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How to Win NTN
by three who did

Want to know how to win NTN? Ask those who’ve done it.

by Dave Devine, DyeStat Assistant Editor
with Sean McNamara, Amanda Griggs and Kyle Dawson

For most of the teams descending on Portland, Oregon, this week for the 4th annual Nike Team Nationals, the event will be unlike any cross country meet they’ve ever attended. Not only is the race course a European-style looped layout created in the center of a horse track, with obstacles like hay bales and camelback hills that most teams have never encountered, the weekend itself is packed with a head-spinning blend of activities, opportunities and social events that can be either delightful or distracting, depending on your perspective. While some squads might find themselves derailed by expectations, and others might maneuver through the commotion to claim a podium finish, no team makes the journey without harboring at least a measure of hope that they can win it all.

In an effort to figure out what that takes, we contacted a trio of high school graduates who’ve been there before. Three talented harriers—all now competing in college—who helped elevate their clubs to the apex of high school team running.

Want to know how to win NTN?

Ask Sean McNamara, now at the University of Michigan, who won the inaugural NTN race and fronted his Kroy (York IL) team to a title that confirmed the legendary status of that program. Ask Amanda Griggs, now competing for Northern Arizona University, who contributed to the Hilton NY team which toppled a favored Saratoga squad with their 2005 win. Ask Kyle Dawson, now at Penn State, who shepherded his Bridgetown (Coatesville PA) team from the hills of Pennsylvania to the heights of the trophy stand in Portland.

Each has a unique take on what it takes to win NTN, and each was willing to share a few thoughts.
ADVICE: Sean McNamara - Amanda Griggs - Kyle Dawson - Running the Course
Never lose sight of the goal

As first-year participants in the initial NTN, Sean McNamara and his Kroy (York IL) teammates had no idea what to expect. There were no videos from the previous year to watch, no reports or war stories from prior participants. Only the promise of a chance to compete for a national title.

“We were very excited,” McNamara says. “We weren't worried about other teams because we were underdogs going in. We believed we were the best team in the country and we were excited for the chance to prove it.”

Like many teams, Kroy was unable to be mentored by their in-season coach at the national meet. “Our coach, Joe Newton, was not allowed to coach us. I don't think this had any effect on us whatsoever because the values he instilled in us were the very ones we needed to be successful on our own. We really wanted to win it for him.”

One way they ensured they’d win was by maintaining an almost stolid focus throughout the weekend. Teams still talk about how that initial Kroy squad took the stage during the team skit night, announced, “We’re here to win,” and summarily walked off. McNamara doesn’t shy away from that characterization.

“We were completely focused on the race. We completely ignored all of the extra activities and didn't dive into those at all. This worked for our team, but this isn't necessarily the only way to run well. As long as you're focused on what needs to be done in the race, you can have fun before. I think the reason we were successful is because we never lost of sight of the goal. We were surrounded with so many things to do. You can talk to world class athletes, tour the incredible Nike facilities, learn about shoe/spike design, watch presentations inside the Stanford Auditorium, and stare at the good looking girls from other schools. Even though we may have been staring at the girls, we still knew why we came here. We came to NTN to win and prove we were the best team in the entire country. This is the attitude you need to have about the race in order to win.”

Run this race like any other

Unlike McNamara’s team, Amanda Griggs’ 2005 Hilton NY team had the benefit of a previous national meet to study.

“The first thing our coach did,” she says, “was have us watch the past year’s Nike Team Nationals. This allowed our team to get a feel of how the race is run, gave us a look at the course, the conditions we would be racing in, weather, and how some of the best teams were able to come out on top.”

Similar to the Kroy squad, the ’05 Hilton team approached the journey to Portland as a business trip, but with a little more leeway. “Our team treated the weekend the way we normally did, that this was a trip to get business done. Though our coach realized that even though we had to stay focused on the goal in mind, we were still young girls that needed to have fun as well. He often gave us the choice of what we wanted to do, and allowed us some free time to relax and enjoy the weekend. I think that as a team you need to do whatever is going to help you achieve your goal; for us we needed to have fun and relax, as well as get serious.”

The most important advice Griggs has for teams hoping to win NTN is “to run this race like any other race you’ve run this season. I also think that it is important to realize that just about every team has a chance to do well because anything can happen. There is very little that can be done to give a team an extra edge in the NTN weekend, because all the work and preparation has already been done. Those teams that can take this preparation, and come together as a team on that day with a common goal in mind and transfer that to the race will be the ones that are prepared to contend on the national course.”

Griggs believes that if you don’t go for it in the race, you’ll have missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I would say that if you don't take it as an opportunity to contend, then you might have lost one of your finest memories of running. NTN is like a dream, it is exciting and it is a moment to make memories with your team that will last a lifetime.”

Have fun but stay focused

The Bridgetown XC Club of Coatesville PA managed to qualify for an NTN bid without ever racing outside the state of Pennsylvania, which made them something of an unknown on the national scene. That lack of exposure to multi-state racing didn’t phase Kyle Dawson or his teammates.

“When we found out we were invited, we didn't do anything special except for our hay bales. My teammate Drew Mahoney’s mom works on a horse farm, so she got us some hay bales that we ran over every day on workouts and easy runs. It helped a lot to get used to jumping over them, because it was something we never did before.”

Other than that training adjustment, it was business as usual for the close-knit squad. “We didn't talk about anything special, just the same old stuff we talk about any other time. We warmed up and got ready for the race just like we would for any other race. We were focused and knew we were ready to run, so we tried not to look at it as a national meet, just another meet in the season.”

Like the Kroy team in 2004, that focus spilled over into the rest of the weekend’s events. “We didn't seem to have much free time because of all the extra activities we had to go to. We went to them and had lots of fun, but we remembered to stay focused on what we were really there for. The best thing to do is have fun but stay focused on the real goal.”

Overall, Dawson says, “it was the best experience of my life and I wouldn't trade it for the world.”

Running the Portland Meadows Course
The Start

McNamara: We just tried to get out in the middle to front of the pack. We wanted to run a great last 2k. We thought the course was soft and that people who went out hard would fade. We got out slow and picked people off throughout the race.

Griggs: It is a good idea to get out and have a good start, especially if the course is real muddy. I know that when I raced it two years ago, because of the muddiness, getting out in good position was crucial for me. I think I would have had trouble moving up much later in the race, because of how tired running through the mud can make you.

Dawson: We got out hard to the front like every race we ran all year, we didn't change it. The uniforms made it different, because you didn't know who had on what color. When I looked for my team, I looked for black, but we had on light blue and red.
The Camelbacks

McNamara: Just stay relaxed here. No ground is made or lost here if you relax and let your momentum take you.

Griggs: It’s good to take quick steps up the hills and allow the momentum of the downhills to carry you through the rest of them.

Dawson: They were really odd, we never ran anything like them before, but we shortened our stride going up, and opened up going down.
The Hay Bales

McNamara: These are barely noticeable.

Dawson: The hay bails were fun, we practiced on them at home so we were used to them. We hurdled them, because that was the fastest way over, plus we felt putting your foot on them would be a bad choice because they were soft and your foot could slip or sink a little.
The Loop Course

McNamara: The course was fine (I hear it's been changed since). When we came around for one more loop of the course there was around 2000 meters to go. Our team really focused on this part of the race. I tried to check the scoreboard when they announced 3k splits. I remember hearing we weren't winning and that's when I decided to make a move.

Griggs: The looped nature of the course didn't seem to phase me or our team. We didn't have a strategy for this, just run the course like any other course, trying to find the shortest path but also the best footing.

Dawson: Well that made it more fun for spectators. The second time through though, you knew what you were in for with the mud, because you’d already run through it. The course did get a lot worse the second time around. I didn’t look at the scoreboard, but I did hear some of the score updates. The ones I heard, we were either in first or third, which let me know I had to run harder, and we were in good position.
The Finish

You come up the last straight and give it everything you’ve got. Some of our guys made up significant ground and passed many runners because they believed we could win.

Griggs: I would suggest trying to run it following the shortest path, but if that hinders your footing, then take the path with the best terrain. I would also say that at this point you need to pour on a kick, especially if you are deep in the pack, because if you aren't kicking that can mean the difference between getting 30th or getting 50th.

Dawson: Once you come off the last hay bales and around that final turn, you better run like hell.

Photos by John Dye and Kirby Lee/imageofsport

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