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 stages of developing a high school cross country program, Part 3


Coach Andy Chan and the Sacred Heart Cathedral Team


Part 3 – This is part three of a three part series on the stages of developing a high school cross country program.

Just after our meeting when I told the boys my timeline of goals

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.”

The SHC Coaching Staff

The stages of developing a high school cross country program, Part 1

Coach Anna Kurtz and the Bay School Team

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.

The Bay School coaches: Jimi Smith, Paul Zager, and Anna Kurtz

10 Years of Coaching at SHC

Posted in Coaching,SHC Cross Country by Andy Chan on November 28, 2007
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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.

84:36 – The Fastest Boys Team in School History

Posted in Race/Meet Report,SHC Cross Country by Andy Chan on November 10, 2007
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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:

27. Paul Rechsteiner 16:31
37. Jared Wicklund 16:41
47. Jarrett Moore 16:55
58. Tommy Redmond 17:10
64. Jonathan Juntado 17:19
68. Jim McHugh 17:24
78. Kyle Wong 17:36

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.

Dear CCS Team,

Posted in Coaching,Race/Meet Report,SHC Cross Country by Andy Chan on November 12, 2006
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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.