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.
Tomas Palermo presented me with a special shirt comemmorating 10 years of coaching at SHC. This is what he said:
This next athlete is an expert with numbers. He can seemingly calculate multiple mile splits in his head at any point in a race, whether he’s running it or just watching. He even has a particular way of counting seconds beyond a minute — but before a minute-forty. It’s just something you have to try and figure out and accept. But he has other impressive numbers, including personal bests of 16:35 (5K), 34:10 (10K), and a PR this season of 26:26 in a 7K (about 4.3 miles) – a race in which he placed first overall. Then there’s the thing with 7’s. Like getting married on 7-7-2007. Then, seven days later, running said 7K race on July 14, and seven days after that gathering on July 21 for a wedding reception. He coached nearly 80 athletes this season, and saw two reach the State Meet and perform well amid tough competition. But what’s probably this athlete, and coach’s most remarkable number: his decade-long commitment, loyalty and passion for SHC athletics, manifested in giving his all to running and coaching the rest of us. So, in order to recognize this achievement, I’d like the rest of the coaches to join me in giving the award for Outstanding 10-Year Head Coach, to Andy Chan.
It is finally sinking in that the 2007 Varsity Boys team is most likely the fastest boys team in school history. :37 faster than the 2005 team that made State Meet. The first team I have ever coached to run in the 84’s. It’s hard to believe but it’s true. And I couldn’t be prouder.
I don’t know if anyone could have predicted this. I often talked about it being possible but deep inside I think I was saying it in an attempt to convince myself. There were moments when I thought to myself, no way can they be like the 2005 or 2006 teams…that this was a season that would be reminiscent of the boys teams from the early 2000’s (88 minute team times). I wondered if I had been spoiled the last 2-3 years and that I had better prepare myself mentally for the inevitable “return to the middle/back of the pack.”
But instead the 2007 team went on this rollercoaster of a ride….
When we started summer practices, sub-85 was not on my mind. We had just graduated Nick, Ethan, Justin and Colin. I was more concerned with getting 7 runners on the line that would give us a change to: 1) continue to beat Mitty and Riordan and 2) make CCS for the fourth year in a row.
At times during the summer, though, Tomas and I noted that the boys looked impressive. People like Michael, Jim, Joseph S, and Jared were consistently getting the runs done and at a solid pace. And I had confidence that Paul, Tommy, JJ, and Kyle, with their experience, would be ready as well. I was only half joking when I started saying that we were a motley bunch of guys who would scare no one during striders but maybe, just maybe, could go out and on sheer toughness, beat runners who were supposedly more talented on sheer toughness.
But there were moments I reminded myself to be realistic. I remember driving back from a summer workout at the beach and telling Christine that if we got to mid-season and the seniors weren’t getting it done, I would start looking towards the juniors and sophomores so that we would be ready for the 2008 season. I wasn’t giving up on the season before it even began, just being realistic and having an eye for the future of the team.
At the start of the season, for a variety of reasons (family vacations, SAT’s, nagging injuries), we never lined up at full strength. We looked OK at the meets but nothing that would predict the times that would come at the end of the season. At Oregon, we talked about having to turn up the intensity level of the training. I wanted them to feel a sense of urgency if we wanted to beat Mitty and Riordan and make CCS. At one meeting, I also told the boys that as long as we were working hard in practice and racing well, Jarrett would stay up on Varsity. But if it ever became apparent that we weren’t going to make CCS, I would run him in the Frosh race and let him go for the win. Part of that was for motivation. But it also showed that at mid-season, not running the CCS qualifying 86:37 was on my mind.
WCAL #1 at the Polo Fields was certainly a low point. Running without Paul, having JJ injured, and not having the alternates to go to, our worst fears came true – Riordan and Mitty finished ahead of us. I knew we would be back but this certainly served as a wake-up call.
Then we got hot for 2 weeks. First we won the Artichoke Invitational, our first Varsity Boys invitational win since 2004. Then we ran 87:17 at the Serra Invitational. That gave me a lot of confidence that we would make the CCS time standard of 86:37 relatively easily. And at WCAL #2 (Shoreline Park), we finally had a good race plan and the result was 5th place (bounced back to beat Riordan and Mitty) and a team time of 85:47 (:44 faster than last year). I began to see people writing on their post-race critique that they believed we could be faster than the State Meet team and that their goal was to run in the 84’s. It was great because, while I had those goals at the start of the season, the performance at Shoreline validated that we could really do it. I started really believing we could do it now, too.
But after resting out the top 5 at the Center Meet, we ran poorly at WCAL Finals. Everyone basically went out too fast and we had a terrible 2nd mile. When the boys hit the 2 mile mark, I checked their splits and started making calculations in my head. Forget running in the 84’s, we weren’t going to make the time standard to get to CCS even. I yelled to Kim to tell the boys we weren’t getting the times and they had to dig down and try to get some time back. To their credit, they did. A gutsy last 1000 meters got us home in 86:00 (5th place, ahead of Riordan and Mitty, and :37 under the time standard). We had dodged a bullet and lived to race again.
The bad day at WCAL Finals, though, affected our confidence. I wasn’t sure what would happen at CCS. I felt pretty sure we could do it and pretty sure we had a good race plan. But I started to question whether my projections were right. Maybe the fast times at Shoreline had skewed my calculations? Maybe we peaked too soon? Maybe we shouldn’t have rested at the Center Meet? Maybe we need a different race plan?
After reviewing the numbers over and over and then adjusting the race plan slightly at the Saturday workout at Crystal, things started to come together in my head. On Tuesday or Wednesday before CCS I had this vision of how I wanted to the race to go. We were seeded 11th or 12th. I wanted us to be in the back half of the pack at the mile mark (in our predicted 11th or 12th place) and then I wanted to attack the field and move up as far as we could. If we did this, the times would take care of themselves and we should have a successful last race of the season.
The CCS race went according to plan. Everyone was right on at the mile mark both in terms of their time and their place. Now, could we attack? On the first surge everyone seemed to be moving up and they had packs of runners to chase down. When I checked the 2 mile splits, things looked pretty good. As the boys came up Cardiac Hill, I noticed that Jared and Jarrett especially, looked a lot better than the runners around them. At the time it didn’t dawn on me that the boys were also really tightly packed. In the final stretch, Paul was battling Riordan’s top runner and looking like he would be near his PR. Jared was close behind so I knew he would be in the 16:40’s. Then, holy cow, there was the freshman, Jarrett – apparently running a sub-17 race. And not far behind came senior veterans, Tommy, JJ, Jim, and Kyle, running the last 150 meters of their high school cross country careers…and fighting for every last second.
I rushed to meet them at the end of the chute. Since I couldn’t see them finish, I started asking them if they knew their times. Most of them did so I wrote them down. As usual in moments like these, I was having trouble adding them up. Shannon Rowbury was there and offered to use her phone to add them up while I talked to the boys. I was very proud and excited. Mr Gary Cannon was there, too, and I think he could tell I was really happy with the race. There were a lot of hand shakes and back slapping going on. I told them that I thought we had run in the 84’s and that they had just run great. They looked pleased and proud to hear the news.
The final results confirmed it:
84:36!! Our 1-5 pack finished within :48 and 37 places of each other. JJ, our 5th man, ran 17:19, which is one second over what we need to average to hit the time standard. Jim, who didn’t make the top 5 on this day, ran 17:24, a time that’s among the top 25 in the Chanman era. Our depth was sensational. Jarrett, Tommy, JJ, Jim, and Kyle ran the fastest #3, #4, #5, #6 and #7 runner time that I have ever coached at Crystal.
I am so proud of this team. They faced some adversity but never stopped fighting. They may not have made it to State. There was no front runner or All-WCAL performer. They weren’t the best practice runners I have ever had. But they were a bunch of guys who knew how to lay it on the line in a race. And they are certainly deserving of this crowning moment – to be called the fastest team in school history.
November 12, 2006
Dear Colin, Ethan, Jackie, Jim, JJ, Jocelyn, Josh, Justin, Kyle, Meghan, Michael, Natalie, Nerissa, Nick, Paul, Peter, Rachel, Reilly, Stephanie, Tommy, Yesenia, and Coaches Christine and Tomas,
24 hours have passed since CCS 2006. I still do not have anything magical to say that will lessen the sting from yesterday’s meet. Only time will do that. I can say that I’ve thought a lot about the races that transpired at Toro Park and have come to the conclusion that we did everything we could.
We prepared very well for the meet. We handled every injury/health situation to the best of our ability. The race plans were solid and the execution was perfect. With 1000 meters to go, both teams had a chance. That’s all you can ask for. If you asked me at the beginning of the season, if after all the miles of training with about 3:00 of running to go, “would you be satisfied with the team having a chance?” The answer would be yes. Everyone gave it all they had. It’s okay to be disappointed with the end result. But please, be proud of your effort.
On paper we shouldn’t have even been in contention. Even before Nick got hurt in the summer, we were probably ranked 5th in CCS for Division III. In September we ran 91:45 at Toro. That kind of time would have gotten us third-to-last on Saturday. At Stanford, we were behind Saratoga and Cupertino and 245 points behind SLV. A big thank you needs to go to Jared, whose early season running really made a difference. Without Jared in the early going, I think we would have been behind Riordan and Mitty at WCAL #1 and probably had a pretty bad showing at Stanford. It would have been hard for me to keep everyone motivated to keep chasing the dream if that had happened. When we went back to Toro in October we improved to 87:53. Better, but still not in contention with the teams who run in the 85’s. In the final weeks things really came together. Confidence was on the rise and I meant it when I said that even though it seemed like a long-shot (we were supposed to be 52 points behind SLV), I wouldn’t bet against our boys because they know how to come through in the clutch. Our 85:44 at CCS represents 6 minutes of improvement in two months and we made up 236 points on SLV since Stanford. Those are things to be proud of.
All season long the girls were a team off the radar that no one seemed to consider a State Meet contender. At one time or another in the first half of the season, Division III foes NMC, Willow Glen, SLV and SI all beat us (often by margins of 50-100 points). We knew the road to Fresno would go through those 4 schools. We ran 107:06 at Toro in September. At our second trip to Toro we ran 104:00 but that still left us 5 minutes behind SLV’s 98:46. At WCAL Finals we beat SI for the first time since the 2001 season and our 100:35 made us a legitimate contender for State. We knew it would be a close race. Our 102:05 at CCS represents 5 minutes of improvement in two months. Beating SLV, SI and Willow Glen, teams that beat us earlier in the season, speaks to our ability to race well when it truly counted. In the end we were one of five teams that finished within 11 points of the coveted 3rd place spot. Those are all things to be proud of.
At the very top of our website, it says “we will laugh together (and) cry together.” We certainly did that during CCS Week 2006. It also says, “You get back from the team, what you put into it. If you put all your heart into it, you will be rewarded with an experience you will treasure forever.” You all certainly put your heart into this team. I hope you feel rewarded and I hope you’ve had an experience you will treasure forever. I know I have.
The moments after the awards ceremony were some of the most difficult in my coaching career. The training books on lactate threshold and nutrition, the websites with running stats, and all the years of running did not prepare me for that moment. I felt an enormous pressure to say something to make the situation better. Isn’t that what the coach is supposed to do? But what is a coach to do when his girls team misses State Meet by one point and when his boys team, with 3 seniors, realize that because they were 9 points short, they will never race together as a cross country team again?
I decided to speak from the heart. That’s why my voice was cracking and tears were welling up in my eyes. I think it’s wonderful that all of you are so passionate about cross country. Yes, it is a bit of a risk to be passionate about something. The more you invest of yourself, the more it hurts when it doesn’t turn out the way you wished. We all experienced that on Saturday. But it’s a risk well worth taking. It is infinitely better than going through life without finding something that you are passionate about.
I know I will always remember this team. I will remember your passion. I will remember the alternates, who trained all week to be ready, supported the team 100 percent and took the disappointing news as hard as everyone else. I will remember your faces when we heard the results at the awards ceremony. But I will not remember CCS 2006 with sadness. I’ll remember the girls, who composed themselves just a few minutes after being in tears, going over to Sobrato to congratulate them. I’ll remember Nick coming over to me at the end, giving me a big hug, and saying “Thank you, Coach.”
No, thank you. Thank you everyone. You are the very reasons I love to coach. I consider it an honor and a privilege to be your coach.