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Chris Fox — November, 2015
Chris Fox is the head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach of Syracuse University’s men’s and women’s programs. In November, 2015 the men won their first NCAA Cross Country title since 1951. In the past seven seasons the Orange men have won six conference crowns in cross country. The Syracuse men’s and women’s track and field teams combined for four indoor and outdoor ACC titles in 2015. Chris is a multiple time ACC Coach of the Year. Prior to coaching at Syracuse, which began in 2005, Fox coached with great success at Auburn and North Carolina. An accomplished distance runner, Chris was a member of the 1977 World Cross Country Championships USA Junior team which won the Gold Medal. He competed in five U.S. Olympic Trials from 1980 to 1996, with top finishes of fifth on the track and seventh in the marathon. Chris was a professional runner for 18 years whose victories include the 1983 Cherry Hill (NJ) 10-miler, 1989 and 1990 Shamrock 8k, 1990 Cherry Blossom 10-miler, and the 1991 and 1994 Huntington (WV) 10-miler. The 1983 Auburn University graduate was a six-time All-American with a best NCAA finish of second place in the 1981 indoor 2-mile. Chris was a three-time SEC champ and still holds Auburn records for the 5,000 meters, both indoors and outdoors. He graduated from Martinsburg (WV) High School in 1976 where he ran an 8:57 two-mile, was Tri-State Champion and led his cross country team to the 1975 West Virginia title. His personal best times include: 1,500 meters – 3:41; mile – 3:59; 2,000m – 5:04; 3,000m – 7:47; 2-mile – 8:28; 5,000m - 13:21;10k - 27:53; 15k – 43:48; 10 miles – 46:51; 20k – 1:00:33; half marathon – 1:03:23 and marathon - 2:13:43. Chris and his wife, Kristy, have a daughter, McKenzie, and a son, Patterson. Coach Fox was very kind to spend an hour and twenty minutes on the phone during late 2015.
GCR:You’ve been coaching cross country at Syracuse University for a decade and your teams steadily improved until the men won the 2015 NCAA Championship. How exciting was the pursuit of excellence over the years and particularly this season and what was the feeling when the scores were tabulated and your young men emerged victorious?
CFThe whole process has been great. The building of our program has been in many ways as much fun as the win. We started kind of from scratch, Coach Brian Bell and me, about ten years ago and we’ve done okay. After four years we won our conference, the Big East. We won it three times and then when we switched to the A.C.C. and we’ve won three of those titles. We get better every year. Two years ago we were tenth at nationals and last year we were fifth. This year we won. We went into this season thinking we had a chance, that’s for sure. The actual win in the fashion we did was kind of exciting the way the scores went. Our guys ran a fantastic tactical race.
GCR:Your Syracuse men edged Oregon by nine points which is akin to your junior 1977 team narrowly topping Spain by four points at the World Cross Country Championships. What was it like in both cases, as a coach now and as a runner then, when you knew both teams were in the hunt but unsure of the result?
CFI don’t really remember much about the results process from the one in Dusseldorf, Germany back when I ran. This one was incredible because I was standing at the six mile mark and it kind of felt like we lost. I wasn’t sure. When I went down to this huge scoreboard at the venue, it had Colorado up by two points. Then it flipped kind of like a one arm bandit. The numbers started changing and going in our favor. We were pretty sure we won, but we were a little hesitant. Then they finally announced we did win. I’ve done this a long time at a lot of different levels, both running and coaching, and never quite had that feeling of satisfaction that I did that day. In a forty-five year career in running, it was probably the best day ever.
GCR:Your top trio at Syracuse of Justyn Knight, Colin Bennie and Martin Hehir all finished in the top ten at NCAAs and within 13 seconds o each other. What was their race plan and was it executed pretty smoothly? Did they have much adversity or did it just go really well?
CFIt went really well. When we look over the season, they ran like that at Boston at the first meet we ran in September. Then we went to Wisconsin for probably the biggest meet in the country other than nationals and I think all three of them were in the top six. At Conference they were okay as Justyn was second and then Colin and Martin were fourth and fifth. At Regionals I told them I expected them to go one-two-three in the easiest fashion they could. We planned to run easy for nine kilometers and just hard for the final kilo. I told them we wanted to do something special as a team and not try too hard. You’re always playing games with yourself. They went one-two-three, which to me is pretty amazing anywhere at a Regional meet. At NCAAs Justyn wanted to run up front and in practice he had done everything that said he could try that. He went with Edward Cheserek and Patrick Tiernan and Anthony Rotich and he fell off after about two miles or two and a half with Rotich. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sustain that pace so he settled in and got fourth pace for us. He ran a great team race because he didn’t take a chance of blowing up after a couple miles and didn’t get in over his head. The other two guys stayed somewhere between sixth and fifteenth the whole race. To get three guys in the top ten is pretty amazing. I was talking to one of my runners who was really good and has graduated and he was telling me that when we went to nationals he always thought the guys who finished in the top ten were gods. Now we have three of them in one race.
GCR:Colorado’s second through fifth men ran in an extremely tight pack with just a five second spread and finished before your fourth and fifth men. So at the six mile mark what were your thoughts at this point?
CFIt was a little disheartening. I had called my assistant coach after four miles and told him, ‘We’ve got this race won. It’s over.’ We were still crushing it at four miles. Then he called me at the five mile mark and said, ‘Nope, we’re starting to let go on the back end and Colorado’s charging hard.’ And then I heard that at 8k the score was tied. At six miles I had a friend there and he said we were down by two points. Then I was walking back to the finish and getting my speech together that second place was pretty good against a team like Colorado. Then the next couple of minutes were kind of amazing.
GCR:There are so many fast runners at NCAAs that it is easy to lose several places, in fact there were five runners within a second of Philo Germano and three runners within a second of Joel Hubbard. How much did you work on the mental and physical toughness necessary in the final kilometer and final 30 seconds of the race to maintain position?
CFWe talked about it and they know like any good runner knows. Sometimes runners get lazy, but we talked to them about it five minutes before the start of the race saying, ‘You’ve got to finish strong. You can’t let up for one second. You have to go through the line because one second in this race could be five or six points.’ They knew, they were well aware and they are smart guys. The work we did this year was certainly to make sure they were strong. We did workouts to help them to stay composed in the last mile. And they did – Philo Germano and Joel Hubbard had fantastic finishes. They changed the points over by ten or fifteen points in the last two-tenths of a mile.
GCR:Four of your top five runners return next year so your team will be one of the favorites. How is recruiting looking as you attempt to build on your growing success and this year’s championship?
CFWe’ve had a really good recruiting year. I wish the signing date was after nationals instead of before nationals because I don’t think a lot of high school kids thought we would win. We were in on some of the best kids in the country. Some went elsewhere, but we are real happy with our class. We still think we have a few more people to sign. We’ll be in the mix next year. The players this year will be the players next year.
GCR:I was looking through notes on favorites at the Footlocker national high school meet and it seemed so many were staying home so to speak. A top runner from Illinois was going to the University of Illinois and another top guy from Indiana was going to Indiana University. How do you get athletes to break the mold of going to ‘their’ state college? When you went to Auburn you, John Tuttle, Kenny Clark, and others were coming from many states. How do you get runners to consider Syracuse when they have been thinking all of their life about going to one of the colleges in their state?
CFWe start off each year wanting to get the best guy in New York. And then we work out from there. We recruit the entire country and we work it hard. We identify who we think are the top twenty guys in the country and we go after them. Some of them will tell us right away they aren’t going that far away from home. Others are interested. This year we had seven of the top ten kids in the country visit us. That has never happened in the past. We had been a little under the radar with our recruiting, but this year we did pretty well. We have to find kids who want to run, be in our style of training and our way of thinking. We have to work a bit against the upstate New York weather – perception isn’t reality – but we have to deal with perception.
GCR:One of the trickiest elements of racing strong at NCAAs is being able to race back-to-back 10ks two consecutive weeks, which you touched on briefly. Have you found what is needed mentally and physically for your men to increase the likelihood of success and how important was it that they were they able to hold back a bit at NCAA Regionals?
CFWe’re a little better at it as we’ve gotten older and maybe Coach Bell and I are wiser. We haven’t run really hard at our last four or five Regionals. It’s us and Iona each year. I’ve talked with Ricardo Santos, who coaches Iona, and he doesn’t want to go all out just as we don’t. We don’t have to run that hard to qualify, but it’s an emotional thing to come back eight days later with another 10k which is a really hard one. This year we were able to run very relaxed at Regionals. Nobody forced the pace and it stayed well over five minute mile pace for the first four miles so the kids kind of got a gift. All seven of our guys were in the top fifteen runners at four miles and then the race started to heat up a little bit. We’ve gotten a little better, a little stronger and we are able to do a little more work each year. As a group we figured out, at least for one year, how to run two 10ks really well. We thought about it more and the kids are better at it.
GCR:A big part of success is also getting through a long season and the grind of long runs, tempos and repeats. What do you think led to possibly every runner on your team peaking and having their best racing day of the season at NCAAs? Instead of some runners peaking a month earlier or two months beforehand, was it the runners getting smarter or you getting smarter?
CFWe work hard at making that happen and we get a little better each year. This year we went into the season from day one only focusing on nationals. In the past we made a bigger deal about the meet at Wisconsin and the A.C.C. meet. This year from the very first day of practice to the end it was about running at NCAAs. That helped. It’s also the maturing of our program. We didn’t try to do it quickly, but stayed true to our ethos. The guys trained for one race and one of the interesting things about this season is, that of my top ten guys, not one guy missed a workout all season due to sickness or injury. That has a lot to do with getting to the end in the right place. Not one person missed a day.
GCR:It is so important, and when I have coached runners who are three plus months out from their goal race, I work on getting them into that mindset that there are one hundred days ahead and probably thirty will be hard. But if we have to make it twenty-eight hard days or twenty-six hard days because a runner isn’t feeling ready here and there, that’s okay because we want to have a good one hundred days. When the athletes get that, they have a much higher chance of success. What are your thoughts on this?
CFFor sure. We had no setbacks. When I look back at the entire season, I can only think of one workout where I was disappointed. Other than that it was exactly what we planned to do. The guys don’t race each other in practice. The first three guys never left each other one time in practice. And the second group stayed together. They are really good at listening and at monitoring their bodies. We talk all the time about ‘let’s be pros.’ We try to train these guys with that mindset and we want them to think as if they’re in Coach Jerry Schumacher’s training group. We’re pros and we’re trying for something special.
GCR:Your women’s team also exceeded expectations as they were ranked 16th and finished in 12th place. But, you had a strong top three and two are graduating. Will the men’s success also help you on the women’s recruiting trail and how is the early outlook there?
CFIt’s kind of interesting and we talk about it a lot. We’ve had kind of a big bump on the women’s recruiting side because of the men’s team. Our women did a great job at nationals. They over performed their ranking. We’ve got a nice group back. I don’t know if we have the number one recruiting class in the country, but it’s certainly top five and we’re very proud of it. We’ve got our kind of people. We have six new women coming in next year and I think at least two or three of them can help right away. We like to think we’re going to be a top ten team next year at NCAAs.
GCR:One final question about the men’s championship which was Syracuse’s first in NCAA cross country championship since 1951. I read a nice article this past summer in the Syracuse University Magazine where some of the guys from the 1951 team were quoted, and five of the seven are still alive. Are they in touch with you, did any of them come out to your meets or did you receive congratulations from some of them?
CFI get letters from those guys all of the time. They are probably the last of a breed that write hand written letters. It’s kind of nice. They’ve been in touch with me since I took the job and are great guys. They are very, very, very proud of what they did and every one of them that are still around has contacted me since we won at nationals. There is always a lot of support from them.
GCR:Maybe somehow there will be a get-together with the 1951 team and 2015 team at a banquet. That would be really outstanding.
CFYes, that would be fantastic.
GCR:Let’s go back a bit to where you started and to your high school running. How did you get started as a teenager in the sport of distance running
CFI started when I was thirteen and had a great coach. He was with us at nationals this year. He coached me at middle school and high school in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Like everybody I wanted to be a baseball player or basketball player. But I was really small and he took me and a bunch of us under his wing. We were never-thee-wells from the city and got us going and we ended up winning the West Virginia state cross country title a few years later. He was a great coach. We ran a lot of miles and were very serious about it. We had success right away and when you have success you want to keeping doing it. I had a great coach and a great start being coached for six years by Dave Ambrose. I went from beginning as a seventh grader to winning championships my senior year.
GCR:What was your base high school training mileage and what were some of your favorite or key stamina and speed workouts of elements of training Coach Ambrose included in your training that groomed you to be as successful as you were and your team to win a cross country state championship?
CFIt was the time as you remember form running in high school at that same time when people did a lot of running. I ran hundred mile weeks in the summer since the tenth grade. We did a lot of long tempos and a lot of hard runs. He was a really great coach. We happened to live in an area where there were some great high school coaches and we just trained hard. There was no messing around. It was a very serious program. I had some colleges in the area who didn’t recruit me even though I ran an 8:57 two-mile and 14:21 for 5k because they thought we ran too much. But it worked for me and I learned a lot from it.
GCR:Recently I was on and there was a question on the message board asking if people remembered the names of their high school cross country team members. Dave Ambrose was on there and put in the names of your team and I jotted them down - Brian Engle, you, Ricky Dawson, Giggy Harper(RIP), Larry Printz, Neville Leonard and Chuck Hess. These were your buddies back then. What do you remember from your training with these comrades that helped to develop you as a young man?
CFThose were awesome guys that I’ve known my whole life. We met every day. I saw those guys twice a day every day because we met at 7:30 every morning and 6:00 every night in the summer. A lot of them lived in my neighborhood. We had a lot of fun. We ran a lot of trails and we ran a lot of places where we weren’t supposed to run. We listened to Mr. Ambrose like he was God and it just worked. It was a great group of guys, and like any team, we wanted to hang out together and we wanted to work hard.
GCR:Are there any particular races that stand out for you in high school? You ran that 8:57 and 14:21, but are there any memorable races which come to mind because you weren’t favored to win or place high?
CFI certainly remember the State Championship we won. That was a group goal. Team wins are always incredible. Individually, it’s probably when I made the U.S. junior team to run at World Cross Country. At that time my PR was 9:17 for two miles and I went out to San Diego to run against Thom Hunt, Mark Spilsbury, Marty Froelick and all of these California guys who had incredible PRs. I got in that race and sixth place made the team. I ran for sixth place the whole way. I had to jump a hay bale with maybe two hundred meters to go. Well, I got over it and passed some guy and ended up in sixth place to make the team and go to the world championships. That’s as memorable as any race in high school for sure.
GCR:You have worn the U.S.A. uniform at World Championships and at the Pan Am Games. How special is it to pull on the U.S.A. uniform, to have it on your chest and to represent your country?
CFIt’s incredible. That first time was really special and then we won. Twenty years later I got to wear it at the World Championships in track and field.
GCR:Many of us when we started running watched the Olympics and had this dream of maybe running in the Olympics. For you, as a child did you think you might one day be an Olympian and, though you didn’t make the U.S. Olympic team, how exciting was the pursuit of this goal?
CFI had some great moments and also some disappointing moments. Not making the Olympic team still saddens me. It’s something that drives me in this coaching journey. I had some great races and many more bad ones. It’s a great sport as you can keep coming back.
GCR:Did you have many collegiate choices and how did you end up going to Auburn?
CFI got recruited by about everybody my senior year because I was pretty good. Back then you didn’t sign so early and coaches were recruiting into the summer. I ended up going to the University of Virginia for a year, but it wasn’t my thing and didn’t work out for me. I wanted to run on a little bit better team. I knew John Tuttle and Tom Graves, so through those guys I contacted Auburn and transferred to Auburn. It was a good move for me. At that point in my life I wanted to be a runner and not much of anything else.
GCR:At Auburn you and your team did well, as in cross country the Tigers were as high as fifth place at NCAAs. You had Graves, Tuttle and even Kenny Clark, who I raced in summer road races in Brevard County, Florida when I was in college and he was in high school. What were some of the hallmarks that defined that team in terms of camaraderie and training and racing as that was your first experience being part of such a great team on a national level?
CFIt was really a lot of fun – we had Coach Muscan as our distance coach and Coach Rosen was the head coach. They did an incredible job of recruiting. We had as good a group as anyone in the country. I think Kenny ran about 9:05 in high school and he was maybe our seventh man. Everybody – me, Tuttle, Graves and Bob Hicks and Roger Jones – we were all sub-nine minute guys and that doesn’t happen much even these days. Stanford gets those kind of guys, Oregon gets those kind of guys and the rest of us will get one or two. The Auburn coaches did a great job of putting together super talent and Tom Graves was a really big leader. He kept us together and kept everybody straight. As you know there are lots of different personalities. John Tuttle was different – he’s a great guy, an incredible guy, but he’s quirky in his own way. Tom and Coach Muscan kept us together; we won a couple SEC cross country championships and were fifth at nationals. We were similar to how it was at Syracuse when I got here in that Auburn was a team that had never been there and never done that and here we were making inroads nationally.
GCR:It’s interesting just how competitive cross country is. I was looking back at the results from the 1979 NCAAs when you came in 11th place and right in front of you in ninth and tenth place were Jon Sinclair and Rudy Chapa, then Suleiman Nyambui was twelfth, and guys like Mark Nenow, Jim Spivey and John Gregorek were several places behind you. Would you say that collegiate cross country racing at the NCAA level is likely the most competitive and deepest of any racing in the U.S. both then and now?
CFIt’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Those guys ended up being professional runners for a long time and were some of the best ever. Spivey and Chapa were great and Suleiman Nyambui won an Olympic Silver Medal. I think it’s incredible then and also if you look at my guys now. Justyn is probably going to be a 13:20s guy. Marty ran 13:34 last year and he finished ninth in this year’s NCAA meet. So how often do you get ten, twelve, fifteen guys who can run in the 13:30s in the same race? Thomas Awad was fifteenth at nationals, I think, and he is as good as anyone in the country on the right day. It’s a great race.
GCR:We talked earlier about how tight the finish is and how so many people finish bunched together. I was looking at the next year’s NCAA results in 1980 when your Auburn team finished in 14th place and you were 26th individually. If you had finished ten seconds faster you would have finished eleven places higher. Does this come into your thinking at all when you are talking with your own guys just to remind them that for you ten seconds would have meant eleven places and eleven points?
CFThey know and it’s kind of a given how important five seconds is. Five seconds changes the whole race. Five seconds to the positive and we’re great. Five seconds to the negative and we’re just another one of the teams. So they get that. And one thing that one of my mentors in the sport encouraged is not to think autobiographically when I’m coaching, but I certainly do probably more than I should. I bring back my experiences, both good and bad, and talk about them to shape some of the thoughts I want to instill in the guys.
GCR:Looking back at your NCAA Track and Field Championships, you got a sixth and fourth in the 5,000 meters outdoors in 1981 and 1982 with Nyambui winning both, which followed up a sixth and second place indoors in each of those years. Did you have a plan to try to get that top three?
CFYes, my best finish was that second indoors in the two-mile to Nyambui and I ended up fourth outdoors at Provo, but Nyambui was in every final where I competed, so I kind of knew it wouldn’t be too easy to win. I gave him a pretty good run my senior year indoors. But I was running against Bill McChesney, Nyambui, a bunch of Kenyans from UTEP, and more Kenyans from Washington State. I don’t think at that time, and this is probably a weakness of mine, I don’t think except for that two-mile that I was hoping to win. A lot of times I went in aiming to be the first American.
GCR:That’s a different story too as, when I interviewed Craig Virgin, he only won one NCAA title which was in cross country, but nine times he was first American when including cross country, indoor track and outdoor track. It was tough back then because older athletes were allowed to compete from foreign countries so I can see how you might have had that goal at that time.
CFYes, they weren’t twenty-two years old at that time – they could be thirty. We did have that difference back then. Now you see American kids who are more competitive at NCAAs because they are competing against, for the most part, the same age guys.
GCR:We mentioned your highest NCAA finish in track was second indoors and you also won three SEC indoor titles in the 3-mile, 2-mile and 3,000 meters. With this nice success indoors, did you like the intimacy of indoor running with the smaller track and spectators being up close?
CFFor some reason I did and I’m not really sure why. Even though I’m tall I could still run well on those 200 meter tracks and even on ten laps to the mile board tracks like at the Millrose Games. I liked running on boards, I liked running on banked tracks and I kind of like the tactics of the indoor races. Maybe the way we were coached we were better than we should have been at that time of year. We’re pretty good indoors now at Syracuse and we don’t try too hard to peak for indoor season, but if you have a certain amount of talent you should be pretty good.
GCR:Continuing a bit more about cross country at Auburn, your team had two first places and two runner-up finishes at the SEC Championships. How much emphasis was put on the SEC conference meet by your coaches and by you and your teammates?
CFThat was very important to us. The first one we won was at Alabama where Tom and I went one-two. Tuttle may have been fifth and we put something like our top five or six in the top eleven runners. It was really good. It was a team goal that we worked hard for and I carried those feelings over to my coaching. It was important to win and disappointing when we didn’t. The SEC is a big conference and people are very proud to get those championships.
GCR:Conference championships are meaningful and while you were at Auburn your team notched two in indoor track and field and one outdoors – of course you had Harvey Glance and some other greats in the sprints to help out. How was it watching some of these other great athletes train and compete?
CFHarvey Glance and Willie Smith and James Walker were pros. They were super talented and NCAA champions. Harvey is a special guy, an incredible sprinter and an incredible personality. When everyone rises with the tide of guys like Harvey it elevates a program. Then we got Stanley Floyd and kept it going for a while. Coach Rosen did an outstanding job with the sprinters.
GCR:After all of these years you still hold Auburn school records in the 5k indoor at 13:44.73 and outdoor 5k at 13:35.14, while you are #2 on the Auburn indoor mile list at 4:00.47. Is there a sense of pride after this long to still hold these positions on the Auburn lists?
CFI’m quite proud of my 5k holding up. There have been some good runners who went through there – some Kenyans, some English guys, and some good Americans like Brian Jaeger and Brian Abshire. There were many guys who had shots at those times, but to run 13:30s in college you have to have to catch a special day and the right race and the right weather. I’ve kind of been lucky that my records have held up, but I’m pretty proud of them. My 5k is the oldest track record at Auburn now and I’m quite happy about that.
GCR:There was a dark circumstance that hit Auburn’s track and field team when Norman Fritz, Jr., a sophomore quarter miler collapsed during a light workout close to the SEC Indoor Championship and died. How did this tragedy affect the team and what do you recall of that day and its effect on your team’s upcoming competition and how everyone had to pull together mentally and physically to compete under such trying circumstances?
CFThat was the year I redshirted indoors. The relay team was practicing easily doing handoffs. It was one of the real easy days before we would go to a meet. Norman just had some sort of weird thing with his heart. It was an interesting time because we are usually pretty resolute as kids. We were able to respond and run well. I can remember that we took a couple of buses down to Florida for the funeral and it was pretty eye-opening when you’re nineteen years old.
GCR:We haven’t talked much about your training in college, but you came in with a good base and high mileage just like top coaches in Florida high schools, such as Brent Haley and Nick Gailey, had their kids running. What did you do that was different and added to your high school regimen to help you improve in college?
CFWhen I left high school I was known somewhat as a 10k guy. I had run a 30:30 against Alberto Salazar. So, I was labelled a 10k guy. I got to Auburn and Coach Muscan did things a little bit different. My weekly mileage went from really high to minimal, in the 50s and 60s per week. But the quality went up. I went from what people thought would be a10k guy to running good 1,500s and good miles and good 3ks. He really helped me to develop my speed that I didn’t even know existed. It kind of changed me as a runner and I became more of a 5k guy. It helped my running in the long term because it developed a part of me I didn’t know I had. The speed I got there assisted me over the next fifteen years. I was able to do some things that I never thought I would be able to do.
GCR:It’s interesting and often challenging when trying to find a runner’s best distance. When you look at John Tuttle as an example – he was running 1,000 meters, 1,500 meters and four by 800 meter relays along with the steeplechase in college and then found out he could race the marathon and made the U.S. Olympic team at the marathon distance. How hard is it to find your own best distance or those of athletes you coach?
CFIt is an interesting thing speaking about John Tuttle as I think he ran 1:48 for 800 meters, and the 1,500 meters in 3:43 as a freshman at Auburn. He was labeled as an 800 meter and 1,500 meter guy. And that’s kind of what John liked at that time. I don’t think when he was 18 or 19 years old that John could have been a marathoner because he didn’t think like that. As he got older towards the end of his career at Auburn it didn’t end so well. Then when he was out of college and found out he could make money, he was kind of motivated by the marathon distance. John is a super talent. John could have been a great miler. John was a great marathoner. John is one of the most talented guys I’ve ever been around – just raw talent at everything. My runners at Syracuse know coming here that they aren’t going to be primarily milers. We have guys who break four minutes in the mile – we had two guys last year and I think we’ll have three guys this year. But we don’t work primarily on that. We do just enough to race well in the mile. This is a strength program and we work on being really good at 5k and 10k. And if you’re strong enough it’s not that hard to run four times sixty seconds. It doesn’t take great speed to run a 3:59 mile. Justyn ran 3:38 last year for 1,500 meters and that’s pretty good for an 18 year old kid. We do a lot of strength work and if you’re naturally fast like Justyn is you’ll be fine. These guys know that we train to be 5k/10k guys and that they’re going to be great cross country runners. It’s kind of easy for us to find what distance our guys can run as they all can run good 5ks and 10ks.
GCR:You mentioned that sub-four minute mile achievement and you have that on your own resume. How exciting and cool was it for you at Johnson City, Tennessee indoors at the East Tennessee State track to break four minutes in the mile?
CFI was hoping to do that since I was a seventh grader running with Mr. Ambrose. That was kind of the goal. It was really cool for me because I wasn’t blessed with great speed, but I developed it at Auburn. At that time four minutes probably meant more than it does today. And that was the last mile race I ever ran. I had run four flat the year before in college and it was a lifetime goal for me to get out of the way. I broke four minutes and I never attempted a mile race since then. You won’t be surprised about this, but if there is a 3:59 mile on your resume, people look at that well before they see the 13:21 for 5k or 27:53 for 10k.
GCR:Yes, people do see that sub-four minute mile which is a problem with the 1,600 meter distance we run in high school. I have to tell somebody that a runner who has a PR of 4:08 converts to a 4:10 mile. It’s ridiculous to do this. People in the general public want to know a runner’s mile time which is part of what is behind the whole ‘Bring back the Mile’ website and push. I think track and field would be more popular with the general public with the mile reinstated. What are your thoughts on this topic?
CFThe mile is the event that everybody knows. That’s the event known by regular sportscasters that don’t pay attention to our sport. That’s the event the crowd knows. And everybody knows the four minute mile and to this day it still means a lot to one and all. My kids here at Syracuse all want to break four minutes. I am very proud of my sub-four and that was done a million years ago.
GCR:When you got out of college for much of the time you raced often and over a variety of distances. I know you had to make a living so what was your thought process as you went through many years as a professional runner in terms of goals?
CFYes, a lot of it did revolve around finances. When I was running for Athletics West and getting paid well I didn’t race much. I trained nine months to go to Europe and race on the track in the summer. So, I didn’t race much the rest of the year - maybe two road races and a couple of indoor meets back when the indoor circuit was big. My racing schedule was predicated on finances, so if I had a decent contract I could focus on training. When I got older and the contracts went away, I had to race more. I had a family and a baby so I had to make money and race more often. I tried not to race too much at any one distance as I could run good 5ks on the road and a good marathon. If I was completely true to what I wanted to be as a runner I would have stayed on the track more. But I went from the mid-1980s until late in my career staying off the track and just running on the roads. Towards the end of my career I got back on the track and ran some really nice PRs. The racing was financial as I needed to get good checks.
GCR:One race I saw you ran that sparked my interest was the 1988 Red Lobster 10k in Orlando. I recall it as it was where I ran my last sub-31:00 10k and I ran with Liz McColgan the whole way, outkicked her and she was the first woman to break 31:00 with me as an accidental pacer. It was a nice cool day and you ran a 28:36 for sixth place in a loaded race – do you remember much of that day?
CFI remember that day and that race. I ran the Red Lobster 10k for a few years as it was a big deal. At that time there was a Florida swing in February and March with the Gasparilla 15k in Tampa, the Red Lobster 10k in Orlando and the Jacksonville River Run 15k. The people who organized the Red Lobster race were great, so nice, and took great care of us. We knew we’d run against Kenyans and also the Mexicans who were really running well on the roads back then. So there would be six or seven good Mexican runners and the best Americans, like Keith Brantly and John Sinclair, who I would always race there. That was a good time of year for me to race as for some reason I was always very fit in January, February and March. I enjoyed winter training and always loved running at Red Lobster as I ran well and could make some decent money.
GCR:It’s tough to win races as there were so many good runners, but one big one you did win was the 1990 Chery Blossom 10-miler in Washington, D.C. How rewarding and how much fun was it to win that race?
CFThat was a good one to pick out to discuss as that was one of the big races for me. I ran it a few times and didn’t win it. I dropped out a few times. It’s my home race as I lived about an hour from there. One of my early running heroes was Terry Baker and he won it in the 1980s against Bill Rodgers. My coach at that time was Terry’s coach. I tried that race a few times and screwed it up. We trained specifically for that race each year and that year I was ready to go. Steve Jones and Ashley Johnson were racing in 1990. Steve Kogo, one of the early good Kenyans runners was there. I felt great the whole way. And I was able to win the race which was a great win for me that year and at that time in my life. It’s kind of like my cross country team this year when you chalk away each year a goal and you get a little closer each year. I finally figured it out that year and it was a huge win for me.
GCR:You transitioned upward from shorter road distances to the marathon and before the 1992 Olympic Trials Marathon you had some good races at the distance with 2:13 at Columbus, 2:18 in Chicago, 2:19 in Pittsburgh and back to 2:14 in Columbus. What were you learning from your training for the marathon distance and your marathon races that was different? And did you feel that you were a marathon runner or that perhaps it wasn’t your best racing distance?
CFIt wasn’t my best distance but because I was a pretty good runner I could handle the training. The first one, the 2:13, was kind of okay because in the first one you don’t know what’s going to hit you. Then in Chicago I was on 2:09 pace through 16 miles. We went for it and I just ended up croaking and running six minute miles the last few miles. The one in Pittsburgh was very hot so it was tactical. And then the second time at Columbus it was completely tactical. There was big money for Americans and they also put in a lot of money because it was going to be the Olympic Trials marathon course the next year. Everybody was cautious. It was a cold day. We were running for money as it was a huge payday and I ran with Keith Brantly almost all of the way and ended up in second place. At the Olympic Trials I didn’t run well. I wasn’t a true marathon runner and wasn’t as efficient a runner as I needed to be. With the workouts I did you might have asked, ‘Why didn’t he run 2:09?’ I don’t think I stayed as fueled as I should have been. I was so thin and it was really hard for me to carry fuel in my body for longer than 21 or 22 miles. I was very efficient though at five minute mile pace. I probably would be better at it these days. We tried a lot of things, but the science is better now. I was a 2:09 workout guy and I was a 2:13 racer. Outside of the 2:14 at Columbus when I finished really well because I hadn’t run that hard until late in the race, the other marathons were pretty miserable.
GCR:Did you change your training much for the marathon or did you do more of what guys like Alberto Salazar and Craig Virgin did by training basically like 10k guys with a little more mileage and by lengthening their long runs? Craig said he thought that despite running 2:10 for second behind Seko in Boston in 1981 that this is what hurt his performances in the marathon. You said you were training like a 2:09 guy, so what were you doing differently that led you to believe you were ready to go that fast?
CFI was really good at long runs. I also could run two times sub-23:45 for five miles with a couple minutes rest. As I mentioned, I could run five minute pace all day as I was really efficient at that pace. I could just see what it took to race that fast. I upped my mileage from about ninety per week to about 110 to 115 miles a week in marathon training. I could handle some work. I learned to handle the workload ever since I was a little kid. I never got hurt. You know when you are running well – all of a sudden you can run 4:30 miles like they are 5:10s when doing intervals. I was disappointed in my marathon career, but it allowed me to come back and run 27:53 for 10k later.
GCR:Your wife Kristi Johnson is also an elite distance runner. And she is from Coos Bay, Oregon and the same high school as Steve Prefontaine. How much did it help you when you coached her to learn differences between coaching men and women and how much does her being so involved in the sport of distance running help support you as busy as you are coaching?
CFShe gets it. She gets it at a really high level and always has. I didn’t have to train her differently as a woman. She had a tremendously high capacity to do work. By the time I started coaching her she had worked very hard with another coach. She had also trained with some of the eastern European methods. And at that time she was strictly a marathoner. Having Kristi as my wife and understanding what I do lets me bounce ideas off of her. I can tell her this kid is doing this and this kid is doing that and she can listen and help. She’ll listen to me complain about things and help me to straighten them out. She has a great running mind.
GCR:With your big focus on coaching do you still find time to stay fit with some running and other fitness activities? What is your current health and fitness regimen?
CFI’m not keeping myself as fit as I’d like to be. I ran four miles this morning and that’s pretty standard. Every once in a while I run five miles. I don’t enjoy not being any good. It’s hard to be motivated except that I have a five year old I have to keep up with so it’s important not to get too unfit. I either run or get on my bike five or six days a week and, fortunately, can pretty much eat and drink what I’d like.
GCR:You’re still a relatively young man in your fifties so what are your future goals that you wish to accomplish personally or as a coach over the next ten to fifteen years?
CFI’d like to see if we can sustain this here at Syracuse. We built it and we got to where we wanted to go. We’re already working hard on next year. I want to be able to sustain this over the next five, six or seven years. I can see myself doing this for ten more years and I’d like to be very good at it for ten more years. It doesn’t mean we have to win, but now that we have won we want to win again. I’ve been doing this since I was thirteen and I’ve always tried to do it at the highest level whether it was in junior high, high school, college, after college and then coaching. I’ve always tried to be the best. I won a couple of national road race championships and I was second at NCAAs, but this was a very satisfying career topper to get to be the very best this year. We did it in really good fashion and I’d like to feel that again. We run our programs like most cross country programs – we developed a chip on our shoulder and have worked with that. We will develop another chip.
GCR:I’m sure that you are asked to speak to groups and to high school runners. When you are asked to sum up in a minute or two the major lessons you have learned during your life from the discipline of running, being a part of the running community, and helping and coaching others, what you would like to share with my readers that will help them on the pathway to reaching their potential athletically and as a person?
CFThis sounds like it is easy to answer with clichés, but I think people need to be consistent and to be persistent. We teach our runners at Syracuse to be consistent and to avoid extremes. No one on our team is running a hundred and ten miles a week and nobody is doing twenty times 200 meters in workouts. We’re very consistent with the work we do. The kids are persistent. My staff is persistent in recruiting and the way we run our culture. We don’t let anyone off of the hook. If runners can consistently train at 75 miles a week for three years, by the fourth year they will be pretty darn good. I think in my own life it is the same. When I was in 11th grade, someone asked me what it took to be a good runner and I said, ‘You need to be persistent.’ And I still tell kids that. That’s how I run my life. I had plenty of setbacks, but I never let setbacks stop me.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsI like to read. I read a ton of fiction on the order of about a book a week. I watch a lot of football. I play some very bad golf. And I’ve got a five year old kid. So, I have plenty to do
NicknamesI always tried to run away from those nicknames because for me it always had to do with how thin I was. I think that was one of the things that drove me to be a really good runner – to earn some respect. There are a lot of derivatives of my last name that I was called. But it was always important to me to be good enough to not need a nickname
Favorite movies‘Glory’ is my favorite movie
Favorite TV shows‘The Wire’ and ‘Treme’
Favorite music‘Drive by Truckers’ from Athens, Georgia, is my favorite band. I’m a huge fan and have probably seen them live thirty times. Also, music by Jason Isbell who used to be in the band. My son is named after their lead singer, Patterson Hood
Favorite booksI just read ‘Fates and Furies’ which was an excellent book. Usually the book I just finished ends up being my favorite book. What got me started liking fiction and which gets a lot of people started was ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ That was when I started running. I will go back and read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ every seven or eight years. It is certainly a book that showed me a different path when I was young. I also like young authors
First carA hand-me-down from my mom when I was at Auburn. A Toyota Corona Mark II
Current carI just bought a new Volvo
First JobsI delivered newspapers starting when I was in about the sixth grade for a while. That was back in the day when kids delivered newspapers. It cost 42 cents a week to subscribe to the newspaper. I wanted to go to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and needed to raise some money so a friend and I started a lawn service. I was able to go and saw John Walker win the 1,500 meters. After that I did some golf course maintenance and basically tried to get out of any work so I could just run
FamilyI have a daughter, Mackenzie, who was married a year ago. She’s thirty years old and she is actually five months pregnant. I have a son that Kristi and I adopted a few years ago. He’s five years old and we got him when he was nine months old. His name is Patterson. He’s from the same area of Ethiopia as Haile Gebreselassie, so we’re always hopeful. Kristi just graduated from law school at age fifty. We have a lot of fun and we really like Syracuse
PetsI have a Jack Russell Terrier named Rudy, after Rudy Chapa. I’ve had big dogs, little dogs and lots of cats. We just had to put down a dog that was sixteen years old about a month ago. There have always been two or three pets in our house
Favorite breakfastI just had Heuvos Rancheros with hash browns. I’d say that’s top notch for me
Favorite mealReally good barbeque from North Carolina with the vinegar-based sauce. I love that and have favorite places to go for it in North Carolina. I’ve never had bad pizza
Favorite beveragesLike every human being today that enjoys beer, the whole craft beer experience is kind of nice. I like local beers – I’m out in San Diego now and had one last night which was nice. I enjoy a good beer. Other than that, at this age I try to stay healthy which means I stay away from soda even though I love it. I could live on Coke, but I don’t
First running memoryI remember wearing Converse high tops and running a 5:38 mile into my first week of running ever. And I thought I could kind of do this. Then a month later I ran 5:11 in the same high tops and then I sort of knew at thirteen. I have great memories of those first couple of months of running
Running heroesThe first was Jim Ryun. I think all of us in junior felt like that. There were running books and the first one I ever read was about Jim Ryun. He was probably still in his twenties when that book came out. I got to meet him when I was in the ninth or tenth grade. I probably stalked him in my head as he was ‘the guy.’ Then there was Terry Baker, who was a pretty good road runner in the 1970s and 1980s. He was from my area and I looked up to him. Ron Clarke, Billy Mills and the guys from the sixties were pretty famous when I started running in the seventies. Craig Virgin was a hero. I saw him beat Nick Rose in person at Penn State and that was huge for me. He was very nice to me. I met him as a kid and I certainly looked up to him as I did with nick Rose who was also nice to me. I got to meet all of my heroes and to race many of my heroes
Memorable running momentFor me this is a cool experience. When I ran that 13:21 for 5k in Oslo in 1983 I got sixth place and made a hundred bucks. Then two weeks later they had the second Oslo meet and I got to rabbit for Carlos Lopes in the 10,000 meters. He was trying to get the world record and so were five or six other guys. The record was somewhere in the 27:20s I think. I made a couple thousand bucks and took them through 5k in 13:45. I got a standing ovation from the crowd. My picture was in the Oslo newspaper and I was treated like a king. Lopes missed the World Record by a half a second or I would have doubled my money. He needed to run the last 800 meters in 2:02 something and ran a 2:03. He was really close and a bunch of guys, including Nick Rose, got PRs that day. It’s a huge memory. It wasn’t my greatest day ever, but was a really cool time
Greatest running momentWhen I ran 27:53 in Montreal for 10k in a non-paced race at age 36 it was satisfaction and the culmination of many years. It got me on the World Championship team and made up for some other mistakes. Back then it was also unusual to run that fast at that age. People are doing it more now because the money allows them to stay in the sport. So, running great late in my career was really cool
Worst running momentsStart at the 1988 Olympic Trials and go through all of my Olympic Trials through 2000 and you will see. I just didn’t run well for one reason or another. In my last Olympic Trials in Atlanta I won my heat in the 10k and I was running very well at the time. I was coming off of the 27:53 the year before and I seemed to be even better. I won that semifinal and felt great, but three laps into the final I knew I had nothing. I had absolutely nothing. My head got frazzled and I ended up dropping out after around three miles. As it turns out, because of the slow times all I had to do was finish and I would have been on the Olympic team. I don’t know if that would have been so satisfying, but looking back on it I am very frustrated about that. My Olympic Trials experiences haunt me to this day. I was fifth in three of the Trials and seventh in the marathon – very frustrating like Marty Liquori, who had a bigger career than me but who also had very frustrating Olympics and Olympic Trials
Greatest coaching momentsThere are three great moments that stand out. First, when I was twenty-four years old I was coaching at the University of North Carolina. I took a group that was next to last in the A.C.C. the year before and we won the A.C.C. and got fifth at NCAAs. It was a rag-tag group of great guys that wanted to run and responded well. Next is my first Big East Cross Country Championship at Syracuse because we came in with a chip on our shoulder. No one thought when we took this job we would ever be any good. And they told us to our faces, ‘You can’t beat Villanova. You can’t beat Providence. You can’t beat Georgetown.’ And we did four years into the job here. We won that conference meet and celebrated as it was huge. Obviously, to win the national championship, whether it’s true or not, at a place where it shouldn’t be done, and it was done. We’re not Oregon. We’re not Stanford. And we’re not Colorado for a lot of different reasons. And e we were somehow able to figure out a way to do it our way
Childhood dreamsProbably to be the center fielder for the New York Yankees or to be Oscar Robertson
Funny memoriesTo this day we certainly tell a lot of John Tuttle stories. When I get with my Auburn guys we tell a lot of them. I’ve seen John eat glass. I’ve seen John doing streaking activities. One time we were at the cross country regionals in Greenville, South Carolina and it was cold with a layer of ice on the hotel poll. We gathered about three dollars and fifty cents for John and he dove right in. That was the night before regionals. If you get together with tom Graves he will tell you John Tuttle stories for four hours. John is probably the biggest character I ever met in the sport and as big a talent
Favorite places to travelI love northern California. I’ve done the drive from Portland, Oregon to San Diego a few times. I think it is incredible. My favorite place to go in the U.S. is Key West. It’s a crazy place and it’s beautiful. I also like Ocracoke Island. My best memories overseas are of the Scandinavian countries. They were beautiful. I liked being in Norway or Finland. In the 1980s beers cost seven dollars in Stockholm, Sweden so now they must be seventeen dollars
Wrap UpThank you for the great questions. You asked some nice questions. I could have talked all day about this sport and I’m usually quite tight-lipped. I’m going to go on your website and check out some of your interviews. We have to keep our minds open and learn from these great athletes. We never get this sport figured out. I’m going to be in your area in New Smyrna Beach, so get a hold of me for a run and we’ll go out for a craft beer. And finally, I’m going to send you a national championship shirt!