Long-Distance Relationships Really Can Work Out

It gets lonely on the trail, but distance runners such as Broadneck's Matthew Centrowitz bond across team lines.
It gets lonely on the trail, but distance runners such as Broadneck's Matthew Centrowitz bond across team lines. (Tony L. Sandys - The Post)
By Preston Williams
Thursday, March 29, 2007

W.T. Woodson senior Sarrah Hadiji was intrigued last fall when she found out she would be competing against cross-country runners from England in the Glory Days Invitational. "Maybe they have someone really crazy," she recalls thinking.

Sure enough, the gun went off at Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville, and one of the visitors sprinted to the head of the pack. Hadiji, well acquainted with almost all of the top runners in the race, felt a rush of excitement at the sight of this wild-card stranger.

"I smiled when I was running," Hadiji said. "I get to play a game and try something new and see what somebody else can do."

The fact that the mere presence of an unknown runner could provide a seasoned All-Met like Hadiji such a thrill underscores just how familiar distance runners become with one another over the course of their high school careers.

They compete in cross-country in the fall, and the 1,600 and 3,200 meters during the winter indoor track season and the spring outdoor track season, a demanding cycle in which they see many of the same faces, major race after major race.

In some cases, they compete against one another for three high school seasons a year for four years. So is this relatively insular existence empowering ("I know she likes to go out fast, but her kick is weak," a runner might surmise) or claustrophobic ("Boy, I'm tired of seeing this guy zip past me for the past four years")?

Probably both. Broadneck senior Matthew Centrowitz, who has been first-team All-Met in cross-country and outdoor track and honorable mention in indoor, said the pluses of familiar competition are the lack of surprises and knowing how to tailor his training to certain opponents.

After all, distance running already is a mental pursuit as much as a physical one. Knowing the competition so well can be crucial to strategy. Throw in all the available data on runners on various Web sites and it can be either helpful information or paralysis by analysis.

"If I'm running next to someone who has a really good kick, I'm going to be like, all right, I'm going to push the pace really hard and try to tire their kick out," said West Springfield senior Mike Spooner, who has been All-Met in cross-country and indoor and honorable mention All-Met in outdoor. "Or, if it's a guy who pushes it really hard, then I'm going to tuck in behind him and use my kick. With other sports where it's only one season, you really don't get the chance to compete with them enough to learn" tendencies.

"It does get a little redundant, because you get to know everyone really well," said Atholton senior Alison Smith, an All-Met in cross-country and indoor who bypassed the recently completed indoor season in part because of over-familiarity with the opposition. "You know when they're having a good day or having a bad day. You're kind of sizing everybody up beforehand. It's not like the sprints, where you're just holding your breath and hoping for the best. You've got the race to think about it."

Facing the same competition so frequently also places greater pressure on the favorites. Equate it to another sport: If one basketball team sweeps another during the season, the expectation is to beat that opponent for a third time in the playoffs. Failure to do so is seen as an upset. So the elite runners face potential upset after upset several times a season if someone new sneaks past them on the results sheet.

The upside of such repeated meetings is that it can lead to meaningful friendships. The runners already share the focus and commitment it takes to participate in the distances. Spooner and Hadiji said the funny thing is that freshman distance runners tend to be shy for fear of giving away information. Only after a year or so do you open up to your fellow competitors.

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