I love learning from other coaches. I am constantly on the lookout for the next idea I can steal. Mark Wetmore at the University of Colorado tries to add something new to his program every year, and at Shelbyville we think the same way. So when St. Joe-Ogden Coach Jason Retz invited anyone who wanted to come see the Spartans do their famous Rope-A-Dope workout, I was all in. I had previously attended a SJO track practice to talk to his kids about Reflexive Performance Reset, and they were very welcoming.
St. Joseph-Ogden High School has had tremendous success at both cross-country and track in their history, as their twitter bio declares “A combined 8 State Championships, 14 team Trophies, 411 All-State Medals, and always on the hunt for the next”. Wow right? Under Coach Retz the Spartans have won 4 state trophies including 2 state titles. Coach Retz has used the famous Rope-A-Dope workout every year of his 13 year career. Not convinced yet? How about the fact that Coach Retz’s high school coach and mentor ITCCCA Hall of Fame Coach Jim Acklin used the workout too? Coach Acklin guided the Spartans to 3 state championships in his time. The old saying “where there’s smoke there’s fire” comes to mind.
So I made the not quite 2 hour trip to St. Joe that Friday, with our Head Coach Kevin Kramer’s blessing and encouragement. “Let’s see what it’s all about” he told me the day before. I was immediately welcomed by both the coaches and athletes at the start of practice, and we headed out to the “old track”. Now already I’m jealous as we arrive at the middle school roughly a mile from the high school and see the earthy old cinder track. A wonderful soft surface that Coach Retz explains they do most of their workouts on during track season. While the team begins the warm up routine the coaches set up the ropes and mark out a few spots on the curve. Retz also tells me I can expect some athletes to cry today, and probably a few will throw up.
The workout today is 4×1 Mile repeats at cutdown race pace. This means the runners will run 10 seconds slow of race pace the first rep, then 5 seconds, then at pace, and then 5 seconds fast. In addition, SJO has a group of sprinters from their track team that participate in cross country. These athletes are kept low mileage and given more speed workouts. Today they will be doing 8×400 broken into four sets of two: the first rep will be with a group of milers, the second rep the sprinter will wait for when the miler gets to a predetermined spot, then will run them down like a 4×4 relay race. As the workout goes that gap becomes larger and larger.
One of the real keys to this workout is trust and understanding. Coach Retz divides the athletes into 6 or 7 groups of between 3-6 athletes, and then they are tied together using old football uniform belts. Coach Retz joked that it was odd ordering 30 or so belts for the cross country team. The understanding and knowledge part of the workout is on Retz’s part, as he both has to know the level of his athletes AND how they will react under stress. The trust is from the athletes, to know that their coach will not put them in a position they cannot achieve. Coach says rule number one of the workout is NO YANKING, no matter how frustrated you get. The Spartans have not had any injury issues with the workout and a big part of that is the understand of the athletes that everyone is working hard and that frustration will go no where
The workout gets going with 2016 All-Stater Wyatt Wolfburger leading the top group of 3 boys, and his All-State counterpart for the girls Faith Houston will lead the top girls. Coach Retz tells me before the workout the boys are mostly healthy and he expects a great workout, the girls are getting healthier but they will watch this workout very closely. Before the workout Retz tells me they will make some adjustments between reps and that they will have to move quickly to accommodate the three minute rest.
Sure enough after the first rep, the coaches are quick to move some of the groups around, including combining the first two boys groups so that all of the top seven will be tied together. The athlete on the end Cailer Kellenberger, has a career PR of just over 5:30, and Coach Retz is quick to tell him that is about to fall. They have also marked out 1609 meters on the track for a true mile, rather than the 1600. The second rep sees the athletes begin to struggle and ropes really come into play. While Wolfburger certainly has to work to pull the rope, three or four more guys are running well and they keep the group together. Kellenberger runs just one second from a PR. Again the groups are reorganized, and this time Kellenberger is tied to just one teammate and the goal is to get him to a PR. The third rep becomes a struggle for all of the athletes but the combined motivation of a big workout and being physically tied to your teammate leads to stellar performances. Kellenberger gets his career PR and goes to the ground in a heap. As the fourth and final rep starts most of the athletes are back in their original groups. Track All-Stater Riley Baker puts an exclamation point on the workout by running a 59.3 400 on his last rep to catch Wolfburger with a 75 meter head start.
Many of the athletes are doubled over, some have cried a little, and all are exhausted after the workout. In the ultimate testament to Coach Retz, when he tells them to get together they quickly circle up and listen to every word. Coach Retz is quick to compliment the team on a tough workout, and the determination they showed. “We don’t have any real studs on this team. The only way we will get this done is together” he tells them. Coach has blogged about the family atmosphere at St. Joe and while I already believed it, this only confirmed it. These athletes could only have gotten the workout done by trusting in their coach and respecting one another.
Still don’t buy in on the Rope-A-Dope? St. Joe had nine season best, six life time best, and Cailer Kellenberger ran a 34 second PR as part of SJO’s conference championship team Tuesday night.