U.S. Distance Coaches Target Paris Podium

New Balance Boston Elite coach Mark Coogan’s charges Elle St. Pierre and Emily Mackay (pictured) medaled at the World Indoor. (KEVIN MORRIS)

AT THE WORLD INDOOR, the U.S. team produced its best showing ever at distances 800 and up; the 7-medal haul for the men and women topped by 1 the tally from the ’16 meet, which in itself was an outlier. Does this mean that American distance runners are experiencing a renaissance and are better positioned to win medals in Paris? Or is it just a blip on the radar screen, a reflection that the undercover meet doesn’t attract top-shelf runners in a year where the focus is on the Olympics?

Two prominent coaches, both of whom guided athletes to medals in Glasgow, feel the indoor medal haul is a sign that the U.S. is trending upward in the distance game.

“We’re getting better,” says Ron Warhurst, who coached Hobbs Kessler to his 1500 bronze. “I think there are more coaches doing more things that we’ve learned from the sciences and different experiences from all the other runners from around the world, and we showed up pretty good in the indoor. We’ll have to see if that carries over to the outdoor.”

Mark Coogan, who coached both Elle St. Pierre and Emily Mackay to medals, agrees that we’re seeing a good trend. “I definitely do.” A major factor in his eyes is the ongoing development of professional training groups. “To be honest, it all probably did start a few years ago, when Alberto [Salazar] started his group and started getting teams together. I think the big part of the success [New Balance Boston Elite] is having is because we have a nice little team where everybody cares about each other a lot. You really care how the other person does and it’s not all about yourself. And a lot of the other groups kind of have that same feeling to me.”

Says Warhurst, “I think we’re getting better at racing people and better at figuring out when to train hard and when not to. In the past, [for American runners] it was like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to peak twice, you’ve got to peak three times,’ and now, this day and age, I don’t think it’s a matter of peaking. It’s a matter of holding your fitness going into the Olympic Trials and then try and go over to Europe and peak and get your max performances over there.

“So many times in the past, the kids run their asses off trying to get ready, guys and gals, for the Olympics, and they’re flat when they get there because their mental energy and emotional energy and physical energy is drained a little bit.”

Coogan, however, thinks that U.S. depth is too good to train through the Trials. “I think the big stressor for the Americans is Eugene in June, because there’s a lot of good people, and you do have to have a good run. I don’t think we can just train through the Olympic Trials. We’re going to have to be in the best shape we possibly can for June and then hopefully make the team and then kind of regroup in the next 5, 6 weeks before Paris.

“In a sense, it has made it a little bit more of a challenge to peak for Paris in that we can no longer assume anything for the Trials. We’ve gotten so good… I don’t think anybody feels like they’re just going to walk onto this Olympic team in a track event, especially a distance one.”

Ron Warhurst in conversation with Donavan Brazier, whom Pete Julian coached to Worlds 800 gold in ’19. (KEVIN MORRIS)

Has the current generation benefited from new training philosophies? Warhurst says, “More and more athletes have really upped the ante as far as training is concerned. The coaches are not afraid to really push the kids. And I think the athletes’ attitude has changed a little bit, saying, ‘Well, if those guys are doing it this way, why can’t we do it that way?’ People have got some good ideas that have come down the pike in the last 10 years or so, and everybody’s doing it, trying it, and everybody’s experimenting with it, and everybody’s kind of putting their own twist to it. It’s basically a lot more strength work, a lot more volume over a period of time, and that’s what’s really helping these kids get better.”

Mindset figures too. Americans are realizing they can compete with some of the best in the world. In Mackay’s case, the lesson came from her workouts. “A hundred percent because she was doing every workout with Elle in Flagstaff,” explains Coogan. “Emily Mackay was doing all the same sessions, and she was running right with Elle. And I was like, ‘Elle’s going to run really fast here in a couple of weeks. You can run fast too.’” When she got to World Indoors, “she wasn’t intimidated at all.”

Carbon fiber footwear has also made a difference, helping runners put in more training miles with few injuries and quicker recovery. “It’s a lot less stress on their feet and the calves and Achilles,” notes Warhurst. “The shoes are absorbing an awful lot of hard pounding on the roads… Those guys can run a hell of a workout one day and come back two days later and be ready to go again. It gives them a lot more support.”

Notes Coogan, “Coaches are letting the athletes recover a little bit better, and then maybe if you throw in the new shoes — you don’t quite get beat up as much in them — that might speed recovery a little bit.”

Career longevity may be helping U.S. chances too. “U.S. runners are getting a lot more money,” says Warhurst, “and I think they’re staying longer in the game. They can afford to do that now instead of saying, ‘Oh, if I don’t make it two years out of college, I’m done, I’ve got to get a job.’ Now they’re getting pretty good contracts coming out, and they can last for a whole three or four years, one Olympics, and then decide if they want to keep going for another two or three.”

Another factor, Warhurst points out, is the fight against doping. “I think there’s less and less drugs out there. They’re still out there, but I think there are a lot less than there were 10, 12, 15 years ago, that kind of edge some of the other athletes around the world had. Not saying that all Americans are clean — who knows about anything there. But, you know, we’re definitely catching up.”

Coogan agrees: “I really believe there’s better drug testing now, in Ethiopia or in Kenya, and in other places around the world. I’m not picking on those countries, but that’s leveling the playing field a little bit more too.”

Whatever the key factor is — and most likely, it’s E-all of the above — American runners will be primed for Paris. The competition will be ready. Let the Games begin.