Five days before the Leopard Invitational at Lafayette, both men’s and women’s cross country teams are amidst their last workout before the race, running mile, 800-meter and 200-meter distances on the track at Franklin Field. Their pace is strong but not full-throttle, and the athletes appear tired but not spent.
“This is going pretty well,” coach Steve Dolan says. “We’re having a good day.”
The team is working out at Goldilocks pace — just right. This close to a race, Dolan does not want his team going too fast. After all, they need to be in optimal shape for each of the season’s six to seven intense races, which run eight kilometers for the men and six kilometers for the women. The paces for each race are roughly 25 and 22 minutes, respectively.
For the rest of the week, they will take more relaxed distance runs, usually over eight or nine miles.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at keeping those regular run days for simply putting in work and raising our heart rate a little bit,” senior captain Leslie Kovach said last Thursday.
“It’s that combination of hard training and recovery that gets you where you want to be,” Dolan said. “Your instinct is to work as hard as you can, but you actually can’t go 100 percent every day.”
More Phil Jackson than Bill Belichick, Dolan is managing his team with a soft-spoken, health-oriented approach. He tries to explain to runners the purpose of each training session and patiently works with them so they may get the most out of each day’s efforts. In its last race, the Paul Short Invitational, the men’s team finished first. The women finished 16th, a result Dolan said he was happy with given the number of top-tier opponents Penn faced.
“My high school team was a really small team,” freshman Brendan Smith said. “I was still hoping that there would be an independent aspect. And that’s the thing I like the most … he works with all of us individually and caters to our individual needs.”
Smith finished third overall and first for the team at Paul Short. Smith, along with fellow freshmen Brandon Clark and Thomas Awad, comprise the cohort of “freshman phenoms” who finished with the team’s top three times at the meet. Smith says that, during the preseason, Dolan sat each player down individually and spoke to them about their training.
“He definitely allows us to be independent, but he definitely guides us,” Smith said.
Thinking long-term, Dolan trains the team to be perennially healthy.
Since senior captain George Dickson has a tweaked quad, Dolan is exercising typical caution and holding him out of the next meet.
“He probably could run if it were a really important race,” Dolan explained. “At this stage in the season, we don’t really want to push it … he kind of wanted to race, but I always try to think bigger picture than this week.”
Dolan’s cautious leadership is a hallmark of the team’s culture. Senior captain Margaret Diacont emphasizes the importance of staying healthy before a meet.
“Trying to get to bed at a decent hour, hydrating and eating right,” according to Diacont, are the necessary preparations.
At practice Tuesday, both the men and women stop for a minute after each run to discuss what should be their next step in the workout. Dolan takes one runner aside and teaches him a breathing technique. Later, two runners are having leg problems, so Dolan tells the men to limit the workout.
“If four 200s wouldn’t be in the best health interests of the two runners, it’s better not to do it,” Dolan says. “There has to be a trust relationship that they’re going to give you their best effort.”