Fifty runners lay strewn - motionless, with eyes closed - over half the hardwood floor in the Juneau-Douglas High School gym on Wednesday afternoon. If it were not for the time of day, it might have been a giant slumber party. Nancy Thomas, JDHS cross country coach, moved slowly through the maze of recumbent runners, directing them to visualize the most perfect race they could imagine.
Several times over the course of the season, she conducts this exercise in relaxation and visualization. Leading the runners through all phases of race day, she emphasizes such physical things as pace and breathing, as well as some of the more mental aspects of racing.
``They picture themselves in a race where everything goes right and they run better than they ever have before,'' she said.
Thomas likens it to a dress rehearsal. She says the teams have responded favorably to the exercise over the years, calling it good practice for the actual event, something they can rely on in the heat of battle.
Among the four or five times in the season that she conducts the exercise is on the eve of the state meet. Thomas recalled running her teams through it the night before the '95 state meet in Palmer.
``We talked mostly about why we wanted to do well in that race,'' she said.
Whatever their reasons were, they must have been compelling. The Bears went on the next day to surprise the field in the women's race, and brought home a state championship trophy to show for their efforts.
It may still be a little early to draw any parallels to the current season, but the results of last weekend's Palmer Invitational, held on the same course that is home to the season finale, was something of a revelation to the Bears. Now, state championship talk, previously just whispered, has gotten a bit louder in the Juneau camp.
And elsewhere, too. Palmer High School Athletic Director Mike Janecek, the organizational whiz behind the Invitational, was most impressed with the quality of competition in the women's race. The running enthusiast and former track and cross country coach was positively effusive in discussing Saturday's results and their ramifications for the state meet.
``This will be the most exciting girls' race we've had in a long time. There are five truly legitimate contenders this year,'' he said. ``It will come down to conditioning, to which team has geared itself to peak at the right time.''
With all that fine physical and mental preparation the Juneau women are getting, they are clearly in a position to contend for the hardware when the state's top teams reconvene in Palmer in two weeks.
Third on Saturday in the 16-team field and just 12 points back of winner and defending state champion Colony, Juneau got a handful of great individual performances that added up to an imposing sum when all was said and done. The Bears two top runners, Maria Eley and Breea DeSloover, both turned in faster times on Saturday than they did at last year's state meet.
Of at least equal importance, Juneau's fifth runner, senior Abby Blair, finished in less time than the team's fifth runner at state. And this was all accomplished the day after running in another big meet - hardly an ideal circumstance.
``We have a lot of respect for those Juneau teams,'' Janecek said. ``You can never count them out.''
Not to be outdone, the Juneau men turned in an impressive showing of their own at Palmer, racing to a fourth-place finish a mere three points behind third-place Bartlett.
Jeffrey Early continued to make great strides for the Bears, fronting the team finish for the second week in a row. The senior, who spent all of last year studying in Germany, didn't even return to Juneau until after the start of the season in August. But he has made up for lost time in a hurry. No truth to the rumor that his rise has been in response to coaches' shouts of ``mach schnell.''
Once again, the men finished in a tight pack, with just 35 seconds separating Early and fifth-man-in Dewey Peacock. Peacock, incidentally, not only blew away his '96 state-meet time by a full 1:06, he also finished 46 seconds faster than Juneau's fifth runner at state last year.
The most promising thing for the men though, is that they show no signs of having peaked yet. With two weeks left before state, this could spell trouble for other teams. Luke Dihle, who ran third for Juneau on Saturday after debuting in the varsity's number five slot a week earlier, says anyone is capable of leading the Bears to the finish line in any given meet.
Including Dihle himself, whose steady improvement left him on Saturday in a virtual dead-heat with teammate Shawn Miller, who has already broken the tape himself this season. Juneau coach Guy Thibodeau says that Dihle is not finished improving this season, and credits his ``mental toughness'' with being a driving force in his success this year.
Speaking of mental toughness, Thibodeau also noted the calming affect that getting through two big meets in a row had on the team.
``It helped us see that other teams are just like us,'' he said. ``We won't let a big meet bother us now.''
Now that the talented Bears are relaxed heading down the season's homestretch, all that's left for them to do is visualize what waits at the finish line.
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