On the surface, cross country seems like fairly simple sport.
How complicated could a sport where all you do is run long distances actually be? For WVU coach Sean Cleary, cross country is as tactical and strategic as a sport can be.
Cleary is a big believer that familiarity with a particular course can really improve performance. This was evident with the team’s first race of the season on Aug. 30 at the Lehigh Invitational.
The Lehigh Invitational is held at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on the Goodman Cross Country Course, which is, coincidentally, the exact same course that the 2019 NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional will be held at in November.
It is not a coincidence that despite the fact WVU only had five official racers at the Lehigh Invitational, Cleary took the entire team.
“We actually took the entire team, which is one of the reasons we went over to Lehigh,” Cleary said. “All of those that are healthy actually worked out and ran the course a couple times, more so for practice, just to get a good feel for it when we go back in November.”
Cleary believes being familiar with the course now will pay dividends when the Regional races comes around in November.
“For the next couple of months, everyone that made that trip now has the chance to keep that course fresh in their mind,” Cleary said. “We’re believers in visualization. They’ll be thinking about that course as they go on daily runs and as they work out, all the hills and where to position themselves, all the tactical things in our sport.”
It will take a couple months to see if Cleary’s plan works out for the Mountaineers this season, but this strategy of getting familiar with a course ahead of regionals is not exactly new for Cleary.
In each of the last three seasons, the WVU cross country team ran at least one race during the regular season at the course that the NCAA Regional race was being held.
In 2018, the Regional meet was held at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 9. The Mountaineers raced twice at University Park prior to the regional race: on Sept. 7 at the Spiked Shoe Invitational and on Oct. 12 at the Penn State National Open. The Mountaineers finished fifth their first time on the course that season and sixth both subsequent times.
In 2017, the NCAA Regionals were held at the Goodman course in Bethlehem, just like this season. Also like this season, WVU ran at the Lehigh Invitational on the same course to begin its season. That year, the team parlayed a first place finish in September into a seventh place finish in November.
In 2016, regionals were again at Penn State and the team followed the exact same plan it had in 2018, running in the Spiked Shoe Invitational and Penn State Open during the regular season. This time the team turned a fifth place finish the first time into two fourth place finishes.
The preparation goes beyond just this season. Redshirt senior Olivia Hill, who was one of the official racers at Lehigh, and redshirt junior Sarah Wills, who is currently recovering from an injury, have both run three official races at the Goodman Course. Hill ran a 21:33 time on the course in both 2016 and 2017, and Wills ran the course in 21:34 twice in 2017.
Cleary said he thought it was important to make sure even the young runners on the team could get familiar with the course.
“I think it’s important, and we have a young team, so most of the West Virginia team has never seen that course before,” Cleary said. “We just thought it was important to get over there and get a feel.”
Cleary is banking on this level of familiarity to pay off come November as he hopes to get his team back into the national championship.