December 05, 2010

Five in a Row for Fayetteville-Manlius

I've been to Fayetteville and driven through Manlius, and believe me, there's nothing about those towns that would lead you to mistake them for the Rift Valley. So how can it be that an ordinary town in Central New York produces the very best high school cross-country teams in the country year after year?

In case you missed yesterday's Nike Cross Country Nationals, the F-M girls won their fifth straight national title with a record low score of 27 points, while the F-M boys finished second. (You can watch a replay of the webcast here).

If you're curious about the F-M team and its philosophy, I highly recommend listening to an in-depth interview that did in April with Bill Aris, the team's coach. You can read the transcript of the interview, but listening is better.

Letsrun Track Talk with Bill Aris - April 10, 2010

If, however, you're wondering about "the secret," you're going to be disappointed. As hard as it is to believe, the evidence suggests that with F-M you have to begin with the philosophy and if you can accept that, then admit that the training probably isn't the reason the team is so successful.

Here's a representative quote from Aris from the beginning of the Letsrun interview:

"We start with the athlete's mind and their heart. And people think, 'Well, he's sandbagging again, he doesn't want to talk about workouts.' [but] that's not true... We try to find out what makes a kid tick. We talk to them, we spend time with them, we ask them - this is in advance of any serious running - and find out what motivates them and what they aspire to do and achieve, even if [...] they're not runners yet. OK. And our emphasis is on getting them to see what we may perceive as their potential. And when they see it and they invest of themselves or, as they say, buy into it, then the rest of it's easy. You know, everybody talks about the training, and yeah, certainly training [is] essential. I mean, you can't just run fast on waking up in the morning and having a good attitude. But the fact is, you've got to believe in what you're doing. You've got to believe and trust your coaches. You've got to believe in the aim and the purpose of your program philosophy, and that's really what it's all about."

I don't know how the following anecdote relates to F-M's overall philosophy, but there was a moment at the end of yesterday's race that struck me powerfully and made me reach for a piece of paper to write down what I had just heard.

It is at about 20 minutes into the girls race, and half the runners have crossed the finish line. Most are absolutely spent and some have collapsed on the gold wet grass. It is already clear that F-M has won in a rout. Their top three runners have finished 2nd, 4th, and 6th overall (1st, 2nd, and 4th in team scoring). Their fourth and fifth runners have finished in the top thirty. It is an absolutely dominating performance, and these five girls, who have just given everything to this cold, wet, windy, muddy five kilometers, are beginning to celebrate.

That's when we hear the voice of Bill Aris, cutting through all the cheering and excitement in the finishing chute. He sounds a little angry as he tells his girls "You've got two more coming. We're not a FIVE-man team. Let's go!" And five-sevenths of the best HS team in the country walk back towards the finish line to wait for and cheer in their sixth and seventh runners.


Mike Miller said...


I'm glad you brought up that last point- I heard it as well. He was very adamant about that, and it struck me. I'd go even farther- teams like FM that prepare more than 7 runners, every runner in the program to be great, are the ones who succeed the most. So often we think of this as a 7-man or woman sport, but it isn't. He hit the mail on the head with that command!

Old Blue Eyes said...

Interesting that we feel the important things we hear are what we ourselves value. For me, "find out what motivates them" was the key. The training will follow.

Ankit said...

i noticed aris saying that as well. i was actually surprised that they had to be told to look for their other guys, i would have thought that's something they should know/want to do already... granted i don't know what the excitement of winning a national championship might feel like

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean, but when you score 27 points and win a dual meet against the nation, you probably feel a sense of excitement that allows you to forget you have two others coming in. Also, imagine how good your 5th runner is when she has time to be told to go cheer in her 6th, who is a 19:30 5K kid. Unreal.