From an outsider’s perspective, the way to be successful in cross country seems pretty straightforward:
Just keep running fast, right?
It’s not nearly that simple for the top high school cross country teams, who are now making their final preparations for the state meet at Sugar House Park in Sugar House on Wednesday.
“It goes way deeper than most people really comprehend,” American Fork head coach Timo Mostert said Monday. “It’s a culmination of a tremendous amount of science in training, nutrition and psychology. It makes for a lot of fun coaching and getting kids to understand their potential is even greater than even they perceive it is.”
Mostert has had runners and teams who have won in a variety of ways as the Cavemen have had eight individual champions and won nine team titles in 10 years, including achieving both successes last year.
He explained that he sees it as a personal responsibility to understand each of his athletes.
“You have to know the strengths and weaknesses of each of your runners,” Mostert said. “You create a plan for each runner, since some are better at hills than others, others hit negative splits with their training, while others do things differently. It takes a lot of experience for a coach to understand those things and develop that race plan to optimize their performance at state. The coaches who do that the best are going to end up with most of their athletes having good races.”
He did acknowledge that it’s not always simple and straightforward because high school athletes are still maturing.
“They are high school kids and things happen,” Mostert said. “It’s up to them to be smart and perform at the best of their abilities. Some handle pressure better than others and it is quite a stress-filled afternoon for our youngsters.”
In addition to delving into the abilities of each athlete, another area that cross country teams scrutinize in detail is the course itself.
“Every coach has their own particular strategy of how to run the state course,” Mostert said. “You can’t just barrel out there and then go hard for as long as you can. We have our own particular ways we like to run the course. You have four uphill sections and it’s never truly flat.”
He explained that by rule teams aren’t allowed to be at the course in the two weeks leading up to state but most go sometime prior to that moratorium to break down the intricacies with their athletes.
For the most part, the route through Sugarhouse Park and into the stadium at Highland High School has been the same since 1998. The major recent change came when Highland constructed baseball and softball diamonds that required adjustment of the final mile.
“They had a small group of coaches with the Utah High School Track Coaches Association and a member of the Utah High School Activities Association meet at the course to figure out what worked and what didn’t,” Mostert said. “It took several hours to measure the distance and find landmarks. We tried to make it a good third mile. It’s a fun course. Most spectators I’ve talked to like it because they can see quite a bit of the action. I think it is one of the more challenging state championship courses in the nation.”
By putting together a plan and detailing the individual and team approach to the course itself, cross country programs try to give themselves every advantage they can.
It’s almost a requirement to have any hope to be near the top, considering the talent level in Utah high school cross country.
“Statistically speaking, Utah is the strongest cross country state per capita in the US,” Mostert said. “It’s always a challenge to beat all these other teams. We got out of the Region 4 meet, which is known nationwide as the ‘Region of Death.’ It has five of the top six or seven cross country teams in the state but only four get to go to state. I’ve been worried about being left out because I’ve seen talent of the other athletes and coaches. I feel blessed the boys have been dedicated to the desire to excel and continue the success.”
The best rewards come when the runners go out and excel on race day.
“The greatest reward in coaching is when a kid starts to understand what he can become,” Mostert said. “Then the training and all the preparation — both mental and physical and nutritional — it all comes together and the athlete sees the fruits of their labors. They understand it isn’t one thing that made them successful. It was a culmination of everything. We started working in June, so 4½ months ago to make this the goal of all our training.”
The big test of who will rise to the top in cross-country in 2019 takes place on Wednesday at Sugarhouse Park starting at 10 a.m.