You remember the feeling: You’re bent at the waist, struggling to catch your breath, afraid that you might throw up. Your legs struggle to hold your weight. Your hands rest on your knees, tugging your shorts or your knee pads. Sweat drips into your eyes, then into a puddle between your feet on the grass.
Preseason practice means a lot of things, and if you are anything like I was in high school, they mean misery. Way too often in my high school days, I went to the first day of soccer practice in the fall or baseball practice in the spring not exactly in the best of shape. I’d either spent a summer working and going to the beach, or a winter playing a little and watching a lot of basketball. Then, a week or two before practices were set to start, I’d lace up a pair of sneakers (usually high tops) and jog a couple of miles, thinking it might do me some good when two-a-days started.
I’ve thought about those preseason practices a lot recently, both because high school students reported to practice for the first time this school year last week and because I’ve been busy training all summer for a few key road races and my first marathon, which I’ll run in October.
I find it a little bit funny that, as a 39-year-old novice runner, I am constantly training, getting ready for my next race, but as a teenager supposedly in the best shape of my life, I often slacked off.
I think back on those days when I’m at the track at 7:30 in the morning doing 400-meter repeats or when I’m hammering out another long run on the Kennebec River Rail Trail. Recently, after running four or five 100-meter stride in preperation for a 5K the following day, I joked with a friend that I wished I had this kind of work ethic when I was in high school.
It wasn’t until I was 18, a high school senior, that I finally smartened up and tried to get in shape before baseball season for once. Honestly though, that was mostly a way to hang out with a few friends, none of whom played baseball. These friends of mine were into body building and had a gym in their basement. I’d head to their house in the afternoon, jog a few miles, then go through a weight training workout.
I entered that baseball season in the best shape of my life. Much better shape than those years before when I would swing a weighted bat like five times in my parents’ basement and play pass with my brother for about 10-minutes a day the two weeks leading up to practice.
It helped, but unfortunately, it was that year that I learned my future didn’t include a job as the starting shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. I just didn’t have the talent. And while I was in great shape, other than the running, not much of that training translated to the baseball field.
I hope the high school athletes who returned to practice last week were better prepared than I was back in the day. Two-a-days are always tough, and they should be. They are not only designed to get you in shape, but to test you. To see who is willing to work the hardest, who’s push themselves when the pressure is on, and to see who is capable of performing under that pressure.
If you are a high school athlete who wasn’t prepared, last week was more difficult than it needed to be. Practices this week might be a little easier because you’ve started to get your legs back. But if you reported to camp out of shape, you started out behind your teammates who took their summer workouts seriously. It could be the difference not only between being completely miserable and only sort of miserable, but between starting and coming off the bench. Plus, the team that comes to camp in shape can spend less time getting in shape and more time preparing to play the game.
For those of us out of school, the motivation is much different. I stick to my training plan because I got tired of being the short, fat guy and because I’m addicted to setting PRs. The only feeling better than nailing a tough workout (even if it leaves me with the feeling I described in the opening paragraph of this column) is crushing a personal record on race day.
I’ve learned in my life as a runner, you can’t prepare for a race in a week, and if you do, it’s going to be an ugly disaster. Training has to become part of your life.
I wish I had learned that a long time ago, maybe those preseason practices wouldn’t have been so miserable.