Iglesias, who went from being the Hurricanes’ No. 7 runner to No. 2 and dropped her time to 21:36.
McKinnis, who averaged 25 miles a week during the summer of 2008, reached the state meet in both cross country and track, a feat that didn’t go unnoticed among Nelson and her teammates.
“I think that is a little inspiration for them,” Darling Reed said.
Nelson and Iglesias also added cycling and swimming to their workouts.
“In order to improve, you have to step up your game the next year, or you’ll stay the same,” Nelson said. “Running 400 miles in the summer is incentive when you get into the season. You feel, ‘OK, now I have to accomplish something.’ You want to have to have something to show for all that work.”