Out on the trail somewhere

Former cross country captain Kevin Lunn ’13, far left, fought off foot troubles in the fall en route to finishing third for Yale at its last four races.
Former cross country captain Kevin Lunn ’13, far left, fought off foot troubles in the fall en route to finishing third for Yale at its last four races. Photo by Maria Zepeda.

Max de La Bruyère, a senior reporter for the News, spent six weeks this fall with the members of the Yale men’s cross country team. This is part two of a two-part series. (Read part one.)

The best runners must test the limits because they have no room to pretend. Every time an athlete races around a track, he is subjecting himself to the measurement of the clock and competing, albeit indirectly, against the entire world. Kevin Lunn ’13 knows exactly how much slower he is than Matthew Nussbaum ’15. Ryan Laemel ’14 knows exactly how much slower he is than Lunn. The clock is always ticking. 

That is especially true at the distance runners’ practice. There is an obsessive-compulsive nature to their training. A true distance runner never misses a mile; in order to compete, his training is year-round. He runs through slush and snow, checking off the miles one by one, week by week, in the constant pursuit of lower times. Every day has to be spent in the same manner, give or take a mile or two, for longer than it is easy to imagine. The accumulation of mileage takes its toll and the tedium wears on the mind. To be a distance runner is to embrace the steady, exhausting, often lonely grind toward the idea of a future race.

“You have to maintain a very long-term vision,” said Tim Hillas ’13, the captain of the track and field team who also competes with cross country. “As a freshman and a sophomore, though of course you hope you’ll have some great performances, you have to look at things and say, ‘I’m shooting for some great races junior, senior year.’ You keep on going at it with the faith that you’re going to get better if you keep working at it over time.”

That is why Hillas ran through the smog every day in Beijing last summer. That is why Matt Thwaites ’13, eager for success in his last season at Yale, dialed his training up to 110 miles a week — almost 16 miles a day — last summer, often waking up at 5:30 a.m. for the first of two runs before nightfall. That is why Lunn, Jacob Sandry ’15 and sophomores Alec Borsook ’15 and John McGowan ’15 spent last summer together in Boulder, Colo., holding down part-time jobs but focusing on their workouts.

As Sandry sees it, that constant training gives him agency in life to improve every day. “With running, every day I have a challenge put in front of me and my life is never stagnant,” he says. “No matter what is going on, if I’m having a rough week or whatever, I can always go run. … And I know that if I run and work hard, I’m going to improve.”

That drive to improve can be personal and tied up in the pursuit of increasingly lower times. But those times matter because of what they mean for the runner’s status relative to his competition. Running is ultimately about racing, and racing is ultimately about beating people head-to-head. The idea of the future race is always looming. After the cross country team’s successful performance at the Paul Short Invitational on Sept. 28, that race was an enormous invitational at the University of Wisconsin in which Yale’s top seven would take on some of the best runners in the country. On Oct. 27, two weeks after Wisconsin, Yale would reach the most important race of its year, Ivy League Heptagonal Championships, or Heps, and NCAA regionals fell two weeks after that.

 

STEADY ACCUMULATION

A runner spends the summer training in order to build up a mileage base that will help power him throughout the school year. When practice with the team starts in late August, he starts adding speed to that base. The easy seven- to 12-mile runs like the one throughout which I gasped for breath on my first day with the team are mostly about recovery and preserving fitness. Improvement comes in the two intense workouts that Harkins puts the team through each week.

One Tuesday in October, the week after New England Championships, head coach Paul Harkins marked an 800-meter loop around Yale’s intramural fields for a repeat workout with the bottom half of his team. I quickly fell behind the team, and soon I had been lapped, and then lapped again. After my first few steady seven- and eight-mile runs, I had let myself think that I might be able to keep up with the team. I had joked with my friends about walking on for real and not just as a reporter. Now I realized just how wide the gulf was between a varsity runner and me. The gears they kicked into on this workout seemed superhuman.

The only way to reach their level would be embrace their steady accumulation of miles, day in and day out. These men have scheduled their lives around their runs and have built an ability to run out of six, seven, eight years of summers and early mornings — all while also remaining students and trying to refuse to let running take over their lives.

 

THE RIGHT YALE BALANCE

Class and cross country conflicted on my second day of running. I had selected my courses for the semester before deciding to run, and so thought nothing of taking two seminars that met after 2:30 p.m. Members of the team, on the other hand, know from the fall of freshman year onward that they cannot enroll in those classes. The bus to practice leaves at 2:45 p.m., year-round. That means members of the team can’t apply to take “Grand Strategy” or a seminar with Harold Bloom. Science majors often have difficulty enrolling in required classes with afternoon lab periods. My cross country experience was inauthentic from the outset because I had the freedom to take any class I wanted and thus missed practice twice a week.

Running did not just affect class schedules. For Isa Qasim ’15, a sophomore walk-on from Chicago who is also involved in the Yale Political Union, it is a structure for his entire life on campus. Practice is a consistent requirement every day and a time to shed his identity as a student, leave his cellphone in his locker and clear his mind for three hours. The commitment to being sound in body that his place on the team entails provides a structure for the rest of his life as well. There is no room to stay up until the early hours of the morning working, or to go out late drinking, because of what that lack of sleep would do to his performance.

“I want to establish myself on the team and help out and do what I can,” Qasim said. “And that has informed … how I go about the rest of my life, in that I need to get my work done, I need to go to bed. I don’t really go out and party. I go out occasionally, but that’s not what my life is centered around.”

To Thwaites, the structure that running has imposed includes sleeping in an altitude tent nightly in order to make his body create more red blood cells. At 9:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings, while most of their classmates are still sleeping off the previous night, Thwaites and the rest of the team meet for a long run that can stretch as far as 20 miles. Sandry and others are often up hours before class for cross-training bike rides.

I don’t know how they do it. During my first week with the team, I joined Lunn for a morning pool workout. In the ensuing weeks, I regularly set my alarm for 7 a.m. so that I could go again. I did not once wake up in time. My homework began to slip because, after four hours of practice and team dinner, I would be exhausted by the time I arrived at the library. After staring at my work for a couple hours, I was usually asleep by 11 p.m., three hours before my standard bedtime as a nonathlete. My body began to need nine hours of sleep a night in order to make it through practice. First I fell off track with my senior thesis research, then in my Russian class.

When I told Nussbaum, who remained the team’s top runner after his performance at Paul Short, about my difficulty with work, he talked about striking the right Yale balance.

“You can’t let running take over your life. You can’t let it be more important than family or class,” he said. “But from 2:30–6, none of that stuff is going on. For those hours, running is the most important thing.”

My troubles might have been the result of being a newcomer to varsity time management, or to the fact that I didn’t take the team into account in choosing my classes. Still, I began to realize that in some ways I was becoming the negative stereotype that many Yale students have of varsity athletes. I was tired in class and often unprepared. I structured my days around my runs to the point that class became more of a chore than anything else.

As members of the team are aware, there is a segment of the University population that sees athletes as second-class citizens without the intellectual firepower of their classmates. In Nussbaum’s telling, that leads to division within the student body and causes athletes to draw further into their teams, which only exacerbates the problem of stereotyping. Some athletes respond by looking down on their nonathlete peers, calling them “Muggles” or “Normies.” Nussbaum avoids that, and shakes off any disdain he feels from other students.

“I don’t care what some kid in bioethics class thinks about me,” he said. “I’m worrying about how we stack up against Harvard, Princeton and Columbia.”

In addition to that worrying, Nussbaum is a frequent contributor to campus publications and is an assistant editor of the Yale Undergraduate Law Review. The morning after NCAA regional championships, the team’s biggest meet of the season, he filed an analysis of the electoral landscape in Pennsylvania for The Yale Politic. At practice one day in early October, we were almost late to the weight room because Sandry and Nussbaum interrupted their stretching for an argument about whether homosexuality is a modern social construct.

 

SIXTH PLACE

In one of my first conversations with Harkins, he complained half-jokingly that Yale runners think too much. Getting past the burning cauldron that Laemel said starts bubbling over in the middle of a race means turning off your mind and trusting in your body’s ability. And so Heps is a time of cruel stress. The race is the culmination of months of training. Miles of preparation have gone into each step the runners will take over the course of eight kilometers through cornfields near the Princeton campus. Heps were held on the same course last year, and so upperclassmen have been thinking about this race since then, sometimes visualizing it as they sweated through their workouts. Once the starting gun goes off, their minds will be focused only on the task at hand. But now, in the last minutes before they assemble at the starting line, the Yale men’s faces have assumed stony expressions.

They arrived in New Jersey the day before, early enough for an easy run around the course. Bedtime at the hotel was early, and they went for an easy run as a team that morning. As the race approached each man began his own stretching: Laemel did high knee strides, Michael Cunetta ’14, stationary leg swings, and Nussbaum, karaokes. Demetri Goutos ’13, who is one of the team’s top runners but who had recently been battling foot injuries, sat with his head in his hands until Harkins walked up to him, slapped him on the back and said one word: “Chill.” Goutos nodded and started tightening his laces.

The women’s team had already run its race, in front of its biggest crowd so far this season. The sides of the course were bathed in the colors of every Ivy school, and cheering fans ran from straightaway to straightaway to see as much of the field as possible.

Lunn and his team thought they were a stronger, deeper team this year than at any point in recent memory. They wanted to prove that the group they fondly call “xYc” is a force to be reckoned with in the Ivy League. They had been looking forward to Heps all year as a chance to put the demons of their past failures to rest.

But that desire conflicted with everything the team knows contributes to a good performance. Lunn and Laemel both told me that one of their main goals for Heps was not to talk it up. They have taught themselves to run so well and so fast that doing so is almost like clockwork. They run best when they do their drills, strap on their spikes and let their body take over. It knows best how to run fast.

“Our bodies know that once the spikes are on, it’s time to go,” Laemel said before Heps. “It’s a more natural approach to running, instead of trying to create an artificial environment. As long as we stick with what we know works, let our natural abilities take over, we’ll be fine. A huge part of this meet is just staying calm.”

But minutes before the race, as Harkins addressed the team for the last time before the start, Laemel had his face in his hands. He was worried. And it showed in the race. When the starting gun went off, a pack of Harvard, Princeton and Columbia runners surged ahead. Nussbaum and Lunn stuck close to the front but were far off the pace. Goutos, Dooney and Alex Conner ’16 ran behind them. Thwaites, Sandry and Cunetta lagged at the back of the field. Laemel was third from last place.

As the race continued, Nussbaum gradually fought his way up to the front. He finished 10th overall out of 89 total athletes, but his was a lonely Yale blue singlet in the lead pack; the rest of the team could not keep up. Conner was second for Yale, at 32nd overall, and Lunn came in 34th. Hillas, at 44th, and Qasim, at 48th, rounded out the scoring for the Elis. Goutos, who had finished second on the team at Wisconsin, Yale’s biggest race before Heps, faded after a strong start to a distant 60th overall. Laemel came in 71st. For the second consecutive year, Yale finished sixth in the Ivy League.

 

JUSTIFYING

It was a dejected group of men that sat in the grass near the finish line removing their spikes after the race. Lunn knelt and stared into space for almost a minute before shaking his head and bending down to untie his shoes. The team was silent until Harkins walked over, a printout of the race results in hand.

This effort, he said forcefully, was beneath the team and its skill level. “You have to give yourselves a chance,” he said. “It’s not that hard. If you quit before the start of the race, it’s over. We had some people do that today. We had some great positives, and this program has a lot of great positives. But I need not just four guys or five guys to buy into it. I need the whole team to buy into the positives of this program going forward. Otherwise we’re going to come back to this goddamn meet next year and be sixth again.”

Sitting and kneeling, most of the men looked at the ground or occupied themselves with taking off their spikes. Cheers drifted over from a nearby rugby field. There was one race left in the season: NCAA regional championships, a qualifying event for nationals. But it was Heps that the team had been thinking about all season. Yale had come up short in the one race that mattered most.

“If you told me freshman year I would never finish better than 45th at Heps, I wouldn’t do it,” Thwaites told me in an interview two days after the race. “It’s just really hard to justify what we’ve done for the past four years.” After running more miles than anyone on the team since sophomore year, Thwaites expected to turn a corner with his brutal training regimen over the past summer. But after an August injury, the season he envisioned never materialized. His 45th-place finish at Heps came junior year; he slipped to 62nd as a senior. He had spent the past four years with a dream, and to fail both personally and as a team in the pursuit of that dream stung. But as our conversation continued, Thwaites reflected on the positives of his four years. The main takeaway of his experience, he said, would likely be the camaraderie he found in the hours and hours he had spent with his teammates.

 

THE PUREST ENDEAVOR

To the members of the team, the experience of running for Yale is not about winning a title. Hosting the Ivy League championship trophy is, of course, a dream. But, Lunn says, the justification for the past four years depends not at all on where the team finishes at Heps. Wearing the Y needs no justification. From the easy runs to the hard workouts, the great performances, the terrible races, the conversations, the injuries, the disappointment, running for Yale is, he says, the “purest endeavor we will ever pursue.”

The common pursuit of that endeavor creates a community. The cross country house, on Park Street, is home to almost all the team’s juniors and seniors, a pet rabbit, and the running posters and other accumulated paraphernalia of the years of runners who have passed through it. The house is where the team retreated one night in mid-November when Mory’s closed before they had finished toasting the end of the season. Cups were soon made out of mixing bowls and saucepans, and the stories continued.

The friendships that define the house have been forged in hours of conversation on the trails of Maltby. One day, as I ran with Cunetta and Laemel, we spent the second half of our run discussing our romantic lives. Goutos and Thwaites quizzed each other on the material for an upcoming astronomy exam for an entire Monday run while Nussbaum, stuck with them in the group that was going furthest that day, grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of real conversation. Later that week, he spent most of a run breaking down the previous night’s presidential debate.

These conversations carry the members of the team through the daily challenge of improving themselves as runners. Running becomes something that they say they cannot imagine living without. Qasim says he has never felt better in his life than at the end of a hard 13-mile run through the pouring rain the day after breaking up with his girlfriend in high school. Sandry says he simply cannot imagine what he would do with his energy if he were not running.

“There is just nothing I would rather be doing,” Hillas said over dinner one day, still in his running clothes after staying late at Smilow Field House for an ice bath. This was his first season of cross country after three years at Yale running only middle distance; in the Wisconsin meet five days before this interview, he pushed himself to the point of collapse and was unable to finish.

Three weeks before Heps and one week before Wisconsin, on a sunny fall Tuesday, Hillas and Lunn are warming up for a workout. Their route takes them down West Rock Avenue and into Edgewood Park, where a path loops back toward the Yale Bowl. They discuss briefly their upcoming meet in Wisconsin until, somewhere in the trees, conversation breaks off. The two proceed in silence for a dozen meters or so. Then Lunn turns to Hillas and says, “If I were going to die in the next 10 minutes, and I knew I were going to die, all I would want to do is finish this warm-up.”

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