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.
Gelagle divided his miles into a series of workouts, and his 100-mile week -- like all of his weeks -- required several exhausting days: a 20-mile run at a pace of about six minutes per mile; a tempo run, which required five miles done at 85 percent of racing speed; six one-mile repeats, all run in less than five minutes with only three minutes of rest between each mile.
Each of those workouts required two or three miles of jogging to warm up and cool down. In order to break up those hard days, Gelagle took off days in between -- days when he'd merely run 10 or 12 miles.
As for real off days? Gelagle had three of those all summer.
The seemingly extreme regimen was grounded in common sense, Gelagle said. Having run 100 miles in a week, how could he become fatigued during a 5-kilometer cross-country race?
"I can basically sprint that distance now, and I'll never get too tired," Gelagle said. "Who's going to have the legs to keep up with me?"
So far, almost nobody. Gelagle ran the fastest 2,500-meter split (7 minutes 27 seconds) at the Sept. 17 Brentsville Relays, his first race of the season. He ran a 3.5-mile preseason training run in 17:19 -- more than a minute faster than the school record he set last year. As the season goes on, he expects to get stronger.
"The way my coach explained it, running miles is like putting money in a bank," Gelagle said. "The more miles you store up and put in the bank during the offseason, the more money you'll have saved up for the end of the season. Your base gets stronger."
Other coaches, though, use a different analogy. Think of a runner's body like a car, they said. No matter how well it's cared for, the car is destined to break down after a certain number of miles. So the more miles a person runs, the less his body has left.
That fear has convinced several elite area runners to train with lower-mileage workouts. Steven Duplinsky, a senior All-Met from Georgetown Prep, ran about 35 miles per week and cross-trained by swimming every other day this summer. Kelly Reinwald, a sophomore All-Met from North Stafford, took June off to recover and play soccer. Brad Siragusa, a senior All-Met from Chantilly, ran about 50 miles each week, and his longest run of the summer barely eclipsed 10 miles.
Even Maryland's 2004 state champion, Broadneck junior Matthew Centrowitz, limited his summer training. He never ran more than 46 miles in a week, he said, and he always took Saturdays off. "I don't want to get hurt and then have to slow down," Centrowitz said. "I'd rather be safe and take it slow naturally."
Forest Park senior Stefanie Slekis lost that option during the summer of 2004, when her high-mileage plan spiraled into a series of injuries. After running 70 miles a week for much of that summer, Slekis developed tendinitis in her left hip, then joint inflammation in the same area. It took 16 weeks of intense physical therapy before Slekis could run again. Even then, she could only jog gingerly.
"I ran too much, then I got hurt and kept running for awhile with injuries," Slekis said. "It took a long time to get back healthy, and now I'm taking it slow. I dropped down to about 45 miles a week this summer. I've heard that's the perfect amount."
But perfect for whom? Distance coach Joe Vigil, who trains American marathoners Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi, believes all runners should increase their training at about the same pace. A high school boy should run about 30 miles a week as an underclassman, Vigil said, and progress to 50 miles a week by his senior year. Then he should run 70 miles as a freshman in college, 80 as a sophomore, 90 as a junior and 100 as a senior. Women should progress at the same rate, Vigil said, but at 80 percent of a boy's mileage.
Anecdotal evidence, though, suggests distance training is hardly so precise. In the 1960s, Gerry Lindgren became the best high school distance runner because he gutted out, by his estimation, nearly 200 miles each week -- more than a marathon of distance a day. He worked out three times every 24 hours, setting his alarm each night at 2 a.m. so he could jog 10 miles as an intermission during sleep.
As a result of his maniacal workouts, Lindgren, who now coaches at the University of Hawaii, set a high school 5,000-meter record that stood for 40 years.
"People worry about getting hurt, about injury, but that doesn't make sense to me," Lindgren said. "Logic and knowledge are just the enemies of running well. You have to put in miles to have strong legs. You have to have strong legs to win races. High mileage is the only way."
Said Georgetown Coach Ron Helmer: "Some athletes excel with high quantity, others work better with shorter, quality track work. The problem is, we've gotten so polarized in our thinking about those two things that every coach has to advocate one or the other. You're either a quality guy or a quantity guy. Truth is, neither one is perfect. One method can lead to a lot of different outcomes."
Gelagle is staking his running future on the outcome of his high-mileage plan. He could rely on improved endurance to win a state title and a Division I college scholarship; he could suffer an overuse injury -- a stress fracture, a sore muscle -- that would derail his senior season and his college recruitment.
Since the season started, Gelagle has tempered his mileage, if only slightly. Between team practices and individual workouts, he now runs about 80 to 85 miles a week.
"That almost feels easy now," Gelagle said. "My legs have never felt stronger than this. I feel like I could run forever and never get tired, as long as I didn't get hurt."