Chanman's Blog

From Jury Duty to Fresno

Posted in Coaching,SHC Cross Country by Andy Chan on November 17, 2019
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30 people strong - CCS runners, alternates, and managers

This all started on Monday June 10. It was a 6:00 pm practice because I was on jury duty. It was one of the hottest days of the year and even in San Francisco it was well over 90 degrees when we met at 6:00 that evening. That’s where the journey for the 2019 Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC) Cross Country team began.

Along our journey we enjoyed countless memories together. We had a great summer of training. We started to see who was going to step up to fill the shoes of the six varsity boys from last year that were not going to be on the team this year. Late in the summer, we realized that there was a “fast kid” transferring in to SHC from Lowell. We took an epic trip to Oregon that included an 18 hour Amtrak train ride (each way) and sleeping 300 steps from the starting line in the barracks at Camp Rilea in Seaside. We started to more publically appreciate and thank the amazing work done by our managers. New faces got their first taste of varsity as CCS alternates, some of whom were probably not even thinking about this as a possibility at the start of the season. As a team, we ran amazingly fast races at WCAL.

All of a sudden it was CCS Week. The preview article implied that SHC was seeded third in both the Girls and Boys races. Third is solid. But third is not the place you want to finish, when only the top two teams qualify for State. For the Girls the battle would be with SI and Aptos. SI looked tough to beat. We didn’t know much about Aptos but we respected that they were good and would be a challenge to beat. For the Boys, all indications were that it would be a close race between us, St. Ignatius (SI), and Riordan, with Saratoga and maybe Aptos also in the mix.

Before the meet there was a lot of talk about how when you have high hopes there is potential for disappointment. We emphasized that this was OK….that it was part of sport….that it was a gift to have the opportunity to compete under these circumstances, stressful as they might be. Deep inside, though, what we all wanted was for both teams to qualify for State. The plan was to run the race and then after the race, we’d add up the scores and see if we made it.

The theme for the whole season had been, “Keep Calm and Throw Your Darts.” We wanted the kids to feel that they had permission to go for it….to keep throwing their darts and see what stuck. A side theme for CCS was the idea that, “Pain is Temporary. Pride is Forever.” We knew it was going to be tough in the last mile and that people would be hurting. The hope was the idea of having pride forever in their race, would help them overcome the temporary pain of racing the last mile at Crystal Springs.

Race morning, we reminded everyone that you can’t always take first place but you can always run to win. And we wanted our team to go for winning races at CCS. The Girls were told to just be themselves because, “no one is better at being you, than you.” The boys were told that I was proud of them for fighting so hard to be in position to make State. But that we were greedy and we wanted one more thing to be proud of so they should go out there and fight for State.

Those were the final instructions the teams were given. Then, before we knew it, the races were underway.  

The Girls got to the two mile mark and we found ourselves one point behind Aptos for second place with a mile to go. The Boys, despite our top two runners being off their game, were actually leading a tight battle against SI and Riordan but beginning to fall back with a mile to go.

It’s hard to put into words what transpired in those last miles. It was something out of a fairy tale. There was suspense, heroes and heroines, dramatic finishes, and a happy ending that left us all breathless.

We did so much between that first day in June and the moment each runner got to the mile to go mark. No one thing was “the” thing. It was a combination of many things. All the training and all the motivational talks/quotes/sayings were to have people ready to race this last mile at this exact moment. I think the fact that we teach the kids to love one another and to really care about making State, is huge. Every single one of them wants to contribute something to the cause. No one wants to let down the team. Everyone wants the season to go on for two more weeks – so we can take a dance class, so we can have another overnight trip, so we can dress up for dinner in Fresno, so we can have an emotional team meeting, and countless other traditions that are small and silly but mean the world to us.

The Girls pushed like I have never seen them push before. We kept screaming to them that every place was going to count and that “pride would be forever” if they could pass just one more runner. We finished fast and passed people. Sabina ran the fastest last mile of everyone in the race, except the race winner, and moved from eighth to fifth. Liz passed one runner. Kate, who the night before e-mailed me that she was feeling sick and wasn’t sure she should race or not, passed two. Tessa and Corona passed five and three runners. They both passed Aptos’ #4 runner. Gigi and Kennedy both fought to stay ahead of Aptos’ fifth runner. We improved our places by 14 in the last mile.

The Boys were actually leading the close battle with a mile to go but you could tell that SI and Riordan were closing on us. Aptos and Saratoga had runners up front, too, so it was possible they were in the mix. It was impossible to sort this out with the human eye. All we could do was yell to the guys that it was close and they needed to fight for every place and, of course, “to throw all their darts.” Andrew and Sedge had been out really fast and were now suffering in the heat. We tried to get them to fight to hold on to their current place. Dylan was chasing a pack that included Riordan runners. One of those Riordan guys had previously beat Dylan head to head five times (by :48, :44, :44, :30, and :31). But not on this day. At CCS, Dylan edged him out by one place and 0.29 seconds, good for a two point swing. Gavin and Briac were clearly exhausted. They would speed up and pass someone when we cheered them on but they would then fall back again. With 200 meters to go, I yelled to them one last time. “Run us to Fresno!” In the end, Gavin stayed in the same place he was a the two mile mark. Briac fell back but was the fastest fifth runner in the race. Mason was the fastest sixth runner, and he beat both SI and Riordan’s fifth runner.

After the Girls race, it just felt like we had beaten Aptos. The Girls had run so well in the last mile and I knew we made up a lot of points. Finally the score popped up on my phone. SI-50, SHC-67, Aptos-75. We made it by 8 points!

After the Boys race, it was just too close to call. We all found each other and gathered around my phone. The quick scores showed SI and us tying, with Riordan just 4 points back. I knew that this could change so I tried to keep everyone from celebrating too soon. Someone saw SI cheering and wondered what that meant. At some point I looked at a few of the boys and said, “No matter what this phone says in a few minutes, it won’t change that we raced great. Let’s try not to let what the phone says define this race.” A few seconds later, a tab appeared on my phone’s screen saying click here for final official results. The kids said I was shaking as I pressed on it. SI-87, SHC-88, Riordan-90. Yes, we missed winning by one point. But somehow we didn’t even care. What we cared about was that we were going to State….by just two points.

Qualifying both teams to State is our most beloved goal. We’ve been blessed to have it happen five times in the last ten years. It’s happened in a variety of different ways and circumstances. All of them have been memorable in their own way.

We can now add the 2019 CCS Meet and more specifically the last miles of both the Girls and Boys races to the list of legendary moments in SHC Cross Country history. The season that started with a 6:00 pm practice in June because of jury duty, will end Thanksgiving weekend in Fresno.

Varsity Girls - 3rd straight trip to State, 6 out of the last 10 years.
Varsity Boys - 7th time to State in the last 10 years.

Raining on your Parade

Posted in Coaching,SHC Cross Country by Andy Chan on December 27, 2018
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IMG_1299I’m sorry, boys of the 2018 SHC Cross Country team. I MAY have told you a little white lie before the Central Coast Section Championship race (CCS). But it was only because I was trying to prepare you to achieve our goal, to make it to the California State Cross Country Championship Meet (State).

With less than week until CCS, I felt we were getting a little over-confident. A little too focused on beating Greenfield to win CCS. We were bordering on losing focus on the primary goal, to place in the top two and qualify for State. I worried that this singular focus on beating Greenfield might cause us to commit the cardinal sin of how not to race on the Crystal Springs course – going out too hard and fading in the last mile. My mantra has always been, you don’t qualify for State in the first mile; you qualify for State in the last mile. I wanted to create a scenario in your minds, one that made you nervous enough to stick to our season-long plan.

That’s why I came up with my speech.

That’s why I rehearsed it in my head while running the day before delivering it to you.

That’s why I rehearsed it again in my office before practice, and again in the car driving to practice.

After I sent the girls on an adventure run, I gathered you boys around me.

IMG_1470“How we doing, guys? Feeling good? Feeling confident?” I began.

I heard a few responses. “Yeah, we’re good.” “We got this, coach.”

That was my cue to begin my Oscar-winning performance. Was every word I was about to utter the complete truth? No. Was this what you, my team, needed to hear at this moment? Yes.

“Well, I’m here…to rain…on your…parade.”

“Greenfield has been holding back all year. They’re just waiting to drop a bomb on us. And there’s a mystery team, because there’s always a mystery team, that will come out of nowhere and get out hard. They’ll be ahead of us at the two mile mark. They’re trying to take OUR spot to State.”

“The only way to prevent that is to race smart. I need you to go out and run the first mile like we’ve been practicing. Don’t change things. The race starts at the mile mark. You have to be ready to fight during the last mile, and when you get to the top of Cardiac hill, you will have less than five minutes to write the story where WE go to State.”

I paused and slowly looked around the circle. Everyone was quiet. I had everyone’s attention. In some ways, I knew at that moment, we’d be okay. After my speech you nailed a good track workout. Despite CCS being postponed three times due to the poor air quality and an extremely stressful ten day lead-up to the actual CCS race, when the race finally happened, you got it done.

Andy Chan 2.0

Posted in Coaching,SHC Cross Country by Andy Chan on November 23, 2017
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For most of my twenty years as the head cross country coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral, the week before the Section Championships (CCS Week we call it), has been filled with very specific race day preparations. My style and belief has been that to prepare the runners to be ready for the moment, we should do specific training and have specific conversations about how the race will probably play out. There has been a lot of talk about qualifying for State Meet. Tactically, we have discussed where to try to position oneself early in the race, a first mile time goal, when to surge, and what teams to be looking for. We’ve gone so far as to pass around pictures of the teams we are competing with, so our team would know what color uniforms to be looking for.

I felt this year’s Boys team, given their experience, would be able to run a solid race regardless of my coaching tactics. I had no regrets about their training. I felt confident they would go out and give everything they had. The question was, was their best going to be good enough to place in the top two to qualify for State. As it turned out, Aptos and Greenfield were just too fast for us. We ended up a solid fourth but we were a far distance from for second. I was at peace with that.

The Girls team on the other hand, was new to the sport, inexperienced at championship level racing; a very un-confident group. My usual CCS Week talks, workouts, and activities were not going to work. They would only serve to make the Girls more nervous. I needed to give them emotional support and mental confidence, much more than physical training and race information.

I am proud of myself because during CCS Week I basically re-invented myself as a coach. Andy Chan 2.0, one of the girls called it.

Tactics were replaced by focusing only on what is controllable (effort and attitude) and letting go of the un-controllable things, like how the other teams raced.

The usual overall race plan was replaced with just focusing on the next 30 seconds to one minute of the course.

Talk about State Meet was replaced by reminders that we love them, no matter the outcome.

On Monday, we held hands before the hill workout and I had everyone think of someone that loves them unconditionally. On Tuesday, we all shared who we had thought about who loves us unconditionally. A game of duck, duck, goose followed. Then I passed out index cards and pens and told them to write down anything that was stressing them; I then asked them to write down the worst thing that could happen at the meet. After some sharing, I told them to rip up their card into as many pieces as they wanted and then throw the scraps into the garbage can before starting their warm-up.

CCS Week had become Kumbaya Week.

We held hands a lot. We formed a lot of circles when we talked. I sat down with them for meetings rather than standing over them.

I heard later that the kids were talking about it outside of practice, “What do you think he’s going to do today?” No we didn’t write our names in blood or sacrifice Lawrence at the team dinner. But I had them guessing now and more importantly had them thinking about what I would do next instead of worrying about the upcoming race.

At the team dinner, we played some crazy games. Everyone brought a stuffed animal and shared a story about their stuffed animal. The only time I said the word “State” that night was during the meeting when I said, “Getting to State isn’t that big a deal. It’s getting to spend an extra two weeks with the team that’s special.”

I went to the school’s Academic Resource Specialist (Cally Salzman) for advice. I figured she works with students who get nervous and struggle in class. I hoped she could give me a tip or two to help at the meet. She suggested giving them some time to sit alone, breathe deeply, and listen to music.

Normally we just send the team out to warm-up on their own with a basic idea of what time they should be ready to go to the starting line. Not Andy Chan 2.0. We gave them a very structured warm-up schedule. There was no time to get nervous because they were constantly checking the schedule to stay on task. Everything was plotted out. Usually I don’t let kids use their phones once we get to the meet. But this time I made an exception so we could use Cally’s suggestion. We gave five minutes of “Alone Time” for anyone who thought it would help them to sit, breathe deeply and listen to music.

At the starting line during the team huddle, I reminded them to focus on effort and attitude only. They should only concern themselves with the next thirty seconds to one minute of the course. If their mind wandered at all, they should think about how much everyone loves them.

During the race, I only said things related to effort and attitude and I gave them short term goals, things they would focus on for only a few seconds to a minute. This wasn’t easy for me, as I am wired to shout out their position in the race or who we needed to catch in order to qualify for State. In fact, I had to rehearse this strategy the night before the race.

Halfway through the race, I could tell that Aptos was way out in front and was going to win. The top three girls teams would qualify for State and mid-race it was clearly North Monterey Country (NMC) and Sobrato in second and third. I heard the announcer say we were in fourth and that our San Francisco rival, St Ignatius (SI) was in fifth.

In the last mile, I noticed SI was making a strong move up and that NMC and Sobrato were falling back. But still, every time I cheered for our Girls, all I would say was “give me a good effort,” “focus on attitude,” and “pass one person between here and the turn.” I never once shouted to them about the other teams’ position.

At the finish, I was super pleased. We had run great races all around. The Girls looked pleased but also nervous. They were wondering if we had qualified for State. I remember running up to them and telling them that they ran great, that that was the race we wanted and that we didn’t need a results sheet to tell us it was a good day. As we walked to the start line for the Boys race, I wouldn’t let myself think about whether we qualified or not. I was happy with the race. I wanted to follow my own advice and not care (too much) about the result.

Then we heard an unofficial announcement that we were third. That made things difficult. It would be too painful to start thinking we made it, only to find out that we hadn’t when the official results came out. I didn’t want to go down that road and I didn’t want the Girls to either. So I kept telling them to wait…to not celebrate yet. I was having an internal fight in my head, on one side I wanted to consider what it would be like if we qualified for State. On the other side, I kept saying to myself, “don’t go there.”

IMG_9470Finally, on my fiftieth refresh of the results web page in the twenty minutes since the race had ended, I saw the official results. Only fifteen points separated second place from fifth place. We were a State Meet qualifying third place, only six points ahead of Sobrato and only eight points ahead of NMC!

Wow! A lot of things went into this achievement. Mostly the girls who ran. But also the support from the alternates, the other coaches and the rest of the team. And if the Andy Chan 2.0 coaching style contributed just a little, I’m proud of that, too.

Reflections on a trip to the Manhattan Cross Country Invitational

Posted in SHC Cross Country by Andy Chan on October 18, 2014
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Taking the SHC team across the country top New York was a trip of a lifetime for all of us.

Taking the SHC team across the country top New York was a trip of a lifetime for all of us.

I have known about and thought about attending the Manhattan Cross Country Invitational for quite a few years. The annual meet is held at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx in New York. It is the second largest high school cross country meet in the country (behind only the Mt. Sac Invitational in Southern California) and it is the largest one-day high school cross country meet.

After taking the SHC team to the Mt. Sac Invitational in 2011 and the Woodbridge Invitational (the third largest meet in the country) in 2012, it was natural to think about making a trip to New York for the Manhattan Invitational. In fact several members of the class of 2015 asked me if we could go in 2014, so that over their four year career they would attend the three largest meets in the country. In between this year and the two trips to Southern California, in 2013, our overnight trip was to perhaps the most unique cross country meet in the country, the Three Course Challenge in Seaside, Oregon. I have taken the team to this meet every third year since 2004 and the last two times, we travelled by train.

The conversation about going to New York became more serious on the train ride home from Oregon in September 2013. Before I knew it, I was talking to the SHC choir director about how he plans the choir trips to New York and Europe. Before I knew it, I was e-mailing back and forth with a travel agent to put together a potential itinerary and get an approximate idea of the price.

It would be a five day, four night trip and cost in the neighborhood of $1,200-$1,400 per athlete. For this to happen I wanted at least twenty athletes to commit to going. The trip was approved by the administration in the spring of 2014. In May I began polling people to see if there really was interest. The interest was there. Now I had to see if people were going to back up their interest with a financial commitment. The “no turning back” deposit day came and I had checks from twenty-two families. A few weeks later, I was able to add three more travelers but those three had to pay an additional $100 to cover the late fees. In total we had 29 people going, 25 athletes and four coaches.

My assistant coaches that were going, Tomas Palermo, Rachel Giovannetti, and Sherie Lo Giudice, were critical to ensuring a safe and successful trip. They are all experienced coaches in our program. To have them with me was invaluable, as the four of us work seamlessly in terms of always seeing what needs to be done and thinking about everyone’s safety and well-being.

Even as I filled out rooming lists, made decisions about the itinerary, and filled out purchase orders to pay the travel agent, the trip seemed far far away. In September we had a team meeting to go over some of the team policies for the trip. That’s when it hit me, “we really are going to New York.” We were down to a group of 28 because of illness. We were about to fly 2,560 miles, to attend a meet with more than 5,000 runners, and we would be spending 107 straight hours together.

It was amazing how calm and at ease I was. I had a general idea of what I wanted to do and how I planned to handle certain situations like study hall, free time around New York, and getting the team around on the subway. But I also trusted my own experience in that I would have to wait until I got there to make some of these decisions. Thanks to the high usage of smartphones, I didn’t even feel the need to print out maps for the kids. I knew they would be able to use their phones to figure things out.

I did go out of my way to explain to the teachers at school why I was taking students out of class for such a lengthy amount of time right at the end of the grading period. I also felt it was important that we attend Sunday Mass and that the kids dress nicely for the plane ride and church. We had a long debate during a meeting, and in the end, the kids voted and decided to dress up in more than their polos and khakis for the plane ride to New York and church, if in exchange, I would let them change into “more comfortable” clothes for the plane ride home and the sightseeing on Sunday after Mass. When I was the team manager at UCLA we always dressed up for plane rides,  so it warmed my heart and reminded me of my college days when I arrived at the airport to leave San Francisco and the boys were in dress shirts and ties and the girls were in dresses or blouses.

At the airport - dress for success.

At the airport – dress for success.

One moment that will stay with me forever was in the bus that brought us from the Newark airport to our hotel in Manhattan. The kids started playing music on a speaker, and while I usually require them to use headphones, it was a special occasion so I let it go. As we drove through the streets of Manhattan, the Jay-Z/Alicia Keys song, “Empire State of Mind” came on and everyone cheered. We were here!

We had some challenges throughout the trip, but each time the kids stepped up to meet my expectations. Everyone was focused and followed directions when we had only 33 minutes in Detroit to get off our first flight and board and be seated on our second flight. When we had to move quickly to and from subways and keep the group together, everyone stayed within earshot and was ready to do what we told them. It was an impressive showing. As we lined up for a ferry to the Statue of Liberty, the security guard, who heard me give instructions to the kids and then saw the kids immediately go do what they were told, said to me, “nice job.”

Meet morning, my heart was racing. We gathered in the lobby and then started walking to the subway. It would be our first subway ride of the trip. What a rush to get on the NYC subway to go to a meet. Unfortunately, it was raining and we had no tent and no tarp. When we got to Van Cortlandt Park there were thousands of people everywhere and we didn’t really know where to go. Finally I found the check-in tent and then we found a tree that would at least provide us with a little shelter. The kids put their bags into the garbage bags we had bought at Walgreen’s the night before.

Group picture before the meet. Huddled under a tree to stay out of the rain.

Group picture before the meet. Huddled under a tree to stay out of the rain.

I gave each of the kids four Sacred Heart Cathedral rubber bracelets and told the kids to give them to people they met during the meet. I also cancelled our usual no phone policy for the meet, because I knew kids would want their phones to take pictures to remember the experience and share with others. We even had our own hashtag for the trip (#SHCXCinNY). Thanks to the bracelets, Carolyn made friends with Kellenberg Memorial High School, which was the team near us. They offered for us to put our bags under their tent.

My next unforgettable moment occurred as I was getting ready to take the starting line photo of our first race, the JV Boys. Blossom took the camera from me and said that she thought that I should be in all the starting line photos today because this was New York. It also warmed my heart to see the kids running the race with their bracelets and then taking it off in the finish chute and giving it to a runner next to them.

At the Statue of Liberty. Couldn't quite get our whole team AND Lady Liberty into the frame.

At the Statue of Liberty. Couldn’t quite get our whole team AND Lady Liberty into the frame.

The whole trip was filled with moments that brought a smile to my face. We had a nice balance between time all together (bus tour of New York, team dinner at Angelo’s Pizza, Sunday Mass), activities we did as a group but where people could break into smaller groups for certain parts (sightseeing at the Statue of Liberty and the 9/11 Memorial Museum), and free time when the kids were on their own and had to meet me at a specific time and place (a somewhat nerve racking time period for me). The kids had earned my trust by working with me, not against me, throughout the trip. They deserved some time on their own to explore and make their own decisions. That’s when they really learn some life lessons. I reminded them to stay in groups and to make good decisions. Then I crossed my fingers. Fortunately, they did not disappoint. Ironically, I kept getting lost around New York such that I was the one a little tardy to the meet up spots.

One thing about these trips that always brings a smile to my face is when I see two people, who I didn’t think were particularly close, have a long conversation or joke around about something. During a trip of this length, the coaches really get to learn more about each student on a more personal level, too. And the beauty of a group this size, it was small enough to be manageable for the coaches but large enough that if someone started to get on your nerves you could easily just go hang out with someone else for a few hours.

All in all, I really enjoyed this trip. Before dismissing the kids when we got back to SFO, I told them: “I enjoyed this trip a lot. And without all of you there would be no trip. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you for coming to New York with me.”

The Ride Home from the State Meet

Posted in Coaching,SHC Cross Country by Andy Chan on December 6, 2012
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SHC at the 2012 California Cross Country State Championship Meet

SHC at the 2012 California Cross Country State Championship Meet

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!

Jars of colored sand from our unity ceremony.

Jars of colored sand from our unity ceremony.

Night Cross Country Races

Posted in SHC Cross Country by Andy Chan on September 21, 2012
Tags: ,

It was in the 90’s when we arrived at the Woodbridge Cross Country Classic in the late afternoon. But soon the sun would set and it would be time for some night cross country races!

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 JV Girls ran first and came back with some excellent tips about the course for the rest of the team.

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

The sun was setting when the Frosh Boys race started.

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.

When the Varsity Girls raced, it was definitely night conditions.

Making Cuts in Cross Country

Posted in Coaching,SHC Cross Country by Andy Chan on August 29, 2012
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All the kids come running to check for names that appear under this heading.

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.


E.J. in one of his first races after making the team in 2006.

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. and his proud coach after his final high school race in 2010.

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.

Two Olympians. One High School. No Home Track.

The names Tina Kefalas and Shannon Rowbury both appear on this all-league plaque in the Sacred Heart Cathedral trophy case.

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.

Tina Kefalas racing for the Irish in Golden Gate Park.

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

Shannon Rowbury racing for the Irish as a freshman in 1998.

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.

Assistant Coaches – Tomas Palermo, one of the best

Posted in Coaching,SHC Cross Country,SHC Track & Field by Andy Chan on January 28, 2012
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SHC Coaches always in sync.

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.

Coach Tomas in his first season in 2004.

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.    

At the 2004 CCS Championships - we left it all out there on this day!

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!

Coach Tomas is the bomb diggity!

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Posted in Coaching,Pamakid Runners,SHC Cross Country,SHC Track & Field by Andy Chan on December 26, 2011

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.


Racing at the 2011 Zippy 5K

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.  

Shannon Rowbury battles Christin Wurth-Thomas at the finish of the women's 1500 meters at the 2011 USA Championships

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. And to all, Happy Running!

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