Maybe I’m just stupid. In fact, that’s almost definitely the case. I’ve just never been sure how to write about cross country as a sport. Forget writing a story for a minute, I haven’t even been sure what to ask in an interview.
“So, y’all try to run fast?”
“Um, for a long time?”
“That’s the idea.”
I mean, I guess I could ask about the difficulty of drinking water while running at the same time. That’s a thing, right? Seems hard. I know some people who can barely walk and chew at the same time.
My ignorance aside, obviously there is more to being an effective distance runner than strong calves and the ability to multi-task. I’m not so dumb as to think that anybody could wake up and do the things those runners do just by hopping on a treadmill.
Luckily, Mississippi State sort of forced me into learning the details, thanks to their women’s team winning the NCAA South Region for the first time in program history. Actually, it was the first time any school from Mississippi won it. Led by South Region Coach of the Year Houston Franks and National Champion Rhianwedd Price, MSU’s cross country program has been exceedingly successful over recent years.
The group is off to the NCAA Championships this weekend, and before they went, they held a press conference on Tuesday to discuss their victory. I had a few variations of, “So, y’all are good, huh?” tucked away and ready to go, but fortunately, Franks opened up a new world of information as he answered one of the other reporters’ questions.
“We take a very scientific approach to training,” he said. “We focus a lot on the physiological aspect.”
At the risk of getting an answer that went completely over my head, I asked him for more information on that scientific and physiological approach. In the upset of the day, I actually understood his response. Big picture, Franks coaches his runners in two main areas: the mental and the physical.
The focus, in this instance, is the physical, which again breaks down into two areas. First, there’s the aerobic side, which is exercise that requires oxygen and relates to endurance. Second, there’s the anaerobic side, which is exercise that does not require oxygen and relates to speed. There is far more nuance than that, but that’s the gist of things. To be at their best, MSU’s runners need to excel and be properly trained in both areas. That’s where Franks comes in, helping to get them there in each.
The difference is that aerobic exercise takes, according to most research, as many as six months of training to reach its upper limit. Anaerobic, on the other hand, takes 2-3 months. The challenge for Franks and his team is finding a way to have both of those areas hit their sweet spot at the same time, and to have that time be when it is needed the most.
“You’re always trying to get those two things to peak at the right times to where you’re at your best in those two physiological peaks you’re looking for,” he said. “We’re hitting on all cylinders at the right time of the year. In every sport, no matter what you play, you want to be at your best in championship season.”
In fact, while MSU has run well all year, Franks said the South Region Championship was the first “great” run his team had this season. Just two weeks prior, his team was disappointed in a fourth place finish at the SEC Championships. The fact that such a mark was disappointing shows just how far this program has come in a few short years.
Under Franks, the team has been on an upward trend for a while, but in the last couple years, they’ve taken things to a new level with their team and individual accomplishments. When asked what led to the unprecedented success, Price actually turned and opened her arms high and low to present her head coach the way Vanna White might present a brand new car to a potential Wheel of Fortune winner.
The development, she believes, can be credited largely to Franks.
“First coming in here, I had no idea what I was doing,” she said as she espoused the virtues of the man who had been named Coach of the Year just moments before arrival to the press conference. “He massively deserves it.”
The margins of victory and defeat are incredibly thin in cross country, a sport measured by tenths of seconds where the difference between first place and 30th place is just a notch above negligible. But through patience and a proven approach, Mississippi State’s cross country program has made those moves.
“The years we were going in the right direction, we maybe weren’t even getting the results, but we knew it was coming, and now we’re getting to reap the benefits of it,” Franks said. “But quite honestly, we haven’t reached the end game. We’re not where we want to be yet. We want to keep climbing and we want to be perennially a national contender.
“We’ve proven we can do it. Now we’ve got to prove we can do it over and over and over again.”