The night before NXN is, for most athletes, one of a lot of introspective questions. It's been a while since I was there as a coach of a team, but many of the memories are still vivid.
So, what goes through a coach's mind. I can recall pondering over each of the following questions as the race approached:
- How much direction do I give the athlete's about their races? It's easy to overthink this kind of thing, but it's also easy to hang a kid out to dry with not enough structure to work with--and particularly so if that athlete is used to going into the race with a plan worked out.
- What length of spikes do we wear? This is a real question at NXN. Maybe it's a good idea to bring only one length of spikes and stick with it. Hopefully, this question got resolved on Friday's course run-through, but it's still subject to some second-guessing, and especially so if you're running in the second race after the course is a little chewed up.
- What are the best words to say to my team tonight before they turn in for bed? And tomorrow morning. In every coach's mind is a dream of a legendary send-off speech. But what is that speech, and when do I give it?
- How can I configure a course plan of attack so that I can stay at each position through all seven of my team's runners before racing to the next position? Coaches of individual athletes have it easy.
- It does absolutely no good whatsoever to think about this, but I found my mind still wanted to wander in this direction: Will the kids sleep okay tonight? Did they sleep okay last night? As I've grown older as a coach, I've decided the less said about this topic the better; it doesn't help the kids to know that you're twisted about it.
Athletes have their own set of questions.
- Not every last athlete is subject to this--or at least not to the same level--but there's a lot of comparing going on internally before the race. Event outwardly confident types find themselves asking questions of whether they're really going to be able to run with so-and-so tomorrow. It's not a particularly productive line of thought, but it's difficult to keep the mind from going there.
- Where do I want to set up early, and when will I make my move? This is mostly a question for those who hope and expect to be in the top 30 or so. Otherwise, for most, the race tends to be more an effort of hanging on for dear life and trying desperately not to get chewed up, trampled, and spit out the back. But, for those hoping to bring home a headless trophy, it can be agonizing thinking about the competition and where you think it's optimal to lay down your one big surge.
- Will I get a good start? For many, if not most, a whole lot of anxiety hangs on this question. There is no other meet like NXN where athletes who are used to get out close to the front at the start have to deal with the reality that there's all sorts of other athletes are are used to exactly the same thing. One slip, one bad step in the first 50 meters and 20 or 30 people can be by you in an instant. Working your way back up through those places is nothing like easy.
- How do I run in the rain? It doesn't always rain on NXN, but it's almost always a possibly. Tomorrow, it is very nearly a certainty. A whole lot of runners will get their first race experience on a serious mushy course tomorrow. The mental advantage likely goes to the runners from the northeast states, the upper midwest, and the Pacific northwest. They all should have seen this before. The physical edge goes to strength teams. Teams from elevation tend to score well on that scale.
- Did I eat enough/too much tonight? You can eat about as intelligently or as poorly as you like at NXN; the options are there. You want enough fuel in the tank, but you don't want spare baggage. This question raises its ugly head again Saturday morning.
- Will I get any sleep tonight? Yes, elite athletes ask themselves that question, too. Even at NXN. Maybe especially at NXN.
- For all teams (except maybe Fayetteville-Manlius) there is an enormous question hanging over their heads of, "Will we validate our season here; will we run to our capability?" I've never been in the position of being part of an at-large team at NXN, but I suspect this question looms even larger over their heads. Every at-large team feels something of a burden to demonstrate they really belong there; that's just human nature. They already know they got in on a break, now they need to make it look like they really belong there. Over the years, a few at-large teams have validated their selections incredibly well.
There is very definitely a sense in which NXN is a measure of which of the 22 assembled teams is fastest. But, there is also a sense in which it is a measure of which team deals best with the anxieties that come with racing at NXN. No team ever wins without being out toward the high end on both spectrums.