This Saturday, University Cross Country teams from across the USA will meet to compete for the NCAA D1, D2, and D3 Championships respectively. More and more UK and Irish based runners head to the US collegiate system each year for an education and to run.
The collegiate system first got me involved in running when I was out on a Business scholarship and I have always kept one eye stateside at this time of the Year. My teammates and I would have always been looking at National rankings, seeing how the traditional powerhouse teams were performing, and having numerous debates about who would pick up individual and team titles.
One of those traditionally strong teams was, and still is, Adams State University of Colorado. They have won too many accolades to mention here, but needless to say, if you ran for them you were a damn good athlete.
I recently caught up with Irish Olympian Shane Healy, who is an Alumni of Adams State, to reminisce over his time at Adams State and talk about all things coaching, training, teammates, and as this is Championship week to get his memories of the NCAA Championships.
With Shane’s passion for running and with the fondness he spoke of all things Adams State, we ended up deviating off the topic, discussing training sessions, races, all things in between, and so on. Such is his loyalty to Adams State, his enthusiasm, motivation, positivity, and pure underlying grit and determination, he could have had me running through brick walls when we were leaving.
Shane’s backstory is one of a tough upbringing and having to scrap for everything he got, making his success and achievements all the more remarkable and admirable in my eyes. (I recommend reading more about that here https://medium.com/@KCsixtyseven/shane-healy-from-goldenbridge-orphanage-to-the-olympic-games-october-2011-c1ab89f2589)
At Elevation Coaching, we are all about coaching athletes to maximise potential and achieve goals, and I wanted to understand what made the team, and indeed Shane, so successful. During Shane’s time at Adams State, he was coached by Dr. Joe Vigil, a legend in his own right in the distance running world. What did he do so differently that brought so much success that helped them win 19 national championships, 425 All-Americans, and 87 individual national champions in the 30 years he coached at Adams State?
Get Shane talking about Adams State and the passion he expresses for his Alma Mater comes flooding out. You can only imagine the sense of excitement, the focus, the determination, and the hard miles they put in as one of the top running schools in the US.
“At Adams State, we backed down to no one! We’re Adams State, no one trains harder than us, we run as a team. Our motto was to get out hard & stay out hard. We didn’t fear anyone!”
We didn’t have the high-school stud, the big Division 1 schools got those, but Coach had the ability to turn a mediocre athlete into a leading collegiate athlete within a year. As a smaller College, we couldn’t give full scholarships like the big State Universities and only a few got a little financial help. So we weren’t scholarship athletes and we had to work and study. I would be up at 5 am working, cleaning or whatever it was I had to do, go to class, go to training, and often work again that evening, it toughened you up. We weren’t pampered! In the summer (off season) we would raise sponsorship money to help fund team costs. People have the impression that all you did was run, that it was like being a professional athlete, back then it wasn’t like that at all, IT WAS TOUGH.
You got the sense that everyone was in it together and that there was that family bond... in Alamosa, Colorado the religion was Adams State Cross Country!
At Adams State the runners ran for each other, they didn’t run for themselves, and when you run for somebody you put in that little bit extra. Anytime we went out for a run we got a pep talk from Coach, what is expected, what times we need to hit etc. He always said if you can’t touch a teammate then you ain’t doing your job... with cross-country the pack time is key to your success, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Our 6th and 7th man could displace others. At Adams State there was no real stand out runner, we had 5 or 6 runners that could easily inter-place each other. Sure we all wanted to win individually, but the team winning came first.
That was the great thing about Adams State, everyone ran for each other, Coach Vigil was amazing, and I’m so proud to have been part of that tradition, and to this day I miss it terribly, we are all one big family. Only for Adams State and the great guys there, they showed me how to train hard, and only for them, I don’t think I would ever have made the Olympic Games. After I left Adams State in ’94, I trained for the most part on my own but the 4 years in Colorado instilled the toughness in me when I was training on my own and doing sessions on the old Belfield track in Dublin. It made me tough, gave me the desire and the determination to make my dream of the Olympics.
It shows the determination of a runner... 90% of your motivation has to come from within, you got to want it, you’ve got to hurt, you’ve got to sacrifice everything. Adams State and Coach Vigil showed me that.
Their minds were razor sharp and focused on what their job was, and what they had to do to achieve the goals set out at the start of the season. Another piece of the jigsaw was the training environment that they were surrounded by, and not just the physical environment, but also the personnel.
Adams State had at least 90 runners turning up to training.
We had an outstanding group of post-collegiate runners, world champion mountain runners such as Pablo Vigil, the varsity/senior group, and the freshman group. Training at altitude we always felt gave us the edge. We only did about 75-85 miles per week, but at 7500ft the effort felt like 20%-30% was added to your weekly volume, and at times we would be training at 10,000ft. It took a long time to get used to altitude, but we always felt it benefited us.
Other Universities and Colleges were also at altitude, had large training groups, and had even better facilities, so I wanted to know what other factors made it special at that time.
We didn’t have the attitudes that a big school had, we had a great environment that Coach Vigil had created, and we certainly felt the altitude gave us an edge. Coach Vigil had a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology and he really knew his stuff, particularly how to train at altitude. He would host numerous USA Olympic training camps in Alamosa at that time. He would also be tremendous at getting us to peak just right for Nationals and we had great sessions in a 4-week taper leading up to the Championships.
In 1992, I think, it was either when the Boston or NY marathon was on, and some of the East Africans came to Alamosa to train in the build-up, and Coach Vigil said to us in class that someday a human will break 2hrs for the marathon (Others also stated this round that time, such as Michael Joyner). We all said “No way, it’s impossible” and he put up on the board all about the anatomy and energy systems etc and what it would take, and 25 years later he was virtually right (Eliud Kipchoge 2hrs 25secs, May 2017).
Coach Vigil was on top of his game!!
I mean I was only running a year and I was running a 4 min mile. He got the best out of his athletes. He was all about positivity, he always said don’t hang around negative people. Listen we trained really hard. Really, really, hard. On our easy days, we never ran our 10milers slower than 60mins, and that’s at 7500ft+ remember. Coach would have said we weren’t training or working your VO2max sufficiently if we weren’t. But looking back on it with 25 years experience, I’d say if we ran those in 70mins it would have been sufficient for those easy days. Back then you were hungry, raring to go, and the competitiveness amongst us was savage. We were national champions, we believed we were invincible. I feel if I had an easy day at Adam State I would have ran the mile even quicker. We never had a day off, even in the winter at temperatures colder than -20c we still went out and ran.
Get Out Hard and Stay Out Hard was the motto, and boy they did!!
In this week of the National Championships, approximately 25 years ago in 1992 Adams State had the perfect season, they never lost, and in the National Championships in Slippery Rock they put 5 runners in the top 5 places. A perfect score of 15, which had never been done before or since (the score is the accumulated total of the top 5 runners finishing positions from each team).
The Nationals in 1992 was bittersweet for me, we took the top 5 places in Slippery Rock and won but I finished outside the top 5 on the team. Don’t get me wrong I was delighted for the team, the coach, and the program, but I had been one of our top runners all year. I was tired. I lead the race up to the last mile but I had a European track season in my legs, as I had most years, and I was gone the last mile. It was just too much in the end, but I still finished top 10 and I’m proud to be part of what we achieved.
Now, the next year I didn’t run European track. People were always telling me “Shane, you’re a miler you’ll never win Nationals in XC.” I said bullshit!! So that summer of 1993 I stayed in Alamosa, trained like an animal and that senior year I blew everyone away and won the National title in California.
Going out at the top
That was the final year at Adams State for both Shane and Coach Joe Vigil, both bowing out as national champions.
Adams State clearly had talented athletes, but they also created the environment for these athletes to flourish when perhaps their High Schools didn’t. Coaching certainly assisted the development of these runners. It wasn’t just a case of being at a college with a talented bunch of runners that Coach Vigil inherited.
Indeed he has taken many an under-performing professional or ‘failed’ college runner and turned them into world-leading athletes in the professional ranks. He understood what the right training environment was for the athlete, both physically in terms of the individual and their physical surroundings, and also providing the right mentality for success.
The more courage, strength, and endurance you develop the better off you will be to be able to serve your team, yourself and achieve your goals. Challenge yourself, bring something to the table and contribute to the team/coach-athlete partnership; you are on a journey and every day you have to accomplish something.
What are you doing to prepare for that journey? And have courage, the courage to pick yourself up if things are going bad, have the courage to stick to the plan, and have the courage to say no when it isn’t going to help you achieve your goals. Adams State did all that, and more.
(link to Colorado news report about Adams State c.1992 https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10151957807193991&id=528178990