Mark Wieczorek, Gig Harbor WA boys XC: NSAF Coach of the Week

Week ending Oct. 19, 2013

Some elite athletes, trying to combine post-collegiate competition with coaching, talk about what a challenge it is.  But 1:45 800 runner Mark Wieczorek can no longer imagine anything else.  In early 2011 he was in Los Angeles, struggling to find an available track on which to train.  So he nabbed an assistant track coach position at Newbury Park.  Wieczorek had spent extensive time researching training and becoming a “student of the sport,” but never really saw himself as a coach.  At first, the Newbury Park gig was a means to an end.

But Wieczorek quickly found himself “engrossed with the team and the kids,” and totally fell in love with coaching.  “I was in the middle of my own season and I found myself more concerned with missing the kids’ workouts or races,” he recalls.  It was a good feeling, and so when he relocated to Washington that summer for personal reasons, he was beyond happy to become connected to Gig Harbor head track coach Kevin Eager and become the school’s new XC coach.  Amazingly, Wieczorek had never even run XC himself (his full embrace and revelation of his middle-distance abilities came in college), but what followed was a dream campaign that fall: The school’s first 4A state title and an NXN Finals berth.

After a bit of a recharge year in 2012, Gig was slated to come back with a very strong group this fall.  Then the family of Mahmoud Moussa, who was part of Arcadia’s NXN champs last fall, moved back to Washington with Mahmoud set to enroll at Gig.  Suddenly, the team’s potential to win it all began to trend throughout the prep XC world.  Two months into the season, Gig is unbeaten with very impressive wins at the Bob Firman Invite and Nike Pre-Nationals highlighting the slate, and things are on track for an exciting conclusion.

A few of Coach Wieczorek’s thoughts

On how coaching Gig Harbor has impacted his training and life:  Throughout that first season, I became so invested in them that I had a whole new aspect to running that was impacting my life ... and it had nothing to do with me. I got excited to see them grow and mature, and I cheered them along as they cheered me along in my training and racing.  It has been an awesome experience for me.
I've had many people tell me how difficult it is to be a coach and an athlete at the same time, but for me it's the opposite.  Having the kids to look forward to and share experiences with has brought so much more enjoyment to my own running and the sport in general, that it's hard to imagine not getting to be a part of Gig Harbor.  I have parents regularly thanking me and telling me how lucky they are to have me. 
What no one realizes is that I am the lucky one.  I couldn't have a group of kids that are more respectful, dedicated and that really just enjoy the team and the sport as much as they do.  That's so important for a young group of runners.
It can sometimes be difficult balancing my own training and racing schedule with that of the kids.  But with the work we have put in to help them understand their training, and the online training logs they do daily, everything works out while I am off competing or in Europe for the summer

On the challenges of 2012, following a state championship and NXN-qualifying campaign the year before:  After 2011 we had several guys graduate, but we also had several good kids returning.  We definitely weren't as deep and it was a bit of a rebuilding year, but we really did get hammered pretty good with sickness.  The kids worked really hard, but with our lack of depth we just didn't have room to have several kids with multi-week sicknesses. 
Also, programs like Central Valley, Nathan Hale and Kamiakin (and of course, North Central) really did a great job with their kids to step up and have very successful seasons.  I have been very impressed with many of the coaches and the teams here in Washington and they definitely deserved their spots last year.

On preparing during the summer for a fall of great expectations:  I was off to Europe to compete for almost two months over the summer, so it was very important to keep open lines of communication with the kids.  We have worked very hard over the last 2.5 years to help them understand their training.  From training phases to various forms of metabolic stimulus, they now know what I am looking for, day-to-day, so they can be independent when needed. 
The kids were motivated and all of their summer training was done on their own.  They were responsible for organizing everything.  I simply posted the training weekly, modified it and adapted it to each of them via online training logs, and through those was able to keep in touch with them daily.
It is always important to have realistic goals and ambitions, to not only have something to aim for, but also from a coaching standpoint to dictate training phases and sessions.  They are an ambitious group, and returning to NXN this season was always of our goals.  But they know their primary goal needs to be have fun and enjoy the process; to focus on each day, one at a time, to follow the plan and be the best they can be.  The rest will take care of itself.
The ends (competing at or winning NXN) can never be a necessity to justify the means (working hard in training and being a part of the team).  Simply being a part of an awesome team, and working hard and enjoying the process, is the most important thing.  They are great at doing that.

On Mahmoud joining the team and the roles of team leaders:  Mahmoud reached out to me in May, letting me know that his family was returning to Washington and that he would be living in Gig Harbor and attending our school.  He wanted information to get linked in for summer training.  I spoke with him on the phone in June, explaining how we do things and what he needed to know.  He has been on board with everything from the very beginning and, by the time I returned from Europe, it was as if he was just another one of the guys. 
Our team is great about accepting everyone.  From the fastest to the 100th-fastest, everyone has a place and is welcomed in.  That's what I love most about our team.  The top guys are great leaders.  Their roles are to be an extension of me, especially when I'm not around.  It is important for them to understand what they are doing, so they can do it correctly, as well as give me feedback and help improve what I am trying to do.  I listen to and trust Wolf (Beck), Logan (Carroll) and Tristan (Peloquin) in everything, and consider our relationships to be a partnership.  They share responsibility for helping the younger athletes and helping me put together the best training plan for the team.

On whether the season to date has accomplished the goals he’s set for the team:  I feel everything leading up to the championship season is nothing more than preparation.  If the kids have fun and develop throughout the season, progressing in their training and growing as a team, then I consider it a success.  It is important for training and racing to reflect the goals of a particular phase, and we will approach workouts and races in a way that fits in with the overall plan.  Meets like Pre Nats require the kids’ trust in me that the plans I have for them are in the best interests of their seasons and the development of their careers.  I have been fortunate with how much faith they have put in me.

On priorities for the rest of the season and attempting a championship run:  Our goals are to finish the season having done everything that was the best for the kids, not only in this season, but to set them up for future success.  I think the most important thing for me is to focus on their physical development for the future and to prepare them to run fast this season.  If they do everything to compete the best they can, then there is no reason to be disappointed – no matter what happens later in the year.
Rankings are fun and being ranked high is awesome.  I'm glad that it has brought the kids attention, because they deserve it.  But they know that comparisons and rankings are difficult and in the end it doesn't mean anything if they don't perform when it matters.  It is important to be patient and focus on themselves, so they can be the best they can be.  That's what is important.

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