It was a cold mid-January afternoon in Madison. The temperature was barely pushing 40 degrees around 3:30 p.m. But the sun was out, the ground was mostly dry and head coach Tim Geary was happy.
“We’re lucky. Today is a great day,” he said with a grin. “This is maybe, maybe the third nicest day we’ve had this winter.”
When you’re the Hand indoor track team and you practice outside, every day, a sunny, semi-warm setting is welcomed with open arms. Or in the case of a few Tigers, it’s embraced with shorts and a T-shirt.
A few hours earlier on Jan. 16, Wilbur Cross was indoors at the Floyd Little Athletic Center getting ready for practice.
Two teams, two completely different environments.
For CIAC indoor track teams throughout the state, each program has its own training plan. There are currently 160 schools with boys indoor track and 157 with girls indoor track according to Matt Fischer, Director of Technology Services for the CIAC.
Of those, only nine have their own field house/indoor track — Bulkeley, Glastonbury, Haddam-Killingworth, Hartford Public, Hillhouse, Staples, Waterford, Weaver and Wilton.
For the other hundred-plus teams, that means utilizing gyms, school hallways, stairs and heading outdoors to get a workout in.
“If you don’t have a field house you got to be very creative with what you do,” Staples boys’ head coach Laddie Lawrence said. “If you have a field house, everyone wants to get in there, and you still got to be creative.”
Here’s a look at how teams are making the best of their situations, and finding ways to win.
An Inside View
“We have a course,” said Amity senior Zoie Reed, using her hands to describe the details of running a relay through the school halls. “We’ll use the pillars as like a curve. So we sprint down the hallway and then someone stands next to the pillar, and then we hand it (the baton) off.”
The Spartans do not have a field house so practice is limited to inside the school and gym. Distance runners are sent outside.
Amity girls’ head coach Sean Mahon doesn’t make excuses for their situation. Instead, he’s created a blueprint for success.
“I would say we do everything we have to do, but modified,” he said. “The people who hurdle, hurdle in the hallway, the people who jump, jump in the hallway, the people who throw, throw in the gym. And the people who run, run outside. We do the best with what we got.”
Both the girls and boys programs at Amity have finished in the Top 15 or better at the Class LL meet the last three seasons. The boys were second in 2010 and won Class LL championships in 2005 and 2006. They also just won their seventh Southern Connecticut Conference title on Thursday.
On Jan. 14, while the girls finished in the weight room, some of the male sprinters ran down the main hallway, roughly 80 meters long doing speed workouts with bungees.
“A lot of it is (the results) is what the athlete brings to the table as well,” said Amity boys’ coach Jeremy Iverson as he watched one of his sprinters jet by.
Added Reed: “Sure, there are some days we don’t have enough space. But we just work really hard, and we just do what we have to do. It’s just constantly staying competitive.”
Over in Fairfield County, Danbury has a similar structure. The Hatters will practice a little more than two hours a day using one of their three gyms for technical events (shot put, jumps, pole vault, sprint block starts and hurdles). They have access to the weight room.
Like Amity, the hallways are used for warm ups and sprint training, according to boys’ head coach Rob Murray. The Danbury boys’ team has won the Class LL and State Open titles a combined eight times since 2001. The Hatters won the FCIAC title last Wednesday.
The Field House
The first season Staples opened its field house (1980-81) Lawrence said 120 kids showed up. Prior to that, there were 40 total.
“I went to the AD (athletic director) and said, ‘I need two assistant coaches; otherwise I’m going to have to make cuts,’” Lawrence said.
Now, any given winter, Staples has around 200-250 athletes come out. Glastonbury, which houses an indoor track, has similar numbers.
The two programs are consistent conference and state contenders.
“The biggest benefit is being able to host meets and have the added benefit of an actual track with measured distances for training and competing,” Glastonbury boys’ head coach Tracey Hollenbaugh said.
The Tomahawks facility is a synthetic gym surface with a four lane 150-yard track that Hollenbaugh said is measured to run meter races.
The apex for high school indoor track facilities in the state is the Floyd Little Athletic Center in New Haven, which is a multi-purpose venue with a 200 meter track.
It is the current site for all of the CIAC state meets and holds a majority of the conference championships including the CSC, CCC, FCIAC, NCCC, NVL, SCC and SWC.
New Haven schools have access to use the center, but the issue is availability. A lot of times it’s booked up for a basketball game or other events. The Governors practice at Wilbur Cross, but head coach Travis Gale tries to bus them over to the athletic center much as possible.
“It’s a great access, great place to practice,” Gale said. “Knowing we’re on a track and can practice a 200 and do splits, hand-offs and work on relays; I think that’s phenomenal.”
Coaches agree they’d rather have a field house than not. The benefits are countless. Just about every event can be worked on, you’re indoors and you have space. Well, most of the time.
“It gets really hectic in here sometimes when you have the gymnastics team, cheerleaders and basketball practice going on,” Staples senior distance runner Peter Elkind said. “It’s annoying and sometimes you have to dodge people and it slows you down, too. But mostly you get used to it.”
Haddam-Killingworth has a four-lane 100 meter track, which can be made into six lanes for special situations.
Head coach Dick Dupuis said the team shares the gym with the basketball team and with the structure, it usually doesn’t practice all events every day.
Added Lawrence: “Here’s what I tell everyone, we’re at a training advantage and a competitive disadvantage. Reason for competitive disadvantage, I’m locked into being here on Saturdays.”
Two weekends ago Staples hosted the FCIAC western divisional championships. Lawrence played the role of meet and site director. That left him unable to coach during the meet, which in hindsight, may have cost the Wreckers points. They finished in second place to Danbury by one point.
At Waterford, they have an old 100 meter indoor track, but boys’ head coach Jonathan Criscuolo decided not to use it for meets this year.
“I feel that our track’s small size makes it difficult to run shorter relays and especially (the) 300 meter run,” he said. “The turns are hard to negotiate for better sprinters. Also the 3,200 run takes 32 laps. It is hard to count laps and runners get unfocused.”
Outdoors For Indoor
Hand is one of the programs in the state not allowed to practice inside. No hallway, no stairwell, no gym.
“I guess it was described as liability issues,” Geary said. “It wasn’t safe to run in the hallways because people are in the school at the end of the day.”
Instead, the Tigers take to the outdoor track.
“It’s kind of a trick. They call it indoor track, but you’re outdoors for most of the week,” Geary said.
“We’ll probably warm up, stretch about half an hour,” senior pole vaulter Hunter Stokes said. “During outdoor season it’s only like 15 minutes to warm up.”
A normal practice runs from 3-4:30 p.m. when the sun starts to set. Geary said being outside has its limitations. While the runners have the track, field events suffer.
“It hurts with events like shot put because you can’t really throw into the mud, it damages the indoor shot,” he said. “And if you use the metal one, your hand is frozen after two throws. So we throw on the turf, but you can’t practice your glide.”
The first day Hand was able to break into the sand and use the long jump pit was Jan. 16. But on those bitterly cold days and when it snows, the Tigers have access to their fitness room where they are able to use the treadmills and stationary bikes.
Despite the circumstances, Hand has managed. It has one of the state’s best pole vaulting crews with 11 members. Led by junior Ian Bergere, the Tigers have three of the Top 10 vaulters in the state, according to ct.milesplit.com.
They also finished tied for third place at the SCC championships. The girls placed second.
“There’s a little envy of those programs with field houses,” Geary said with a smile. “But we’ve made due. And we’ve been pretty successful.”
Common amongst programs are the distance and middle distance athletes practicing outside in most conditions. Depending if it’s nice enough, all teams will get outside and use the track.
“The outdoor track, parking lot, local hills on campus or near our high school and roads (for mid-distance and distance runners) are also available for use depending on the temperatures and snow conditions outside,” Murray said.
You Have To Get Creative
Lawrence recalls the days prior to having a field house and what it was like.
“I remember we used to run hurdles out of the stairwell and have two hurdles, and the second hurdle was right before the doorway. So the hurdlers had to make sure they got down quick and duck so they wouldn’t hit their head,” he said with a smile.
With the allotted space, coaches have turned to the drawing boards and created innovative ideas to utilize their space.
“We practice mostly on the second floor of the school,” Gale said. “Then we have stairs that go up to the third floor. So I can have a group running 150 around the square on the second floor and use that as a warm up. And then I can have my sprinters using the stairs. I tell them to go easy on a straightaway and then running upstairs to the third floor and then over and then back down. So I always have three to four groups of people going.”
Lawrence said despite having the field house, they have athletes inside, outside, in the fitness center and the weight room on any given day.
Cross has found success in splitting time between the school and the athletic center. The girls’ sprint medley relay is currently ranked No. 12 in the nation (4:13.24) according to milesplit.com. Cross also won its first SCC girls indoor title on Thursday.
“I think it’s just how you make the most of everything,” senior sprinter Shea Connors said. “Because we’re still doing hard workouts, it’s just different ways. I mean, I never knew you could do the type of stuff like the stairs. He (Gale) utilizes the stairs a lot more; takes more advantage of the space.”
A Little Technical
One obstacle many teams without a field house face is finding ways to practice the technical events, particularly the pole vault.
“Technical events take a back seat,” Tolland head coach Corey Bernier said. “We focus a majority of our time on building strength and a strong cardio base for the outdoor season.”
Many programs will use the weekly developmental and qualifying meets as harder practices for the jumps and vault.
“We do what we can with our pole vaulters and really try and develop them during the outdoor season,” Fairfield Warde head coach Shawn Sorbello said.
Another option for vaulters is to turn to indoor facilities outside of the school.
Murray said there is a private pole vault academy program (www.therunningacademy.com/polevaultacademy.jsp) that runs out of the sports dome in Danbury. He explained it’s open to anyone who wants to vault, including high school kids.
“They have kids coming from Glastonbury all the way down to Greenwich that come to train for the pole vault one to two times a week for two-hour sessions,” Murray said. “They have had between 25-40 pole vaulters coming to their winter program.”
Reed, who specializes in the jumps, is a walking example of working with what she has. She is the third best long jumper in the state (17-5.25) according to ct.milesplit.com.
She’s perfected her craft without a runway and pit to catapult her body into each day.
“We have huge mats that we have to carry out,” Reed said. “They are the size of a regular high jump mat. So we typically run and jump on those. We have to work on height and go how far we go. We just consistently do that till we get to the pit, where it’s a lot easier.”
The mats the Spartans use have allowed for a smoother transition to indoors.
“The mats we jump on are a little higher and you have to learn to get your body up and jump further,” Reed said. “It’s honestly an advantage.”
For The Love Of Track
Bergere’s lips looked a little discolored; his cheeks a little rosy. But his smile said it all.
“As long as we keep practicing harder we’ll have the advantage,” he said. “It’s really how much you are committed.”
Bergere and the Hand vaulters are the epitome of commitment. Geary said if they could stay outside in the dark, they would.
“As soon as it snows, they’re out here with their shovels and salt and to make sure when the sun comes out they’ll have a runway.”
And most coaches and athletes agree, an inner desire, love for the sport and wanting to improve plays a major role in the overall result.
“We like getting better,” Stokes said. “It’s just the drive, and that we like the sport the most to keep going.”
No matter the setting, if the athlete wants it, they’ll find a way to achieve it.
“It boils down to the character of the team,” Lawrence said. “If they really want to train, it doesn’t matter if they have a field house or not.”