Track Coach

“There’s nothing Special Here.”

By Russ Ebbets

This is the interview with prep coach Chip Button promised last issue. Button coaches at a medium-sized high school in New York state. Button’s teams over the years have won 14 NY state cross country championships and 34 Classs B sectional titles. Button told Russ Ebbets “there’s nothing special here.” Read the interview and see if you agree.

How did you get started in coaching?

I began coaching as an Indoor track assistant at Monticello (NY) HS when I got my first teaching job. I assisted Coach Ken Garry for six years of indoor and outdoor track before I moved on to Burnt Hills – Ballston Lake HS. I was asked to coach the indoor track distance runners by Coach Dick Stevens on my arrival. After three years here, in 1991, I became the cross country coach for both the boys’ and girls’ teams. The two teams were split in the fall of 1997 when a girls’ coaching position was created. In 1996, I became the head indoor track coach and in 2003, I became the head outdoor track coach.

Could you describe your school size, typical team size and the competition format of your league, sectional and state competitions.

Burnt Hills – Ballston Lake HS is a medium-sized school that has gotten progressively smaller over the past 30 years. We are currently at just under 700 students for grades 10-12. In the mid-90s, we had as many as 45 runners. Since 2000, we’ve averaged in the mid-30s. In the last two years with Covid, our numbers have been down to the low 20s. We compete in NYS Section 2 and we’re a member of the Suburban Council where we’re one of the smaller schools. In the Suburban Council, our dual meet schedule consists of five meets, where we run against the other fifteen schools. The Suburban Council X-C Championships are run in late October with races for all levels – Modified, Freshman, JV, and Varsity. For Sectionals and State competition in cross country, we’ve been a Class B team for the last 24 years.

What was your personal competitive background? How much of that coaching and training influence has remained with you?

I started running track in high school at Burnt Hills as a sophomore and then ran two years of cross country. I ran cross country and track for all four of my years at Geneseo in the early ‘70s. After very little running after college, I got back into it in the early ‘80s with some racing on the roads and eventually track at the Colonie Summer meets. That led to running at the Empire State Games, mostly as a sub-master. At age 37, with the 1990 Empire State Games being held in Syracuse, I qualified for the Open 5000m and ran 15:33, finishing 7th. 

My most competitive years, and best years, where I set all my PRs, were in my late 30s – indoor track, outdoor track, and on the roads. I never had a coach beyond college but for a time I did a workout once a week with a Saratoga Stryders group which was coached by Rich Jones, a Saratoga podiatrist. His workouts, which were largely based on Jack Daniels, had a pronounced effect on my coaching. They become the basis for much of what we did workout-wise in our early years, some of which are still part of our training today. Additionally, progression runs were my favorite type of distance runs when I was training and were particularly effective for racing at longer distances (15k, 10k, half-marathons). I’ve managed to work modified progression runs into our current training.

Your career spans four decades, several of them pre-internet. Who were your early coaching influences?

I spent nine years as an assistant under two great coaches – Ken Garry at Monticello and Dick Stevens at Burnt Hills. Working with them really helped provide me with a blueprint on how to run a program. Ken was amazing. For indoors and outdoors, he wrote the daily workout for each group and then between him, me, and the other assistant, we would implement them. He knew every event from the sprints, distance, jumps, throws, and even the walk. Dick had over 20 years of experience when I got to Burnt Hills and had worked with many great athletes, including coaching Miles Irish. When I began, he gave me a comprehensive list of distance workouts that he had developed. I used them for my first three years of coaching the indoor track distance runners. I should also mention my cross country coach at Geneseo, Coach Martin Kentner. He was definitely old-school but his emphasis on being positive, I believe, had a lasting impact on anyone who ran for him. His favorite phrase was PMA – Positive Mental Attitude. I’ve tried to make that a cornerstone of our program. 

How much has your approach to coaching changed over the last 20 years?

I don’t believe that my approach to coaching has changed much over the last 20 years or even over the past 30 years, but I do think that I’ve become a much better coach. I think that in my first ten years, I was more focused on our first group and making things happen, stressing what needs to be done to win. At some point, after ten years or so, we had what you could call our “culture” established; there hasn’t been as much of a need for that with the expectations for each season having been set. Once I slowed down as a runner, I wasn’t running with the first group as much, and I think that it’s made me a much better coach by having greater contact with every athlete on the team, gaining a better understanding of what they each need to do individually, to improve as runners. That’s led to stronger, more cohesive teams.

With the advent of the Internet there has been a proliferation of coaching related information – any sites you find particularly useful?

Not really. In the ‘90s, I subscribed to Running Research News which I found very helpful in thinking about training and creating effective workouts based on their research and findings. I’ve also subscribed to Track Coach for over 30 years which I’ve found very helpful, both for distance training, and for their track and field-specific articles. Of course, the Internet has been particularly useful in helping with scouting other teams and individuals. Tully Runners has been invaluable along with both Milesplit and Dyestat.

Year in and year out you have had successful cross country programs. What type of development programs does your school have?

We’ve had a modified cross country team since 2017, except for 2020, when the Suburban Council did not offer modified sports due to Covid. Prior to 2017, middle school students wanting to run cross country had to be selectively classified to participate but it became more difficult with the NYS Athletic Placement Process which was scaring away potential runners from even signing up to take the test. Our teams the last few years have benefited greatly from having a modified program. This past year, we had our smallest team ever, with just 21 runners. Fortunately, we had 14 boys on our modified team. That should pay dividends in the coming years.

Do you strive for progressive development of an athlete? What are your expectations for junior high, frosh, JV, and varsity competitors in terms of weekly load, summer prep and racing schedule?

The development of each athlete should be the priority of every program if they expect to be consistently competitive, and it certainly is with ours. It is the foundation that makes replacing graduating seniors each year possible. I’ve always felt that running is developmental but also is individual to each athlete. The great thing about distance running is that everyone is able to improve. 

The initial starting point for each athlete is of course different but the process for improving oneself as runner is the same. It’s important that the athlete is made aware of what’s required to improve. Having veteran athletes who serve as role models for beginning runners is invaluable. Our process in developing runners has worked very well over many years and that helps give the athlete the confidence, knowing that if they put the consistent hard work and effort into their training, that they can one day be a Varsity runner. For our team, Middle School and Freshman athletes have been an integral part of the team. While their mileage is less, their workouts are structured similar to those of the Varsity/JV runners. Generally, the distances that comprise their workouts are shorter with fewer repetitions. 

It’s important that while their workouts are challenging, that the athlete is able to be successful at them. Their distance runs are at whatever pace they want. They should enjoy them. The one thing that is consistent between groups is that everyone takes the training serious, with a commitment to improving and getting faster. For the freshman, the number of races that they run is dependent on whether they have demonstrated the ability to race at a distance of three miles, which would allow them to race at those Invitationals which don’t have a Freshman race. The top Varsity guys race the most, with the addition of the championship races at the end of the season.

Having veteran athletes who serve as role models for beginning runners is invaluable.

Do you have general goals, in a broader sense (things like team orientation, citizenship, maturity, selflessness, mentoring, personal discipline, etc.) for each level of your program? What is the first skill or behavior you like to see a newbie exhibit? What is a behavior you hope to see in one of your graduating seniors? 

I wouldn’t call them goals, but I do have expectations both for the team and for each athlete. My background as a teacher was in special education. For all my years at Burnt Hills, I had what was basically a self-contained class of 9th and 10th graders. I’ve come to realize that this has had a pronounced effect on my coaching, how I view coaching. Specifically, viewing each athlete as an individual and working with them as such. Just as each athlete has their own starting point from a physical standpoint, so to do they have their individual starting point in terms of maturity, personal responsibility, and communicating with me. To me, the primary expectation that I have for any athlete is having the ability to communicate with me. It’s starts with letting me know about anything involving practices, meets, and extends to injuries. Communication is the basis of our coaching/athlete relationship. Early on, some of this communication for a few athletes, might be handled by a parent but ultimately it needs to be assumed by the athlete. Initially, those expectations are delivered to the entire team but the task of working on those expectations for the athletes who need it done individually in a positive way. When a new athlete, such as a Middle School student, feels comfortable enough to talk to me, leave a message, or even email me, that speaks volumes for that athlete. I think that’s the one behavior that I would hope to see in a senior athlete, is that they all are looking forward to helping their younger teammates in any way that they’re able to.

What type of summer prep do you recommend for the different levels? What are the consequences if somebody skips out on this preparation?

Our summer program has been going on for the last 20 or so years. Prior to that it was up to athlete to continue running on their own during the summer and it was hit or miss. At the end of each June we meet and I go over what they should work on during July and August, leading up to the official first day of practice. The practices are organized by the veteran runners and involve mostly distance. The routine has become pretty much set by our previous generations – Monday / Friday from the High School – Tuesday / Wednesday / Thursday from a nearby park. 

Attendance has been very good among the more serious runners, Freshman through Seniors, and more recently a few Middle School athletes. Weekly updates on how the week went, along with who attended, are provided to me by one of the veteran runners. For over 30 years, we’ve had a group of runners attend a running camp in August, the week before the season starts. For the last 20 years, we’ve gone to Foss Running Camp in New Hampshire. That has helped serve as an additional motivation for athletes to stay in running shape over the summer so that they’re ready to go when they get there, and then return to begin our serious training. It also brings the guys together and helps carrying on; camp rituals have been ongoing for many years.

Do you chart volume in miles or minutes per week? How are things different between the boys’ and girls’ programs?

In terms of our distance runs, we run for minutes but then I covert them to miles for my tracking how much we’re running per week. Generally, we average in the low 50s throughout most of the season. Over the last few weeks with our championships races, it drops to the low 40s. While I did coach both the boys’ and girls’ teams in the mid-90’s, once a girls’ head coach position was created for the girls’ team, I’ve been unaware of their weekly mileage.

Do you divide the season into different parts with a different emphasis?

I don’t. I see each season as more of a continuum. We start with a series of longer workouts in the first few weeks of the season and then they’re repeated through the middle part of the season, when they can be fit in, and then later when the dual meet part of our season ends, which allows for more time to train and recover, with meets only on weekends. With our season extending into late November, or even early December, we repeat some of our longer workouts into early November. Once we reach the championships, workouts do change, generally shorter and faster, but exactly how they change is dependent of the team and our outlook for the approaching races.

Leadership on a team is critical. What is your leadership structure from varsity on down? Do you have separate boys’ and girls’ captains?

I only coach our boys’ cross country team. The girls’ program is separate. I’m the only coach that the boys’ team has had in over 30 years. Except for two different years in the ‘90s when there was a volunteer assistant, I’ve never had an assistant. So yes, there are separate captains for the boys’ and girls’ teams. The captains and the other seniors play a vital role in our organization, particularly with our daily practices.

What training (leadership guidelines, books, etc.) or words of wisdom do you give your captains? Are there any specific tasks you set for them to foster their development?

We’ve always had captains. They are a major help for me in dealing a wide range of tasks. Captains are essential for the smooth running of our team. At the same time, in the last few years, we’ve broadened things to involve all seniors in some of that process. One of those roles involves each senior having their own warm-up groups to lead. After the first week or so of I put together warm-up groups that are made of athletes from different grades, trying to separate friends, with a senior in charge. This way they get to know a wider range of teammates that might not otherwise happen. Our whole warm-up process takes about 30 minutes and is largely run by the captains and seniors. Our captains have had great role models in previous captains and understand the role they need to play during practices, so that everything works smoothly. Meets are another place where captains and seniors play a vital role. The captains and other seniors are responsible for the warm-ups for the different races – Varsity, JV, and Freshman. Our team warm-up for meets has been handed down from generation to generation, with only minor tweaks each season. The captains / seniors are responsible to seeing that it’s carried out so that when it’s time to race, everyone is prepared and ready to run. 

Typically, what is your season-long racing schedule look like for the different levels? How many big meets do you prepare for? How close are they together?

Captains are essential for the smooth running of our team. 

While our racing schedule has evolved over the last 30 years, it been quite stable for the last 20 years or so, with any changes being mostly due to the date of certain Invitationals moving around. Along with our Invitationals, we have five Tuesday Suburban Council dual meets that typically start the week after Labor Day. Our first Invitational is usually around Labor Day. It’s a small, low-key meet with a three mile course that is two loops, all on grass. It’s just a hard effort, more than anything else, just to get the feel of racing. Then we have a weekend or two off from racing, followed by trips to Baldwinsville (Syracuse area) and McQuaid (Rochester) on back-to-back weekends. Both had been 3-mile courses, although Baldwinsville just increased their length to 5k. The two races build on each other, with McQuaid being the more important of the two. Then, we have a weekend off from racing, followed by our own Invitational on the Saratoga State Park course. At this point our dual meets are usually over, and with another weekend with no racing, we’re ready for the championship races – Suburbans, Sectionals, State, Federations, and Nike Regionals. In terms of the different levels – for Fonda, Baldwinsville, and McQuaid – Varsity and JV runners race there, along with any freshman capable of racing the 3-mile distance. Our Invitational has a freshman race as do our dual meets and Suburbans, which is where most of our Freshmen run the shorter distance of the freshman course. 

What do you do to avoid injuries? (pre-hab, dynamic warm-up, etc.) Can you share some specifics?

We’ve had the same warm-up routine for the past 13 years. It involves both easy running, stretching – both dynamic and static, followed by a faster ten minutes. We also end our practice with about ten minutes of a combination of ab work, dynamic stretches, and some yoga. Given that, and the fact that for most of the season, we only run around 50 miles a week with recovery days after hard workouts and meets, we make an effort not to pound their legs. 

The best prevention though for injuries is communication between the athlete and me about how they’re doing. That the athlete has an understanding between normal soreness and pain, and the willingness to let me know if things feel out of order. That information allows us to back off, when necessary, by just having them run easy or bike, if necessary, before it develops into something more serious. In most cases, taking these steps can prevent the initial soreness / pain from developing into something more serious. The athlete needs to feel comfortable in letting me know before it becomes something that will impact them for training. 

How much is resistance or weight training used in the off-season versus in-season?

As with their running, what an athlete does during the summer is up to them. During the season, we’re able to get into our fitness center near the end of practice about once a week. It’s not very structured, concentrating mostly on the use of light hand-held weights. 

Do you use much circuit training? If so, how often? What does this entail?

We don’t for cross country but typically we have done a form of circuit training to start each indoor and outdoor track season.

What is your injury management protocol? How do you determine when an injured athlete is ready to “return to play?”

I wouldn’t call it an injury management protocol. We’ve been fortunate in that for the large majority of our runners, injuries are rare. We do have a trainer and we take advantage of his services, when needed. Once he’s involved, he takes over and decides the course of action for that athlete. In our past season, athletes needing to see him was rare. The most important factor in preventing and recovering from an injury is communication between the athlete and myself, that they’re comfortable in talking to me about some soreness that they may be experiencing before it develops into something more serious.

What personal habits do you strive to inculcate in your athletes? Do the individual qualities differ from what you like to see as a team’s qualities?

I would hope that all our athletes are able to take on the characteristics of our previous athletes who helped make us the team that we are today. Those include showing up at practice every day with the desire to make themselves a better runner, showing up every day to be the best teammate that they can possibly be, to work with their teammates at practice and during races to help make the team stronger, and to encourage all of their teammates, both during practices and during races. While those are the important individual qualities that I would hope that all our athletes demonstrate, collectively, those characteristics reflect the team qualities that have helped make us the team that we’ve been for many years. Like so much of what we do, the examples set by our veteran athletes, and with them having inherited those qualities for previous generations, serve as the best role models for our younger runners, and help keep those qualities an essential part of who we are as a team.

Social media can be a blessing or a curse – how do you manage that? What about cell phones at practice?

I personally don’t take part in any form of social media and the guys know how I feel about it. The dangers that social media presents are spelled out in our Athletic Code of Conduct and are highlighted by an administrator’s talk that they have with each team at the beginning of the season. For practices, phones and electronic devices need to be kept out of sight for the duration. The athletes have been good about following through on this.

What is the level of parental involvement with your teams? How do you get the parents “on board” with your goals and objectives?

Our cross country and track teams have had strong, consistent support from the Burnt Hills Track Club since before I started coaching at Burnt Hills. They provide a wide range of assistance throughout the year but particularly during the cross country season. They help organize the timing and scoring of our dual meets, along with providing course marshals. Parents provide the planning and workforce for the Burnt Hills Cross Country Invitational in October which has grown to almost 100 teams. We’re not able to use Burnt Hills buses for meets out of Section 2 so the Track Club organizes the parent-drivers for driving our athletes to those meets. 

During the cross country season, the Track Club puts together a yearbook for each of the boys and girls on the team. They also organize the season-ending cross country banquet. We – coaches and parents – work together to provide that best experience for our athletes. Parents continue to step up to fill the ranks to replace those who move on once their sons or daughters have graduated. I’ve never had to do anything specific to get parents “on board”. The positive experiences of our athletes speak volumes for our program to parents, teachers, and administrators. 

What is the biggest parental obstacle you face? How do you handle it?

I don’t feel that I’ve had had to deal with obstacles from the parents of our distance runners.

Funding all high school sports can be an issue nowadays. How much fundraising do you do? Do financial constraints limit what you’d like to do?

We have a very strong parent organization, the Burnt Hills Track Club, which was organized about 40 years ago. It puts on our cross country invitational in October. The meet has grown over the years and now draws over 90+ teams each fall. The proceeds from the Invitational help support our cross country, indoor track and outdoor track teams. The Track Club also collects nominal dues from athletes each season, which also helps. The work that I’ve done as the meet director of the Invitational is the only thing that I’ve done that could be considered fundraising. We also have a couple of benefactors who make substantial donations to the Track Club each year. We’ve been fortunate in this regard. 

What are your recommendations regarding personal habits like sleep, diet (what people eat) and nutrition (the quality of food eaten)?

Athletes are encouraged to eat well-balanced meals. This past season, our girls’ head coach organized a series of workshops for the boys and girls cross country athletes with a nutritionist that was funded by the Track Club and was well received by our athletes.

Psychological strength comes from psychological security. How do you create a team environment that encourages individuals to consistently perform at a high level?

Our team environment, culture, if you will, has been established over the past thirty years. It really is the foundation that has led to our success. There really are two distinct parts of what make up that culture. There’s the role that I play in setting the tone and expectations for the athletes and for the team. Providing the consistency and enabling the building of trust between myself, both with the individual athlete, and with the team as a whole. This is not just during the cross country season; it’s year-round, through indoor track, outdoor track, and the summer, as well as. 

The other half, which is just as important and, if not more, has been provided by each successive team, building on the traditions and rituals of previous teams. This has always been very important for the guys on the team, adhering to the past, but at the same time making it their own. There are things that have been performed at each practice for over 25 years. This has led to a relaxed, encouraging atmosphere that that has fostered a close, inclusive team. That, mixed with the expectation of consistent hard work and effort at each practice and at meets, allows our athletes to perform at a high level when necessary. This environment, culture, wasn’t created in a vacuum or artificially. It came about naturally, although where it is now, is in the vein that I envisioned when I took the cross country position 30y years ago.

What about your stellar performers, the league, sectional, or state champions – what mental patterns or behaviors do you strive to develop in them?

The development for each of our runners starts on their first day of practice. While overall we have a relaxed atmosphere at practice and at meets, when it comes to the work that we do at practice and the racing that we do at meets, there is a seriousness that I want all our runners to have. That’s why we do this, why we put all the time and effort into training, so that when it’s time to race, everyone is ready. That mindset is established on the first practice of each season. The veteran athletes set the tone and any new runner picks up on how we do things. The same is true at meets, whether they be dual meets, invitationals, or championship meets. There’s time to be relaxed but when we’re viewing the course, warming up, doing strides before the gun, and certainly racing, there’s a seriousness and focus amongst the entire team. Even for dual meets, we take racing seriously – the effort isn’t exactly the same as for our invitational or championship races, but the attitude, mindset, and routine is the same. How we go about things is businesslike, contributing to the focus and necessary toughness, needed for the championship races at the end of the season. So, it all begins with how we, first, approach practices, which then carries through to our dual meets, invitationals, and ultimately, to Sectionals, State, Federation and Regionals. Developmentally, by the time that an athlete finds himself in a varsity position, he’s ready to go, no matter what the stakes are.

The veteran athletes set the tone and any new runner picks up on how we do things.

How much team travel do you do in the cross country season? Is it the same for the different levels?

As mentioned in an earlier question, we take two trips during the season. The first to Baldwinsville, which is out and back in one day. The next week, we travel to McQuaid which is an overnight for both boys’ and girls’ teams. Our Varsity and JV teams race there along with any Freshman who’ve shown that they can handle the 3-mile distance.

What does a typical two-race mid-season week look like training wise? How do you handle recovery in mid-season?

Out of the 14 weeks of the past season, which was typical, we only had three weeks where we had a dual meet on Tuesday and then a Saturday invitational. Two of those weeks were back-to-back in the middle of the season. Our routine for those weeks was the same. We did our dual meet pre-race and then ran the dual meet. On Wednesday, we did about 40 minutes of distance followed by uphills / downhills. Thursday, we did something that we began doing a couple of years ago for weeks like this – ten minutes / five short uphills / ten minutes / 3 x 100m building the first 50m and then finishing for the last 50m hard / then 10 minutes. Once we get into the middle and late part of the season, we don’t do much long, hard distance, most of our distance runs are for recovery.

How is discipline handled on your team?

It’s very rare that there’s a need for me to discipline an athlete on our team but if it were to be necessary, I would handle it individually. I can only think of two or three times in my 31 years of coaching cross country, that I have had to address the entire team about actions that didn’t meet the expectations of what we represent. 

Psychologists see anxiety as the most contagious of all the emotions. How did you teach your runners to maintain a steely-eyed confidence in the moments before a race start to insure, they would compete, if not dominate?

I wouldn’t say that it’s something that I explicitly teach. It’s much more about creating a certain team mindset that is present every day, at practice and at meets, which then becomes a part of the individual runner’s mindset. It’s just how we do things. Part of it is approaching everything with a positive attitude – not looking for the negative. Racing is what we train for and look forward to. I’ve heard many speakers talk about going to the line with the knowledge that they’ve put in all the hard work and preparation necessary to run well, that gives them the confidence to go out and race to the best of their ability. That’s a large part of it. Additionally, while how the team fares is important, the expectation for each runner is the same, all they can do is go out and run their best, whether it’s a dual meet, invitational, or championship race. The rest will take care of itself. With that expectation from the start of the runner’s career, it helps keep the expectations of the race in perspective and allows the runner to compete at the highest level with confidence and less anxiety. 

On the other hand, joy is seen as the most difficult emotion to manage as it can generate doubts (this can’t last, I’m not worthy of this honor, why did this happen to me?) or create an inflated opinion of self that can misdirect efforts (conceit, arrogance, feelings of “I don’t have to do that anymore”, resting on one’s laurels). What do you do to maintain an “even keel” and keep the noses to the grindstone as opposed to a senioritis-type attitude? 

I think that it’s all about being grounded, both for the individual and for the team. It all goes together. Part of that is not getting too high or too low. Brian Gagnon, an elite 800m runner, who has been our counselor at Foss Running Camp for several years, when he gives his talk at camp, he says that you have 30 minutes afterward to mentally deal with the highs and the lows of the race and then move on. For all our success over the years, nothing changes in our approach to racing. Racing is enjoyable but done in a businesslike way, with a common goal – running the best race possible for each runner, whether it’s Varsity, JV, or Freshman. We’ve never had a problem with veteran runners losing interest during their senior year and that’s true for guys who will run all the way through indoor and outdoor track. The best example of this is with our group of four guys who graduated in 2018. They were so dedicated throughout every season of their careers and were just as hungry at the end of their junior and senior years that they organized their entry into the NB Outdoor Nationals, arranged transportation and hotels with their parents for the trip, and then finished 2nd each year, running two of Section 2’s top three times in the 4 X Mile Relay. While they were exceptional, in this regard, they represent how our seniors finish their high school careers, whether they be distance runners, sprinters, or field event athletes.

How do you teach racing tactics? Are there basic racing skills you expect all your runners to have? What about the athletes at the highest level?

Whether it’s cross country or track, I think that how races are run is incredibly important. In evaluating races, there are two immediate outcomes – place and time. While it might seem, they should carry equal weight, the athlete’s place is largely dependent on the other athletes in the race. Most often, the athlete’s time is the essential measuring stick for an athlete’s performance. For me, it’s really only at the championship level where the place becomes the more important outcome, and that’s where racing tactics come into play. What we do talk a great deal about though, is pacing, which in my mind is different from racing tactics. The runner needs to figure out the pacing for the time that he wants to run to reach his goal. This is one of the values of dual meets, where athletes are able to get the experience racing different distances, to get a sense of the pacing that will yield an improvement in their time. It’s something that we talk a great deal about, both before the race and especially afterward when evaluating the race. 

To me, the other hoped-for outcome of a well-paced race, is a strong finish by the athlete. Developing that “kick” becomes even more important in a championship setting, where the finishes of the individual runners will determine the final result. Once the athlete has a sense of the pacing that results in his running a strong race, he is better able to use that in developing the necessary tactics that it takes to run well and place in championship races, whether it be cross country or track.

Race courses repeat year after year. Do you have an inventory of course demands or simple profiles of a race course that is shared with the team? Is this process done formally or informally?

Over the course of 30 years, I’ve seen many, many cross country courses, in Section 2, across the State, and a few out-of-state. I have stored away memories of just about every course that we’ve run on, even courses that I ran in college. The demands and the profile of the course are part of what I cover when going over courses before we race there. For most of the courses, particularly those we’ve run on frequently, there’s the past knowledge of our previous races over that course and how we’ve have handled our races there. That helps ramp up the interest in the upcoming meet. This might take place in the days before but more of it will take place when we’re doing the team run-through of the course on the day of the meet. This is where guys talking about their own experiences on the course is particularly helpful.

Most often, the athlete’s time is the essential measuring stick for an athlete’s performance. 

What has kept you motivated doing this year after year?

While there are a number of factors that have kept me motivated to continue coaching cross country, and also track, the primary reason that I’m as motivated now as I have been throughout my career, is that I continue to have athletes who are incredibly dedicated to our team, and to improving themselves as runners. They understand our process and believe in it, knowing that if they put in the hard work and effort, the payoff is their improvement and the resulting performance of our team. While this process has evolved and been strengthened over the last 15 years or so, since the beginning, it’s been understood that to reap the rewards from running requires dedication and commitment to improving as an athlete. From the beginning, I feel that we – athletes, team, and myself – have always been on the same page with all aspects of our program: training, racing, schedule, and most importantly, our culture. I have been incredibly fortunate to have been able to be part of what we have here, and to coach each of the athletes that I’ve coached over the years.

What do you see as your greatest coaching strength?

I think that my greatest strength is my ability to get a sense of where each athlete is, both physically and mentally, from the very beginning through their senior year. This is something that I’ve gotten much better at over the last 20 years or so. In the early part of my coaching career, I was too focused on the top runners in each group – Varsity, JV, and Freshman – and perhaps not paying enough attention to the entire team. As my own running slowed down, and even more so once I retired from teaching, I been able to pay more attention to our entire roster, each as an individual runner. It wasn’t something that I necessarily did consciously, it just evolved. It’s helped make us a more inclusive, closer team.

How do you handle pep talks? Individually, as a team or both?

The talks that I have with the team and with individual runners before races are a combination of strategy session and pep talk. They’re usually straightforward and low key, with my going over the course, the team(s) that we’ll be running against, top individual runners, and generally what each of the runners should be looking out for. There are some differences between those for dual meets where Varsity and JV run together, invitationals, and championship races. For any overnight  – McQuaid, State, Federation, Regionals – those are our bigger meets, we always have a team meeting the evening before the meet to run through everything about the next day’s race, starting with the schedule, things to pay attention to throughout the day, the strategy for the team, and ending what could be considered a pep talk. If the JV is racing, like at McQuaid, I’ll have a similar talk with them separately. For dual meets, it’s more low key, more focused on what needs to be done to win tactically, without the same expenditure of energy as for an invitational or championship meet.

What do you say to your team in the huddle in the minutes before a race start? How does this differ from a dual meet to a championship?

This has changed over time. Early on, I would give more information about the upcoming race, but I realized that it wasn’t that useful giving it just moments before the gun goes off. Now, I do it in stages, some just before they start their warm-up, usually what we’re up against for that race and then, a more detailed look about how the race should play out. In the huddle, it might just be a few keys to the race for individuals and for the team, but it’s short and sweet. I think that for dual meets, it’s more routine, mostly about how to pace and still run strong enough to win, giving just the right amount of effort to make that happen.

If I were a new coach, what do you feel are the first things I’d need to get a handle on?

I think that the first thing that a new coach, starting with a new team, is to get a handle on the where each athlete is coming from – their experience, their athletic background (not just running), their expectations, past performances, and their goals for the season and beyond. Then, taking that information to begin working on a plan to bring each of those individual runners together as a team. That would be the beginning of creating the culture that the coach envisions for building a successful team.

What is the most amazing thing you have seen, something you will never forget?

I would have to say, not just the most amazing, but for me, the most meaningful, was Otis Ubriaco’s 3200m win at the 2010 NYS Outdoor Track Championships. I was on the far side of the track, across from the finish line, watching and cheering Otis on. Even 25 meters from the line it didn’t look like Otis would be able to get to Chad Noelle but he kept closing and caught him right at the line to win by 0.02 seconds, 9:04.75 to 9:04.77, and with a slew of finishers right behind them. I have a CD of the race and every time that I watch it, I think that there’s no way that Otis can get there. They negative split the race – 4:35.86 / 4:28.89 – with Otis running a 60.7 last lap.

The Gauntlet – the Suburban Council has a scheduling oddity that schedules seven races in 17 days in the middle of the season. How do you balance racing and training during this time? Why has this situation not changed?

Frankly, I’ve never seen it as a problem. For us, it’s always about how we’ve been able to manage our dual meets throughout that time, trying to do just enough to win. With the dual meets generally being on a Tuesday, there’s enough time to recover before the weekend Invitational. There was a year where we had to run the dual meet on Wednesday before our trip to McQuaid. That was a little tight, but we still raced well at McQuaid. In any event, the way our weekend invitationals are scheduled, there’s a two week period at the end of September, where we have a dual meet on Tuesday, and an invitational on Saturday. A couple of weeks later, we have one week with the same configuration. We’ve always been able to manage it. How other coaches in Suburban handle it, that varies from team to team. Regarding why it continues to exist, that’s the decision of the Suburban Council Athletic Directors. Over the last several years, the coaches have had very little input regarding our schedule.

Is there a question you don’t get asked often but wish it was asked?

Until recently, I was rarely asked any questions about what we do. It’s only been in the last year or so that anyone has asked me about what it is that we do. I’m open to those questions, although there’s no real “secret” as to what we’ve been able to accomplish, as I think my answers in this interview reveal.