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  • Severna Park cross country seniors (l-r) James Myers, Andrew Forsyth and Josh Tucker pitched an idea to their teammates on September 1: wear a jacket and tie to school on race days and Fridays before Saturday races.
    Photo by Colin A.J. Murphy
    Severna Park cross country seniors (l-r) James Myers, Andrew Forsyth and Josh Tucker pitched an idea to their teammates on September 1: wear a jacket and tie to school on race days and Fridays before Saturday races. "We want to look professional," said Forsyth.

‘Little Things, Big Difference’: Severna Park Boys Cross Country Continues Its Winning Ways

Colin Murphy
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September 11, 2015

The pursuit of a fourth consecutive state championship won’t boil down simply to the Severna Park boys cross country team training harder or logging more miles in practice. For the Falcons, victory is in the details.

Before practice began on September 1, Severna Park cross country seniors Andrew Forsyth, Josh Tucker and James Myers stood before their teammates and invited everyone to join them in a new plan: on race days and Fridays before Saturday races, they were going to wear a jacket and tie to school.

“We want to look professional,” said Forsyth unironically to the approximately 70 runners gathered for practice at Severna Park Middle School.

The trio insisted that the idea was purely optional, and no one should feel like they had to do it if they didn’t want to. But they believed it would be a show of team strength and unity, and they were going to start it up.

Not surprisingly, wanting to look sharp on race day is not the only way the current members of Severna Park’s cross country dynasty have strived to be the best possible runners they can be. The Falcons, who have won three straight state championships and will contend for another this season with Forsyth, Tucker, Spencer Davis, Kasey Gelfand, Matt Cambon, Christian Isham and Hugh O’Connor running varsity, have built their winning formula on taking initiative. Variety in training, religious adherence to routine, good habits in eating and sleeping, and a culture of motivation and accountability all go into Severna Park’s unparalleled winning formula.

 

The Training

If you didn’t know any better, you might think that the rough outline of training to be a person who runs is to, well, run.

Turns out, there’s quite a bit more to it than that.

The Falcons have developed a training regimen that includes intensive core workouts they call “circuits” combined with a daily routine of sprints, dynamic stretching, foot and ankle strength exercises and long runs of varying pace aimed at total-body strength and injury prevention.

“You need to have a strong core to handle the training we do,” said head coach Josh Alcombright, whose Falcons spend up to 20 minutes every other training day on core workouts. “If you’re toward the end of the race, the more tired you get, you start to break down on your hips, and then once you do that, you’re spending more time on the ground, which slows you down. So if you build a strong core, it’s going to allow you to lift your quads better and be stronger for longer periods of time and do more volume in practice, but also hold your pace and not break down when a kick comes in. When you see guys kicking [towards the end of a race] and one guy completely falls apart, that’s the weakness. The stronger you are in your core, the less likely that will happen.”

The Falcons also employ a rigorous routine to build and maintain foot, ankle, shin and lower leg strength and flexibility. Portions of practice are spent walking on the insides and outsides of their feet, on their heels and toes or with feet pointed inward or outward to stretch all parts of the foot and prevent shin splints. Dynamic stretching routines are performed as the team breaks into groups and walks while stretching all parts of their legs, shoulders, backs and cores.

The exercises are time-consuming and look more tedium than training, but they’re highly important and performed in very deliberate fashion at the direction of seniors and team captains.

“After the runs we always have captains watching, making sure everybody is stretching, everybody is getting the proper amount of time doing each stretch, and we have the specific stretches we do after practice, and we do them in an exact order,” said Tucker.

 

Good In, Good Out

Anyone who is or has been a teenage athlete knows what it feels like to have endless energy and be able to eat whatever you want.

The Severna Park cross country runners know this too, and they’re turning it into an opportunity. Whereas many high school athletes eat whatever they want and burn it all away in training, the Falcons pay close attention to their diet and nutrition.

“When you’re eating good food, you’re thinking about the other teams,” said Tucker. “Everyone has the same wants: to eat unhealthy foods, because it tastes good. But it feels pretty good to know that you’re eating good food and there’s a good chance that the other teams are eating badly, so you’re thinking, ‘I’m putting myself ahead,’ in a way besides just training.”

Unlike the jacket-and-tie idea, Forsyth said he has been more forceful with teammates about eating well.

“I guess I really kinda get on some people about it,” said Forsyth with a smile. “Once the season starts, I eat a lot better; I have no pizza, no fast food. In the summer, I’ll have pizza and dessert in moderation, everything in moderation, but once the season starts … Of course, you’ve had personal experiences where you’ve eaten really poorly and you’ve just run bad. But any expert or professional who knows anything about running knows that if you’re going to put bad things in your body, you’re not going to run well, you’re not going to perform well.”

Davis said there’s a mental aspect to eating right for the individual as well.

“I know whenever I eat bad and I’m not feeling well in a workout, it’s going through my head that, ‘Well, I ate bad,’ and you give yourself excuses, and once you start giving yourself excuses, you’re not going to run well,” he said. “So getting rid of all the excuses really helps us with the training and helps us get to our maximum potential.”

Eating right is not the only show of bodily discipline. While countless high-achieving student athletes burn the midnight oil to meet the demands of sport and study, the Falcons prioritize their rest.

“Eating is important, but the biggest thing outside of practice and training hard is sleep,” said Forsyth. “Sleep is my biggest thing that I focus on and try to do the best. Nine hours of sleep every single day, the entire season, even on weekends. It can really set you apart, because as a high-schooler, a lot of kids are getting six or seven hours. It makes a difference. You just have to prioritize your time.”

Tucker stressed the importance of keeping sleep as a constant, regardless of changes in other factors.

“No matter how easy the run is, it’s really important to get sleep regardless,” said Tucker. “It doesn’t matter if it’s just a workout or an easy day.”

 

Making The Most

Perhaps no advantage Severna Park holds over other county programs is more apparent than its sheer numbers. The Falcons have 70 boys running this year. Broadneck has 37. South River has 38. Arundel has 34. Old Mill has 23.

By numbers alone, the chances are very good that Severna Park would produce the cream of the crop, but it’s a testament to how well the program is run that so many kids want to be a part of it. The team has owned the state for three years not because they have the most, but because they make the most of what they have, leveraging those numbers into a culture of internal competition.

“Our coach is all about running together,” said Davis. “Even though some of us are faster than others, our coach is always on us about running together. It doesn’t matter that we’re slower; we all need to get up to that level. It’s just huge expectations for the team.”

From top to bottom, the Falcons push one another.

“I think it’s great to have people behind you, having a deep team, pushing you,” said Tucker, citing a time from last year when the JV team ran the course at Hereford High School in the Bull Run Invitational and ran so well that the varsity guys were compelled to improve their performance. “They came up to us after and were like, ‘That hill was nothing. You guys can take it out. You got this. I didn’t even feel it,’” he said. “So we went in confident, and I think it’s great to have motivation like that and people fighting for every spot. Even if you’re at the very top, you’re still fighting as hard as you can because there’s still people behind you.”

 

The Little Things

Above all, the culture of accountability permeates the team. Everyone keeps their teammates motivated to stay in shape and take care of their bodies, but it is also understood that the discipline falls on the individual.

“We talk about the little things all the time,” said Alcombright. “It’s all those little things that [the coaches] don’t really have control over that are going to make all the difference. It’s the things you do outside of practice. Sleep, rest, proper nutrition, proper hydration, getting in a little bit of extra stretching and just doing things the right way. We talk about it all the time.”

Ultimately, being on the team can’t really be separated out or compartmentalized, said Alcombright.

“It’s an all-the-time thing,” he said. “It’s got to be a lifestyle. To be as successful as we’ve been, it’s not just a two-hours-a-day thing. It’s a lifestyle. Seven days a week. It’s doing things correctly all the time, not just some of the time or when it’s easy.”

With its training regimen, culture of accountability and excellence-as-a-lifestyle mentality firmly established, the team naturally expects continued success.

“The goal is for us to get better every single day,” said Alcombright. “We just want to get better and stronger and build momentum as the season goes. If we can get better every meet, every day, every practice and continue working on those little things and the big things too, then we’ll be successful. Of course, we want to continue to win. We want to be in the discussion come the state meet in November and have a shot at it. We believe that we do, but it’s going to take a lot of work. As long as we’re getting better every day, all the way down the line, not just the top guys, then we’ll be good.”

The Falcons aren’t underestimating the competition. They’re just confident in their abilities.

“We know that there’s great competition,” said Forsyth. “We know what we’re capable of. We just need to do what we’ve been doing. We don’t need to put in 90 miles a week or do crazy workouts right before the state meet. We just need to do what we’ve been doing in the past and continue doing it this year, and we know the results will come.”


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