On last Saturday’s bus ride to Princeton, sprinters on the Penn women’s track team broke out into a freestyle.
“Control, what you can control,” sophomore Victoria Strickland begins. “Control, what you can control.”
“Be smooooooth,” sophomore Leah Brown chimes in with perfect rhythm.
“Give a little, mama. Give a little, mama,” sings sophomore Renee McDougall.
The medley, composed of quotes that the runners hear from their head coach Gwen Harris on a routine basis, gets the Quakers pumped up and ready to run each meet.
And last Saturday wasn’t the first time that Harris and the rest of the team heard the sprinters’ rap — they do it every week on the bus until someone tells them to stop.
But posting the second-fastest time in school history in the 4x100-meter medley and boasting three under-25-second 200-meter runners — junior Kali Strother and sophomores Leah Brown and Renee McDougall — less than a month into the outdoor season isn’t the result of just a good pump-up song.
The sprinters follow a four-week training cycle where the first week focuses on speed, the second on endurance, the third on power and the fourth week on recovery.
And though all runners are different and their strengths and weaknesses vary, according to senior Jamie Massarelli, “We’re almost getting to the point where we’re running the same during practice that we’re running at meets.”
Some workouts include longer distances with shorter rest intervals. For example, 600 meters will be split into a 400 and a 200, and each individual’s time must add up to meet coach Harris’ expectations.
“I love those workouts because ... your strength levels have to be there and your conditioning level has to be there, and you’ll know whether you’re okay,” the coach explained. “It kind of simulates going into a meet.”
Harris, a veteran coach of 30 years, says that although she recognizes differences in individuals, she does not significantly change her training strategy from year to year.
However, this year’s team may think differently.
“Practices have definitely gotten harder this year,” McDougall said.
“We’re getting faster and stronger,” Strother added.
Still, speed and strength do not come without race-day rituals.
“I wear the same pair of underwear,” Strother said. “I wash them, but it’s always the same pair. Socks have to be the same, everything has to be the same every week.”
Sophomore hurdler Paige Madison follows a strict pre-race warm up that includes running and hurdling drills, static stretching and a playlist of fast music.
And before every relay, team members make sure to say a prayer together.
Unity and trust are important for relays because “You’re running for everybody else,” Brown said.
“Especially in the 4x100, it’s so incredibly technical,” McDougall added. “You have to completely trust the other person.”
The team’s togetherness extends off the track and into the training room. Two to three times a week, up to five sprinters pile into an ice bath together.
Massarelli describes the ritual ice baths as “key” to success.
“It definitely helps with recovery,” she said.
But even with a strict training regimen and so many pre-race rituals, sprinting is a particularly mental sport and the athletes always need to be on point.
And that’s where Harris steps in.
“I say, ‘You guys work really hard, and to have somebody beat you is bullcrap.’”
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