He calls it “the grind.”
Wright, the head coach of the Festus cross country program, said those long weeks of unstructured time before the start of school and official practice are the mental proving ground for his athletes. It’s the time to run, when there seems no good reason to run.
“That’s when you have to put it in; that’s when you have to do it, that grind time,” Wright said last week as his boys and girls teams, about 35 runners in all, prepared for the start of official fall practice this past Monday. “That’s when you develop that character, because who wants to do it? You have to make yourself do that.”
Wright has built perhaps the most envied and unquestionably most accomplished cross country program in Missouri in the last 10 years, winning nine state championships (seven boys, two girls), including five straight boys titles. That winning streak will be on the line Nov. 9 when the state championships are run for the first time at the Gans Creek Recreation Area in Columbia.
And what Wright’s athletes have done over this past month, and all summer, will factor into his teams’ performance on that day. The secret of summer, Wright has discovered, lies in not making his runners hit the streets.
“The way I’ve always coached is, they have to want to do it; I’m not going to make them,” said Wright, who teaches science at the high school when he isn’t coaching. “Either they’ll do it or they won’t. They know either they will be successful, or they won’t be successful. That’s a question they have to answer for themselves.
“I want them all to be successful. But if they don’t want to (be), then that’s up to them.”
Wright’s definition of “successful,” in athletic terms, begins and ends with what happens on that fateful day every November.
“My thought of being successful is, are you doing what you need to do today, to be the best you can be on the day you want it to happen?” he said. “You have to think more (than) just in the now; you have to think in the future. That’s hard, because it’s a long time until Nov. 9.”
Peer leadership is key
Like Festus, most cross country programs hold a summer camp to set the tone for the fall. Wright’s harriers hold their camp in late June. That’s when the coach sets up the team leaders who will be de facto assistant coaches, mentoring the younger runners and fostering two-way communication with the coaching staff.
This year Wright’s co-captains, on the boys side, will be the team’s four seniors: Dominik Kayser, Jonah Krieg, Simon Ogle and Garrett Rhine. He said the girls’ leadership is still to be determined, although seniors Sophia Leftwich and Erika McIntyre are good candidates.
At the June camp, each leader is assigned a group of younger runners to shepherd throughout the season.
“It has nothing to do with their running ability,” Wright said. “It has everything to do with, I want these four kids to learn from this one person, this leader. I want them to be able to have more of a one-on-one relationship with a leader. It’s very important, not only for that senior to become a leader, (but also) that every one of those kids feels like someone cares about them, and sometimes I can’t reach out to 30 or 40 kids.”
He said studies have proven that young athletes will listen more closely to their peers than to their coaches.
“So if I direct what I want (the co-captains) to tell their peers, then even though I’m saying the same (things), they’re going to understand it more. And my leaders know it’s believable because they’ve seen it in action before. We get that set in motion as well at the camp.”
First comes rest
The Festus summer routine starts with the end of track competition in late May, after Memorial Day, with Wright requiring – not merely suggesting – his runners to take two weeks off.
“They need to rest their mind as much as their body,” he said.
Then comes the team camp, where the coach establishes who the leaders are and sets out some individualized running plans – suggestions, not requirements. The athletes have lots of flexibility, within each individual plan, for getting the work in.
“As long as they’re getting (the miles) in, in (a given) week, that’s OK,” Wright said. “I want them to see how their body reacts and not just tell them (what to do), and let them do it.”
That flexibility extends to an expected dropoff in mileage when an athlete goes away on a family vacation.
“I try to plan it with the kids. There’s ways to compensate,” Wright said. “I want them to go and have fun with their family and I don’t want them to feel guilty because they didn’t run.
“We’ve had kids go to Europe; well, they’re not going to run very much there. It’s just not going to happen. And I’m like, ‘do the best you can, but go out and have fun with your family.’ That’s important.”
The highlight of the summer is the annual pilgrimage to the renowned Joe Bill Dixon Wilderness Running Camp in July, just after Independence Day. Last month Wright took 19 runners to the camp on the Norfolk River, about 15 miles from West Plains. Dixon, head coach of the West Plains Zizzers, is the winningest cross country coach in state history, with 25 championships (13 boys, 12 girls) between 1979 and 2008.
“It’s a tough camp,” Wright said. “The most we’ve ever taken was 30 and that was last year. We stay in tents; you don’t have any cell (phone) service. The area where we run, literally it’s uphill both ways. We’re in a valley. It’s stressful because there’s no air-conditioning.”
Running with the boys
At least one of Wright’s leaders can report that the summer routine is working well for him.
“With everything we’ve done so far, I can tell that I’m stronger than I have been in years past,” said Krieg, who won all-state honors with a 21st-place finish at the 2018 state meet.
The summer “grind,” from his experience, is more manageable with both the boys and girls doing regular group runs.
“Every day we meet here (at the high school, 7 a.m.) except for the weekends,” he said. “Most of us will run as a group, so it’s not like you’re by yourself. Sometimes on the weekends I’ll do one run by myself, just to get something different going.”
It’s a far cry from Wright’s own prep days, when he was the top runner for Festus in the mid-1980s; he graduated in 1987.
“We really didn’t run over the summer unless you did it yourself,” he recalled. “We never met (as a team). We didn’t fully understand how important the summer was to our success in the fall. I did run over the summer, probably three or four days a week. But it was nothing like what these kids are doing.
“Looking back, it would have been nice to have known how important the summer was.”
Wright turned 50 this year and, after knee problems slowed him down two years ago, he doesn’t run with the boys nearly as much as he used to. He said he hopes to work his way back to more frequent jaunts with his athletes through the streets of Festus.
“I’m fortunate that I have a lot of my athletes wanting me to run with them. There was a time when I would run with the boys just about every day.
“When you’re running with a person, you can do a lot of coaching, because they have no distractions. They have to hear you. Whether they listen to you, that’s a different story.”
Kickoff event scheduled
Wright said his boys and girls teams will hold their first-ever season kickoff celebration at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22, at Tiger Stadium on the Festus campus. The runners, in uniform, will compete in time trials that will help them plan their early-season training. The Tigers open the season on the road at the Tim Nixon Invitational in Liberty on Sept. 7.
“We’d love to have the community come out and join us that night (the 22nd),” Wright said. “The community has been very receptive to our kids. They really look out for us, and that’s something the athletes and coaches appreciate.”