Oxon Hill High School track and field coach Rick Williams said he was satisfied with his boys’ 3,200-meter relay team’s performance at the April 5 Largo Lion Invitational. They had run an 8 minute, 10.09-second time to thump runner-up Frederick Douglass by 14 seconds, but it wasn’t the gold medal he was giddy about — it was the lowering of the team’s time, which fortified their position to qualify for this weekend’s Penn Relays.
“We ran well,” he said. “We won the four-by-eight and we improved our time for the Penn Relays. That’s pretty nice.”
Which brings to light a bit of a paradox for athletes and relay teams fighting to qualify for the gargantuan meet in Philadelphia: peaking early. It is scheduled for Thursday-Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Williams said. “We’re far from peaking, we’re far from peaking. We have yet to do speed work. What we’ve been doing is base work. We have yet to get down to the nitty gritty. We try to have a chronological progression, get faster than last week.”
Cross country, swimming, and track are a bit different than the majority of sports in that winning early in the season means next to nothing. Training is predicated towards the county, region, and state meets — the final three weeks of the season or, as it’s known in the lexicon, “championship season.”
“Penn Relays is a month into the season so it’s really hard,” Elizabeth Seton sprinter Ricca Graham said. “We just try to run hard and [get a personal record]. We try not to run any slower than what we have done.”
As Graham would note, Penn Relays is not in May when the rest of the big meets are held, it’s at the end of April, and the final day for individual qualifying was earlier this month. For the 3,200-relay teams — all 400- and 800-relay teams submitted are accepted, 3,200-relays have to hit a qualifying mark. It puts athletes in a peculiar position of attempting to run their best times far too early in the season, fresh off a few-week break between the indoor and outdoor, when some are coming from other sports, such as swimming or basketball, or injuries, and are still several seconds off their marks from the previous year.
“You got to hit the marks but you got to be right,” Largo coach Darryl Hamilton said. “If you have a good team, if you have a shot doing the [3,200-relay], you got to try to hit it during indoor. That’s what we try to do — hit it in indoor.”
And if you don’t? There are about three weeks — if teams begin their seasons early — to hit the times.
“It’s real tough,” Hamilton said. “You just don’t have that much time. You got to find the meet and be competitive in what you do. That’s what we try to do in the early meets — you try to find some good competition to push you through to some good times. That’s what you got to do.”
This year has been particularly thorny for teams aiming to hit the needed marks. Snow caused a late start to the year and the consistent rain limited some teams to only five practices. Add in the various injuries that a large number of athletes are recovering from in the wake of the indoor season, and there have been few — if any — quality weekends to hit a time.
“The weather just hasn’t been that cooperative,” Bowie coach Rich Andrulonis said. “Hopefully we’ll be accepted. We’re looking to run a 7:50, 7:52 [in the boys’ 3,200-relay], that’s the projected times. All we got to do is hope. It’s kind of early in the season to run and with the weather I didn’t want to run my top four.
“I knew it would be difficult and there was only one or two races to run and there was not good weather at all so really, we just haven’t had a time to run yet this early so we’re just going to train as we are. It’s difficult to get them ready, it is.”
And then, of course, there are individual events, such as the shot put, discus, and hurdles. Athletes can use times and marks from last year, given the limited number of opportunities to improve upon them this year, but the difference between an athlete’s junior season and senior season is monumental. It is by no means a perfect qualification system, but it’s uniform across the board — all teams are operating under the same set of rules.
“We’re just going to try to make Maryland proud,” said Williams.