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In freezing conditions at the mud-soaked LaVerne Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, Indiana, last weekend for the NCAA DI Cross Country Championships, Peter Seufer decided to go for broke.
The redshirt senior from Virginia Tech sprinted to the lead of the men’s 10k race from the starting gun and held a 10-second lead at the halfway point. The strategy was the same one he’d used to win individual titles at the ACC and NCAA Southeast Regional Championships—though with a 19th-place finish at Pre-Nationals, he wasn’t expected to be a title contender in Terre Haute.
— Johanna Gretschel (@jojo_shea) November 23, 2019
“I was going in as a serious underdog and I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose. Why not?’” he said.
Unlike many quick-starters on the sport’s biggest stage, Seufer held it together for a breakout performance that saw him finish fourth overall. The All-American finish was 12 places better than his finish in 2018 and the best-ever individual finish in Virginia Tech program history. The Hokies’ 17th-place team finish was likewise the program’s best since making the podium in 1987.
“ACCs and Regionals, I was taking it from the start, dictating how the race went,” Seufer said after the race. “I felt comfortable today for that first 7k. Looked around and there were a couple guys I raced last week in the Southeast Regional with me, so that gave me a little extra comfort towards the beginning.
“These last couple races, I just took it upon myself to push the limits and stay as smooth as possible. The sloppy conditions really took a toll on my legs later on. I paid for it towards the end but I wanted to go for it, leave it out there.”
— Johanna Gretschel (@jojo_shea) November 23, 2019
What led to Seufer’s confidence and success this season?
Using Summer to Reset
One of the most important rules of cross country is that if you want to be in peak condition in November, you’ve got to put the miles in over the summer. But for Seufer, summer training is about reseting, then easing back into the grind.
The Finance major has spent the last two summers working in New York City, where he admits it can be tough to churn out a ton of miles.
“I take it easy and build into it,” he says of his approach to summer training. “Once I hit August, that’s when I grind and start getting in 18 mile long runs, pushing the pace, getting workouts in.”
By the end of the summer, he averaged about 90 to 95 miles with three workouts per week while still taking one day off. Back on campus, he maintained that mileage through most of the fall before tapering to mid-70s to 80s during the postseason taper.
“My main thing in the summer is to just reset mentally,” Seufer says. “Especially after a long year competing for three seasons, you need a mental break. Once you get back into it, it’s exciting and you’re ready to go again.”
Overcoming a Bad Race
The first two cross country meets on the Hokies’ racing schedule were home invitationals that Seufer used as tempo workouts. His first true race was the Pre-National Invitational in mid-October, where he placed 19th against a field of the nation’s best runners. Seufer calls the race a “rust-buster,”
“I definitely wasn’t ready,” he says now of Pre-Nats. “I remember seeing the clock and it was 4:30 going down that hill and everybody’s pushing it…That hot start was a shock to the system and I didn’t feel like I was physically and mentally ready for it… I was so disappointed.
“I think it actually helped me getting 19th [at Pre-Nats because] it clicked in my head again, okay, I don’t feel that great right now but knowing I still have two weeks until conference, a few weeks until regionals, five weeks until NCAAs…I knew it was time to put in the work right now and grind it out and see where we can get by the end of the season.”
Part of the equation is what Seufer terms shedding his “summer vest,” or extra weight he carries during the off-season.
“Getting down to race shape postseason, it’s like, ‘okay, now I’m ready to roll.’
Embracing the Struggle
The Hokies have a few key indicator workouts that Seufer drew confidence from throughout the season. One of his favorites is a segment workout of 3 x 2-miles, cutting down from 10 flat to 9:20. Another is 1200-meter and 1000-meter hill repeats at Pandapas Pond in Jefferson National Forest, which stretches along the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
“We’ll just absolutely crush it,” Seufer says of the Pandapas Pond hill workout. “It destroys you, but for some reason I love hills, I love grinding on the hills and challenging myself more than anything. I think that’s why I love cross country so much—you don’t have that 400-meter track and the coaches sitting there, splitting you off and restricting you. He just lets me off my leash I just go.”
Seufer took that mentality to Terre Haute, and embraced, even welcomed, the challenging weather conditions.
After all, it was his last cross country race representing the Hokies.
“You set lofty goals and sometimes you don’t always hit them but it definitely hit me [the day before NCAAs] that this is my last cross country race,” Seufer. “There was just a moment of reflection—I couldn’t be more happy doing what I’m doing right now and having my family here watching and my teammates around me. It just means so much and it’s a little emotional now that it’s coming to an end.”