Since his first days coaching at George Washington University, Terry Weir has identified the Atlantic 10 Conference crown as the goal for the men’s cross country program. But so far, the team has faltered each year.
“For one reason or another, we’ve stunk at that meet,” said Weir, head coach for both the men’s and women’s cross country programs.
Conference peers predicted the same for the 2017 schedule.
“It’s like anything else on paper,” he said. “We were picked to be 10th. We should have been picked to be 10th. That’s where we’ve been stuck.”
The Colonials have drifted between 10th and 13th every autumn except one since 2003, when they finished sixth at the conference finale.
“We underperformed in those races,” said senior Chris Shaffer. “We definitely had the guys and the talent to do a lot better.”
Weir texted Shaffer to gather the seniors in his campus office after a particularly lethargic race weekend early last season. The message: something has to change.
More meetings followed, this time without Weir. The guys talked through the deficit — not one of training but one of mentality. They wrote the goal on a whiteboard in the locker room as an ever-present reminder.
The team ran a set of mile repeats that week — a standard workout at their typical training spot on the fields near the Potomac River and Hains Point.
“I remember the chatter on the cool down back to campus,” Shaffer said. “We absolutely crushed it. This is it.”
The knowledge that they could perform had finally morphed into the expectation that they would, a development Weir had cultivated.
“Coaching, along with running, you have to be patient,” he said. “I know this is a big work in progress.”
All five scoring runners wearing buff and blue finished in the top 30 at the Atlantic 10 Cross Country Championships. GW secured a bronze podium spot, the best in school history and a mere nine points behind second.
The path to a title trophy looks less familiar, though, with the clean lines and smooth surfaces of a track. Starting in the 2014-2015 school year, the Colonials have sported indoor and outdoor track teams, giving runners three seasons’ worth of competition, and making the overall program look a lot more attractive to prospective runners. After all, what runner wants to sit around for two seasons out of three.
The men’s team is primarily distance runners, with a pair of sprinters. The women’s team only sports distance runners, so they’re at a systematic disadvantage when team scores are totaled in track meets.
“It’s very hard to compete with teams that have full track and field programs,” Weir said. “I feel like we’re starting from scratch, like we’re just four years into this.”
Shaffer and other seniors represent the first group to run the full cycle of collegiate cross country paired with track and field.
“This year, our top five would change almost every race,” Shaffer said of the cross country team. “You didn’t rely on certain people to have a day. You had eight people all racing well. Being able to train and race competitively through the spring really gives an edge when you’re coming back into the fall.”
Weir uses track events as teaching tools that help runners discover how to compete, a major component of his coaching philosophy.
“He brings it up before almost every single race,” Shaffer said. “When you race to compete, the times will come. It took a while for me to buy into that.”
In other words, speed doesn’t always win.
“You get a lot of kids so worked up about their PR,” Weir said. “In track, you’re identified by your PR. But there’s a lost art to this whole racing thing.”
Time-trial myopia can narrow a runner’s focus so much that he misses the competitor on his hip, and that fundamental need to thwart the clock’s blunt escalation replaces any cerebral tactics.
Instead, Weir trains runners to understand adaptability and rely on their own maturing confidence to match styles with the tone of the race.
“If it’s sit and kick, I know what to do,” he said. “If it’s go from the gun, great, I know I’m going to have a fast day.”
So now four years of growth on the track has produced a pivot point for the cross country team — accelerate toward a title or regress into tradition.
“This,” Shaffer said, “has to be the start of success.”