On The Run with John Stifler: Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club track workouts a resounding success

  • John Stifler

Published: 9/2/2023 8:40:03 PM
Modified: 9/2/2023 8:39:19 PM

In the 1984 U.S. Women's Olympic Marathon Trials, one of the competitors was Sister Marion Irvine. Right: a nun.

A nun who was a national-class runner.

I mentioned this bit of running history to Laure Van den Broeck Raffensperger. A strong runner herself, Van den Broeck Raffensperger lives in Leyden and works at Deerfield Academy, but she grew up in Belgium and attended a Catholic girls’ high school where there was no such thing as athletics.

“Sister Marion was not at our school,” she quipped.

Laure discovered running in her 30’s, when she moved to Southampton, England, and noticed that every Wednesday a group of runners would make their way around a large park nearby. She joined their club. “I was immediately drawn in — into races, cross-country. We had regular weekly workouts, with coaching. I didn’t know I’d love running.”

Now she is an organizer of the weekly track workouts sponsored by the Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club. Held on Wednesday evenings at the Deerfield Academy track during the summer and — a new addition this year — from now through mid-October at Frontier Regional High School, these workouts are a splendid way to enrich your own running, whether you’re winning prizes at races or see yourself as simply a jogger trying to keep fit.

At a track you run on a smooth surface, no pebbles or tree roots under foot, no traffic to watch out for. You can run a precise distance and try to cover it at a pace faster than your normal longer run on a road, trail or treadmill. Like a tennis court or softball diamond, a track invites you to step onto it and play.

Track workouts add variety to your routine, and they add confidence in a race — benefits that are further enhanced by the presence of a coach. Go to a track alone, and you have to decide how long the intervals are that you’ll run, and how many you’ll do. Go to a track with a coach, and the coach tells you what to do

Sugarloaf’s coach for these workouts is Dan Smith, 43, who has also coached at the highly regarded Craftsbury (Vermont) Running Camp and directs the Bridge of Flowers race in his hometown of Shelburne Falls. (Coincidence: His day job is with a flower-importing company.)

I went to one of these workouts in late July, joining two dozen other runners. Dan led us on a 15-minute warmup along dirt roads at the edge of the Deerfield campus and then lined us up along a fence where we did a few stretching exercises before running a couple of 100-meter drills, starting at a trot and building to a near-sprint.

Then the main workout: run 400 meters, rest for two minutes, run another 400, rest, then 800 meters and two more 400s with similar rests, and, for anyone feeling stronger, one more 800. “Run in groups of four or five,” Dan told us, leaving us to find others who seemed to be the same speed. “And try to keep together.”

As I had suspected, I couldn’t quite keep up with the rest of the slowest group, but it didn’t matter. I ran the 400s at a modest but steady pace, and I surprised myself by running the fastest 800 meters I’ve run in three years.

A couple of weeks later, Dan assigned us a pair of 1,000-meter tempo runs —  i.e., run at the pace you might maintain for a half-marathon. These long intervals build mental as well as physical strength: you can’t go all out, but for two and a half laps of the track you maintain a smooth pace at the upper level of your comfort zone.

We followed the tempo runs with four quick 200-meter repetitions, cruising the first 100 and then speeding up. “Dan has us do a lot of 200s,” Van den Broeck Raffensperger noted later. “That kind of thing is something you probably don’t do on your own.”

These weekly gatherings at the track have an appeal that goes beyond the training benefits. Voicing a sentiment shared by probably everyone who shows up, Laure commented, “The workouts are primarily a great social event. A place to meet friends. It’s inspiring to see faster runners and slower runners.”

The workouts are open to all Sugarloaf members. If you’re a non-member, you’re welcome to come to one workout and see if you like it. Membership is $25 a year (Sugarloafmountainathletic.org).

John Stifler has taught writing and economics at UMass and has written extensively for running magazines and newspapers. He can be reached at jstifler@umass.edu


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