A Prep Runner's Summer Trial of Miles

Big summer mileage
Big summer mileage "can give you a huge advantage during the season," says Mikias Gelagle, here chatting with Roosevelt Coach Desmond Dunham. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

To prepare for his senior cross-country season at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Mikias Gelagle decided his summer needed to be high in mileage -- and low on everything else.

He got a job at a bakery in June, then quit before his first shift because he feared working would keep him from running. Dinners cooked by his parents seemed too greasy, so Gelagle learned to make basic, high-carbohydrate meals for himself. He stopped going to movies or parties with friends, instead sleeping 11 or 12 hours each night.

For three months, Gelagle, 17, trimmed his life -- and his focus -- to a singular goal: run up to 100 miles each week to build endurance and gain an edge over other high school runners.

"That's a ton of mileage, so I was really careful," Gelagle said. "I wore a heart monitor a lot. I talked to my coach every day. I iced all the time. I knew it would be a lot to do, but that kind of summer can give you a huge advantage during the season."

High-mileage training, though, remains controversial for high schoolers, even when done so meticulously. Most cross-country coaches agree that a record number of high schoolers are running high mileage -- generally considered more than 65 miles a week for boys and 50 miles a week for girls -- but few agree on the likely outcome of such an approach.

Heavy running during high school, coaches said, will often lead to one of two results: major improvement in endurance and racing ability, or injury and burnout.

"It's a pretty big gamble, and do you really want to take that gamble with a high schooler's career?'" said John McDonnell, whose Arkansas men's cross-country team has won 11 NCAA championships. "It's almost like a vehicle, and you don't want too much wear and tear. We're still trying to decide how much mileage is too much."

Eleanor Roosevelt Coach Desmond Dunham spent a few months making that decision before he approached Gelagle with a high-mileage proposal in May. Pulling ideas from two coaching clinics and a handful of athletic trainers, Dunham created a plan intended to build Gelagle's endurance without breaking him down.

Gelagle, who finished fifth in Maryland's Class 4A state meet last year, started the summer running about 70 miles per week, then boosted that number by five miles each week until he reached 100. Every fourth week, he cut his mileage by about 20 percent to recover.

Other area high-mileage runners used similar programs. Colonial Forge sophomore Kay Comer started the summer running about 40 miles each week, then peaked at nearly 60. Local private coach Mike Byrnes -- who requires all of his athletes to log long distances -- typically builds a runner's mileage by 10 percent each week.

"We spent a lot of time coming up with something safe" for Gelagle, Dunham said. "This isn't something where he just said, 'See ya. I'm going to run 100 miles.' We had a very serious system in place."

Under that system, Gelagle had to check in with Dunham at least once each day and keep a journal detailing every mile. He had to run almost exclusively on grass, a soft surface better for his knees, shins, hips and muscles. He had to buy new running shoes every two months. He had to eat three PowerBars every day, stretch constantly and massage his own thighs before going to bed.

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