Twenty times, they ran up a sand hill, a portion of it, from cone to cone, roughly 25 yards, and back down.
Twenty times, thousands of steps, climbing up, leaving mostly everyone on the University of New Mexico football team near the point of total exhaustion on Tuesday morning.
After the 20th rep, the Lobo players appeared completely drained. A few hunched over and vomited.
And then, for one trip, they ran, jogged, walked, crawled all the way up the sand hill, some 150 yards to complete this rigorous workout that second-year UNM coach Danny Gonzales says builds mental strength.
When it’s the fourth quarter, the team that finishes stronger will win, he says. The Lobos want to be the toughest team in the Mountain West Conference, he says.
“You get to points on that hill where you just can’t run,” said Gonzales, who stood at a distance with few of his coaches during the workout. “The sand just falls underneath your feet to the point that you have to use your hands to get through it.
“Part of our philosophy of trying to be the toughest team in this league is you have to push yourself when you don’t think you can push yourself anymore.”
UNM has had more than four wins in a season just twice over the past 10 years. The Lobos went 2-5 last season, and they are 10-33 over the past four seasons.
Last week, media covering the Mountain West Conference picked the team to finish last in the league’s Mountain division.
The Lobos report to preseason fall camp next Tuesday, possessing the same optimism that comes with any offseason. But they have a quiet confidence that this season can be special after workouts such as the one at the sand hills that are tucked away east on Bobby Foster Road, a few miles off Rio Bravo Boulevard. They went through the workouts twice in June and twice in July and will resume them again next February, Gonzales said.
There’s no particular nickname for those sand hills, also known as the sand dunes, but there’s usually an expletive before saying them when you’ve gone through what the Lobos have gone through. Those hills, in a (suitable) word: Crazy.
It’s basically like running on the beach, but at a 40-degree incline.
Gonzales was eager to bring back the sand hill workouts when he was hired at his alma mater in December of 2019. Rocky Long, who is now the defensive coordinator, brought his UNM teams to the sand hills when he was the head coach at New Mexico from 1998-2008. Gonzales ran those hills as a senior in 1998 and continued to learn under Long when he joined his coaching staff, starting as a graduate assistant.
Now Gonzales is the head coach. He wants the same type of foundation built on unrelenting toughness from tests of strength that push players beyond their limits.
But the coronavirus pandemic came in March of 2020, which cut UNM’s spring football and its offseason training.
On Tuesday, the Lobos’ lone saving grace was the cool temperature (about 78 degrees). But it was just mild relief.
UNM senior center Kyle Stapley said the workouts help unify the team, but not all was perfect and harmonious. There was arguing, as some players challenged each other not to put hands on knees or show any type of weakness.
“It’s going to drain you,” Stapley said of the sand hill workouts. “The workout is as much mental toughness as it is anything. That’s really why we do it. You push yourself to see what you got in the tank.”
The Lobos built mental strength and unified greatly last year when they had to relocate to Henderson, Nevada just to complete a seven-game season because of the COVID-19 restrictions in New Mexico. They won their final two games. Gonzales reloaded the roster with 14 super seniors (who took advantage of the NCAA-allowed extra season of eligibility) and some key transfers that they hope should give them a shot at contending in most games.
On Tuesday, Xs and Os, Mountain West teams and virus issues weren’t on the Lobos’ minds. They were only thinking about completing the next step, getting through the next stride and eventually getting to the top.