While preparing for championship season, the girls cross country team looks to shrink the gap between the times of its top runners. In order to accomplish this, the team is focused on training and racing as a more cohesive unit of runners.
“We’re all trying to train together as a pack,” said Emma Eikelberner ’16. “We’re trying to … balance our strengths and weaknesses in practices, so that we can do that in races as well.”
When applied to meets, this strategy will serve to isolate other runners from their teams during races. “[When you run in a pack] there are less girls from other teams in between you, so you are more likely to score [fewer] points,” said Co-Captain Mary Sutton ’15. In cross country, the goal is to have the least amount of points.
“The way that [Head] Coach [James] Smirk teaches us to run is not to have that number one runner win the race, but to have all five of us come through before [the other team’s] number two,” said Paige Metzheiser ’15.
“Our seven greater than their one” is a slogan Smirk frequently repeats, referring to the ability of a deep seven-runner team to beat a team with a first runner capable of winning the meet.
For the upcoming races, Smirk has a related goal. He would like the runner filling the number one spot to significantly decrease her time. “This creates a sort of slinky effect … stretching us a little bit, and everybody kind of catches up,” said Smirk. This way, the one to five gap stays small at a more competitive level.
Race conditions are rarely predictable, so the team practices strategically in order to become more flexible. They have been training on different courses and at different running speeds, allowing them to adapt to different terrains and situations during meets.
“Incorporating different race plans to become a more well-trained athlete [is effective], so your competition doesn’t know what you’re going to do,” said Eikelberner. “You develop the toolkit to react to different circumstances in races.”
This “toolkit” is a result of training with a combination of easy days, interval days, and tempo days. “These different training modalities … are really about athletes learning about themselves and their fitness levels and what their body is going to do in reaction to that,” Smirk said.
The team is currently ranked eleventh in the state and is seeded second in Group 3. One of the most pivotal races for the team took place October 4 at Holmdel Park, a course Smirk deemed the hardest in New Jersey.
The Adidas Shore Coaches XC Invitational at Holmdel proved to be successful for the team, as it placed third in the Championship race and fourth of 133 teams overall. The top five runners—Lou Mialhe ’16, Julie Bond ’15, Metzheiser, Eikelberner, and Sutton—finished within 20 seconds of each other, respectively. “They each have their unique personal racing style and really work well together in maximizing our races,” said Smirk.
“We haven’t had a single meet where we’re all in the same order,” said Metzheiser. “It’s really not so much about who’s the best and the ranks between the five of us, but it’s pretty obvious we’re all in the same range, and it’s just the mental piece of staying together.”
That said, the team is not solely focused on the achievements of its top five runners, as the rank habitually fluctuates. “For our team, the reality there is that that means the top 12 runners on our program all have to find ways to contribute day in and day out of practice,” said Smirk.
While the team commits itself to focusing on its own success, it must also keep an eye on West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, a close competitor of the Little Tigers.
“For sure, South is our dragon,” said Smirk, referring to a friend’s description of the school’s team. “There’s nothing better than slaying dragons and making heroes.” The girls celebrated a one-point victory over South at the Shore Coaches Invitational but will have to face their rival again at Divisionals and the Mercer County Championship meet.
To beat South in the county tournament, Smirk said, “It’s going to be less about what we do against South and much more about what we do with ourselves, and how we approach being as successful as we can be on any given day.”
Since South is in Group 4, Princeton might not face the team again after the Mercer County tournament until the Meet of Champions—that is, as long as both teams rank either first, second, or third in their groups at the NJSIAA Group Championship to qualify.
With so many goal-oriented regimes put in place, the team hopes to come out on top at the upcoming county, sectional, and state tournaments. “Anything could happen at the [state championship], so we have to continue working hard,” said Sutton. “But we’re confident in our ability and we’re happy to have the opportunity to run.”