Progress! This week has felt much better than last week, and I can definitely feel that foundation starting to take shape. Running in the teens is hard. I realized that with an experiment on the treadmill. Instead of doing Monday’s walk 1-run 2-walk 1-run 1 all outside, I did the first mile walk outside, and then the 2 miles running on the treadmill, and it felt waaaaaay better than my last outdoor 2-miler. This is probably less noticeable once one is in better fitness, but I think in these early stages its using too much of my available energy to just stay warm.
Other than that, I have been having fun finding the hilliest places I can to get solid walks in. I did a mile brisk walk in Croft Farm on Wednesday, followed by ten laps up and down the steep little hill near the bridge, reversing direction after five. That felt very similar to a good hike on rough terrain. Then I finished with a brisk walk around the park. I know that most runners balk at walking, but later that afternoon I felt like I got a serious workout in. I believe that if the route and intensity is right, a three mile walk can be just as beneficial as an easy three mile run.
Let’s talk about about the weather!
Someone on one of the many running groups I follow recently asked people to share their favorite forms of motivation for getting out in the cold weather. Of course my first thought was riddled with sarcasm (a life-long problem that I blame on my parents and birthplace), but as I muddled over the question I realized that I truly do believe in this one: buy expensive clothing.
Now to be clear, I rarely ever spend a lot of money on running gear, but I certainly own a lot. Thank you Haddonfield Running Co and your sidewalk sales! There is nothing like getting to don your newest high tech jacket on a chilly January day.
This might seem like an obviously good idea, but when I was younger I barely had the money for personal hygiene products let alone fancy running pants. But a shift occurred after I was fortunate enough to spend a solid year living in Hawaii in the mid-thirties. On my first day on Oahu I surfed. Yes, it was straight out of a movie. I checked into my youth hostel, and without unpacking my suitcase I grabbed my board and headed down to Waikiki Beach for some tasty waves. All the locals were wearing half wetsuits, so I figured I should as well. It was October, and I guess they felt a chill in the air. Who was I to argue.
That was the last day I wore a wetsuit in Hawaii. I even surfed at midnight during the full moon. No chill. Ever.
One year later I was heading back to the east coast, and I was downright petrified of what the cold would do to me. I never liked the cold, and I knew that I had become a massive wimp living near the equator.
Since I began this story on my first day in Hawaii, I should tell you a little about the last day, even though it has nothing to do with running or the cold. I easily surfed over 300 days that year. I would have surfed 365 if it weren’t for working 60 hours per week as the beverage manager at the Hilton, some days spent hiking, and some intra-island travel. I never once paddled out to flat surf. There were less than epic days, and there were some totally freaking epic days, but never a complete lack of waves. That is, until my very last day on the island.
I made sure I was completely ready for my flight the day before, planning to spend the whole entire day surfing. I had a big breakfast, then walked down Liliʻuokalani Avenue one last time to the Queens break, where I saw . . . nothing. Flat as a sheet of glass. I had suspicions that Hawaii was messing with me that whole year, and the view off the beach that morning left me with no doubts. She had quite a sense of humor.
I paddled out, and spent a solid eight hours swimming with the turtles. I had seen turtles on occasion that year, but I realized that the calmness of the ocean brought them closer to shore. Of course no one else bothered to paddle out that day, so it was just me and the turtles. All day. We had a fantastic time.
And then I was in New Jersey.
More or less penny-less.
I took my last pennies and went to the mall where I bought the warmest winter coat I have ever owned. Then I bought some thick socks, which I never really owned, and good ski gloves, and a couple of thick hats. I think it was a mild winter, but I was warm all the way through, and I have never looked back. In the years since I have learned to love the cold, and a big part of that is being very well prepared. It is really interesting how priorities shift as we age. I would now say that warm winter clothing is one of the first things I spend money on, as opposed to the very last.
So how do I dress for a run in temps in the 20s? Layers of course. Lots and lots of layers of high tech fabric. Something I learned after developing some reynauds syndrome is that it doesn’t make much sense to wear layers everywhere except your head, hands and feet. So my winter wardrobe begins with lightweight, synthetic socks, gloves, and hat. Then its thicker socks, outer gloves, and a thick hat. From there I wear SportHill running pants under lightweight, stretchy pants (don’t get me started on running in pants without pockets), synthetic t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, and varying thicknesses of jackets. If its really cold I throw some mitten shells over the gloves.
Well, that was interesting. Starting over is always a challenge, and after a certain age, each new start seems a little bit harder. But success is success, which is why I know to start out slowly, notching small accomplishments and building a foundation.
Last week involved a simple plan; five days of 3-mile walks, with two walk/run sessions of 3 miles. The walk/runs were only 1 mile walking, 1 running, and 1 walking. The first of those sessions was awesome; a very cold, but beautiful day, with plenty of gas in the tank, and the simple joy of moving again. The second, two days later, was a solid punch in the nose! It was colder, and grayer, and maybe windier, or perhaps that was all just the turmoil in my brain as I slogged through the run segment. I am not going to use this as an excuse, and will try not to repeat, it but that was one of several recent experiences that have made me wonder if I am dealing with long COVID. It was only two months ago that I was very comfortably running three miles with my club cross country kids, so it was a bit shocking to feel such discomfort. Then again, back to that age thing, and the fact that I have never started a new training plan at the age of 52. Life is all about adjusting to new normals.
I finished out the week with some more casual walks, along with some fun at Cooper River with the club kids doing our Winter Running Program. Completed the week’s plan with 20 total miles. I could definitely feel it in my hips, but just some mild, symmetrical discomfort in both sides. My weight stayed steady at 185, as I definitely matched the new activity with some more calories. I also broke my dry January for with one night of beer drinking.
One of the things that is really great about starting a new program after a lay-off is that it forces me to wade back through what every new runner experiences. As a coach, it is so easy to forget the raw experience, or the fullness of the struggle. It is humbling as well as deeply informative. It is a process of re-searching, and re-learning. If you find this blog somehow, and care to share thoughts on your experience of starting out, or starting out again, please consider leaving a comment.
New year, new annual training plan, and some new, crazy goals!
I want to begin this post by being clear that I am not really into sharing the nitty gritty of my own training. I tend to cringe when I see such posts on social media (unless they are part of a private group — that is totally appropriate!) My ego, especially the part related to my athletic accomplishments, has been beaten into submission, and I have no desire to earn anyone’s admiration via my latest workout or race finish. Don’t get me wrong, I feel my own sense of deep, deep pride when I do follow through and accomplish any goal, but my self-promotion days are long gone.
Well, kinda. I have this personal coaching side-gig that I have been growing, more or less “organically,” for the last, oh gosh, maybe 20 years?! I would like to keep developing this practice, as it brings a ton of satisfaction helping other athletes accomplish their goals, but at the same time, I am not fishing for more clients, as I am more or less at capacity. So what’s up with this then?
I remember my mentor, Danny Dreyer, talking about the concept of a practice many years ago when I first delved into learning about and teaching running technique. Danny explained that a practice involves gradual progress over a lifetime. A commitment to learning over a long period of time. I immediately connected his words to my previous indoctrination as a teacher and researcher in graduate school; the hermeneutic circle is a context many of us live in without really thinking about it. We engage in education and become more knowledgable, and then interact with others in some type of teaching capacity (actual classroom teaching, coaching, ministry, guidance counseling, sales team management, etc.) And if we see what we do as a practice, then we also keep engaging in more learning. Most of us blend the learning with the working, but sometimes we get to take sabbaticals, or even “go back” to school (or go forward?)
That aside is partly my answer to “what’s up with this?” I am a teacher and a coach, and at the age of 51, with a combined experience of something like 50 years of both, I have to admit that I am not sure where one job title ends and the other begins. My lifelong practice is ultimately coaching, whether I am in a college classroom or at a track. I take proven concepts and teach them to others, testing them out, discovering their nuances, and creating my own unique methods for getting ideas to stick in brains, and getting brains to fire the right synapses to the right nerves. Teaching communication skills in a classroom is not all that different from teaching someone how to sprint faster, if you’re looking at it from a certain perspective.
So I am going to launch this new project where I will share my experience of following my own annual training plan. I am hoping a few people will find it interesting or valuable enough to follow along. The overall goal is to teach/coach others about how training plans work, how they relate to goals and help us work toward them methodically. It is also to share the nitty gritty; the struggles, doubts, aches and pains, new plateaus, perfect moments on the trail (because I know they are out there waiting!), and any other curiosity about the process. I would like to demystify things. Debunk some myths. Show that the coach doesn’t always know everything, because he is always learning.
There are coaches out there who get angry at people who don’t think they need a coach. I recently read a fascinating thread about this in one of the many coach communities I am part of online. “What do you say to someone who doesn’t think coaching is worth their time or effort, or who thinks they can find whatever they need online?” You might think I would share the clear bias in that question. I am a college professor, so I certainly hate the internet, right? Not at all. I think we should all find as much information that we can about anything we choose to invest our time in, before calling an expert. There is a ton of valuable information available to all of us, and yes, a lot of it is garbage, but part of being a thinking adult in 2022 is having the ability to discern credibility, while testing out we read, watch, and hear for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong — coaching is incredibly helpful, but I would rather have a student, athlete, or client that is coming to me with informed questions than one that just wants to be told what to do. I also believe there are people who do not necessarily need a coach, depending on their own specific goals. If your primary goal is to run a xx:xx.xx in your next 5K, then sure, hire a coach. But if your goal is partly to learn about yourself, learn about bio-science, training and performance, while chipping away at your 5K time, then maybe you should go the DIY route. Of course, this is coming from someone who, as a novice carpenter, chooses to do all his own home remodeling, which does not always go so well, so again, be a thinking adult and use your own judgement!
Here are some screenshots of my annual plan. The first is the annual overview, which is absurdly complicated. You can pour over it and bask in its overly technical, obsessive compulsive glory, if you want. The second shot is Microcycle 1 (a microcycle is a weekly plan).
You can see that my plan for the first week of this annual plan is very sparse. I share this to emphasize that the plan is a work in progress. The crazy, complicated overview is more or less set, and serves as a guide as I build out the weeks. My race goals are taking shape, with some commitments. But an annual plan has to be dynamic (ever-changing and evolving). What happens this week informs next week. What happened last month informs adjustments to this month. Always assessing and adjusting.
I also share Microcycle 1 to emphasize that I am starting out from 0. This might be a detail that encourages someone to follow along. If you are curious about how a 51-year-old coach/athlete will navigate going from a fairly sorry state of affairs, to running/hiking a 30-Mile mountain trail race in September, and possibly the Batona 55-Miler in November, well jump on board! It is sure to be a wild ride, if not just funny.
Here are my goals for the year:
Zero Injury (this is always my top goal)
Finish Breakneck 1/2 Marathon in under 5 hours. (Previous mark is 5:57)
Finish Shawangunk Ridge Trail 30-Mile
Finish Batona 55-Mile
I have no time goals other than for Breakneck. The Breakneck time might sound off, and before you think I am way out of my league for a 1/2 marathon, that race is considered one of the toughest in the country. It climbs five peaks, with one involving some moderate, four-limb climbing skills.
My training for these events is a little unconventional. I hate wasted work or miles, so I am very specific about what I am doing at any point in the process. I want to train my body to alternate from walking to running to walking, which I have learned is different than simply training to run non-stop. Mentally and physically, the changing of speeds and intensities involves some specific brain work. The first and only time did Breakneck, four years ago, I was in great walking shape, and was only comfortable running about six miles. I cramped up badly in the last 3 miles, and that added at least 30 minutes. Even before the cramping, it was the single hardest thing I have ever done (much harder than the iron-distance triathlon I did in 2007). The only reason I got through it was because a very-loved extended family member passed away a few days before the race, after a lifelong battle with a disease that should have taken her as a child. Every time I thought I had to quit I just thought of her. I am sure I will automatically be thinking of her again this next time, but I definitely want to have some more training supporting me as well!
My plan will include a lot of body weight training and hill climbing.
One thing I have learned over the years is that weight loss and training never mix. You simply cannot make significant physical gains if you are denying your systems the calories they need to function optimally. That said, the training will suffer with too much extra weight. Put simply, my joints will endure more stress, and it will take more blood flow to get oxygen to muscles, if I am carrying extra weight. With that in mind, I will be dropping pounds during the first two moths of the training plan. 15 to be exact.
I will try to focus on specific topics in future posts. I will also work on video versions.
Thanks for following, and feel free to share comments and questions!
South Jersey Track & Field Club is excited to announce the brand new Winter Race Series we will be hosting at Cooper River Park in January and February.
We are calling this a progressive series, meaning that we begin with a short distance (1-Mile), and finish the series with a 5K. This is a great way to extend your own running/race distance, or to build a new family fitness program with parents and kids participating together in a fun, outdoor activity.
The series is meant to be lots of fun, and follows a no-frills format — no free swag or participant awards, but rather a very low price $5 per race, or $15 for the four-race series. We will score the series using the world record age-grade system, which places all competitors on the same level, regardless of age or gender, and we will crown an overall series champion after the final race. We are accepting donations for awards, and depending on how much money we receive we will add age-group and other fun awards.
Join us on Saturday, January 15th, at 12:30pm, for the 1-Mile race. We will meet for an optional group warmup at Jack Curtis Stadium, and the race will start at the corner of Route 130 and North Park Drive (the northwest corner of Cooper River Park).
On January 29th we will race 1.5 miles, starting at the northwest corner of the park and finishing at Memorial Island. On February 12th we will race 2.4 miles, completing a half-loop around the park from the southwest corner to Jack Curtis Stadium. And finally, on Saturday, February 26th we will race a full 5K, making a nearly complete loop around the park.
This series is sponsored by Camden County Park, South Jersey Running Company, Barger Tax Accounting Services, and South Jersey Physical Therapy.
The signs of fall are all around us! A few early changing leaves, a noticeable nip in the morning air, and parents asking what kind of shoes to buy their young cross country runners!
There are different theories on running shoes, so do your own research and follow any recommendations from a doctor or trained physical therapist, but I lean toward minimalism, especially regarding children. Kids have an amazing ability to adapt to the various stresses they put on their bodies, and one of the benefits of participating in sports at an early age is that it helps develop a strong foundation that supports lifelong health. Running, especially on varied terrain in cross country, can help kids develop strong and flexible feet.
So this leads right into my first rule for buying my own kids’ running shoes; don’t get in the way. A mentor of mine with a lifetime of experience practicing the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi once told me that Chinese people think that westerners wear shoes that make our feet stupid. When we wear thick-soled shoes with lots of cushion and/or motion control, we deprive our feet of proprioception, which is a fancy word for our feet being smart. We have sensors all through our bodies that constantly send information to our brain, and as we run, our feet develop a strong sense of balance, stability, and flexibility based on the activity and the terrain. So, unless you or your child is dealing with a known physical issue that requires a special shoe, less is more.
Coach Craig’s Shoe-Buying Guide:
Look for lightweight, flexible shoes. Hold the shoe with both hands and try twisting, like you’re wringing out a towel. If you cannot twist then it means the shoes has a reinforced arch to minimize motion, which is not good, unless there is an underlying issue as mentioned above.
Next, place the shoe on a flat surface and check the heel-to-toe drop. Place an index finger where the heel sits, and the other index finger where the ball of the foot sits. This will give you a basic idea of how high the heel is to the forefoot. A shoe with a high heel will force the athlete to adjust their entire posture. A neutral heel will allow for more natural posture. (It is worth noting that the only reason overly cushioned heels became popular in running shoes is because a lot of people thought that a heel-to-toe roll was the proper way to run. Today we know that a mid-foot strike is ideal, so there is no need for extra heel cushioning, as long as you run with good technique, something you know we teach all of the kids in SJTFC!)
With the laces untied and the shoe nice and loose, try slipping the shoes on. They should feel very comfortable, almost like cozy bedroom slippers. Lace them up loosely at first and walk a bit. If they are not super comfortable, check the fit, or just try a larger size. In my experience, most people wear shoes that are too small. The best way to fit running shoes is to feel if the arch of the shoes lines up with the arch of the foot. If the two arches are lined up, there will be a little extra room in the toe box, and it might seem like a lot of extra room, but this might be perfect. When I used to buy shoes the wrong way back in college I wore a size 9 1/2. Today, I wear a size 11!
When it seems like you have the right shoe and size, have your child run around the store a bit. If the shoes are too big they will have a hard time not tripping over them. Also check for too much space between the heel and the back of the shoe. You should be able to squeeze a finger back there, and also feel some space in front of the big toe. If your kid is smiling, chances are they are good to go.
The younger a kid is, the less you need to worry about the shoes they are running in, as long as they are neutral and flexible. Around the start of middle school I believe it’s a good idea to begin looking at name brand shoes that are designed specifically for running. My favorite brand is New Balance, but I have also liked running in some Nike, Brooks and Saucony shoes.
And now would be a good to time to share that our good friends at the Haddonfield Running Company will also be able to give you great advice and make sure you have a perfect fit. Mention that you are part of South Jersey Track & Field Club and they will give you 20% off shoes! I was just told by Running Co owner, Dave Welsh, that they do not have many youth sizes in stock at the moment, but will after September 15. It might be a good idea to call ahead.
This is the question that kept circulating in my mind after my latest coach education course. On July 19th I joined 24 other coaches from around the world (China and Columbia were both represented, along with a variety of US states including Hawaii and Alaska) in my second USATF Level 2 Course. The USATF Level 2 has traditionally involved being in residence at one of their locations, but is still being offered online as a result of COVID. The silver lining of assembling coaches from a wide range of locations is one a few reasons that USATF is considering continuing the online option. Making the commitment to dive into any weeklong intensive course is always a little daunting, but the instructors and students alike made this a phenomenal experience. My first Level 2 was in Sprints, Hurdles and Relays, and I was really torn about which one to do this time. Eventually I knew I just could not avoid the Youth Specialization, since the club and our dozens of kids are becoming more and more of a central focus in my life.
What will it take? That question came from several critical topics that were covered throughout the course, first introduced by the instructors, and then presented on by the students. We learned about RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, an essential subject for any coach regarding the various effects of over-training, poor nutrition, and other factors that can lead to a chronic energy deficiency. We learned about current approaches to mental health in sports, youth resistance training, bullying and harassment prevention, and my small group presented on the Icelandic Prevention Model, a novel approach to stemming substance abuse by children based on successful efforts in Iceland. All of these topics combined to challenge each of us to take proactive steps to improving the ways we serve children, families and communities through our athletic programs. No doubt, some of my classmates took the course just looking to gain another credential, but I don’t think anyone left without some sense of our personal responsibility to lead some serious change as the people who introduce the sport of track and field to the next generations of athletes. To address some of the specific problems with youth sports (too much early specialization, too much focus on early performance, lack of access, etc) as well as larger societal problems (the ongoing obesity epidemic, substance abuse, mental health issues, etc) will require creating more relationships among various community entities who are interested in meeting big problems with big, sustainable solutions. As a club this is something we have always appreciated and espoused (for example, working with the Cherry Hill Rec and the Cherry Hill School District to provide a summer track and field camp, teaming up with Camden County to promote the LINK Trail, and to do more outreach to residents who may not know they have access to organized sports, and partnering with The Training Room in Cherry Hill and the Cherry Hill FC soccer club to bring more quality instruction to kids of all abilities), and we will continue to evaluate all of our work by always considering the relationships we are creating, and how we are influencing the common good.
As part of my commitment to being a better coach, running a better club, and serving kids in the most sophisticated ways possible, I will be sharing more information and resources as I become familiar with it. A logical first bit of information, and what essentially formed the basis of the Level 2 course, is the American Development Model. I have this same information listed under the new Youth Sport Resources tab on the website.
USOC American Development Model
The American Development Model is a collaboration of USA Hockey, The US Olympic Committee, and USA Track & Field, and is a dynamic set of recommendations for approaching and supporting the athletic development of children. As opposed to a list of rules, the AMD is more of a sound philosophy that coaches can use as a guide, to work with all kids in ways that help them reach their true athletic potential, while developing a strong foundation that supports lifelong physical and emotional health and well-being. The model is based on the latest research in the areas of youth psychology, sports science, and children’s cognitive and physical development.
One goal of the USOC is to win more medals at the Olympics, so the AMD does not seek to limit the potential of our developing athletes. However, we now know that as a country we are not performing at our potential, because too many kids stop playing sports at a young age, before they have reached their own potential. But potential elite performance aside, we should really be keeping as many kids moving through childhood as possible. There are many different reasons that kids stop playing sports, from socio-economic issues like access to facilities, coaches, and transportation, to coaching issues like pushing kids too hard too soon, and cutting kids from teams that have not demonstrated strong athletic ability. Some of the reasons kids stop playing sports (or never play) can be addressed in concrete ways, but some will likely take years of education to help adults develop a more sophisticated understanding of youth physical development.
In a nutshell, kids mature at different rates, and reach full maturity at different ages. When we celebrate a child’s success at a younger age, we are often just celebrating the feats of an early maturer. This becomes a problem when such early maturers receive more focus from coaches, more high level training, better facilities and opportunities, etc. We now know that early maturing athletes are statistically less likely to reach elite levels of performance, and we know that when late maturers are provided with the same training as their better-performing counterparts, they often “leap-frog” the early maturers when they themselves begin to mature. By focusing on the impressive performance that excites us as parents and coaches, we are essentially limiting future success to a set of kids that may or may not actually be the best athletes.
But put aside the goal of more Olympic medals and success in competition for a moment to consider the millions of kids who will never be elite athletes, but still need healthy, organized, movement throughout childhood to support lifelong health. We still have an obesity epidemic. We still have kids who are missing an opportunity during their growing years to influence permanent healthy changes in their bodies that will support better health throughout adulthood. Every kid deserves access to quality athletic participation, training, and age-appropriate competition. Not only should we be working to retain as many kids as possible, but we also need to be doing more outreach to families who not have access to quality athletic programs.
As a club, South Jersey Track & Field is committed to assisting parents in raising the healthiest kids possible, and we see the American Development Model as an excellent guide. We always emphasize fun and safety first, and we are just as concerned with a child’s emotional well-being a we are with their physical development. We believe that every kid should have access to, and benefit from, organized, informed, athletic programs that teach and encourage regular and consistent complex movement throughout childhood. We believe track and field provides an excellent context for a comprehensive approach to physical movement and development, as a great foundation for any sport. Finally, as an integral part of our mission, we are committed to being accessible to every child in our community. We embrace kids of all abilities, identities and economic means.
We encourage all parents, coaches and others involved in athletic administration to read the information provided by the USOC on The American Development Model.
August is one of the few months of the year when we as a club do not have an active program, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be moving!
As a club, SJTFC does not ask families to raise money for our operations, but we do actively support various local organizations in their efforts. HealThy Life is definitely one of those organizations, and to support their August Walk-a-Thon Against Cancer, we have set up a virtual team so that we can connect, stay active, and support this awesome organization.
All you need to do is register with the team, commit to walking one mile per day, or a total of 31, during the month of August, and see if you can get some support from friends and family for your effort. There is also a optional final mile event at Newton Lake Park on the 31st.
Back in March we still didn’t know what kind of season we might have, and to be honest, it was still looking a little bleak. But after having our inaugural season canceled last year, we ended up launching our Spring Track & Field program with a bang!
We began our season with 50 kids signed up, with only a promise of weekly practices and, if all else failed, some intramural “competitions.” However, thanks to Mike Gross, the head coach of Ambler Olympic Club, a group of teams around the Delaware Valley were able to organize a last-minute series of high quality meets. This led to making lots of great contacts with other coaches, especially our new friends at St. Teresa of Calcutta, who invited us to three additional meets to start our season. Finally, we were also invited to join the New Jersey Track and Field Federation, and were able to fit in a meet hosted by the Marlton Track Club.
In all, we had four low-key meets with St. Teresa’s at Collingswood High School, one large meet with Marlton and several other teams at Cherokee High, a small but very fun evening meet with The Dashers Track Club at Lower Merion High School, and a final big meet hosted by The Whirlwinds Track Club at Glen Mills School. Given how unpredictable this last year has been, we are very lucky to have had so many opportunities to compete. Our athletes consistently demonstrated a very high level of sportsmanship and grit.
Next year we are hoping to have a regular schedule with the New Jersey Track & Field Federation, but we will also seek out fun meets with other clubs that share similar values. We are a club that values and celebrates success, and we also strive to simply make athletic training and competition accessible to all children.
Next up is our Summer Track & Field Camp at Cherry Hill West High School! This program is a great introduction to the entire sport, for younger or older kids. We keep things moving quickly with lots of expert instruction in basic technique for all events, mixed with fun, age-appropriate competition.
We will wrap things up for the summer with our annual Summer Finale Meet on July 16th at Cherry Hill West, and this is a great opportunity to meet the entire club for one event. The meet is professionally timed, and will include a pre-meet picnic for all club members and their families.
And after a brief break for the month of August, we welcome fall with cross country! We are hoping that all COVID restrictions lifted, we can welcome an unlimited number of kids to this fantastic sport. There is no better way to embrace the cooler weather, and even the approach of winter, than running outside all through Autumn. Our cross country program will have two levels this year; a beginner group for younger kids and those who are newer to running, and an advanced group for returning athletes, and kids who are comfortable running for extended stretches. As always, we welcome parents to join their kids in this healthy program!
This time last year we were all set to begin our inaugural Spring Track & Field program, and then . . .
But after rebounding in the fall with a safe and successful Cross Country program, followed by an incredibly fun Free Winter Running program, we are definitely set to add some throwing and jumping to all that running!
As we begin our early preparation for competitions, including the AAU Junior Olympics, we will also be partnering with the Camden Country Parks Department on their exciting improvement project at the Cooper River Park stadium and track. We are hoping this will eventually be our permanent home, and a great location to attract families from all parts of the county.
The weather is already starting to turn, and excitement is in the air!
Our Spring Track & Field program is for kids from 3rd grade and up, and we encourage all of our members to learn about all of the events that make up the sport. We provide a lot of instruction in the early sessions, while building up our basic strength and endurance, and then allow the kids to gravitate to the events they like best. We attend various youth meets as they become available during the season (fingers crossed!), and we encourage all of our members to participate. For kids that are very motivated to compete, we will compete at the AAU Junior Olympics Regional Qualifier meet in June. The Junior Olympics are for all kids, and is not an “elite” event. It certainly attracts kids with great potential, but especially at the regional meet, it’s just a fun way to put our skills to the test. Athletes who place in the top six in an individual event or relay qualify for the Regional Championships, and the top six there qualify for the National Junior Olympic Games in Texas.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We have a fun spring ahead of us, with lots of learning and training!
The sport of track and field is certainly not new. Not only has it been around as an organized sport in the United States since the 1860s, but the earliest foot race was documented in 776 BC, a 600 foot race in the first Olympic Games. Since then, the various events that make up the sport have evolved into one of the most popular sports, by participation, in the world.
South Jersey Track & Field Club is one of thousands around the world introducing the sport to kids, and in that regard, we are not doing anything new, but rather we have stepped into a rich history of celebrating the athletic wonders of the human body and spirit. Track and Field is a sport like no other; it is actually several sports, with each seeming unique on the surface, but all linked by some fascinating common themes. As a club, we introduce and guide kids through an exploration of their own physical and mental abilities, and encourage a pursuit of ongoing challenge and improvement.
Again, participation in this ancient sport is nothing new, or even unique, yet South Jersey Track & Field Club, it turns out, is quite unique!
If you research track and field clubs, you will find many right here in our region. There are clubs in urban, suburban and rural towns. There are clubs that focus on younger kids, older kids, and even adults. A few clubs, like our’s, include field events, but most tend to focus on running. All these clubs hold practices during different times of the year, and most compete in local and regional meets when they are available. We are one of thousands.
And yet, we are somehow something quite different! If you attend one of our practice sessions you sometimes see almost as many parents as kids! You see 3, 4, 5 different events going on at the same time, with kids realizing that throwing a heavy ball off their shoulder is somehow just as fun as running hurdles. You might see whole families engaged in healthy outdoor activity together, learning about themselves, challenging themselves, coming to appreciate our fascinating sport, and just having a great time. If you look more closely you see that we are not an elite organization. We have some super athletes, and we have some kids who are simply figuring out how to move their limbs with some relative coordination. We celebrate individual ability and success, but it is not even close to why we exist. We came to be, and exist, as a way for all kids, ANY kid, to experience athletic pursuit, regardless of physical ability, or talent. ANY kid can join us, and be coached with enthusiasm and integrity, getting to experience the unique coach-athlete bond. ANY kid can practice, and get to experience the reality of improving with effort, not to beat someone else, but to compete against the one who will always be our greatest adversary, our self. ANY kid can jump into our fun competition, and experience the universal human ideal of sportsmanship. We are unique, because we operate with an equal focus on the least talented kid, comparatively, as the most.
So, how did we get here?
Like most lots in life, if we look back and ask this question, we find that so much rides on the simple concept of intention. Why on earth would someone start an athletic club? Aren’t there already plenty of options? I wish I could say that my wife, Maggie, and I started this endeavor with the above paragraph as our intention, but also like most lots in life, we just keep learning by doing.
But what we did intend to do likely separated us from other track and field clubs right out of the blocks. In the spring of 2014 we thought that it would be really fun to encourage other families to join us for summer evenings of exercise at our local high school’s brand new bouncy track. We had been taking our your kids to various tracks for months, and one of us would do a workout while the other would play soccer or tag or whatever with the kids. Sometimes the kids would run on the track, and other times they wouldn’t. In the end, we would survive another “witching hour” with our little energetic maniacs, get some exercise, and head home a happier, healthier family. And for some reason we thought it would be cool to get some friends to join us!
A logical first step was to make some social networking posts, and we quickly made some new friends. One of the first families to join us was the Ayer’s, with Jon and his son running some intervals, and eventually talking about a more formal club. The next step was to approach our local athletic association. That was interesting, and a learning experience, as it was the first time I noticed that track and field is a threat to some people. The athletic club initially reacted out of fear that a track and field club would steal kids from other sports. This “poverty mindset” would turn out to be an ongoing battle, but we were able to quickly persuade the athletic club to add us as a summer program, when no other sports were happening. The 100+ fee-paying families that registered for our first season pretty much sealed the deal that we were a good addition!
150 kids signed up for that first program in 2014. Maggie and I were expecting, or hoping for, about 30. We just had no idea. As the registrations poured in, so did my panic. How the heck would we organize 180 kids from 2nd to 8th grade? The original goal was to create a family program, so we reached out for volunteers and were simply bowled over by the response. I believe we had about 40 parents offer to help, and we threw together a plan to have the kids in small groups of 10-12, and then rotate them through 3 or 4 stations each evening. It was the epitome of “organized chaos.” But somehow it worked. I wish I had taken more photos and videos, but practice took all of everyone’s focus. The end result was a beautiful display of kids and adults spread out over the track, the infield, and the various side-fields, throwing things, jumping over things, and running all over the place. It was hot. Everyone was sweaty. It. Was. Beautiful.
It was also a little too much! The next summer we scaled things back a bit. We upped the starting age to 3rd grade, and shortened the program by a few weeks. And that summer we had 185 kids sign up. Panic again set in, but I kept reminding myself how amazing the volunteer turn-out was the first year. Once we had everything planned I realized that we could predict at least one parent would volunteer for every 6-8 kids who signed up. We were truly a family fitness program.
There were two things that really struck us during those first two summers. The first was simply how many families were looking for summer recreation. But the second was more specific to track and field — a lot of parents were also looking, some desperately, for alternatives to the existing field sport programs (soccer, football, baseball, softball, field hockey). We have an amazing array of sports to choose from in our area, but lots of kids literally get left on the sidelines in those sports. Our own daughter signed up for soccer, and then just refused to play no matter how we or her very nice coach tried to coax her onto the field. It just wasn’t her thing. It didn’t make any sense. Her older brother will play soccer all day long. But, the moment I set up some hurdles on the track and showed my daughter how to approach them she never turned back!
It turned out that lots and lots of other families have had a similar experience, and like our daughter, their kids still wanted to be outside doing something organized and athletic. And suddenly they were also part of the biggest team in town!
The biggest learning experience of those first two summers was almost embarrassing. I had been coaching high school track and field for several years, but it wasn’t until I began to see how quickly kids learned the various skills that support each event that I realized how much I love and appreciate the sport. Yes, all athletics are about training, competing, and to some extent, winning, or at least trying to win. If you remove the goal of winning from any game it loses its purpose and intrigue. But so much of the value, and even joy of participating in a sport has nothing to do with competition. Competition is the whipped cream, and winning is the cherry on top. But maybe this metaphor only works if you eat that sundae from the bottom up!
Every single kid in the world deserves to experience good life-long health. Studies have proven that children who get a healthy amount of physical activity at a young age are more likely to experience good health throughout life. We also know that the ideal time to instill healthy, complex movement is between the ages of 3 and 6. In that age range, kids should be playing lots of different games on playgrounds, and the science tells us there is little need for it to be organized, or sport-specific. From 6-12 we ideally introduce kids to more and more refined movement technique instruction, and this is when it becomes appropriate to introduce specific sports. In fact, an organized sport becomes an ideal way to build higher level mind-body connection. These are basic developmental concepts that have incalculable value to a human being’s entire lifespan, and while they have everything to do with the enjoyment of sports, they do not require competition, talent or special genetic ability. On one hand we should be mindful not to remove the goal of winning, but at the same time we should fight tooth and nail to prevent winning from somehow allowing every kid to benefit from sport.
Sports like soccer and baseball inevitably lead to a culling of less talented kids. There is nothing wrong with this. I am not opposed to any sport, as long as its rules are continually adapted with a goal of safety and life-long health. Field sports provide excellent ways of engaging kids in those critical movement years. Youth clinic soccer for 3-6 year olds can help supplement playground play with fun team learning. Travel and town soccer programs are well-equipped to serve the higher level training that is ideal for 6-12 year olds. But by 12, the vast majority of kids who played clinic soccer at 6 are no longer involved.
Those are the kids we sought to serve with South Jersey Track & Field Club. There are plenty of organizations that, by their intention, seek to find, serve, and showcase highly talented athletes. As I said, we celebrate success, but it is not our intention or reason for existence.
But here lies one of the most fascinating aspects of track & field! There is no reason whatsoever that a club cannot serve kids of all abilities, helping less able or talented kids learn to move with more competence, while at the same time coaching highly talented athletes to higher levels of performance. Track and field is the most “democratic” sport. Even at the high school level, where only the most talented kids on the team get to compete in the varsity events, most leagues still allow an unlimited number of junior varsity kids to compete. College track and field has a surprising array of talent, but even if some athletes are not qualified to participate there, adult clubs continue to support all athletes regardless of talent, and we know that local 5Ks, marathons, triathlons, mud races, etc are available to all of us as long as we hang on to that “youthful” competitive spirit.
To continue the story, after that second summer we realized that we should bring this sport to a wider population. The athletic association was happy to allow kids from other towns, but we wanted to add fall and spring programs, and that fear I mentioned early came roaring back. Sadly, we found that the key leadership in our local school district does not support track and field, or our mission to provide athletic opportunity to kids of all abilities, and we have been consistently blocked from using the high school facilities. At the same time, the athletic association saw no reason to support our goal of expanding, so we formed a new organization, our current South Jersey Track & Field Club.
Under this name, and our own independent organization and leadership, we have successfully added a summer youth track and field program located at Cherry Hill West High School, a fall cross country program in Cherry Hill, a free winter running program, and our spring track and field program which will hold practices in multiple towns. We have grown to serve over 200 families throughout the year, and maintain our commitment to serve all kids, regardless of physical ability or financial means. And we look forward to someday celebrating some future Olympians!
Look out for future posts, where I will explain what connects all of the events in track and field, and some of the different ways we can learn about ourselves through the sport.