A-K Valley distance standouts use strategy to excel
Shortly after he arrived at the track Friday for the Mars Invitational, Riverview senior Greg Wagner asked one of the Raiders' assistant coaches for heat sheets, which list the seed times for event participants.
Wagner scanned the paper for information about contestants in the 3,200-meter race. Aware of his seed time, 10:10, he searched for runners with comparable marks.
There among the almost 50 names, he found his targets for the day: Pine-Richland's Luke Regan (10:09 seed time) and Grove City's Ryan Budnik (10:05.98).
Identify the enemy, Wagner explained last week — then determine where to beat him on the track.
Elite two-milers in the WPIAL, some of whom call the Alle-Kiski Valley home, do so much more than mindlessly trot around the track for eight laps.
“We don't just go out for a jog in the park,” said Freeport junior Hayley Davis, a top WPIAL Class AA two-miler who also competed at the 37-team Mars Invitational and placed 11th in the event.
“I'd hate to sprint, because it's just the gunshot, and then you go. There's nothing to think about. I like the mental game.”
Kiski Area junior Morgan Kiebler, who placed second in the 3,200 at Westmoreland County Coaches Association meet Saturday, echoed Davis' sentiment: “I like how it's a longer race, because you have more time to make your move. Even in the mile, it feels like it's over instantaneously.”
As they travel around the oval, runners ponder the same issues as NASCAR drivers — whom to draft off, when to pass and when to begin the final fuel-burning push. Poor decisions prove costly.
“You find the fast pack,” said Wagner, WPIAL Class AA's third-fastest two-miler. “You really have to stay with the pack after you get through the first couple of laps that are easy for everyone. … Once the pack splits, if you're 50 meters behind (your target runner), it's mentally so much harder to catch up.”
Wagner stuck with Regan and Budnik for most of the race. Then in the final lap, confident about his “kick,” Wagner upped his tempo. He finished fifth with a time of 9:43.05 — Regan and Budnik placed eighth and ninth, respectively.
“Unless you're one of the really good runners who can just take off and lead the whole way ... I've always learned that you just try to stay with (the top runners) and draft,” Wagner said. “Then in the final lap, you just try to out-kick them.”
The appropriate time to turn up the speed differs from runner to runner. Wagner likely represents a sprinter within the distance community. Kiski Area junior Brent Kennedy, by contrast, chooses not to rely on late-race bursts.
“I try not to throw in any crazy things or any fast laps,” said Kennedy, who won the WCCA boys 3,200 with a record time of 9:27.25 — the second-place finisher had a time of 10:13.87.
Kennedy, in his first season as a serious two-miler, splits the race into four two-lap segments. He moves to the front or as close as possible within the first two laps and then lets the thrill of the lead take hold.
“If you're running in a good race, you're just out there battling and trying to win,” Kennedy said.
“(If you're all alone), you don't really get that adrenaline feel. It's more of a workout. … You could run a time a minute slower than your personal record, and it still feels like you worked as hard as you could.”
Kennedy likely will clash with Fox Chapel junior twins Ethan and Colin Martin during the individual postseason. All three rank in the top six in WPIAL Class AAA. Miscalculations might determine who goes home with the gold.
“People tend to think running is just moving your legs, but it's so much more than that; it's a mind game,” said Ethan Martin, whose best 3,200 time is 9:28.49. “If you think you can settle in and coast, the race could be over before you have a chance.”
Added Colin Martin: “I think that's what makes this sport so fun. I never get bored at all. I think every lap is a chance to go for the win. If you take your mind off of the race for a second, you can lose it.”