Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dreams Do Come True

Dreams do come true.  The Wayzata girls team made that giddy discovery on Saturday as their nocturnal visions became reality on the Portland Meadows race track at Nike Cross Nationals(NXN).  "It still hasn't really sunk in yet," said Dave Emmans, their coach, on Monday night.

Wayzata team poses with Kara Goucher at the finish
of the NXN.
Photo by Kraig Lungstrom
In a year Emmans, who has been coaching for 30 years, has seen his team go from 2012 Minnesota State XC Champions to seventh in last year's NXN, to a magical 2013 cross country season where they produced multiple jaw-dropping performances capped by winning the national team championship. In the press room at this year's MSHSL XC Championships several veteran officials talked about the season and a prominent topic was the Wayzata girl's team.  "I've never seen anything like it," said one veteran official of the team's conference, sectional, and State Meet performances.  His thoughts mirrored Emmans assessment of his team: "I'll never see this again in my lifetime."

It has been a team that rose to every challenge, accomplished what they set out to do and more, and enjoyed the journey.  Granted it seems counterintuitive that successful teams don't enjoy their accomplishments, but it is not unusual to have successful teams that thrive on conflict and seeming chaos, where the coach's job is to keep them from self destructing, rather than achieving.  That is not the situation at Wayzata.

Sure the girls are competitive, high achievers, but they don't succeed by climbing over one another, but rather by pushing and supporting one another.  During his three decades of coaching, Emmans has come to the realization that his style of coaching should not be as a goal setter, task master, or field general who attempts to push his "troops" to new levels of performance.  After years of doing it other ways, he's discovered that more can be achieved through a more "organic" approach.  Less can produce more.

"We don't like to set goals," says Emmans.  "But we like to know where we're going."  While the seventh place finish at last year's NXN opened their eyes to what was possible, it didn't become an obsession.  Yes, there was the necessity of training, scheduling races, and planning for a longer season that pointed toward a return to Portland.  But there wasn't constant talk of a national championship or what was on the horizon, but rather a day-by-day evaluation of progress, obstacles, training, and priorities.  What began to emerge from that was a picture that, when and if the team made it to NXN, the end result of their efforts could be something special.

The champions  Photo by Kraig Lungstrom 
The summer training that the team does has always focused on building an endurance base, says Emmans.  It wasn't done because NXN is a 5K race, not 4K like nearly every other race they ran during the season.  And it wasn't simply pounding the roads or trails, putting in miles.  Several of the girls on the team are also members of the cross country ski team, so they would mix their summer running with roller skiing.

There was no need to be racing sharp for early season meets. No need for doing much more than staying fit and building an endurance base for the upcoming season.  As with most top runners, the key is not how much volume you can do, but rather how much is necessary to allow you to improve and not get injured.  So careful monitoring of volume and intensity were key components, not only of summer training, but in season training as well, says Emmans.

Racing during the season was kept to a minimum, the aim was not to win every race, but to be ready to win the races that counted at the end of the season.  Each week was not filled with hard workouts, Emmans said.  They would do one hard session most weeks with the others a mixture of recovery and preparation for what came next.  Instead of focusing on specific goals, running certain times, etc. the atmosphere focused on "Just enjoying what we're doing," said Emmans.  "If you have the talent, the results will come."

Limiting the really hard training to one day a week in a way simulates racing and it has the added benefit, says Emmans of "not beating them up physically or making them psychologically afraid" of an upcoming workout or series of workouts.  "You race how you train," said Emmans.  "No amount of strategy will work if you haven't trained (to execute that strategy)."

But that hard work doesn't have to beat you up, it works better if it builds you up instead.  To accomplish that involves taking the hard physical and psychological challenge of training for top level performance and making it less stressful and as rewarding and enjoyable as possible. By doing that, Emmans says, they "get way more development out of the girls."  Two or three years ago, many of these girls couldn't run under 15 minutes for 4K.  This year at State, all seven of them ran under 14:42.

Add to that the "luck factor," no significant injuries, just "a few niggles," said Emmans, and you have the recipe for success.  Senior Anna French was sick going into the State Meet and another runner had a stress reaction in one of her legs prior to NXN.  Neither setback made any huge difference in the outcome, rather it taught the girls how to overcome adversity.

If there was an overriding characteristic of the 2013 team, Emmons said, it was the strength of the group.  Not just the top five scorers, but all seven of the girls pushed and pulled each other through workouts and races.  "We didn't tell them to run as a pack in workouts,"  said Emmans.  "It just happened.  And how you train, influences how you race."

So, all year long what everybody saw on the course was a stream of Wayzata girls in yellow and blue packed together at the front of the race.  On Saturday that pack was there again, only in red and black.  French stepped up and ran like she did nearly all season, leading the red and black parade and finishing eighth overall.  Freshman Annika Lerdall rose to the challenge and led the chase pack, but seven-time defending champion Fayetteville-Manlius had inserted their top three runners before Wayzata's Mary Franke and it was up to Wayzata's final four to make up ground during the final one kilometer of the race.

The pack: Annika Halverson(153), McKenna Evans(151)
and Alayana Sonnesyn(155). Photo by Kraig
"They needed every bit of that last kilometer," said Emmans.  And they used their summer endurance training to pull them through.  Michaela Keller-Miller and Alayana Sonnesyn made the crucial move to gain 24 points on Manlius, and McKenna Evans and Annika Halverson were close behind pushing them to the finish.  That foresome finished within eight seconds of one another and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

"Talk about gaining energy from those around you," said Emmans.  The Wazayta pack worked its magic one last time.  But any illusions of basking in the glow of the accomplishment soon went out the window as others started asking: "Can you do it again?"  Four of this year's team are seniors, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility that they could return as a team at NXN next year, but winning a national championship is a tall order for any team at any time, says Emmans.

This year's team has set the bar high for future Minnesota teams attempting to replicate Wayzata's feat, but they've broken whatever psychological barrier there may have been to having a team from the frozen tundra take the title.  The Wayzata girls are not only champions, they're trailblazers.


Brian said...

Beautiful. Finally, a proper summary of what these girls accomplished. Thank you so much for this article.

Jon Halverson said...

This is a very well written article. Thanks for capturing this great story and the essence of Dave Emman's coaching philosophy.