Be Your Own Dad
It’s 3:57 PM in Williamsburg, Virginia, somewhere in the neighborhood of 37° Fahrenheit, and I’m desperate for a place to park. I’m used to it by now. For a town primarily known for its horse-drawn transportation, finding street parking in Williamsburg can be quite the scavenger hunt. I’m flustered nevertheless — I don’t want them to leave without me. I stop off in a church parking lot, shoot a quick message over to the GroupMe.
It’s one of several acronyms I was tasked with decoding upon joining the team. “on Blitz time.” Or, in layman’s terms, “I’m late but I’m coming, don’t leave without me!” The exact parameters of “obt” have been the subject of some debate, but it is generally understood to denote a lateness of seven minutes or less. Any more than that and you’re “very obt.”
“Obt” does not, as I believed upon first joining the team, stand for “over by Tree.” It, in fact, means quite the opposite of that. The Tree (Capital “T”) is a rather unremarkable looking deciduous rooted in an even less remarkable corner of campus, about a half-mile from Colonial Williamsburg. Practice is held at the Tree every weekday. It begins at 4 PM sharp, assuming nobody is late (which is to say, never). The Tree is where I should be right now, but by this point, I am firmly on Blitz time. Finally, a parking spot.
There are plenty of friendly faces waiting at the Tree, chattering and bundled up to various degrees. There’s some discussion of route options. As usual, the group will be splitting up into four or so smaller parties, each to run a different route at a different pace. Suggestions are tossed around freely: Matrix, 4×4, Quarterpath, Vineyards, Docks… there’s no shortage of options. Decisions are made, unmade, made again. Then, before we really even realize it, we’re in motion. Nobody announced it was time to go, yet here we all are, our feet pounding a cascading, increasingly arhythmic cadence on the pavement below.
Team Blitz was founded in 2002 (four years before NIRCA was established) by several students who had recently left the William & Mary Cross Country team. It was a small squad of athletes, and fast across the board. It was also almost entirely male (though the most notable Blitz athlete to emerge from this era was one Sabrina Little – a Hoka-sponsored ultrarunner and world 100-mile silver medalist). Other than an almost impressively late-2000s-looking website — one which bills itself as the “#1 unofficial Team Blitz fan site — very little information is available about these years of the team’s history, save for that which has been passed down as team lore. Blitz’ history remains a largely oral tradition, and most of that which has been written down comes from outside sources.
Team Blitz comes up in a short LetsRun thread from 2006, a discussion of Williamsburg and its relative merits as a place to train. “As for clubs, W&M has a student running club that has some success racing longer distances (half marathons/marathons in like 1:15/2:40 for the most part),” wrote LetsRun user freeanalysis. “It’s mostly made up of guys who didn’t make the team due to modest high school PRs (your 4:40 milers, 10:00 two-milers) or guys who quit the team for one reason or another. But it’s very rare that they have a guy who can break 15 for the 5k.”
In the decades since Blitz’ foundation, it has, of course, changed a great deal. For one thing, the gender demographics have evened out. There are now just as many women on the team as men, if not more. Not only that, but this Fall’s cross country season proved that, as a team, the women are often stronger than the guys.
As the team has grown, the culture has changed alongside it. As numbers have increased, so too has the spectrum of experience and ability. Blitz is no longer just a club for those with “modest” mile PRs in the 4:40s, but for anyone with a desire to run — regardless of their prior experience. It’s an incredibly welcoming environment, the kind of team culture that has even injured members showing up to the Tree on occasion, just to say hello and wave the runners off.
This shift was neither accidental nor unconscious. It was the work of the last several years of team leadership, a dedicated and ongoing effort to make Blitz as welcoming an environment as possible. When I asked Sydney Smith, Blitz’ newly minted president (born the year Blitz was founded), about her goals for the club, she echoed that desire: to be welcoming above all else.
“Honestly, priority #1 is making the club a good environment for everyone. Creating a good culture where everybody feels welcome.”
This, however, is not her only priority. “Regarding [team] events, the  Boston Marathon is something I really want to do, so Courtney [Maynard, Team Blitz’ logistics chair] and I have been looking at some qualifying marathons we could do for that.” Other potential team undertakings (besides, of course, racing both indoor and outdoor track), include a Ragnar relay, a long-distance capture the flag game, and a “Michigan” workout. Still, it’s the team culture, according to Sydney, that makes Blitz so special.
“When I was in high school it felt like running was very life or death. I would do anything to get faster, you know? But here it’s just celebrating people’s love for running. It’s only people who want to be here, which is a really cool thing. You can train for whatever you want, you can be whoever you want, and you can just go run with a bunch of goofballs!”
Sydney had arrived at Blitz in a sort of a roundabout way. Growing up overseas in a family of talented runners, she’d been running as long as could remember. Her dad was her coach and racing became a big factor in her life early on. “I ran in the Nederlands and Russia and Belgium pretty competitively – there’s a league there called the IFAM. You would have heat after heat after heat, and everyone else [in your heat] had a seed time within 5 seconds of yours. Races would last for hours and every heat had its own pacer.”
After moving to Northern Virginia in her junior year of high school, Sydney ran fast enough to get recruited by several NCAA Track & Field programs. After some deliberation, she found her way to Williamsburg.
“I was supposed to run for William & Mary — I was working with the coach and all that — and like a month before my freshman year, I just quit running. It was over. I remember the moment, too — it sucked. I was supposed to be doing a 10-mile long run (I’ve always struggled with long runs) and I just… stopped running. I said, ‘I’m not doing this ever again,’ and I just… quit.
“It was really a moment – my sister and my dad were with me and they were like, ‘uhhhhh… what is happening?’ But it felt like a long time coming. At some point, running became a chore instead of something I loved. I think it was the right decision.”
I asked her how she found her way back to running.
“I didn’t run – not a step – for 3 months, which I hadn’t done since I was like 9 years old. I’d never gone that long without running. But then I got to William & Mary, and… [she laughs] this actually sucked: I was put in a dorm with the entire cross country team. I was supposed to be on the team, and I was on the roster, so everyone thought I was an athlete. Being in a dorm with only people on the team was pretty rough. Bet they were all running all the time. Part of me was like, ‘well, I used to like running.’ So I started going on 1-2 mile runs, you know, just having fun and exploring the trails.
“I’d heard about Blitz in passing, and I was like, ‘hey, I mean, I’ll show up and see what it is.’ That’s where I met Caroline [Cox, a former Blitz prez who has since graduated] and Sam [Rubin, a sophomore and a Blitz establishment]. I remember running on the Colonial Parkway with Caroline, and it was just… fun. I was so nervous before, too, I was like ‘oh, they’re going to be so fast,’ and then we wound up jogging, like, 8:30s, and I thought ‘oh, okay, I can do this.’ And that’s how I met some of my best friends, and it just became the best part of my day.”
I asked Sydney to describe Blitz in a phrase. She didn’t have to think very long. “Be your own dad.”
It’s a sort of unofficial team motto for Blitz, meant to signify that the only people responsible for the runners’ training anymore are the athletes themselves. There is no one to answer to, nobody to enforce, nobody there to make you put on your shoes and get out the door. Your training is wholly your own, and so, too, are your results.
Then I asked Sydney who she thought exemplified what it meant to “be your own dad.” She pointed me to Wes Gable.
Wes, a freshman from Hanover, Virginia, arrived to Blitz already one of the fastest men on the team. At Blitz Splitz, the 2-mile intrasquad time trial held every September, he had won by around a minute. During the cross country season, he had been our most consistent racer*, placing 10th overall in his first NIRCA race ever (not to mention his first 8k). When I talked to Wes, I asked what it was like to step onto a team and already be one of its fastest members.
“It’s kind of cool to come in and be one of the faster people. It was a little bit of a bummer, just ’cause I would have liked some faster people to work out with, and maybe we’ll have that in the future, but it’s great to have people to do easy runs with. It’s more about the team camaraderie than the actual workouts, anyways.”
Already a force to be reckoned with on the roads (he ran 1:17:38 at the Richmond Half Marathon at the end of this Fall’s cross country season), I had always assumed Wes had some solid PRs from high school. Until now, however, I’d never known exactly what those PRs were. Turns out, Wes is almost exactly the kind of runner described in that LetsRun post from 15 years ago. He’s run a 16:36 XC 5k, a 4:39 1600m, and a 9:54 3200m (Wes asks me to include that the timing for that one was “a bit questionable,” so it may have been closer to 9:56. “I always have to add that caveat or I can’t sleep at night.”). Also, apparently, a 3:16 marathon, run his sophomore year of high school. “It was a questionable decision,” he adds.
These are solid times, and they place Wes firmly among some of the fastest guys on the team. But I think it’s telling that he never mentioned any of them until I asked him, point-blank, in an interview. And, even more telling, that this relative mystery surrounding PRs is not exceptional only to Wes. Everyone on Blitz is roughly aware that some of our teammates are faster than others, but the numbers rarely get thrown around. When they do come up – which is only ever really the result of a direct question towards one of our faster members – the answer is usually more sheepish than boastful.
Still, when I find out my teammate was less than 20 minutes from a BQ at 15 or ran 1:55 in the 800m (as with Patrick Smith, another freshman), there’s a part of me that can’t help but wonder: why run club?
When I asked Wes if, at any point, he was planning to try and walk on to the official William & Mary team, he got a funny sort of smile on his face. “My plan was to do Blitz and try and be as fast as possible, and if that is within the range of trying to get on then sure, I’d probably go for it – depending on how I feel. I always figured if I ran, like, 15:30 in the 5k then I’d entertain the idea of trying to walk on. But I’ve definitely become more into Blitz as the year’s gone on. And now I’m Treasurer I’m locked in for 2022 – I’m not jumping ship!”
There is no one kind of runner. This is a very individualistic sport – each athlete equipped with a different body, a different mind, a different degree of natural talent, is tasked with the increasingly complicated objective of training, day in and day out until they can suffer more efficiently than anyone else they may stumble across. It can be a lonely undertaking. Selfish, even.
And, yet, individualistic as it may be, the presence of a team can make all the difference. Finding the right team, even more so. For so many of us, Team Blitz has been that team. Though each of us has our own reasons for being here, when you get down to it we’re all just here to run.
“What’s attractive about Blitz,” according to Sydney, “is the people, and the community it brings. Even if you’re not a huge lover of running, if you just come and meet people there, it’ll be a good time.”
Originally published February 11, 2022 at reasonablyspeedy.nightswimming.com
*One of my favorite stories about Wes’ still-unfolding club career is his experience at the 2021 NIRCA Mid-Atlantic Regionals. Sometime during the race, Wes lost a spike. Rather than giving up or walking it in, Wes finished the race barefoot. Try as I might, I just couldn’t fit this story into the article, but I couldn’t abide the idea of leaving this story untold, so here – in its entirety – is Wes’ account of the race:
“Yeah, that was a very interesting race. It was at Lehigh’s Course which is really fast, so I was happy to actually get on a good, fast, full 8k course. I was through 2 miles in like 11:05 and I was like “spot on! This is gonna be great!” And then I got to 2.5 miles and it was a slightly woodsy section, and my foot just landed in a place where the whole spike basically split open on the inside. So I ran for a little bit, and I popped that bad boy off. But then I was just running in my left shoe and I was like “this is actually worse.” So I got rid of that too. Then I was just like, “well, I’ve got to keep going!” So I kept on going barefoot. Thankfully since it was Lehigh it was mostly grass – on any of the other courses I would have probably broken my feet on rocks, but it was doable. It was pretty painful in spots, but some people were cheering me on. I remember running by the girls’ team, and they were like “go Wes!” I wanted them to know why I was way back in the field, so I pointed down and was like “I got no shoes!” Then I just had to grind it out to the finish. And honestly, considering the no-shoes-for-the-second-half, I’m pretty proud of my 30-minute 8k [note for the reader: he still placed 119th out of a 297-man field].”