Skill & will uphill

Stamina and strategy equally vital for runners under pressure

The Gaels’ first test of the 2013 OUA season comes this weekend at the Queen’s Invitational at Fort Henry.
The Gaels’ first test of the 2013 OUA season comes this weekend at the Queen’s Invitational at Fort Henry.
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Steve Boyd hasn’t run competitively for Queen’s since 1987 — but he still gets plenty of exercise on race days.

Entering his fourth year as head coach of Gaels cross-country, Boyd and his charges will take to Fort Henry Hill tomorrow for the Queen’s Invitational.

It’s their first of four tune-up races leading up to the OUA and CIS championships — for the runners and their coach, who still leads the team with his legs and lungs.

“I’m all over the course, giving splits and generally shouting encouragement — giving them information relative to where they are to other teams,” said Boyd, who won two national championships with Queen’s in the mid-1980s.

“There’s quite a bit going on during the race.”

Boyd’s in-race instruction can be vital to his runners, who break off the start line in a pack, look to set a brisk but manageable pace with their teammates, then split off in the final kilometres for a mad dash to the finish.

They do so alongside dozens of rival competitors on unpredictable and varying terrain. In a sport of endurance and mental fortitude, tactics and strategy are equally important.

“My approach has always been an even pace all the way, with maybe a slight negative split, which means the second half might be faster than the first,” Boyd said.

“[Runners] are often forced to start a little quicker in the first minute or so, but then you want to settle into an even pace that you can handle.”

The Gaels have handled themselves well at home in recent years, claiming both the men’s and women’s overall titles at Fort Henry in 2012.

Still, while invitational results are used to tabulate midseason national rankings, winning isn’t always the top priority.

“In the early invitationals, we don’t necessarily want to go flat out — we try to save ourselves a little bit,” said Boyd, whose team will compete in London, Guelph and Montreal in the coming weeks.

“They’re for conditioning, as a kind of measurement to where we are relative to other teams.”

Unlike other sports, where playing surfaces are generally uniform, no cross-country course is the same, presenting runners with unique sets of challenges.

Trails and golf courses are popular sites for OUA races. To conquer Fort Henry, the Gaels may have to channel their inner Phil Mickelson.

In July, the American golfer won the British Open, a major golf championship traditionally held on Scottish links-style courses. With few trees and a surface that changes subtly and suddenly, Fort Henry is similar to a links course — and can be just as daunting to runners.

“It doesn’t look as challenging as it is, but once you get moving on it, there are little hills and corners constantly that break your rhythm all the time,” Boyd said, noting that changes in slope can cause runners to reach their maximum heart rate several times in a matter of minutes.

“It just takes a lot of nerve and emotional control to keep your eye on the ball in those conditions and realize that everyone else is hurting.”

The Fort Henry race will be run in a series of two-kilometre loops — four sets for the men, three for the women. That’s a touch longer than previous women’s courses, extended from five kilometres to six this season.

Second-year runner Julie-Anne Staehli doesn’t believe the added wrinkle will significantly affect her time or strategy, which stands in line with her coach’s racing mantra.

“When I head out, I usually like to go pretty hard off the start line — get into a good position before it narrows off into the pack,” she said, emphasizing the importance of saving a final burst for the end.

Staehli placed third in her initial Queen’s Invitational last fall, eventually finishing sixth at the OUA championships and cracking the All-Canadian roster.

She’ll lead a youthful crop of Gaels women at Fort Henry and throughout the fall season. Improving on a 14th-place finish at nationals is a top priority, she said, but capitalizing on depth throughout the lineup will be key to any success.

“I think we have a really exciting year coming — we have a lot of newcomers and rookies,” Staehli said. “You’re always striving for a personal best, but it’s definitely a team sport as well.”

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