“In really one of the best efforts ever on this course… The 2015 Footlocker National Champion… Andrew Hunter.”
These words echoed through Balboa Park on December 12th, 2015.
Since that race, I’ve taken a four year hiatus from cross country to focus on the track.
All of that changes on February 2nd at the USA Cross Country Championships in Tallahassee, Florida.
Summer ’15 was spent on the backroads of Purcellville, Virginia. Just west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Purcellville is a hidden gem for distance running. With miles of soft surface trails, two beautiful cross country courses to train on, and a higher likelihood of seeing a cow on your run than another human being, Purcellville provides solitude for emerging runners. This solitude allowed me to master my craft.
This solitude allowed me to master my craft.
I ramped up my mileage to 70 miles per week and began working under the tutelage of Tom “Tinman” Schwartz for the first time. After three years of successful coaching from my parents, we decided to take the stress off of them and put it in Tom’s hands. This was a tough decision, but ultimately it came down to prioritizing everyone’s best interests. My parents could focus on developing the high school and club team at Loudoun Valley, instead of traveling across the country with me. This provided Tom with the singular task of developing me into one of the best runners in the world. The coaching transition went pretty seamlessly, and Tom and I quickly developed a strong coach-athlete relationship that blossomed through steady communication. I began to familiarize myself with his training system—the routine and nuance of what to expect every week. Under my parents, I had a very simple training system that was based off of consistency and health. Every week I would complete two workouts and a 90 minute long run. Both workouts would always start with some sort of stamina component and end with short and fast reps to work on speed development. Week after week, I became incredibly efficient and stable in my racing and training. This pattern did not change under Tom. What did change was the ability to push myself once every few weeks with some harder training. Overall, I still was tackling critical velocity repeats and tempo runs for the vast majority of my stamina training, but every once in a while Tom would have me get after something more aggressive. Looking back, the injury-free years I had under my parents set me up for a special senior season.
This provided Tom with the singular task of developing me into one of the best runners in the world.
My senior cross country campaign went as smoothly as I had hoped. I won every race I entered, broke almost every course record in Virginia, and was headed in the perfect direction to peak at Footlocker. For the first time in my running career, running felt effortless and easy. I just ran hard. The success came through my consistency and a “warrior” mindset that I was the best high school runner in the country. Week after week, month after month, I became fixated on meeting one goal and moving onto the next. I didn’t let anything get in my way. I developed a steady training regime that was focused around peaking in December and rarely put on emphasis on anything other than that.
Week after week, month after month, I became fixated on meeting one goal and moving onto the next. I didn’t let anything get in my way.
After clocking a solid 14:26 5k for the win at the Footlocker South Regional race; I was still just running hard. A week out from Footlocker, I completed my final big session. A Tom Schwartz prescribed special: 3xMile cut downs, starting at 5k effort and getting down to 3k effort, with four minute rest between reps. I ran 4:42, 4:30, 4:13. I was ready.
A Tom Schwartz prescribed special: 3xMile cut downs, starting at 5k effort and getting down to 3k effort, with four minute rest between reps. I ran 4:42, 4:30, 4:13. I was ready.
The week leading up to the race I was confident about what I needed to do. As I’d talked about all year with Tom, the plan was simple: Run 800 meters with the group and if you feel good and it’s slow, take off. That’s what happened. After a 2:13 first half mile split I decided it was time to go. So once again, I just started running hard. My lead increased at the mile and two mile splits. All of the hill repeats that Tom had religiously assigned came to fruition on the brutal Balboa Park hills. I would be lying if it didn’t hurt, but I dove into the pain knowing that on the other end was eternal satisfaction. With a mile to go, I knew I was going to win. And really after months of near perfect preparation, I knew I was going to win and a dream became reality.
Sitting here typing this, I am baffled with how long it has been since I have stepped on a cross country course. In the early stages of my running career, I definitely considered myself to be a strong, cross country type of runner. For the past four years, I’ve just been running 3 and ¾ laps for a living. Every miler’s dream. This coming weekend, I’ll get back on grass in an effort to qualify for the 2019 World Cross Country Championships. What makes this return even more unique is that the buildup to this cross country race is the polar opposite of what my Footlocker build up was. Going into Footlocker as a senior in high school, I had uninterrupted and consistent training. This fall was the first time I had experienced an injury that kept me in a constant unknown. After the long track season that included three round-trip flights to Europe, I had some nagging injuries that didn’t seem to dissipate. Like many runners, I pushed through and ran some mediocre races, took my two week break and expected the injury to just go away. I tried to come back to training too fast and ended up in a worse spot than where I started. I was discouraged by watching my teammates and competitors training hard and rising to a new level of fitness. But, I had an incredible support crew that got me out of the injury rut. My soft tissue therapist, Marcus Allen-Hille not only helped with my day-to-day aches and pains, but constantly reminded me to live in the present and not focus on a goal that may be weeks or months down the road. Marcus taught me how powerful it is to breath, sit with your feelings, and be present with those around you.
Marcus taught me how powerful it is to breathe, sit with your feelings, and be present with those around you.
My strength coach, Chris Lee, helped me sort through all my weaknesses every week for hours on end. Mark Plaajtes, who is not only an incredible physical therapist, but also a positive presence every time I walked in to see him. John Ball, an undeniable guru who worked with me for six hours of the span of two days. My coach, Tom Schwartz, who listened to all of my frustrations about not being able to run. And finally, all my Tinman Elite teammates and my incredibly supportive family, who at the end of the day, love and care about me even if I suck at running.
After the tumultuous fall, I finally started to get the ball rolling again. This positive change didn’t start from being selfish and doing every little drill by myself, sleeping in, and focusing solely on what I thought I needed to do. It was about getting out the door with my teammates, helping them, sharing in their successes, and slowly but surely getting some momentum on my side. All it took was surrounding myself with likeminded individuals who were striving for greatness in the same ways I am. They reminded me that they cared about me, and that my presence was important for not only the team, but for my own running. My first workout back with the team was a short and simple one, but I remember it vividly. Not a hard workout by any measure, but it was a special one. For the first time in months, I felt the flow. I felt the energy and rhythm and excitement that was building in Boulder. For months, it was all about “what’s wrong with me” and not about “how can I help my teammates.” It was all I had been missing.
For months, it was all about “what’s wrong with me” and not about “how can I help my teammates.” It was all I had been missing.
The reason I am opening up my 2019 campaign with Cross Country is because quite frankly, it excites me. The last few years have been dedicated to the track. But, my roots are on the cross country course. The thought of being amongst a pack for a large chunk of a race, feeling the flow of the grass and dirt, and the excitement of something new gives me something to build towards. USA cross is the perfect place to start my 2019 campaign because cross country is the first place I felt like a runner.
Four years was the last time I wasn’t considered a “middle distance runner.” Four years too long. Time to return.
Four years ago was the last time I looked to my left and right and battled 100+ guys for a podium spot. Four years ago was the last time I felt that mid race chaos ensuing as a large hill or downhill approaches. Four years was the last time I wasn’t considered a “middle distance runner.” Four years too long. Time to return.