Running with the Buffaloes follows the 1999 season of the University of Colorado XC team, from initial training in August through to the national championships in November. At this point in time Colorado was amongst the top 5 XC teams in the country, with a national star athlete – and future US Olympian – in the shape of Adam Goucher. During the course of the book we witness every day of their training schedule, following their long runs in the trails of Boulder and their brutal interval sessions. It’s like a training diary told in narrative fashion. We learn what they eat, how their coach Mark Wetmore bollocks them when they underperform, and most of all, how an elite team trains for the biggest stage of their college athletic careers.
The approach is probably not for everyone, and the layers of running geekery mean I wouldn’t recommend this book to non-runners, but for those who want to go on the journey, you are in for a treat. After a while the team becomes family. The monotony and routine of their training starts to seep into you. You feel like part of the team, and actively will them to succeed. The thought of a “#5” breakfast of two eggs, hash browns and wheat toast at the Village Coffee Shop for $3 sounds very appealing.
A shocking tragedy strikes during the season, and it changes the whole course of the story. The book is dedicated to the relevant team member, so while you’re reading about each training session, the apprehension levels rise as you know something horrible is going to happen, but not how or when. When the moment comes, you feel the desolation along with the whole team.
Unsurprisingly, the book is unremittingly American, with little concession to international readers less familiar with American college sports. I found myself regularly looking up unknown terms and acronyms that were not explained. When an athlete “redshirts”, for example, it means they’re sitting out a season in order to extend their eligibility, because US college athletes can only participate in four seasons . Similarly, I was unaware that “NCAA” stands for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and is the organisation that regulates all inter-college sports in North America.
However, not being American or an aficionado of US sports can be an advantage too. As I was reading the book, I genuinely had no idea how the 1999 season would pan out, where the team would finish at the Nationals, and whether Goucher would take the individual title. If I had a criticism, it is that as a reader it’s something of a shame that the very first page of the book tells you who makes it to the finals. Only 7 athletes of the initial starting squad of 23 can be chosen for the varsity team, and throughout the book the competition for the spots is intense. Chris Lear would probably tell you that the journey is more important than the “who”, but as you follow the various members of the squad, it really isn’t obvious who is going to make the final 7…except you already know.
Of course, how that squad is chosen is a major piece of the story. For his time, Wetmore was an unconventional coach, emphasising high volume and a return to the training philosophy of Arthur Lydiard. The mileage these guys do, my god. 100+ miles a week is made to feel normal. After a while, you start to wonder why you aren’t running those kind of miles yourself.
Just about everyone gets injured at some point, unsurprisingly, causing headaches for Wetmore’s selection process. There is also real emphasis on being thin, and the coach unashamedly bashes some of his skeletal stars for gaining small amounts of weight, something which makes me deeply uncomfortable after recently reading about the story of an elite male marathoner with bulimia. You do have to question whether all of this is healthy for young athletes, and it is noticeable that for most of them, the NCAA is the pinnacle of their running lives. Adam Goucher’s adult career never quite matched his college promise, and you have to wonder if the demands of college XC meant that he peaked too soon.
For those of us who only took up running later in life, and will never come close to matching the fitness and performances of these young men, Running with the Buffaloes allows us to dream of what might have been if we had only discovered the sport a little sooner, had a little more talent, and did not spend their teenage years with a loyalty card to Hussein’s kebab van.