On Your Mark...
The figure lies motionless on a second-hand red sofa, stomach down and almost totally obscured by a mass of towels, heat pads and sweatpants. He looks more like a mummy than the Harvard cross-country captain, but a rustle of movement and then a groggy head rising from beneath the heap of cotton reveals his identity. It is Stein Rafto, standing up in pain to lead the Crimson cross country team on a long early morning run.
It is the eighth day of a 15-day training camp at the Grottonwood Baptist Center ("We train here to get moral purity," quips coach Bill McCurdy, a Harvard institution), in the woods of Groton, Mass. Rafto is one of seven runners punishing themselves there with workouts that total more than 120 miles a week.
The training camp is a very simply run, two-week total immersion in long-distance running. "It's not very complicated," said McCurdy. "All they're doing is working as hard and fully as they can as long as they can."
Besides the conditioning aspects of the camp, McCurdy claims that the experience is perhaps most valuable for intangible factors like team spirit that develop there. Probably more than any other Harvard sports team, the runners are a tight-knit group. The reason: McCurdy.
McCurdy has the sense of humor of a leprachaun, and it pervades the team. One-liners seem almost to outnumber leglifts and situps at the main training cabin. Witness sophomore Reed Eichner, collapsed on the couch, his face screwed up in pain after a morning run that hit him harder than the others. "It's hot in here, h-o-o-o-t," Eichner moaned langourously.
McCurdy, who had been chattering away, and all of Eichner's teammates turned to Eichner, worried for a split second about his suffering. "All that hot air coming out of McCurdy's mouth," Eichner lamented, drawing out a chorus of groans and chuckles.
Don't get the idea that the air at Grottonwood has been filled with peals of laughter the last couple of weeks, though. Distance running is tough to begin with, and this is the worst part of the grind.
"No matter what you tell the incoming sophomores," Rafto says, "it's a little bit more and a little bit harder than you think." Quite simply, it is a pure athletic test, one that drives runners to limits that they might have once thought unattainable.
The regimen is tough enough that McCurdy tells even some of his best runners not to report if they are not in top shape.
Says Rafto, "The people who are invited to camp are" (pausing just long enough for Mark Meyer to fill in the blank with "crazy") "expected to be ready for it."
The work takes its toll on the runners' bodies, as evidenced by assorted sore muscles, Meyer's sore foot, and Rafto's ailments, which have led him to monopolize the heating pads. "Rafto and training camp are a very unsuited couple," McCurdy says. "He's just a physical mess."
But the training is a necessity for a team as competitive as Harvard's. Although last year's squad dropped four of its first six dual meets (all razor-thin losses), the harriers came alive and, incredibly, went on to win the IC4A's, the most prestigious running event in the East.
A repeat of the performance should not be expected, though, for the biggest story of the camp is not so much the seven guys who are there, but a couple who are not. Captain Jeff Campbell graduated, Rock Moulton--who nailed down the IC4A win by closing with a dramatic kick--is taking the year off, and worst of all, junior Peter Fitzsimmons is nursing a pair of very tender knees. Fitzsimmons has been all-Ivy the last two years, and he has always been at the center of what McCurdy calls the intangible factors so important to cross-country success. A Harvard team without Fitzsimmons will have a tough time against the East's top teams.
But they will be, at the very least, good. Rafto and Eichner can run with almost anyone, while Meyer and Thad McNulty have a lot of solid races under thier belts. And the biggest surprise of all could be Ed Sheehan, who has shown flashes of brilliance in training but missed much of last season with an injury. Dave Sullivan and Bill Berkley may also break into top form this year.
As McCurdy says, though, there are a lot of intangibles in distance running, and meet performance cannot be predicted well from training work. For whatever it's worth, though, this camp is a good one, as evidenced by McCurdy's description of the schedule: "All they're doing is running hard, eating, sleeping and grumbling."
After his early-morning Lazarus imitation, Rafto returned, still somewhat pained, from the squad's morning run, and 11-mile, 68-minute affair. Seconds later, the rest of the runners filed into the cabin behind him. Within a minute, the pants and grimaces had turned to smiles. In one corner, Eichner was bellyaching about McCurdy's hot air, in another, McNulty was comically relating the plot of a TV movie he had watched the night before. As the aches subsided, one-liners began to fill the room again, and you knew that Harvard cross-country was in good shape.