The ride home from the State Cross Country Meet in Fresno, California is one filled with different emotions. I have been fortunate to take this ride home fourteen times in my fifteen years as the SHC cross country coach. The last three years (2010, 2011, and 2012), I’ve been particularly lucky that both the boys and girls teams have qualified for the State Meet and thus, this ride home from State Meet was made in the front seat of a charter bus, not from behind the steering wheel of a van.
My mind wanders a lot during this ride home. I think about the season that has just concluded and the various highs and lows that have occurred. I think in particular about the obstacles that were overcome to qualify whoever was able to qualify for State. And like any good coach, I am already thinking about the next season – who is not graduating and will be back next year, what do we need to do to be even better, which people will step up to be the new varsity? All these thoughts usually make me feel a weird combination of emotions that makes me cry and smile at the same time.
The 2012 ride home from the State Meet was particularly sentimental. Of the fourteen kids who raced at State, half of them were seniors, many of them ran at the State Meet three times in their career. It was a veteran group and we had achieved and experienced a lot together, not just this season but over the course of the last three or four years.
This season’s high and lows were many. At Woodbridge, we experienced a high as both teams ran incredibly fast at this night cross country meet in Southern California (84:53 for the Boys and 101:13 for the Girls). But the next couple weeks made me question if we were not as good as I had thought. The Boys ran 92:06 at Stanford and 90:10 at Baylands and the Girls were even further away – 108:44 at Stanford and 107:56 at Baylands. But we turned it up a notch and ran well at Crystal Springs, 85:28 and 101:12 respectively, and my confidence that both teams would qualify for State returned. The next two meets brought mixed results. The Boys ran well but not great at the Polo Fields (86:10) and Toro Park (86:55). The Girls were beset with injuries and I wondered if I was going to be able to motivate them to “bring it home” come championship time. At the Polo Fields (102:28) the Girls had a horrible last mile where we fell from third place to fifth place. At Toro Park (105:01) we ran a pretty un-inspiring race that left a bad taste in our mouths heading to league finals. But that led to the perseverance that will forever define this year’s team.
Two days before league finals, we had yet another injury and I was forced to move a girl up from the JV, to run Varsity. The Boys needed to hit the time standard to qualify for the section meet. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as worried about simply qualifying out of league as I was this year. But, the kids showed their toughness and made it look easy. The Girls beat two teams that had been beating us all season to easily qualify. The Boys were over a minute and a half faster than the time standard.
The road to Fresno went through Saratoga on the boys side and Valley Christian on the girls side. I had decided that the key to achieving our goal was for the kids to have fun. We didn’t need any special workouts or fancy race plans. We needed to have fun. If we were having fun, we’d be relaxed. If we were relaxed, we’d run well. And I truly believed that if we ran well, we would qualify both teams for State.
The Boys race between us and Saratoga was incredibly close. It was impossible to tell at the finish line which team was ahead. We’d have to wait for the official results. Our nervousness was heightened because I thought I saw Saratoga’s fifth runner finish with our fifth runner. But it turned out that that runner was from another school that had a similar white uniform top. Twenty agonizing minutes later, in the middle of the girls race, we learned that the boys had qualified. The Girls, bless their hearts, made it much easier on all of us watching. Our 3-4-5-6 runners got themselves ahead of Valley Christian’s third runner and stayed there to clinch it.
I relived all of those memories in my head as the bus made its way towards San Francisco. I then started thinking about next year. I would really miss these seven seniors. The boys team will return five runners, and the alternates and underclassmen are pretty strong so they are in good shape. The girls, on the other hand, graduate all but two runners. Plus we are losing a lot of leadership…
At that point I decided that worrying about next year was something to do tomorrow. Today, I should be celebrating the achievements of this year’s team. I got up and looked toward the back of the bus. It was very quiet. A lot of people were asleep. Some were talking quietly to their seatmate. Others had their headphones on and were playing a game or watching something on their phone or laptop. I wished that I could freeze time. These were the final moments of the 2012 cross country season. For the last month, these fourteen runners, five alternates, and four coaches had spent a lot of time together. We’d experienced nervousness together and we’d celebrated success together. There were team dinners, a Zumba class, a team service project, tons of group photos, and a unity ceremony with colored sand that will forever unite us.
This 2012 ride home from State Meet was particularly emotional for me. I think I summed it up best with a Facebook status post: Cried a little. Smiled a lot. Thanks, Seniors!
I had my first experience coaching at a night cross country meet last week when I took the Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC) cross country team down to Orange County for the Woodbridge Cross Country Classic. It was a unique experience for all of us.
The first order of business came in the days before the trip. We would be travelling to Southern California by charter bus, leaving San Francisco early in the morning and making a lunch stop along Interstate 5. But what about dinner? High school kids are not used to racing at a time normally reserved for homework or Facebook. The Varsity Girls raced at 8:15 P.M. The Junior Boys at 8:50 P.M. The Senior Boys at 9:20 P.M. These were all pretty late starting times, well after most people’s usual dinner time. Our coaching staff instructed the kids with the late race start times to have a late afternoon/early evening snack in order to fuel up for their night race.
September 14, 2012 turned out to be a record setting day for heat in Southern California. The temperature topped out at 99 degrees in Costa Mesa, where the meet took place and it was still in the high-90’s when we arrived at Estancia High School around 4:00 P.M. Thankfully, the temperature dropped into the 80’s for most of our races.
Another challenge for us was the fact that, for the first time since 2009, we went to a meet that I had not been to before. We didn’t know which way to walk after we got off the bus. We didn’t know where to check-in to get our race bibs or where the best place to set up our tent was. I hadn’t realized how much easier it is when you and the upperclassmen on the team know all these details before arriving.
We eventually found our way to a spot among the other 100 or so teams who were also at the meet. It turns out that the Woodbridge Cross Country Classic is the third largest high school cross country meet in the country. The two-day event attracts 225 teams, and approximately 10,000 runners cross the finish line.
The next challenge was to figure out the course. Our Junior Varsity (JV) Girls had the unenviable task of racing first. Something as simple as getting to the starting line was a challenge as they ended up on the wrong side of a fence and had to walk all the way around it to get to the starting line. It was still in the 90’s when they raced but they ran tough and learned some things about the course. We had a mid-meet team meeting where the JV Girls gave tips on racing the course to the rest of the team. I was very proud of our JV Girls for providing such good information for their teammates.
The rest of the meet was a bit of a blur. As the sun set, the large temporary lights stationed
throughout the course started to take effect. I found it difficult to spot the SHC kids due to the poor light, and taking pictures with my point and shoot camera was near impossible. I changed my focus to just enjoying the meet and running to as many spots as possible to try to see our runners in the darkness. Most races had very strong competition with fields of 250-300 runners. As a result the SHC runners always had other runners around them and this pushed our kids to keep racing hard.
We ran some phenomenal times. The energy of good competition and racing at night combined with some good nutritional prep work and tips from the JV Girls about the course resulted in a terrific experience at my first cross country night meet.
Last week I completed one of my least favorite tasks as the head cross country coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC). I finalized our team’s final roster by making some final cuts following our team’s annual eight minute time trial run. The 2012 season’s final roster is 54 runners strong.
As an athlete and then as an assistant coach at Lowell High School there were no cuts (at least to my knowledge). Everyone who wanted to be on the team got to be on the team, provided that they came to practice and worked hard. The only people dropped were people who stopped coming to practice by their own choosing or those who came to practice infrequently enough that the coach told them to turn in their uniform.
When I became the head coach at SHC in 1998 I employed this same no-cut policy that I had experienced at Lowell. My goal was to build up the SHC program and making cuts was not the way to grow the team. As it was, we had so few people that often times we ran incomplete teams in the freshmen/sophomore (F/S) and junior varsity (JV) races. We were so thin, that sometimes I didn’t even have enough bodies to put the maximum seven runners on the line for varsity races. We had plenty of back of the pack runners during my early years at SHC. There were also plenty of instances when the coaches had to pay particular attention to make sure we didn’t lose one of the slower runners on a run through Golden Gate Park, and when faster runners had to wait for a slower runner to catch-up. The 2000 season in particular was quite small. I had no seniors and a total of 32 runners. We often joked that they had one of the best athlete to coach ratios in league history.
Over the years, my athletic directors encouraged me to make cuts. They believed that it was a privilege to be on the SHC cross country team and that the runners should feel that they’d earned something. I was against this and clung to my belief that you never knew who might improve a lot and grow to really love running, so it was best to keep everyone while I searched for diamonds in the rough. We compromised and I began to use the eight minute run as a tryout time trial in 2002. In the eight minute run, runners run laps on the track and try to cover the most distance that they can in eight minutes. This gave me an objective number to use for making cuts.
The reality of the situation, however, was that hardly anyone was ever cut. An occasional returning runner who was not very dedicated or badly out of shape would be cut but almost no freshmen were ever cut after the eight minute run. The only freshmen that got cut were ones so slow that I felt it was unsafe to have them on the team because they couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group. I would have needed to dedicate an assistant coach to give them special attention at every practice and that didn’t seem fair to the rest of the team. I would estimate that 95% of the freshmen who ran the eight minute run during this era, made the team. They didn’t know it, but it was pretty easy for freshmen to make the team.
The poster child for the “diamond in the rough” theory is a kid named E.J. In 2006, E.J. was one of fourteen freshmen boys who ran the eight minute run. E.J. bordered on that “so slow I need a special coach for him” line. In eight minutes, E.J. ran three laps or 1200 meters. Actually he ran 1200 meters in seven something minutes and then spent the remaining 40 or so seconds of the trial grabbing his stomach and gasping “I can’t run anymore.” I must have had a soft spot in my heart for E.J. that day because he ended up making the team. Of course this story has a happy ending. E.J. would improve tremendously over the years. He ran varsity his junior and senior year and we share the same personal record at Crystal Springs – 17:13. In E.J.’s final high school race he ran the 3200 meters (just under two miles) in 10:41. It brought tears to my eyes when we realized that in this final race, E.J. came through 2400 meters (six laps) in eight minutes – he ran twice as far in eight minutes in his last race (and kept going for two more laps) than he did at the trial his freshman year.
E.J. is also part of why I started to make cuts. As I mentioned, E.J. was one of a fourteen boy freshman class. By 2007 the group grew to be fifteen sophomore boys. That group would be known as “The Sophomore Boys” and it wasn’t exactly a term of endearment. Whenever there was trouble, “The Sophomore Boys” were in the middle of it. It wasn’t one or two of them. It was ALL fifteen of them. That same season, I followed my usual policy of not really cutting any freshmen and ended up with a 77 person team with 24 freshmen. It took two buses to get us to meets. In addition to some discipline issues with “The Sophomore Boys” we had a huge number of DNF’s (Did Not Finish) from the freshmen. They were just dropping out of races all the time. The team captains and I were quite frustrated. We felt the freshmen were a bunch of quitters – but due to the sheer size of the team, I really didn’t get to know the freshmen very well. I didn’t instill the passion for running cross country that I normally did. I couldn’t give my usual personal attention. At the end of the season I decided that the large team had negatively affected the program. I made the decision that starting with the 2008 season we would have a smaller team.
The philosophy of shaping the team roster that I use currently has been the same since that 2008 season. I believe that having approximately fifty kids on the team is what works for me. We fit on one bus to travel to meets and I feel that the athlete to coach ratio is perfect for providing proper guidance and instruction. I use the same eight minute run as a tryout trial. Veteran runners who are pretty certain they are going to make the team still get excited and run hard at the eight minute run because they are trying to improve on their mark from previous seasons. Borderline non-freshmen know that they are going to have to run up to a certain standard for me to keep them. The freshmen get three days from the first day of tryouts until the eight minute run. Over those three days, some quit because they just don’t like cross country. Of those that stick around and do the eight minute run, approximately 80% make the team – still the majority, but it’s also something to be earned, just like what my athletic director wanted.
We have had some tremendous team successes since I went to the smaller team size in 2008. However, I know that my cut-policy is always evolving. I will make adjustments based on the circumstances with the team. For now, this is what works for me and my team and my coaching style, so I am going to stick with it.
Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC), a Catholic school in San Francisco founded over 150 years ago and with a current enrollment of 1,257 students, can make a claim that very few other schools around the country can make. SHC has two alumni going to the 2012 London Olympics in track & field – Tina Kefalas, class of 1995 in the marathon for Greece, and Shannon Rowbury, class of 2002 in the 1500 meters for the USA. Even more amazing is the fact that the school does not have a home track.
As the current head cross country and track & field coach I can say that I’ve never seen not having a home track as a detriment to our program. The kids in our program are blessed because there is a lot of variety in their training schedule. It isn’t meet out at the track after school every day at 3:30. In fact, I think the time the kids spend taking the bus together to practice is part of their experience that makes being on the SHC track & field team special and unique. It also helps weed out who is really dedicated to the sport. It takes a great deal of commitment to get yourself to practice off-campus via public transportation day after day.
Kefalas was the school record holder in the 1600 and 3200 meters when she graduated from SHC in 1995. She was the first runner in school history to qualify for the cross country state meet. She remembers going on a road trip to Colorado Springs with her coach, Mr. Denis Mohun (also a graduate of the school in 1979) and some other runners from the team. “It was the turning point for me. My first two years I was playing volleyball and track and after that trip, I finally decided to run cross country,” recalls Keflas. She also is proud to have won the school’s Vincent Contrero Award for excellence in both academics and athletics.
In the fall of 1998, SHC hired a new coach to head both the cross country and track & field
program. That person was me. I had the good timing to arrive at SHC the same season as a freshman who would change my life, a freshman named Shannon Rowbury.
Rowbury would go on to win two state championships and seven section champions during her SHC career. She was nationally ranked in the 800, 1600, 3200 meters and cross country and supplanted Kefalas as the school record holder in the 1600 and 3200 meters.
One of my fondest times during Rowbury’s high school career was her whole senior year of track & field. We both knew that this was the eighth and final season together at SHC. We took time to really soak it all up and enjoy the ride. She set numerous meet records, would sign autographs at meets, and together we would be interviewed for both television and newspaper articles. It was just a lot of fun and we made a point to have fun and enjoy every moment of it.
John Scudder (class of 1972), has been around SHC for thirty-two years and he recalls both students fondly. “I remember Tina and Shannon well. During Tina’s time at SHC, I was the Dean of Students; she was a model student who never found it necessary to take a trip to the Dean’s office. While Shannon attended SHC, I was the Principal. She too was active at school well beyond athletics. It is amazing to think she was so successful on the track, while all the time focusing on her work in the classroom,” said Scudder. Now serving the school as President, Scudder said, “I am so proud of their accomplishments. I know I speak for the entire SHC community in wishing Tina and Shannon the best of luck during the upcoming competition. Go Irish!”
After high school, Keflas went on to run at the University of Southern California. She then moved to Greece, where she continued to run at a high level. In 2008, in her first 3000 steeplechase of the season she ran 9:55.96, less than one second off the Olympic “B” standard, which would have been enough to qualify to represent Greece at the Beijing Olympics. Unfortunately she was injured in her second race and that ended her season and thus her 2008 Olympic dreams. Kefalas then decided to run the 2010 Athens Marathon, which also happened to be the 2500th anniversary of the historic run by the messenger Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. that gave the marathon race distance its name. She completed the marathon in two hours, 40 minutes, and 36 seconds, well under the Olympic “B” standard but unfortunately before the qualifying period for the 2012 Olympic marathon began. Kefalas would need to run another marathon closer to the Olympics in sub-2:43 to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. On April 22, 2012 at the Enschede Marathon in the Netherlands she ran 2:41:00 to stamp her ticket to London.
Rowbury competed for Duke University after high school and since college has been a professional runner, sponsored by Nike. Her breakthrough season was 2008, when she lowered her 1500 meter personal record from 4:12.31 to 4:00.33. She qualified for the 2008 Olympic team in Beijing and has also represented the USA at the 2009 and 2011 World Championships. She’s finished in the top three at the US Championships in the 1500 each of the last five years, has been ranked as high third as in the world (2009), and is the eighth fastest women’s 1500 meter runner in US history.
Kefalas will race in the women’s marathon in London, which is Sunday, August 5. She said that her goal is to break 2:40.
Rowbury will race in the women’s 1500 meters in London. The first round race is Monday, August 6, the semi-final race is Wednesday, August 8, and the final is Friday, August 10. In an interview after the Olympic Trials, Rowbury stated that her goal is to “get on the podium,” which means placing in the top three to earn one of the coveted Olympic medals.
As you watch the 2012 London Olympics, almost every athlete you see will have some sort of backstory. They competed in high school, they had a high school coach, at some point making the Olympics became, first a dream, and then reality. But when you’re watching the track & field portion of the Olympics, remember that two of the athletes attended the same Catholic school in downtown San Francisco. The one without a home track.
I’ve had plenty of great moments as the head coach of the Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC) cross country and track & field teams. I’m now in my fourteenth year of being the head coach and my list of successes on the track, in the field, on the race course, and most importantly in the development of young men and women is endless. I am smart enough to know that I owe much of the program’s success to the athletes out there training and competing, and to the assistant coaches.
Assistant coaches work behind the scenes teaching techniques, offering encouraging words, providing motivation, and being a good listener; they make or break a program. I would love to be able to teach every athlete on the team techniques, offer them all encouraging words, provide them all with personalized motivation, and have time to talk to and listen to each athlete one-on-one every day. But there is just one of me and forty-five athletes in cross country and ninety-five athletes in track & field. I can’t be everywhere and I can’t be everything for every athlete everyday. This is where strong assistant coaches are vital.
I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with good assistants. My main criteria when looking at potential assistant coaches is passion for the sport, patience, and a sense of how the high school athletic experience fits into the life of a high school student. I’m not looking for tons of technical training experience. It’s nice if they know the sport, but if not I can teach it to them. First they have to be passionate about the sport. Their enthusiasm will rub off on the kids. Also, with passion comes a willingness to learn coaching and training techniques. Patience is a virtue, and it certainly is necessary when working with high school kids. You have to be willing to sacrifice your time for the kids. You have to be able to cajole them into doing things. You have to not judge the book by its cover, but instead take the time to find the hidden gem inside each of the kids. High school athletics is a co-curricular experience. There are rules that need to be enforced, and the goal is to train hard and to be as successful as possible. But this needs to fit into the framework of the activity being only a high school sport, not life and death. Coaches are educators and the top priority is to teach life lessons. Kids won’t remember in ten years what place they came in at the league finals but they’ll remember the bus ride to the meet with their friends. That’s how it works and there’s nothing wrong with that. I want assistant coaches who can make sure the athlete is challenged and having fun at the same time. If the kids get both, then being on the SHC cross country or track & field team will be one of the highlights of their high school days.
On Monday, January 30, the 2012 track & field season will officially begin. It will be the first season since 2004 that Tomas Palermo isn’t on my SHC coaching staff. I first recruited Tomas to coach with me in 2004. He ran with the adult track workout group that I coach and he clearly possessed the traits described above that I look for in an assistant coach. He didn’t have previous coaching experience but that didn’t matter to me. The fact that he ran at St. Francis High School, one of our league rivals, counted neither for him or against him. For the last fifteen seasons, eight in cross country and seven in track & field, Tomas has been there. We’ve celebrated school records, Central Coast Section (CCS) and State Meet qualifiers, as well as kids just developing into fine young men and women. We’ve mulled over meet line-ups, training plans, and disciplinary issues. What’s best for the program? What’s best for the kid in the big picture?
Over the years Tomas has developed great coaching skills. His familiarity with my style allows him to echo my thoughts to kids and tweak workouts as necessary. He’s been a mentor for numerous SHC kids. Ironically, seven girls from Tomas’ first cross country season in 2004 have been or are going to come back and be an assistant coach at SHC. At meets he meticulously records splits with the exacting detail that I like (first leg of the 4X4 splits at the 800 start line and the rest of the legs are split at the finish line). At practice he helps come up with the assistant coach assignments so that all the assistants get to interact with different kids and still perform the necessary assigned training duties. He has an uncanny sense of when something memorable is about to take place and he grabs the camera to photograph the moment.
His relationships with the kids are, however, what make him special. He can talk Giants baseball during a long run with Nate W., sit in the stands with Izzy A. before practice, start a pull-up competition with Geoffrey Y. and Dominic R., discuss music with James M. and Bryan F., video games with Daniel K., and writing and movies with Sophie C-B. “DJ Tomas,” “Tommy,” and “Coach T” are just some of his nicknames, and we coaches all know that getting a nickname from the kids is basically their stamp of approval. In our end of season evaluations kids always reference the good advice and inspiration that he provides. One student thanked him for staying with him for a long run, both to help him not get lost and also for motivating him to run the whole way. Another evaluation red, “Coach Tomas is the bomb diggity” (Urban Dictionary translation: totally the awesomest, no lie).
I will always remember Tomas’s first season in 2004. It had been an emotional season. In September the top returning girl, Melanie S. broke her leg on a freak fall at the end of practice. The girls were devastated and it took a lot of energy to keep them from falling apart emotionally. Our chances of the girls team qualifying for State Meet went down significantly without Melanie S. At the same time we had a good young boys team but no one that was expected to make it to State. That was the team dynamic as we headed to Toro Park in Salinas for the CCS Championships. Melanie S. came with us and gave a great speech the night before the race. As a first year coach, Tomas came to me the morning of the race and commented that the kids were all going to really “leave it all out there” and we coaches should be ready at the finish line to help carry some of them through the finish chute. Tomas couldn’t have been more right. He read the mood of the team and the look in their eyes and thus we were ready with extra water and staff at the finish line. “Leaving it all out there” is now pretty much a hallmark of the SHC teams. I often associate the beginning of this tradition to that day back in 2004 and Tomas’ first CCS meet as a coach.
It’s been a great run of eight years with Tomas as a SHC assistant coach. I’m sure he’ll still come around and cheer on the team because not only is he passionate about the sport, he’s passionate about seeing the SHC teams compete. Life takes many turns and I suspect someday he may wear the SHC coach hat again because his heart is definitely in education. But for now, I must face the 2012 season without my trusted friend and fellow coach. Tomas, that evaluation had it right, you are the bomb diggity!
I’ve seen various “12 Days of Christmas” lists so I thought I would put together my own. Re-capping my year in running and coaching, I give you They Chanman’s 12 Days of Christmas:
12 – Twelve dogs (and two Eskimos) in a Bay to Breakers Pamapede Iditarod centipede.
11 – Eleven (and a half) miles, the least number of miles I ran every week this year.
10 – Ten (and a half) miles from Wunderlich to Huddardt and back. I finally made it all the way to both ends. This was one of many long trail runs this summer that got me into great shape.
9 – Ninth row at the finish line, our seats at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu.
8 – Eighth master runner at the Zippy 5K, a race where I achieved a major goal of mine, breaking 17 minutes for a 5K as a master.
7 – Seven events at CCS Finals, in which the Irish Track & Field team had an individual qualify. We had someone place in the top five in all seven events.
6 – Six Irish athletes qualified and competed at the State Track & Field meet. First time we’ve had someone qualify since 2003.
5 – Five dollars, the new price for Thursday night track workouts. After seventeen years at the original $4 price, I raised my rates effective July 1, 2011.
4 – Fourth place overall in the Pacific Association Grand Prix (Short) Road Series in the masters division.
3 – Three cherry picker race first place overall finishes: Run For Recess 5K, July Fourth Rocket Run, Miles for Migraine 10K.
2 – Two years in a row the Irish qualified both the boys and girls teams for the State Cross Country Meet.
1 – One hundredth of a second, the amount of time by which Shannon Rowbury beat the fourth place woman in the 1500 meters at the USA Championships to qualify for the World Championships in Daegu.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. And to all, Happy Running!
In cross country running, as in all sports, confidence is a key factor to success. This has been readily evident this past season coaching the Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC) cross country team.
In 2010, both the boys and girls teams qualified for the state meet. Leading up to the meet we were quite nervous. It had been nine years since the girls last qualified and five years since the boys last qualified. Never in school history had both teams qualified the same year. After so many near-misses I almost expected something to derail our dream of both teams qualifying. Every time I thought about the meet, my mind would come up with possible obstacles to our goal. When both teams did in fact qualify, it felt like a dream had come true.
This year, the team really believed that both teams would qualify for state. There was a lot less hoping it would happen and a lot more confidence that it would happen. “Calm and confident” was our mantra the week of the qualifying race. The 2010 team’s accomplishment was monumental because it proved to us that it could happen. This year every time I thought about the meet, I came back to the same conclusion, despite the strong competition, we would qualify. Negative thinking did not enter my mind the same way it had last year.
Breaking through the barrier last year made this year a whole lot easier in qualifying for state. Last year there was doubt in our minds whether or not we could qualify (“oh, qualifying both teams for state, that’s something that happens for other schools”). This year there was no doubt in our minds that it could be done and we had confidence in ourselves that we would do it. Success can become habitual and when one does something habitually, they develop confidence it will keep happening.
Confidence is an essential key to success, especially in high school cross country. As the coach, I feel it is my job to instill confidence in the runners. It starts with giving the team good training. Knowing that one has run enough miles, done enough hill workouts, run the proper combination of tempo runs and intervals, and done enough drills, striders, and strength exercises gives the runners confidence that they are physically prepared for the challenges of championship races. It’s the coach’s job to structure the training and to remind the athletes of all the good work they’ve put in.
It’s also important to have the right competition schedule leading up to the championship meets. You want challenging meets that push the runners but also some lower key meets where your athletes do real well to boost everyone’s ego a little bit. Having enough recovery time between meets towards the end of the season is also key because you want the runners to feel sharp and that they are “peaking,” not falling apart as the season comes to an end.
I add to the athletes’ confidence by giving them the sense that they are well prepared mentally. Leading up to championship races, we study the course, simulate race conditions and scenarios at practice, study race splits, and review race plans. I believe that when the SHC runners toe the starting line, they feel an extra boost of confidence because they know I have studied every tactical detail to give us the best possible chance for success during the race.
Being confident does not mean thinking the race will be easy. Confident runners know that the race, just like always, will be challenging and that there will be difficult moments, especially late in the race. The confident runner is confident that when they reach this point of the race, they will summon the courage to run through the discomfort in pursuit of their goal. I think this is what separates the good from the great runners. When I watch the less experienced SHC runners race, I never know what’s going to happen over the last mile. I hope they can push through and keep competing but I’m not sure. When I watch our varsity race, there is no doubt what’s going to happen in the last mile – they’re going to be fearless!
This past season I went to great lengths to point out that our team’s success did not require anyone to run out of the ordinary. If everyone ran like they had before, we would make it to state. All season long we had run hard against tough competition and each time we had done fine. There was no reason to expect anything different at the Central Coast Section (CCS) Championships, as long as everyone approached this race like they had the previous ones.
Standing at the starting line of a championship meet like CCS can be nerve wracking. As a coach, you can’t make that element go away. What I can do is remind the runners to think about things they can control. They can’t control how fast their opponents run. They can’t guarantee a particular time or a particular place. Those elements are what tend to make you nervous at the starting line. Instead, I get the team to focus on things they can control – which primarily is their effort. I told them, “You’ve done this before. It’s no different. The gun goes off, you start running. You start breathing harder. You hear cheering. You start to get tired. You push through. You sprint to the finish line. You know the drill. It’s the same formula you’ve done many times this season already. CCS is no different.”
Confidence. It can make all the difference in a race.
The theme for the academic year at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP) is “Connect.” At the opening day meeting Principal Gary Cannon asked us to think about how we came to work in education and to be a member of the faculty or staff at the school and to share their story with colleagues as way for us co-workers to “connect” with one another.
It didn’t take much thinking for me to figure out my story.
After graduating from UCLA I enrolled in podiatry school. My plan was to be a doctor of podiatric medicine and specialize in sports medicine. In 1996, during my third year of the four year program, I realized that podiatry wasn’t for me. I found myself studying the same material over and over for board exams and interviews. I just couldn’t seem to commit the information to memory. It made for some stressful and un-enjoyable times. I noticed that some of my podiatry colleagues seemed to have no trouble remembering the information for exams and interviews. One night, I thought to myself, “If tomorrow’s interview was about coaching running, I wouldn’t have to stay up late to study because I just know that stuff.” That was my enlightenment moment.
My podiatry classmates felt the same way about podiatry that I felt about coaching. They were meant to be podiatrists. I was not. I was meant to be a coach.
I finished my four years of podiatry school and did a one-year residency, but after my enlightenment things were different. I was quite certain that I wasn’t going to pursue a career in the podiatry field. I finished school to get my degree (Yes, that’s Dr. Coach Chan to you) and completed a residency just in case I had a change of heart later on. During that time, however, I was looking into ways to have a career that included coaching.
Right after my residency ended, I began a master’s program in Sports Management at the University of San Francisco (USF). I wasn’t sure where this would lead but it seemed promising. The sports management program was a two year program with one nightly class a week. Since I had no job and nothing else going on, I decided to condense this down to one year – so I took two classes a week. In addition to the classes and the associated work load, I also started an internship with Special Olympics Northern California (SONC). Three days a week I drove out to Pleasant Hill to volunteer at SONC as the sports program intern. My job was to assist with the 1998 SONC Fall Classic, a multi-sport competition in Sacramento. This internship was required to earn my master’s degree but it was also an opportunity to see if I liked running competitions from the management side of things.
That same summer that I began the master’s program and the SONC internship, my mom saw an advertisement in the San Francisco Independent that said Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory was looking for a head cross country coach. I had wanted to be a head high school cross country coach since high school so I applied. I interviewed with Ms. Jo Ann Momono and gave her my resume. Before I even got home I got a call from one of my references at UCLA; Ms. Momono had already called to check my references. The next day I got a call and was invited to be the SHCP head cross country coach. A few months later I accepted the additional position of head track & field coach at SHCP.
At the same time my internship with SONC was taking off. Kimberly Kellett and Roger Slingerman were giving me more and more responsibilities. At first I was only supposed to be an intern for the Fall Classic in November. But I stayed on after that to help prepare for the next year’s Special Olympics World Games in North Carolina. Before I knew it was getting a small stipend from SONC and was invited to be part of the SONC delegation to the World Games in the summer of 1999.
At the start of the summer of 1998, I had very little on my plate. For the first time in five years I had no podiatry obligations. I also had no job. But 1998-99 turned into the busiest academic year of my life. I spent two nights a week at class at USF. Three days a week I worked at SONC. Plus I had daily head coaching responsibilities at SHC. By the time the summer of 1999 rolled around, I had completed my master’s degree in sports management, gone to North Carolina for the Special Olympics World Games, been offered a full-time job with SONC as the Sports Manager for the San Francisco program, and coached a then freshman named Shannon Rowbury, who would go on to some great achievements in the sport of running.
It just goes to show that you never know where life will take you. I spent five years working for SONC. During those five years I continued as the SHCP head coach, juggling the two jobs as best I could. It wasn’t easy being an off-campus coach but I loved both jobs even thought it was quite hectic at times.
In the summer of 2003 there were some changes at SONC and I was not going to be able to continue to work there and coach at SHC. The decision was really quite easy. I was not going to give up coaching. I left the job at SONC with the idea of coaching one more season while looking for a job that would allow me to continue to coach. There were no guarantees I would find such a job but coaching meant enough to me that I was going to give this a try.
That same summer of 2003, SHCP was about to open the Sister Teresa Piro, DC Student Life Center and they were looking for a Facilities Coordinator. I interviewed for that job and was hired. Due to some fortuitous timing, I never had any interruption in medical insurance. I never really even had time to go looking for another job. All I had to deal with was a two week summer vacation between the end of one job and the start of the other.
I started as a full-time staff member the first week of September 2003, eight years ago this week. I am now embarking on my fourteenth year as the head cross country coach, my ninth as an on-campus coach.
Life may have a change or surprise or two left for me. Maybe another Olympic caliber athlete will come my way? Maybe another job change? Who knows? But what I do know is that I love coaching runners. The sports of cross country and track & field have been good to me. They’ve opened doors to opportunities to meet and interact with wonderful people – athletes, assistant coaches, fellow coaches, and opposing runners. Coaching high school runners is especially rewarding because they are young and impressionable. It’s a privilege to teach life lessons and my passion for the sport to the next generation of runners.
Part 3 – This is part three of a three part series on the stages of developing a high school cross country program.
In hindsight, I now believe that the SHCP team reached the midpoint of building a cross country program in the summer of 2004. We had a lot of frosh-soph runners in the 2004 track season and a big core group of them were from a talented freshmen class of boys. We lined up twenty boys in the mile in our dual meet against St. Ignatius just to show off our strong and large group. After that race I sat the boys down on the grass and told them my timeline of goals: 2004-make it to CCS (the section championship meet), 2005-contend at CCS, 2006-make it to State Meet. Making it to the State Meet was my realistic but big goal that would have seemed impossible to fathom back in my first years. It had been four years since SHC had qualified a boys team to CCS. Qualifying for CCS could have been seen as a big goal. I was talking about the State Meet. This talented freshmen group would be seniors in 2006 and I wanted to put the goal out there early.
We ended the track season with many of our frosh-soph runners breaking five minutes in the mile. In fact, I wrote a story about the significance of this for the SHCP website in August 2004. The 2004 season went better than expected and not only did we qualify for CCS, we were contenders, coming in sixth. We had achieved the 2005 goal a year early. The question became, could we achieve the 2006 State Meet goal in 2005? I was unrelenting in my desire for the boys to strive for this seemingly impossible goal. When we qualified for the State Meet in 2005 I was beside myself with pride. The SHCP team had moved past the midpoint stage of development into the final phase – we were not just a cross country team, but a cross country program.
The same things that are important in the beginning and middle stages are still important at the end. The kids still need to have fun and there needs to be sound training principles in place. But now that SHCP is in this final phase I don’t have to go out of my way to make it fun or make sure we are following sound training principles. It’s pretty natural and normal for us to have all that; I just need to not forget to schedule non-running social events for the team, to make practice both challenging and interesting, and to find ways to recognize all the kids for their hard efforts!
A hallmark of the final phase is consistency. Both our boys and girls teams of the past few years have been very consistent. The varsity, the junior varsity, and the frosh-soph are competitive in league competition and the varsity usually places in the top six at CCS. All of this seems to happen regardless of the talent pool. Sure, some years will be better than others, but a hallmark of a program in this final stage is the ability to be consistently competitive year in and year out.
This past fall I realized that I was in a really good place with the program. We were training at a high level and as we prepared for the final championship meets I had very few things that I wanted to tweak from our usual training. We started having the boys and girls warm-up separately and without the coaches being present because that’s what they did on race day. We also had the kids practice running the last 1000 meters of the race. We tried to simulate everything – making them tired like they would feel in the race, matching the terrain and elevation change, and even having the kids run alone because often they may not have a teammate nearby to help push through the pain during a race. After we qualified for the State Meet we started as many practices as we could at 8:30 A.M. because that’s what time the first race at the State Meet would be, and I wanted them to get their bodies used to working hard in the morning.
I absolutely love coaching cross country. I think Anna, Steve, Jimi, Paul, Tomas, and Mark would tell you the same thing. Steve may have described it best when he said, “My guys give me their trust and 100% effort day in and day out. This in turn, gives me my drive to provide a program that is fun and challenging. There is nothing like watching your athletes toe the line, nervously waiting for the gun to go off. All the training, speeches and preparation come down to the next 16 minutes. And it is those 16 minutes of sprinting around a cross country course yelling encouragement and instructions to my team, when I know I love coaching.”
Part 1 – This is part one of a three part series on the stages of developing a high school cross country program.
There are a number of Pamakid Runners who are coaches. Anna Kurtz is the head coach at Bay School in San Francisco. Anna is assisted by Pamakids, Jimi Smith and Paul Zager. Steve Holcombe is the head coach at San Leandro High School. I am the head coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP), assisted by Pamakids, Tomas Palermo and Mark Hermano.
As I reflected back on the recently completed fall 2010 high school cross country season, I noticed that all three teams are in different stages of development. As a first year coach, Anna was just starting to put her team in place. Steve, in his fifth year, after a few years of building, has his team in the middle stage of development. Me, in my thirteenth year, realized that for the last few years, I have had my team in the final stage. That doesn’t mean there is no room for improvement. It just means that my program is in place, something I was striving for since my first year and a place I hope to keep us for many many years.
When I got the job as head coach at SHCP in the summer of 1998, I inherited a fairly decent girls’ team and a pretty mediocre boys’ team. I had 28 returning runners from the previous year. This group was not used to running everyday. They weren’t even used to the idea of coming to practice everyday. I had work to do. I was lucky to get an incoming freshmen group of seventeen that included two future star varsity girls and a pack of pretty talented and hard working boys. There were definitely runners to start building the team around. I remember Neil McDonagh, the top runner from our rival school St. Ignatius, talking to me at a meet. He prophetically told me that I had some good young runners who had potential, and that I also had some lazy veterans who didn’t work hard. He advised me to keep doing what I was doing. Eventually the lazy ones would “buy in” or quit and I would be left with a solid team.
I was helped that first year by my assistant coach, Nydia Rivera, who ran at Lowell High School when I was an assistant coach there. Nydia and I were able to bring many of the things that made us successful at Lowell to SHCP. It didn’t take much to make the team faster; any form of structured training would be an improvement. My main goals for that first team were to make the kids like the competition, challenges, and social nature of cross country. I wanted them to make coming to practice and doing challenging workouts part of their normal routine. Let’s face it, on a high school campus the cross country team isn’t typically seen as very cool. I needed to create intrinsic rewards so that the kids would want to be part of the cross country team family. I made sure to make it fun, hoping that many would come back the next year. One thing that is always fun for kids is doing well and feeling that they belong. I strategically scheduled some low-key meets that gave us opportunities to have team success. I worked hard to welcome everyone and to instill pride in being part of the Irish cross country team.
Anna interviewed for an assistant coach position at the Bay School in July 2010. When the head coach quit, all of a sudden Anna was a head coach!
The Bay School had seventeen runners, five girls and twelve boys. Only six runners were returning members of the cross country team. Four had never run competitively before. One sophomore boy started as a complete novice. “He was the only kid to show up for the first week of the pre-season, and he never missed a single practice after that,” said Anna, “On that first day, I asked him whether he had done any running before, and he asked ‘does running for the bus count?’”
A big part of laying the foundation for a new cross country program is often changing the existing culture and expectations. At Bay School, before Anna, things were pretty casual: practice was four days a week and the team raced at league meets only (no weekend invitationals). The team mentality was that the team was not good enough to run in varsity races. Anna needed to come in with a vision of what makes a successful program. “I also really encouraged and relied on parental involvement to get a culture going. With a small team and a non-spectator sport, having parents come to the meets and bring food for afterwards helped make the meets more of an event.”
“Since our team was so new, both to running and to each other, a big part of the season was helping them figure out how to be a team – how to stretch together, train together, race together, and cheer together,” said Anna, “All of it was new to them. Just how new it was came home to me at our first track workout at Kezar Stadium. To me, lining up to do intervals is automatic – you go to the line; if there isn’t a clear line to toe, you judge where to be based on the guy next to you; everyone bunches together in a few lanes, and if you’re going to be running in the back, you start in the back. Each of my small group of runners took their own lane. Convincing them that they could bunch up in lanes two and three actually took some work. Teaching things like this, that I take for granted, took more time than I anticipated.”
“Their daily stretching routine served as a good window both for how they were developing as athletes and socially as a team,” said Anna, “For the first week or so, I led the stretches. Then, I asked for volunteers to lead stretches. After a few weeks, and once we had captains, they took over.”
From humble beginnings, Anna began the process of building up Bay School’s team. Her successes include having a runner place in three invitationals (frosh or frosh-soph races) and taking a boys team of five (three freshmen, a sophomore, and a junior) to the North Coast Section (NCS) Championship meet where they placed fifteenth out of twenty teams.