Dennis Barker does not fit the stereotype of a coach, which says more about the stereotype than Barker. He's not flashy. Doesn't drift toward the limelight. He merely gets results, and his runners believe in him.
Down the Backstretch: Ten years ago the Team USA concept was just an idea waiting to happen. What were your thoughts when it started? Why did you get involved? What did you hope to get from the experiment?
Dennis Barker: I was able to get involved because all I had to do was coach. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I had to do more than that. But with Pat handling the business end so well I could focus on training the athletes.
After talking with the athletes I was confident I could help them improve. My approach to training was different from what I was reading in their training journals, partly due to the constraints of the collegiate schedule, but also due to my exposure to several of Minnesota’s iconoclastic runner’s, who were successful doing things by feel rather than by the popular methods of their time. At the top of the list were Buddy Edelen, Ron Daws, Van Nelson and Mark Nenow.
Nothing has changed in distance training since Buddy Edelen began the modern era of US distance running (I’m defining the modern era as the 30:00 10K and the 2:20 marathon. Buddy was the first US runner to break both of those barriers and was the first to make training his top priority, hire a coach and go to where many of the best runners in the world were training).
Science has validated the training methods of these runners and given names to the type of workouts they were doing but it hasn’t come up with anything new. If Seb Coe had been a marathoner instead of a middle distance runner his multi-pace approach would have looked very similar to the program Fred Wilt gave Buddy Edelen before he set the world marathon record.
The recent emphasis on tempo or lactate threshold runs is more like a re-discovery of what Van Nelson was doing when he made the 1968 Olympic team in the 10,000 and what Mark Nenow was doing when he set the American record (and world road record) in the 10,000 meters. In the 1990s it seemed that US distance runners had lost their way. When I was approached about coaching Team USA Minnesota I felt that it was an opportunity for me to contribute to helping them get back on track.
DtB: Did you have any idea then that ten years later you would still be involved? Was there a plan or commitment you had in mind when you first signed up?
DB: I really didn’t think about how long it, or I, would keep going. I just wanted to focus on the opportunity directly in front of me and do the best I could for the first group of athletes we had, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with each athlete that has joined the group since. But I am pretty bleeping amazed that we are at ten years!
DtB: What has been the highlight or highlights of those ten years?
DB: There have been so many highlights: every national championship, every breakthrough race, the relationships with the runners, the training summits at The Happy Gnome. The most compelling highlight was probably Carrie Tollefson’s 1500 win at the 2004 Olympic Trials. She did two very rare, and almost impossible, things in that race: won an Olympic Trials 1500 from the front and regained the lead after having lost it in the final stretch.
DtB: What have been the greatest challenges?
DB: I don’t think a good coach should ever take his knowledge for granted. It’s easy to rely too much on things that have been successful and continually apply them without thinking too much about it. But that’s when you miss things and some of those things can end up making a big difference. I make it a point to re-read my training folders (things I have collected over the years) and at least parts of the training books I have each year just to try to keep my attention where it should be.
DtB: What were the primary objectives you hoped to achieve?
DB: Have our athletes contribute to the improvement of US distance running, compete for national titles, make Olympic and other national teams.
DtB: What would you still like to accomplish, see happen with the program?
DB: It would be great to see a golden era of US distance running where US runners are seriously competing for medals in all of the Olympic distance events, and to have athletes from Team USA Minnesota play at least a small role in that. Whenever US distance running has been good in the past, Minnesota runners have played a role from Edelen, Daws, and Nelson in the 1960s to Bjorklund and Hoag in the 1970s to Plasencia, Nenow, and Beardsley in the 1980s
DtB: What has surprised you or was unexpected about the project?
DB: Nothing surprises me anymore. Just when I think I’ve seen it all, I discover that I really haven’t. But that’s what makes it interesting.
DtB: What are your plans for the future?
DB: Live, damn it! Live!