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!
The dream goal for Sacred Heart Cathedral’s (SHC) cross country team has always been to qualify both the boys’ and the girls’ teams to the California State Meet in the same year. Given some of the circumstances this was a tall task:
- In the twelve seasons that I have been the head coach I have only had one boys’ team qualify (2005).
- I have qualified three girls’ teams, but the last time was in 2001 and all three qualifying teams had a future Olympian leading the way.
- Three of the four state meet teams qualified in Division IV, which traditionally has easier competition than Division III, the division that we currently compete in.
- I wouldn’t say that we are cursed, but the list of state meet near-misses had reached (San Francisco) Giant proportions. The top three teams at the section meet qualify for the state meet. We finished fourth (one place away) in six of the last eight years (the other two years we were fifth). We have missed state meet by as little as 24 points, 23 points, 11 points, 10 points, and 1 point.
Despite the long odds, my dream goal has remained the same: to someday qualify both teams to the State Meet in the same year.
The 2010 cross country season started off like so many before, with the hope that this would be the year. The first day of summer conditioning was 153 days before the Central Coast Section (CCS) Championships. We had 153 days to be ready for a run at the dream.
Like all teams we had our share of good races and bad races, and good workouts and not so good workouts along the way. We battled injuries, illnesses, and assorted other inconveniences that threatened to derail our dream goal. Our coaching staff worked tirelessly, teaching the nuances of the sport, motivating the athletes at practice, trying to be inspiring as well as understanding and forgiving.
As the CCS Championships approached, nervousness and excitement started to build. Assistant coach Rachel Giovannetti, who ran on three CCS teams that missed state meet, and I independently studied the statistics and made our projections for the meet. The top three teams at CCS would advance to the State Meet. We both projected our girls’ team to be a solid second place with a decent 20-30 point margin for error. We both projected our boys’ team to be pretty much in a dead heat with North Monterey County (NMC). We had a front runner in Jarrett Moore but NMC could pack five runners in around our second and third runner. It would be very very close.
I felt very good about our team’s chances. As a coach all you can do is prepare the team, get them to the starting line, and let them race. If you get them to the starting line and they have a chance to make it to state, then you’ve done a good job. Well, I’ve done a good job plenty of times. This year I wanted to do a great job! We added a couple twists to our workouts during the final week. I had the boys and girls simulate the small pre-race details. For one of our final hard interval runs I had the kids practice for the conditions at the end of the race.
I made two conscious decisions regarding my coaching approach for the week leading up to CCS. Unlike past years, I was a lot less sentimental. I wanted the week to seem almost like any other week. I also decided to outwardly demonstrate my confidence that both teams would qualify. I picked my words and said things like “when we qualify” and “at practice next week” to subtly hint that I expected both teams to qualify. At our team dinner the Friday before the race, completely out of character, I told the team we had one more thing to practice. “When both teams qualify for state tomorrow, I think an appropriate celebration would be for you guys to pick me up and put me on your shoulders.” The kids looked at me rather dumbfounded. They weren’t sure what to do. Finally Jarrett picked me up and put me on his shoulders. Not exactly what I had in mind, but my point was made.
I was believing it myself. I stayed up late on Friday night to make a video that would commemorate both teams qualifying for State Meet. I burned it onto a DVD and placed it in my meet day backpack. This DVD would only see a DVD player if both teams qualified. I sure was hoping to get to show my video the next day.
I feel like we had the perfect race plan. The CCS Championships are held at Toro Park in Salinas in even numbered years. The SHC team has struggled on this course, mostly because it’s so far away and we don’t get enough practice on it to become familiar with the course. Perhaps one of the key days of the entire season was Saturday, July 10, when we drove down to Salinas to run at Toro Park. We ran the course twice, stopped constantly to ask the kids what they thought about various race plan options. By the end of the day, I had come up with a new race plan for the team. The coaching staff and I decided to develop two different race plans that played to the individual strengths of our kids. We also realized where on the course our kids were losing focus. We decided to put a coach at that spot during the races to remind them to keep going strong. At another spot we instituted a new team policy. Here every Irish runner would be required to make eye contact with our coach at the spot (usually Tomas Palermo) and to give a nod or some other sign that indicated they were ready to “leave it all out there.”
We reviewed our race plan at the team dinner on Friday night. I wanted to make sure we didn’t go out too fast because I believe the key to success is feeling that you are stronger than the runners around you in the middle of the race. The middle mile of the race is usually a runner’s best chance to move up. We instructed all our athletes to aim only for a one second personal record (PR). I learned of this strategy at a coaches clinic. The best way to get a thirty second PR is to try for a one second PR, because if you try for a thirty second PR you often go out too fast and end up running thirty seconds slower than your PR. I wanted our kids to run the first mile like we’d been practicing. If they all tried for a one second PR, they were not likely to change their first mile. If they all tried for a thirty second PR, they were likely to start the race too fast, in an attempt to “pick-up time.” I reminded the kids that they would get a PR by running the middle and end of the race faster, not by running the first mile faster.
The girls were given place goals. We felt that if we had one in the top five, one in the top ten, two in the top 20, and one in the top 40, we would qualify for the State Meet. They didn’t have to worry about any teams, they just needed to run their usual race and place where we were projecting them. In our team huddle I showed my confidence again. I told them, “It’s time to go to Fresno. Run the first mile smart, attack in the middle, and have some fun in that last 1000 because those are the final meters you’re running before we qualify for the State Meet.”
The boys knew they had to battle NMC. I printed pictures of the NMC team so the boys would know what the NMC uniform looked like. We prepared for a potential uniform switch by showing them pictures of alternate NMC uniforms that we had seen before. The boys were in for a battle; but all they had to do was look around, the people they needed to beat to get to the State Meet were likely to be all near them. Coach Rachel gave me a great theme for the boys race, which I shared with them at dinner. We needed six solid races and one hero. We didn’t know who the hero would be. No one should try to be the hero in the first mile, and everyone should try to be the hero in the last mile. I wanted them to know that we didn’t need seven amazing off-the-charts races, just one of them. In our team huddle I reminded them of this: “In 2005 I asked the boys’ team to make history. Today, if we run six solid races and have one hero, history will find you.”
Watching the races was both wonderful and torture at the same time. The girls did exactly what we asked them to do. Between the mile mark and the 1000 meters to go mark, they all attacked and moved up. They got into the places that we needed to qualify. As they crossed the finish line I felt confident but not certain that we had done it. There were too many other teams with a couple of runners in the mix that it was impossible to keep track of everyone. We would have to wait, but it sure looked good.
The boys’ race started and we still didn’t know the girls’ results. The boys came past me just after the mile mark and it was just as we had predicted, NMC was slightly ahead of our guys but our guys could see them and were close enough to have a chance. When I next saw the boys a half mile later a lot had changed. We had clearly moved up and passed a lot of NMC runners. It was looking very good. We just needed to hold on for the last mile.
I ran down to the 1000 meter to go mark, stopping briefly at the results board to see that the girls were officially second. One team going to state. One team to go. I bumped into our seven girls as I ran to cheer on the boys. We had a group hug and I thanked them before we dispersed to cheer on the boys. Four years ago I felt that our boys had the lead for the last state meet spot with a 1000 meters to go, but San Lorenzo Valley rallied to pass us in the final half mile. I didn’t want that to happen again. I cheered on the boys and almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We were beating NMC at every match-up (our first runner was beating their first runner, our second runner was beating their second runner, etc.). I ran to the finish line and saw several of our other coaches. We all agreed that we had done it.
It was amazing. Four weeks earlier at Toro Park I had to lecture the boys about stepping up their game if they even wanted to make it to CCS. Two weeks earlier at WCAL Finals we didn’t run the qualifying time and thought we had missed CCS – only to realize later that we had placed fourth and qualified on place. Now here we were, going to the State Meet.
When I finally got a good look at the girls’ results I realized that we edged out Aptos for second place (and thus a trophy) by just one point. That key point was won by our senior Juliana Flynn. Juliana was up and down all season. I never gave up on her and thankfully she was running well in time for the final meets. Her job was to beat other teams’ fifth runner. As it turned out, she and Aptos’ fifth runner came down the final stretch together. They crossed the finish line so close that they were given the same time. But Juliana out-leaned her to place fifty-second. That made the Aptos girl fifty-third. That was the one point!
The next hour was a blur. There were lots of hugs, lots of handshakes, and some tears of joy. When it became official that both teams had qualified Jarrett picked me up just like we had practiced the night before. Many coaches from other teams, knowing what an amazing accomplishment this was for our program, came over to congratulate our team. After the awards ceremony we went back to our tent and something familiar but a long time coming, started happening. The girls ran towards the cooler of water bottles. Rachel came to get my hat, camera, and anything else on me that we didn’t want getting wet…it was time for a celebratory shower!
On the bus ride home I had so many emotional thoughts. I thought about all the runners who have worn the Irish uniform, especially the ones who ran at CCS trying to qualify for State Meet but came up short. This day was for them. I thought about the long hours I spend coaching this team in hopes of having a day like this.
To borrow some words from assistant coach Natalie Martinez, who herself ran on two teams that came up short of state meet, “It’s been a long journey to this moment.” But it was a great journey and a great moment.
One of the little things that sometimes happens at a cross country championship meet is uniform switching. I’ve always enjoyed watching it unfold or reading about it afterward and as a coach, have thought about psychological advantage of such a ploy.
One reason to do the uniform switch is to hide from another team. In 1992, the top two boys teams in California were Hart High School and Thousand Oaks High School (TOHS). They had met head-to-head twice during the season with Thousand Oaks coming out on top both times. The week before the state meet, Thousand Oaks beat Hart, 53-104, running a 79:29 team time to Hart’s 80:49. But Hart was the two-time defending champions and they would not go down without a fight. At the State Meet, they changed from their traditional white, black, and red uniform to a very non-descript grey uniform. I believe they did this to throw TOHS off. TOHS was used to looking for the usual Hart uniforms and probably had a race plan to match-up and beat Hart. But since Hart came out wearing something different, TOHS may have been thrown off just a bit and may have had a hard time identifying their top competitor among the hundreds of runners in the pack. The end result was an upset win for Hart, 53-80. Hart ran 79:29 to TO’s 80:13. It was Hart’s third straight state championship and a terrific send-off for Hart coach Gene Blankenship who would move to Washington after the season.
I’ve never had the opportunity to ask anyone from Hart or TOHS if the uniform change affected the race strategies but in my mind the element of surprise played a roll in Hart’s win. Not seeing the uniform you are expecting can throw you off. In 2008, at the Central Coast Section (CCS) Championships, the Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC) boys team was hoping to sneak up and beat Monterey High School. It would take a tremendous effort but we were going to go for it – everyone knew to go after the yellow and green uniform. After our team cheer I jogged to the side of the course and right in front of me, I saw Monterey taking off their usual yellow and green uniform and putting on a solid green uniform. AHH! It was too late for me to go warn the boys. Monterey had pulled a fast one on us. They also ran really really well and beat us. I don’t think the uniform switch changed the outcome of the meet.
The team I most associate with the uniform switch is Nordhoff High School. I remember watching them at the start line of the state meet. They took a strider, went back to the start line and took off their uniform and had a different one underneath. But they weren’t done. They took another strider, went back to the start line, and peeled off their uniform again, where they had another uniform underneath. I learned some years later at a coaches’ clinic from their coach Ken Reeves that the whole idea started when he was cleaning out their storage shed and the team saw some of the old uniforms from years gone by. It’s now one of their team traditions to wear a uniform from the past at the state meet. He considers it a way to pay homage to their past teams and their history (Nordhoff has won a state record eleven state championships). Coach Reeves also smiled at the thought that other teams were getting psyched out by this uniform change.
Psychologically, a team may feel they are getting an “advantage” by doing this…and if that’s how they feel, then why tell them there is no advantage? With the Monterey uniform switch fresh in our minds, the SHC team decided to participate in what one of my seniors called “trickery” at the 2009 CCS Championships. My rationale: it would be fun and memorable and it gave us something else to focus on in the moments right before the race, rather than be nervous about the race. We planned it out all week. The team took their final striders in their usual uniform but underneath they had the uniform we had used in previous years. When the team came in for our huddle, all the supporters gathered around the team forming a “wall” so no one could see what we were doing. What were we doing? Stripping down to our old uniform. When the team emerged after our “Irish Pride” cheer to toe the line, we had a different look. Now it’s true that both new and old uniforms brazenly displayed “IRISH” across the front and the “old” uniforms were only one year old so we weren’t exactly hiding or fooling anyone. But it was fun nonetheless.
There certainly is no substitute for training if you want to do well at a championship meet. But if you‘ve done all the preparation and you are looking for one last thing to do to be ready for the meet then maybe consider the ol’ uniform swticheroo!
I first heard of the Three Course Challenge in the fall of 1999. I read the article that appears below in a magazine. This cross country meet in Seaside, Oregon with muddy fields, overgrown fields, tall grass, and waist deep murky water sounded both challenging and interesting. The fact that a team’s varsity seven would have to draw poker chips to see on which course they would run (two on the easy course, two on the medium course, and three on the difficult course) added to the uniqueness of the meet.
Four years later I saw the magazine cover below and I was reminded of this meet. This time I did more than say it looked interesting; I started making plans to take the Sacred Heart Cathedral team to this meet, whose motto is, “Celebrating the sport of cross country.”
Seaside High School Coach Neil Branson has been the meet director since its inception in 1990. There’s a pasta dinner at the high school the night before and then teams can stay overnight in the barracks at Camp Rilea (where the meet takes place). Camp Rilea is an active national guard training area, thus it features a variety of terrain that provides the challenging courses that make up the Three Course Challenge special.
For me, one of the meet’s coolest things is to wake up, get out of bed, walk outside and already be at the meet. For the kids, the course is what is memorable. “Camp Rilea is a setting that screams CROSS COUNTRY,” says the welcome letter, “We are not talking a golf course, this is the REAL thing with dirt roads, animal trails, open grassy fields, sand hills, and with luck a good stretch of water for thrills and spills. The courses are NOT measured for two reasons. One, I change them often due to adjusting to new “obstacles.” Two, I want kids to just run, have fun, compete, and forget the clock.” The energy at the meet is palpable, with music and a drum corps creating a festive atmosphere.
What makes the course most memorable, however, is the mud pit that is usually in the middle of the moderate and difficult course. I spotted a national guard officer filling a big hole with water to create said mud pit. Over the years, and thanks to YouTube, the mud pit is the main attraction. Kids have been known to lose shoes and fall face first into the water. So of course everyone wants to see and capture the action on video! A crowd gathers around the mud pit early, with spectators hanging off of trees to get the best vantage point.
From humble beginnings (90 runners in 1990) the meet has grown. There were 1,778 runners at the 2004 meet. When I went to the meet a second time in 2007 there were 2,298 runners. This year, it seems even bigger with 90-95 teams registered to race. I seem to be going with my team every third year. At this rate I should be Oregon-bound again in 2013. To date, assistant coaches Tomas Palmero, Sherie Lo Giudice, and I are the only ones to have been on all three trips (me and Tomas as coaches, Sherie as an athlete in 2004 and as a coach in 2007 and this year). Another interesting note is that four of my current assistants who are going this year (Sherie, Rhiannon Cadelinia, Rachel Giovannetti, and Natalie Martinez) all raced at the 2004 meet where we came in fourth.
When we went in 2004 and 2007 we flew on Southwest Airlines from Oakland to Portland, took a bus to Seaside, and stayed Friday night at Camp Rilea. The meet was on Saturday and then we spent Saturday night at a hotel in the resort town of Seaside. Sunday morning we went to the beach, and then it was back to Portland on the bus, and from there we flew home.
This year, the cost of duplicating that itinerary would have been over $400 per athlete. Due to the economy I couldn’t justify charging our parents that much and I also feared that we would not get our usual traveling party of 36 (2004) to 45 (2007) at that price. Fortunately we came up with an alternative. More correctly, senior Geoffrey Yep came up with the idea. We are taking the train!
We leave on Thursday evening on the 10:12 P.M. Amtrak train. We arrive in Portland on Friday afternoon and will do our usual: bus to Seaside, dinner, overnight at Camp Rilea, run the meet, overnight in Seaside, go to the beach Sunday morning, and take the bus back to Portland. Then we’ll get on Amtrak again for a seventeen and a half hour ride back home, arriving at the Emeryville station Monday morning.
We leave on our five day, four night, eighty-four hour epic trip tomorrow. I can’t wait!
I think I will remember this decade as the decade I established myself as a successful coach. In the 90’s, I was still pretty competitive myself as a runner and I was a little more focused on my own running and racing than coaching. During the 90’s, I ran three marathons and set most of my PR’s. I also laid the groundwork for my coaching career (team manager at UCLA, asst. coach at Lowell, started Thursday night track workouts for the DSE), but it has been in the last ten years that I have made a bigger impact as a coach.
When the decade began I was 29 years old and had been a head coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP) for just one and a half years. Although I had been coaching the Thursday night track workouts for five years, it was quite different – there was no Pamakid Runners club involvement and on average just eight to ten people were at each track workout.
Now as the decade ends, I am 39 years old and am in my twelfth year as head coach at SHCP. Thursday night track workouts have been going for fifteen years and we average 15-20 people at each workout. I am both President and Coach of the Pamakids and also coach many people privately.
I won’t rank my top ten coaching memories from this decade, but instead will list them in chronological order. If you are reading this as a word file, you can click on the hyperlinks for more details about the event.
I’d never really followed the discus much as a coach. Before 2000, a high schooler throwing the discus 140 feet was pretty darn good to me. That all changed with Tony. When Tony threw, the discus just soared and soared like a Frisbee. All season long meet officials didn’t believe me when I warned them that we had a kid who could throw the discus over their boundary flags. This was most apparent on an April evening at UC Davis. Tony nearly hit the official with his 182-11 toss (fourth best in the state at that point in the season). We had to help the official mark the throw because he was more focused on getting out of the way than spotting the landing of the throw. Tony went on to throw a best of 194-4 (I missed this throw because Shannon Rowbury had an 800 race at the same time) and placed sixth at the State Meet.
June 2001 – Shannon Rowbury winning the State Meet 800.
Shannon and I shared a lot of great moments when she was in high school (Arcadia 800 win, Outdoor Nationals win, State Champion in the 1600) but her first State Championship stands out in my mind as special above the others.
April 2002 – The Varsity Boys beating Mitty in a dual meet.
It had been at least ten years since SHCP’s Varsity Boys had won a dual meet. We targeted April 17, 2002 as our chance to end the streak. It was a back and forth battle and it all came down to our victory in the 4X400 Relay.
The dream of getting the boy’s team to State Meet started two years earlier. It was a tight battle between six schools for the four qualifying spots. Our theme was “Be a hero and let’s get to that big dance in Fresno.”
A week before the race I announced that I would run 7:20 pace for the first seven miles of the race to help people hit their goal of a 1:36 half marathon. I had a good-sized group of runners and I was really proud when everyone came in at or under their goal time. It was during this run, from mile four to six, that Sara Saba and I discussed how to go about fielding a Pamakid women’s cross country team in the near future. Less than three short years later, the Pamakids cross country team grew to include men and women, open and masters.
May 2007/May 2009 – Coaching the whole kid, not just the athlete.
A high school coach is tasked with more than making someone successful in sport. I am proud to have played a role in the development of two special people: James Mabrey (2007) and Tammia Hubbard (2009). Both of these individuals came to SHCP thinking that they were basketball players. They faced numerous challenges but through our hard work they were successful in school and ended their high school careers as league champions.
I was coaching Michelle in her first year after finishing college. After she ran a fast time at the San Jose Rock ‘n Roll half marathon, her goal changed from just running a marathon to going for a sub-2:47.
Everything happened fast from early-May to early-July. Shannon was home in San Francisco training for the Olympic Trials and I volunteered to help her in any way that I could. For the most part that meant meeting her at the track to help her do Coach John Cook’s workouts and talking to her about anything and everything. There was a bit of a media blitz as Shannon went from chasing the “A” standard to being the favorite to win. It was all a brand new experience for me – especially the priceless moment: watching the kids you coached in high school make the Olympics!
December 2009 – Seeing Pamakids succeed at CIM.
It was a wildly successful day for the Pamakids at CIM – all three relay teams placed second in their division (thanks in part to the now famous meet sheet). In addition there were numerous PR’s among the thirteen Pamakid marathoners and all four people that I was coaching achieved their goal of a Boston qualifier.
1) When and how did you get your start in running?
I started running when I joined the track team in eighth grade at Aptos Middle School in San Francisco. The same friend that got me to try track, also encouraged me to join cross country my freshman year at Lowell High School. It wasn’t easy and I wasn’t terrific, but there was something about it that got me hooked.
2) Tell us a little about your experiences in high school and college? Highlights? What is your current running situation and when are you able to train?
I ran all four years both cross country and track & field at Lowell High School. I loved being the captain of the team. I think that was the first time in my life that I thrived on being the leader of something. In cross country I got to run at the first two California State Meets (we were the first last place team in California State Meet history). In track & field I had a memorable senior season when four of us ran together for the 4X400, 4X800, and Distance Medley relays. We called ourselves “The Four Horsemen” and brought home a fair number of invitational medals.
I did not compete in college.
I still like to race. I run for the Pamakid Runners (I’m coach and president of the club). I do most of my running with the SHCP team. Certain times of the year I get in pretty good shape by just trying to keep up with the varsity or by doing what amounts to a fartlek, sprinting from person to person trying to run with as many kids as possible during a single practice. Other times of the year (dual meet track & field season) I do hardly any running other than some 2-3 mile pre-meet shake outs.
3) When did you decide to enter the coaching field?
I think I knew as soon as I graduated from high school that I wanted to coach. I remember writing workouts and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the Lowell team the summer after I graduated. I went to UCLA and as soon as I arrived there, I asked the coach if he needed a manager. When he said yes, I began my coaching career. I started off by writing down results and passing out uniforms but as the years went on I got to do more and more coaching at UCLA.
After I graduated from UCLA, I entered podiatry school. I helped as an assistant coach at Lowell but figured I would be giving up the coaching to be a podiatrist once I finished school. As I neared the end of podiatry residency, I realized that I was just too passionate about coaching to give it up. I decided to get a masters degree in sports management. My mom saw an ad for a head cross country coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory so I decided to apply. Twelve years later, SHCP is certainly where I consider home.
4) Who were your mentors as you started out as a young coach?
Bob Messina was the women’s UCLA coach when I started. I learned a lot from spending time with him, both training ideas and how to make workouts interesting and fun. In my senior year I got to work with Bob Larsen. I didn’t realize it at the time but I learned a lot from Larsen and he is one of the most knowledgeable coaches in the country. I still look up to my high school coach, Lloyd Wilson, because he got me started in the sport. In fact, Lloyd has been an assistant track & field coach with me at SHCP since I started in 1999.
5) What do you feel are the biggest changes you have made as a coach from when you first started to now?
I have a better understanding of what I am trying to accomplish with each workout now. Before it was just hard/easy because that’s “what you did.” Now I pay more attention to the pace people are running and try to make sure we do some training at a variety of paces (e.g. sprints, VO2 max, race pace, lactate threshold, recovery) in a given week. As a result of being older and more experienced, I think I communicate better now with the team, the parents, etc.
6) The best two runners you have coached at SHCP are Michelle Gallagher and Shannon Rowbury. Tell us about each runner, their strengths and some of their successes in hs?
Michelle’s strength was her endurance. She liked volume. Before her last track & field State Meet, she had been sick and was just getting better after missing a lot of training. I actually had her do two hard workouts the week before State because she was sharper when she was doing a lot of quality. When she ran her best races it was usually when she had started off conservatively and moved up over the second half of the race. She ran 10:33 at Arcadia, and was 4th in the 3200 at the 2003 State Meet. In both races she ran negative splits and just kept passing people over the last laps.
Shannon’s strengths in high school were her speed and race tactics. She had some amazing kicks in high school when she would come from way behind to win a race. She was also very good at following a race plan. We would spend hours going over race tactics for big meets (how fast to go out, what position to be in, when to make a move, etc.) and I guess it paid off. Her major high school wins were 2001 Arcadia 800, 2001 State Meet 800, 2001 Outdoor Nationals 800, and 2002 State Meet 1600. Her high school PR’s really speak to her versatility: 2:08.52 (800), 4:51.0 (1600), 9:38.41 (3000), 17:52 (Woodward Park).
7) Shannon was able to compete in the ‘08 Olympics and ‘09 Track and Field World Championships. You were able to travel to both events. A little about each experience?
My wife, Malinda, and I realize that we are in a pretty special situation. I happened to have coached someone who has gone on to run at a high level and we have jobs and the finances that enable us to go watch Shannon compete. Not many people are in this position and this isn’t going to go on forever, so we’ve made the decision to try our best to go cheer for Shannon in person at international championships.
The 2008 Olympics is almost a blur in my mind. In May Shannon was chasing the Olympic A standard and in August we were at the Bird’s Nest. There was a moment during the Olympics when I just said to myself, “I can’t believe this is happening.” I don’t think I ever dreamed I would be at the Olympics cheering for someone I know so well. Before Shannon’s race, she jumped up and down three times. Nothing unusual, just part of her routine. I’m sure other athletes did their typical pre-race routines, too. But Shannon’s three jumps just warmed my heart. I’ve seen her jump up and down three times before a race hundreds of times. She’s done it at SI, at Los Gatos, at Crystal Springs. And that night she did it at the Olympics.
The 2009 World Championships were better from a track & field perspective. The fans in Berlin were very knowledgeable and I was pretty much in heaven going to the stadium every night for nine nights in a row to watch the best athletes in the world compete. The night of the women’s 1500 final was full of memorable emotions. Shannon was 4th across the finish line and I was happy for her because I felt that she ran a good race and should have no regrets. But then it looked like there would be a DQ and Shannon would get the bronze medal. What an emotional roller coaster the waiting was… Even though I saw her with my own eyes standing on the medal stand receiving a bronze medal at the world championships, it didn’t seem like it was really happening until someone sent me a congratulatory text message. Then I got all emotional. Looking at the pictures now, the smile on my face tells it all – I was so happy and proud of Shannon. To be able to be there and see it in person and give her a hug at dinner later that night was a pretty awesome experience.
8) You also coach adult runners (I believe). What group do you coach? What are the biggest differences between coaching high school students and adults?
I have been coaching Thursday night track workouts since 1994. The group has evolved through the years. We call ourselves the K-Stars (K for Kezar Stadium, where the workouts take place). Most of the people who run at these workouts (12-20 people usually come) are members of the Pamakid Runners. The main difference between coaching the adults and the high school team is that I know the high school team’s entire training plan and they are all more or less on the same schedule. So the workouts are quite specific. With the adults, I have a basic track interval workout and just give people guidelines for goal pace. I do coach some adults privately. With them, I give them a training schedule and it’s up to them to get the workouts done. With the team, not only do I write the workouts, I oversee their execution, too. Another difference is that with the high school team, I think it’s my job to help motivate and inspire the athletes. With the adults, I expect them to be self-motivated, so I spend less time on that (although I give the occasional rah-rah speech that they seem to enjoy!).
9) SHC is always a large and spirited team. How do you get so many runners out for you team? What activities do you do to help build team camaraderie?
Thank you for noticing our spirit. We pride ourselves on being spirited and I think this year’s cross country team may be one of our all-time best in that department. We really don’t do anything too crazy to get people to come out. We’ve had 47-48 runners the past two years. That’s actually a good number for me. Any more and I feel the experience for the team isn’t as good because they don’t get as much personal attention from me. I strive to make the experience enjoyable so that the kids want to recruit their friends to come out too. I think having a lot of traditions builds team camaraderie because it makes people feel that they are part of something special. We do typical things like team dinners, games at practice, wacky awards, etc. The kids might disagree but having some traditional workouts (even the hard ones) are an important part of our team culture. We also have an annual theme and logo, a senior day, a Sausalito run, and a summer leadership retreat.
10) What are some of the cross country meets your teams have attended in the past few years that have been really positive experiences for your runners?
We’ve been to the Three Course Challenge in Seaside, Oregon two times (2004 & 2007). They have three courses there (a hard, a medium, and an easy course). The hard and medium courses include a mud pit the kids have to run through. All the races take place on a military base and there are all kinds of challenging terrain that you don’t see elsewhere. “This is real cross country” is a comment I often hear from the kids when we race at this meet. I am always changing up our meet schedule from year to year. I like to go to different places, race different teams, have a different levels of competition, and also race at some of the same places annually so we can measure improvement. I think this mix of meets makes for a positive experience.
11) What would be your best advice for a young aspiring cross country coach?
Be excited and passionate about the sport. Do everything you can to make everyone in the program feel that they are part of something unique and special. When you do that, the kids become very self-motivated. Then the hard work will get done and you can’t help but have success.
12) Anything else you would like to add.
This sport has been very good to me. I’ve gotten to share my passion for the sport with hundreds of kids. I love how the alumni keep in touch with me and I’m especially proud that many of them have come back to coach at SHCP. Thanks to coaching, I’ve gotten to go to some big meets and experience some fun and memorable times. I even met my wife though running. But there’s no better feeling than being out there at practice doing a hill workout or hard interval and seeing the whole team pushing as hard as they can to get it done. Those moments always excite me and that’s what keeps me coaching.