This & That: New Book Now on Amazon, Misc. Comments on X-C Nationals

The reincarnation of Fitness Intuition is complete. You’ll find the new baby on Amazon. The hardcopy book is available now, and a Kindle edition should be ready in a day or two. Amazon discounts the hardcopy version to $18. I’ll let you know the Kindle price when it goes online.


I was delighted by a recent exchange of comments on Jesse Squires’ website, The Daily Relay.

Jesse named the Stanford Cardinal men’s cross-country team the second-worst underachievers at Nationals.

Who could argue? Ranked #4, they finished 19th.

What interests me is Why. I commented:

Jesse, I would love to know your thoughts on why Stanford under-achieves. They aren’t the only team that raced hard in the lead-up events (Pac-12, regionals). When Vin Lananna coached at Stanford, he was the sly fox, not caring much about winning the prelims, and always surprising at nationals. (Compare Colorado. [They won.]) It’s impossible to know what happened – Did [Stanford coach] Chris Miltenberg burn them? Did they recover slowly from the earlier races – and why? I’m very curious about this, because Stanford has awesome talent on the men’s and women’s sides. Yet except for Joe Rosa [5th place] and Aisling Cuffe [4th place], huh…

Jesse courteously replied:

I cannot even begin to hazard a guess except this: the conditions were difficult in a way that could really get to someone who has never spent a winter in the Northeast, Midwest, or Pacific Northwest. Of all the eleven NCAAs I’ve been to, this was the most uncomfortable. And I wasn’t running through mud, either. Tanking at past NCAAs could have gotten inside their heads, too.

Well, no conclusive answers are possible without knowing the inside story.

While rootling around on Jesse’s excellent site, I chanced upon another set of comments and was stoked to read the following, which addresses something Arthur Lydiard famously said about the U.S. college system: that it’s a perfectly designed to destroy runners, because it demands short-term results that can only be achieved at the expense of their long-term development.

Runners who can survive college without having all the motivation drained out of them may do well as pros. But they’ve been under-served for four priceless years, at an age when huge gains would otherwise be possible. (Remember Cam Levins? He did Lydiard-style training in college – and, wow.) Anyway, here’s Jesse:

 About a year ago I read an NCAA XC pre-season writeup at that talked about how only freshmen runners tend to show large improvements from one year to the next. Besides that, the analysis was that what place you finished as a sophomore is pretty much what place you finished as a junior and senior. There are exceptions, of course. But the general analysis was that most runners don’t improve much after their freshman year.

I look at the fact that only 13 coaches have led the first- and second-place men’s teams at the NCAA Championships over the last 27 years, and I see a small number of coaches who make continued improvement the #1 priority. It’s how Colorado won its championship this year and it’s how Wisconsin managed its 18th-straight top ten finish.

 Now, you can come up with a lot of reasons why some teams’ runners improve and some don’t. I’m not even sure that all of those 13 coaches have much in common in terms of how they train their athletes. Some of those teams take track seriously and some don’t, and some try to have a comprehensive track program and some don’t. But it does seem that an athlete-centered approach is the common denominator.

 The other thing is that it’s a lot easier to improve a lot if you weren’t a national high school champion. Remember, [Jordan] Hasay came closer to being an NCAA cross country champion than literally any other Foot Locker champion ever has.

The “athlete-centered approach” that Jesse praises is exactly what Lydiard preached, and what Bill Bowerman practiced during the glory years at the University of Oregon.

Kenny Moore describes Bowerman’s approach inspiringly described in Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. As I never tire of mentioning, and you probably do tire of hearing, Bowerman monitored each runner’s training individually and gave them “athlete-centered” instructions.

Before they began a track workout, for example, he would check their demeanor and take their pulse. If they were crabby, dispirited, with bent heads, listless energy, and racing heartbeat, he would send them home.

He gave Pre very different work than Kenny Moore, because Pre could recover faster and train harder, whereas Moore could run extra-hard just once every other week. On this kind of individualized, athlete-specific training, both runners thrived.

It’s the expansive approach to training. It’s designed to expand the individual runner’s performance gradually, each athlete growing at his or her own best pace. Mother Nature, in Her wisdom, has decided that gradual expansion of body, heart, will, and mind equals success and joy.

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