* 2003 National Championship Team (Derek York, Cele Rodriguez, Mohamed Aden, Enrique Guerrero, Josh Merrick, Matt Levassiur, Jesus Solis)
1 mile to go and I feel like I am breathing in a plastic bag. Head pounding from my own heartbeat. The pain has come and gone leaving no awareness of where or what my legs are doing. My mind is staggering in thought.
“How many Western State runners are ahead of me?”
“Just keep running to the next tree”
“Now to the turn”
The only thing I was sure of was that I was our 5th runner. That last scoring member.
If you aren’t familiar with the scoring of Cross Country, I have spared you the trouble and have consulted Wikipedia.
To add to the drama…
It was our Conference Championship.
At our home course.
Against our rival, Western State. Who had just won the National Title a year before. They live two hours north, which creates quite the environment to race in.
I won’t lie and tell you I had any thought of moving faster. I was firmly set on holding my ground and finishing.
Selfishly, I care for my well being.
¾ of a mile left to go all that changed because of Peter de la Cerda.
The damn thing about hosting the Conference Championship is that all of the Alumni come back for support. All of which have built the tradition at Adams State. Some have more All-American accolades than they do fingers. Others have competed in the World Championships or the Olympics.
Yet there are 7 specific alumni that are held higher than all the rest. The members of the 1992 Perfect Score Team, where the top 5 scoring members of the Adams State team placed 1-2-3-4-5 at the National Championships. It was the first and only time this has ever happened in a NCAA Championship.
It just so happens Peter was on that team.
There was no…
“You are doing great Aaron”
“We are killin’em!”
Instead I got…
“We need 1 more to Win!”
At this point the limited oxygen to my brain has severely affected my ability to do math so I have no Idea if this is true, my vision was a bit fuzzy, but damn if I didn’t make out a blurry red spot running 50 yards ahead of me.
So I moved what I could. Violently pumping my arms hoping my legs would follow.
I don’t remember much after that other than running down the last fairway to the finish still in pursuit of the blurry red spot with my vision going in and out of the darkness. Much like you would see if you were to rewind and fast forward the ending of looney tunes.
The darkness eventually won out and the chase… not successful.
I ended up in a small green camping tent afterwards, scared to death that I let down the team. I then heard Coach Martin’s voice outside the tent.
My lips and face numb from the cold I drooled out a question.
“Did we win?”
A smile came across his face as he started to laugh.
“We had this thing wrapped up by mile 2!”
Hitting me on the shoulder as he went on his way.
Relieved, I laid back down, eyes fixated on the roof of that damn green tent.
“How in the hell did I end up in this tent?”
“Why did he tell me we needed one more?”
Because the “effort” was expected.
It takes only one workout and one upperclassman to show the way.
The “effort” that is expected.
For me it was Brandon Leslie.
As a freshman I remember catching the tail end of Brandon’s workout.
I don’t want to completely mystify his running, but their was something both beautiful and unnerving about it.
I am sure his Navajo blood line, tattoos, and powerful stride played a part, but it was his ability to go to “that place” so easily that made you look at your own running and manhood and question it.
To this day he is the only runner I have seen roll their eyes back in pain (or trance) and not only maintain pace but often times accelerate and attack in it.
For an 18 year old Kansas boy, it sent a clear message.
If misery likes company so too does belief.
Often times starting as small as a whisper, until it encompasses a single soul who then spreads it to the masses. At Adams State that single soul was Dr. Joe Vigil.
“Believing” carries weight.
If you coach long enough you will undoubtedly see how the act of believing can put the athlete at a crossroads. In one direction it can empower, the other debilitate.
For the latter, believing means you have to do all that is asked, which leaves no excuses if things don’t work out. Some athletes can’t handle it. They need the “excuse” if they fail. Its a means to cope with the possibility of failure occurring, no matter how small the chances.
That’s why the art of coaching is so important. It’s something you can’t get by reading exercise science journals, or reading books on program design. Dr. Joe Vigil had a unique ability to instill belief, which has then been carried on by Coach Martin and the long green line of alumni.
Physiology of Belief
Can the act of believing, which is a cognitive process, change physiology? Can these changes enhance workout intensity and improve recovery?
The answer is Yes.
An example of a cognitive function changing physiology is the Placebo Effect. As old as medicine itself, we often look at it in a negative light, as deception.
But does it matter to those who are sick and in pain?
I would say no.
The belief that they will get better is enough to mobilize the immune system (via nerve chemicals or hormones) to give them relief.
The signalling of this belief is coming from specific branches of our autonomic nervous system; the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
Anxiety over your training plan, workout, or clashes with the coach can all cripple recovery by keeping the SNS branch “On” not allowing the PNS branch to hit the brakes and start the recovery process.
Where as an unshakable belief in a program or coach, can create a calmness, a sense of certainty that the work you are doing is purposeful. This will inhibit the “On” of the SNS. If paired with appropriate recovery protocols (nutrition, sleep, therapy, etc) it will lead to improved recovery and an enhanced physiological response otherwise not seen by those athletes experiencing the high anxiety and doubt.
Improving recovery will go hand in hand with the increased intensity that accompanies a strong belief and focused workouts. This is mainly through a hormone/neurotransmitter called Dopamine.
If you have either been a runner at Adams or have competed against the team, you have heard the chant, or battle cry.
This was done before every hard workout and race. There is no doubt that afterwards our motivation increased. Even hearing it now I can feel the effects of dopamine. Increase heart rate and respiration, surge of energy, muscles ready to contract, my senses heightened (dopamine is a precursor to adrenaline or epinephrine).
Thirty-two, past my prime, sitting in front of my computer…still works!
Dopamine’s effect on fatigue during exercise is reduced perceived exertion, leading to increase work rate that directly affects pacing during workouts/races. Simply put, it will make workouts more intense, pushing the psychological and physiological limits.
Once again this takes a unique individual or coach to control the heightened psychological and physiological responses. This is why copy-cat coaching where individuals take workouts and try to replicate the effect doesn’t work.
Frustrated, those coaches blame it on talent, location, or facilities. Instead their focus should be on themselves, their coaching, cueing, body language, athlete identification, mood states, and etc.
The power of tradition runs deep, and though it seems insurmountable (which history has shown true) it can also be obtainable.
It only takes one.