For cross country runners, the first official day of practice for the high school season was Aug. 16, more than 10 weeks prior to the state championship meets.

Plenty of time to plan a Halloween costume. Not enough, however, to get a body in the kind of shape required to cover a little more than 3 miles over challenging terrain in 16 to 19 minutes, depending on your gender.

“There’s never been a champion who didn’t run during the summer,” said David Dowling, in his 14th year as cross country coach at Greely High in Cumberland. “It’s the only sport where most of your homework is done outside of the competition season.”

Coaches and athletes call it building a base.

Think of it as your summer reading assignment for the Russian novel assigned by your honors English class this fall. Sure, you could put it off until Labor Day looms and fake your way through discussions as you play catch-up.

But to get the most out of the class, not to mention acing whatever exam follows at semester’s end, your best bet is to read the book before school begins.

“If you don’t do that base-building,” said Diane Fournier of Mt. Ararat, who has been coaching cross country runners since 1979, “then by the end of the season you’re finally in shape to do what you should have been doing the first couple weeks of practice.”

On the other hand, training too hard during the summer and jumping into a road race every weekend can lead to injury or illness.

Cheverus senior Jack Terwilliger made sure his summer included plenty of rest after a variety of ailments curtailed his previous two cross country seasons, due mainly, he believes, to overtraining.

“Unlike other seasons, I took a longer break over the summer and am trying to start out (the fall season) slower,” he said. “Before, I’d get really excited because I had a good outdoor (track) season and I’d train too hard. I’m trying to not get sick, to stay healthy.”

Summer doesn’t have to be all about running, either.

Fryeburg Academy Coach Bill Reilly encourages his athletes to complement their miles with hiking, biking and swimming.

“I could give them a schedule,” he said, “but even my best runner wouldn’t follow it. Just get out and stay active.”

Once the fall season gets under way, spotting those who logged their miles is easy. No stopwatch required.

“We know it at the first organized workout, who’s been working and who hasn’t,” said Massabesic Coach Mark Crepeau.

“Very few people can hop off the couch and run 3 miles at a good pace. That just doesn’t happen.”

Of course, plenty of cross country runners know they won’t be among the elite. They join the program to get in shape. That’s fine with Crepeau, who knows he’ll be counting on others in late October.

“I have kids who are out here to get ready for wrestling season,” he said. “And I always get a couple swimmers who just want to get in shape rather than sit on the bench in soccer or field hockey.

“At the same time you watch the maturation process. They get to enjoy cross country. It’s an individual sport but it really is a team sport: working together, running as a pack, pacing each other. It’s so much different than the other sports.”

The first countable meets started a week ago.

Seven weeks remain until the Oct. 30 state championships in Belfast. For the eventual winners, a solid foundation is already in place.

“It is critical to success at the highest levels of high school competition,” Greely’s Dowling said. “You can’t get to the next level without doing the mileage.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

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