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March 20, 2014

March Madness! What the NCAA Basketball Tournament Can Teach Us About Training for a Goal Race

Written by Dena Evans
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While the GDP takes its annual dip on the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament as thousands of otherwise productive individuals are glued to the television in defense of their bracket picks, let’s take a moment to consider the ways in which this annual rite of passage can mirror our own distance running and racing endeavors.

 

If it was easy, everyone would be doing it

When a team cuts down the nets and “One Shining Moment” plays into our living rooms three Mondays from now, one team will be mixing tears of joy and wide grins as they savor a moment they will likely remember for the rest of their lives.  Why?

 

One reason is that the NCAA tournament is extremely difficult to win.  An individual player likely has played for 12-15 years before they have the chance and likely endured plenty of hours in an empty gym after everyone else had gone home. A team ascends to the top of the ladder placed under the rim only if they have matched the consistency of a strong regular season, the good fortune to maintain relative health amongst their ranks, and a six game hot streak just at the right time.

 

Athletes running marathons and half marathons must have the same discipline as the college athlete who still shoots 100 free throws after practice and takes 500 jumpers per day.  When everyone else wants to run five miles and call it a day, we must have fortitude to tuck three gels into our pockets and set out for that 18 miler.  Many marathoners are the first person in their families to even attempt such a feat, and are adults who have yet to experience the high of serious athletic accomplishment.  While distance racing is growing in numbers, those numbers are still a mole hill compared to the mountain of others who would not choose to train for a marathon for the life of them.  Take pride in confidently choosing and navigating the road less traveled.

 

Never underestimate the unexpectedly effective opponent

In the NCAA tournament, occasionally a top seed is eliminated early on by a team that would likely have no chance of winning if the same game were played another 20 times.  However, on that one day, an underdog can assert itself and wreak havoc over the expected order of things.  Similarly, we run the risk of getting ambushed by last minute issues if we have not prepared for the very real possibility that things may not always be perfect, or have not conscientiously thought through all the easily knowable pitfalls.

 

With marathon and half marathon training and racing, there is a very real possibility that an athlete may temporarily not feel very good at all in a way that should have no bearing on the final outcome.  Most of our runcoach athletes take their running preparation seriously, but we also encourage runners to do research on their race to understand race day procedures, travel plans, fuel availability on the course, weather conditions.  Missing some pre-race instructions can derail the best laid plans.    Even if something goes wrong, if we have a solidly built foundation of training and keep a calm attitude, that mishap need not carry the day.  Picture yourself as the top seed which doesn’t get flustered when the low seed plays tough defense and has a scoring spurt midway through the second half.  Rely on your training, think logically, be patient for the issue to resolve itself, and “survive and advance” to the next stage of the race.

 

It takes a village

On the basketball court, even the most illustrious of individual players is no match for a strong, cohesive team.  In running, an individual race is the final product, but likely many cooks were in the kitchen, helping to prepare the athlete to do battle from the start line.  Running can be a very singular pursuit, but goal racing almost invites the crucial contributions from others.  Every basketball team needs speedy little point guards, medium sized small forwards, and tall, lumbering centers.  Marathon training often requires time (found often by others temporarily shouldering additional responsibilities), medical practitioners who give massages, provide support, and prescribe the occasional diagnostic test. Encouragement on that raining Saturday morning, with the longest run of the training cycle on tap, can be a difference maker allowing you to get through and recover from the toughest assignments.  Even the person who prepared your dinner (if you did not do it yourself), plays a part in keeping you healthy and on track with your recovery schedule.

 

Next year offers fresh opportunity

The basketball tournament has made several incremental changes through the years, while keeping the core experience somewhat similar every March.  If things don’t work perfectly one year, a team can return and make amends the following spring.  Similarly, a marathon or other goal race which did not go according to plan may need not be the end of the road.  Almost all marathons and half marathons are annual affairs as well, and the turn of seasons offers another chance to succeed where success has previously been difficult to attain.  Good coaches are always learning (just as we are from you every time you enter your run in your log), but successful athletes are often also resilient enough to stick with what seems like an intractable problem and take a second try to attain the runners’ version of “One Shining Moment”  - the finish line.

 

Last modified on March 22, 2014
Dena Evans

Dena Evans

Dena Evans joined runcoach in July, 2008 and has a wide range of experience working with athletes of all stripes- from youth to veteran division competitors, novice to international caliber athletes.

From 1999-2005, she served on the Stanford Track & Field/ Cross Country staff. Dena earned NCAA Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year honors in 2003 as Stanford won the NCAA Division I Championship. She was named Pac-10 Cross Country Coach of the Year in 2003-04, and West Regional Coach of the Year in 2004.

From 2006-08, she worked with the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative, helping to expand the after school fitness programs for elementary school aged girls to Mountain View, East Menlo Park, and Redwood City. She has also served both the Stanford Center on Ethics and the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession as a program coordinator.

Dena graduated from Stanford in 1996.

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