And when the starting pistol fires, the Buffs will be fully prepared for what unfolds as over 200 runners surge forward into the crisp morning air.
“Folks outside of this sport say, ‘You just go out there and run, right?’ But there really is a lot more to it than that,” said Milligan cross country coach Chris Layne.
Indeed, when a cross country runner enters the heat of competition, few things are as comforting as cold, hard data. And after years of training runners for the rigors of competing on the national stage, Layne has the numbers to prove that the game plan the Buffs are bringing to Charlotte with them has the potential to be a winning one.
“We’ve given them real, factual data on how our teams typically perform at championships, specific workouts we’ve done to have you ready for this environment, and I think it’s just going to come down to them taking that and having the confidence to go to a place that they’ve perhaps not been all year,” Layne said.
A stellar performance at that Appalachian Athletic Conference meet in Knoxville on Nov. 7 earned the women’s team its 13th consecutive conference championship while the men won their first one since 2008. Hannah Seagrave blistered the field by 40 seconds to earn the win, leading a group of three Buffs who landed in the top 10.
On the men’s side, Taylor Tafelsky was the runner-up, leading a solid effort that allowed Milligan’s men to end a six-year drought at the national meet.
But in order to have a shot at winning this Saturday, Layne knows that his runners will need to take their performance to a level they have yet to reach this season.
“In a national meet, it’s arguably going to be the deepest field we’ve seen all year,” Layne said. “So now tactics are going to come into play with regards to getting out fast and getting in a good position early in the race because it’s virtually impossible to run through a field of 200-plus runners if you get out too slow in an environment like this.”
From a psychological standpoint, convincing a distance runner to get off the starting line at a faster pace then he or she is comfortable with can be a daunting task. Pacing is everything for a distance runner on a 5K or 8K course, so demanding a faster start requires a runner to push his or her limits into the great unknown.
But Layne said such a request doesn’t require a leap of faith at Milligan.
“They’re going to have to be maybe even a little more aggressive than they’ve felt comfortable with up until this point,” Layne said. “But we’ve done workouts throughout the year to simulate being able to get out hard, settle into a race rhythm and finish hard. It’s going to be reinforcing that, and that’s already begun really.”
After a recovery week last week, Layne and his staff have taken a business-as-usual approach with their runners this week, emphasizing the importance of running in rhythm while injecting strategy in bite-sized nuggets of information.
On Tuesday, Layne said he gave his runners five reasons why they’ll be fast on Saturday. And on Thursday night, the runners met to receive their game plan for Saturday’s meet, both from an individual and team standpoint.
“That’s one thing I’ve learned — just equip them with as much as we can so they go to the line being able to be as confident and relaxed as possible,” Layne said.
By the time Saturday morning rolls around, Layne said his job as a coach will be pretty much complete.
“Quite honestly, when the gun fires, there’s absolutely nothing we can do,” he said. “When we get to Saturday, it’s a couple fist bumps and a few ‘good lucks’ and they’re ready to go.”
In many ways, the starting line his runners step up to on Saturday morning is the finish line for Layne in terms of coaching. Once the gun fires and the high-speed chess match begins to unfold, the work Layne, his assistants and his runners have put in for the last few months will be put to the test.
“As a coach, I put a lot of pressure on myself up to that point, because the science tells us the training does accumulate and the training does have a huge impact on how they’re going to perform,” Layne said. “By the time we see them at different points on the course, you can encourage them to run that person down, but at that point, they’re in the race and it’s going to be what it’s going to be.”