Milt the Magician

What’s a college track/cross country coach to do?

Anybody with a lick of sense is aware that the U.S. college system, with its three full-on competitive seasons in just nine months, can easily destroy a runner, or at the very least set back and retard the runner’s progress.

Christ Miltenberg

What is the solution? A handful of college coaches have shown that it requires a complete and consistent focus on the individual runner. And that isn’t easy, what with college administrators, alumni, and even the runners themselves painting a bull’s eye on the coach’s back and measuring his success by team championships won.

Lots of coaches succumb to the allure of focusing on quick results. In running, the most expedient way to achieve quick results is by weighting the runner’s training on the side of speedwork. But it isn’t remotely the best approach to helping the runner steadily improve and prepare for success after college.

Coach Chris Miltenberg at Stanford is the rare bird who cares about his runners and puts their long-term well-being first.

I’ve watched the Stanford runners with great interest since Coach Miltenberg was hired. And I’ve been gratified, time after time, by their successes.

When a runner’s performance gets stuck on a plateau or gets worse over the four college years, you can be pretty sure the coach is focused on quick results. But if we see the runner moving steadily up the pack and doing increasing well in his/her sophomore or junior year, it’s a definite indicator that the coach cares about his runners, and it’s thrilling.

Grant Fisher after running the 1500 in a very respectable 3:42 at the 2014 Payton Jordan meet as a high schooler (Grant would come to Stanford in the fall). Photo by the author. Click to enlarge.

As I show in Joyful Athlete the best successes in sports come by doing what’s expansive for the individual athlete. And it’s become clear that Miltenberg takes care of his runners. Most recently, Grant Fisher, a sophomore, won the NCAA Division I 5,000 meters. This, of course, is spectacularly wonderful to see — a young runner achieving his dreams, thanks to wise, expansive guidance from his coach.

But what’s just as impressive, if not more so, is what Coach Milt and women’s cross country and assistant track and field coach Elizabeth DeBole have done with runners whose gifts may not be as obvious as Grant Fisher’s.

It has been absolutely thrilling to stand on the sidelines and watch the steady improvement of these runners. Off the top of my head, I think of Jack Kielan, Vanessa Fraser, Sophie Chase, and Danielle Katz. You may not see their names in the headlines, but it’s extremely gratifying to find them setting PRs in their junior and senior years. It’s a kind of success that has huge implications for a team’s cohesion and overall happiness.

I’ve gotten carried away. I simply wanted to share a link to a wonderful interview with Grant Fisher, posted this morning on the Stanford athletics website. Fisher generously gives a major part of the credit for his success to Coach Miltenberg. Here’s the interview. If you’re a fan of good coaching, I think you’ll be inspired. It’s the first time a Stanford runner has opened his mouth and verified what I’ve suspected about Coach Milt all along. I’m delighted.

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