Many people have trouble understanding what might motivate one to compete in cross country. To some, running is a coach's punishment, or a means to building the endurance necessary to get up and down the soccer field or basketball court.
Senior Patrick Smyth, a four-time All-American (cross-country in 2006 and 2007, outdoor 5k in 2007 and 2008) and captain of this year's Irish squad, did not begin running with the aspirations of becoming a great distance runner either.
"I started running freshman year of high school," Smyth says, "The cross country coach was always trying to steal athletes from other sports and he convinced me to come to cross country camp as a way to get in shape for basketball."
After the first cross country race, however, he realized that he was "pretty good at it," and he has not looked back since. Smyth, who hails from Salt Lake City, Utah, was drawn to Notre Dame for some of the same reasons that attract so many other student-athletes to the University.
"I chose Notre Dame because it was the best combination of athletics and academics. I visited Georgetown and Boston College and was really looking for something that had a good combination of both. This place was the best fit for me," he explains.
From the time he stepped foot on campus in 2005, Smyth began making a profound impact on the cross country program. During his freshman year, he won the individual title at the National Catholic Championships and throughout the season, consistently took the all-important fifth spot on the team, helping the Irish place first at the BIG EAST Championships and third at the NCAA Championships.
It was during his sophomore season that Smyth really broke out as a standout runner for the Irish. He finished in the top-10 in three meets, including a pair of third-place finishes in the Notre Dame Invitational and BIG EAST Championships. Smyth's emergence as one of the team's top runners set the tone for the rest of his career.
His success continued as a junior, as he placed second at the Notre Dame Invitational, won the Great Lakes Regional meet, and earned his second cross country All-America honors with a 15th-place finish at the NCAA Championships.
One of the best ways that a runner can lead his team is by running as fast as possible and scoring as high as possible, because it puts the team in the best position to do well. However, Smyth's emergence as a team leader was never solely a result of his tendency to cross the finish line first for Notre Dame. His success can be attributed to his dedication to becoming a great runner.
"Patrick has a great work ethic. He doesn't cut any corners," explains long-time head coach Joe Piane. Piane also credits his captain's success to his lifestyle and how he goes about his training. He describes Smyth as simply, "tenacious."
His accomplishments speak for themselves, but Smyth clearly understands what it takes to be a great runner.
"You get out of it what you put into it. You have to go beyond what coach has us do if you really want to be one of the top people around," he explains.
Succeeding as a collegiate athlete is no easy task, especially at a university such as Notre Dame, where it takes a commitment to athletic and academic endeavors. As with any sport, but perhaps especially for a runner, athletes must pay special attention to how they treat their bodies. "You can't really live the traditional college lifestyle. You have to get your rest and eat right," adds Smyth.
It is this dedication and commitment to success that may afford Smyth the opportunity to run after graduating from Notre Dame in the spring. However, continuing to run competitively isn't Smyth's only goal. The history major is currently in the process of applying to graduate schools, but says that there are a lot of question marks regarding life immediately following Notre Dame.
"I'm trying to run as quickly as possible, and finish as high as possible. Really what it comes down to is how well you perform at NCAA Championships. If you're going to get support to run after college, you've got to perform well at those meets," he explains. With the training groups that are available to today's elite runners, Smyth hopes to continue to train for competitive running, while also pursuing a graduate degree.
Like every great runner, Smyth ultimately aspires to represent the red, white and blue in the Olympics. Prior to this past summer's Olympics in Beijing, Smyth came awfully close to competing in the 5k trials, where 24 athletes fought for three spots on the Olympic team. Unfortunately for Smyth, he was 25th on the list. This setback only provided additional motivation for the 22-year old.
"I have made it one of my personal goals to not only make the trials in 2012, but to vie for one of the three Olympic qualifying spots." He added that he is unsure of what distance he will be focusing on, but says that it will likely be the 10k, marathon or possibly both, since their respective trials are several months apart.
For now however, Smyth has his sights set on defending his Great Lakes Regional title and advancing to the NCAA Championships. "I'd like to be top 10 at Nationals. I finished 15th last year and want to move up into the top ten. NCAAs are so good on any given year, that if you get into that top 10, you're in good shape. Anything can happen once you get there."
After a disappointing finish at the Pre-Nationals meet in Terre Haute, Ind., the Irish rebounded with a much stronger performance at the BIG EAST Championships. Led by Smyth's runner-up finish, the team also placed second, an effort that he believes is a sign of the team's improvement and maturation throughout the season. "We're coming around and picking up momentum right now. I really feel like we're turning that corner."
It is often said that actions speak louder than words. If such is truly the case, Smyth does not have to do much speaking to be a leader on the Notre Dame cross country team because his dedication and work ethic epitomize what it means to be a leader. A cross country captain does not have the luxury that the captains of many other team sports may have. Unless they happen to cross paths during the course of a race, runners are not typically with their teammates during competition. Since there are few opportunities for a captain to inspire during a race, a cross country captain must rely on practice to help instill the motivation and discipline necessary to come together as a cohesive team.
"You don't get to see what's going on behind you, so you do everything you can in practice to instill in them that people are going to be relying upon them. If you're having a bad day, you've got to realize that you've got six other teammates that are depending on your performance."
For those sports fans that are unfamiliar with cross country, Smyth even offers a few words of advice and insight into what makes his sport unique. "I feel like if people gave it a shot, and came out to a meet, they would realize how much fun it is to really get involved."
Cross country is not a spectator sport, but not because it's not exciting to watch. Instead, fans must be ready to move if they truly want to capture the action of a meet. "From a fan's perspective, there's no other venue like it. It's really something completely different than a football game or a basketball game where you're sitting in a stadium. You get to run around and be actively involved," Smyth adds.
Although his cross country career at Notre Dame will come to a close during the next few weeks, fans will be able to catch a glimpse of Smyth during the indoor track season, when the Irish host several meets in the Loftus Center.
If Patrick Smyth continues to demonstrate the commitment and drive necessary to be an elite distance runner, running fans, both new and veteran alike, may be lucky enough to run around and watch him compete even after he leaves Notre Dame.