September 28, 2001

Mentally Fit

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Biology majors: imagine washing out test tubes three hours a night, non-stop, every week of every month for three years without ever taking as much as one single day off. Hotelies: imagine spending three entire summers eating doughnuts without rest. Musicians: imagine practicing that piano minute after minute after minute. Tick, tick, tick, tick . . .

We at Cornell all supposedly have a great deal of mental capacity. But to harness that capacity into mental strength takes a certain extra talent. It is such mental strength that separates senior cross-country stars Geoff Van Fleet and Max King from many other athletes.

“Max and Geoff are very, very mentally tough,” admired their Nathan Taylor. “They have the ability to work hard in very tough physiological conditions. To be out of your comfort zone and work hard to achieve something, that’s what makes a champion runner.”

Cross-country is one of the more brutal sports out there. Athletes run an extraordinary 8,000 meters every weekend, not to mention miles and miles in practice. Hard on the legs. Hard on the heart.

“Personally, I feel that every time I don’t perform well, I am letting all the people who have coached me and who have trained with me down,” replies Van Fleet. “I can’t stand losing or not performing up to my abilities. I won’t sulk over a bad race. If someone runs faster than me because they were better prepared, so be it. But they better watch out next time.”

King holds his own interesting take on the experience: “Honestly I’ve never really liked running. It’s pretty plain, pretty boring, and just a lot of hard work that really isn’t that much fun. But I have learned to like the thought of continual improvement and pushing beyond my own limits that I thought I could never reach. It’s like ‘lets see how far I can push my body today.'”

For King, the story has been one of continual success. As a sophomore, he was a solid contributor. Second on the team, he placed 25th at the Heptagonals and 30th at Regionals. To place at Heptagonals is no penny in the ocean.

“It’s a very competitive league,” Taylor assured. “It’s one of the best in the country — almost at the level of the Big 10, Pac 10 and SEC.”

Last season, King placed an incredible sixth at Heps, while his classmate, Van Fleet finished seventh.

Van Fleet’s path, however, has held many obstacles in the form of injuries. After a promising freshman year, he developed a stress fracture which hampered his follow-up performance. After a solid junior year (as his seventh place at Heps indicates), he is now bothered by a bum Achilles tendon, and may not be able to compete this cross country season.

“Geoff’s got talent,” Taylor admitted, “but he’s been sidetracked by injuries. At the end of track, he had huge blisters on his feet. He’s got huge, grotesque feet anyway, and they just disintegrated. But he’s so mentally tough. He’s not the fastest guy out there, but he’s incredibly persistent. He just doesn’t take no for an answer.”

“It’s frustrating to train for so long to run my best and then have my body tell me that I did something wrong, whether I overdid it or I just had bad luck,” Van Fleet commented. “I made it through high school with very few injuries. My broken foot during cross country was the first major injury of my life. Fortunately, I didn’t let it depress me and I kept an extremely positive attitude.

“Now after my best summer training I find that my Achilles is going to be giving me a major problem,” he continued. “I am not letting it get me down, and I still believe that I have been doing enough that given the chance to run at a later point in this season, I will be ready to make a major contribution.”

And in true Van Fleet style, he stated, “If I can deal with the mental stress of being faced with a injury that threatens to ruin my collegiate running career, I will be running each race as if it’s my last — and that is a dangerous thing for the competition.”

It is this kind of confidence that has fueled the cross country team’s meteoric rise to the top of the Ivies.

The two have also successfully grown into their roles as leaders on the team.

“Dedication to your sport leads you to make choices that impact how good you’re going to be,” explained Taylor. “Freshmen look at Max and Geoff and say, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ So they just follow along.”

Certainly this much intensity would spill over into their everyday lives.

“Definitely, anything that I can see myself improving at, I tend to bring toward it the same attitude that I have for running. Often it is just to be better than someone else,” said King.

“There is a point in which the question is asked,” explains Van Fleet. “The question is: do I want to continue running in severe discomfort or should I just quit?”

We know what Geoff and Max would do.

Archived article by Sumeet Sarin