Cross Country: Wildcats find “mental escape” in distance training

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Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

Aubrey Roberts runs alongside her teammates. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a premature end to the senior’s NU career.

John Riker, Sports Reporter

In Jill Miller’s first year at Northwestern, the coach emphasized that the meet that meant the most to her team was the Big Ten Championship.

While that singular focus has remained the same in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Wildcats have needed to adjust their preparation for next year’s climactic November meet. The changes have included the loss of the spring track season — the Wildcats still compete in the spring despite not having an official track team — and an adjusted training approach designed to make NU stronger physically and mentally.

The Cats entered March hoping to build upon their performances from the indoor season, but the pandemic halted the team’s season and momentum. The sudden end to the spring season also marked the end of the NU careers of two of the team’s seniors — Aubrey Roberts, a 2018 All-American, and Sarah Nicholson, NU’s second finisher at the 2019 Big Ten Championships.

“As we moved through things, it became apparent that the reaction wasn’t unreasonable, but at first, it was a bit of shock,” Miller said. “You pour in a ton of blood, sweat and tears to be able to compete, but to have that pulled away so quickly, especially for our graduating seniors, there’s a huge emotional roller coaster that you ride.”

Miller took the first two weeks after the outdoor track season’s cancellation to recalibrate her runners’ training plans, transitioning from more intense training for competition to more-long term plans, customized for each athlete’s needs. To keep the focus on the present during the extended break, Miller chose to break the 22-week training plans into cycles.

The Cats have found distance running’s minimalist nature to be a plus as they return to training, but running during the pandemic has come with its own challenges. Miller has prioritized the athletes’ safety, and the runners have found creative ways to adjust their workouts. The toughest adjustment for the Cats has been the switch to individual training with the loss of the spring season.

“Cross country is a sport where we rely on our teammates a lot, whether that is emotional support or physically having a person next to you,” sophomore Rachel McCardell said. “We’re going to come out of it a lot stronger because we’ve had to build up a lot more mental strength to push through these hard workouts, not being able to rely on the physical presence of our teammates.”

McCardell said although it has been hard for the team to be apart, biweekly Zoom calls have helped recreate the team atmosphere and allowed the team to progress with its culture and goals.

The loss of the spring season has been particularly difficult for NU’s recruiting, as track times provide a more comparable metric than the fall cross country times. The change has helped Miller hone in on a central tenet of her recruiting policy — intangibles.

“I’ve always recruited intangibles, and this has given us more time to connect with our recruits and build a full picture of them outside the sport,” Miller said. “Not to say that talent and PR’s aren’t important, but it’s easy to recruit those times instead of the full picture. We’re digging into those details and we are really excited at where our 2021 recruits are at.”

A couple months after the end of their indoor season, the Cats said that they have settled into their training plans and adjusted to their new normal.

Sophomore Hannah Hall has held an optimistic view on the pandemic, highlighting an increase in mileage and more community activity as encouraging trends. The break from competitive racing has also helped her perspective on distance running.

“More than ever, I’ve depended on running because of what’s going on,” Hall said. “I love the sport, but it’s also a great mental escape for everything that’s going on right now, too.”

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Twitter: @thejohnriker

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