Thursday, February 02, 2012

Stillwater Sub-4--Scott Christensen

Editor's Note: Here's the final installment of DtB's Stillwater Sub-4 series.
By Jim Ferstle

"The odd thing about the sub-4s," says Stillwater boys track and cross country coach Scott Christensen. "While there are a lot of things I could and have taken credit for, I shouldn't and couldn't take credit (for the four running sub-4 minute miles)."

All four of the runners went on to great college programs with great coaches and achieved the sub-4 milestone of their own accord, said Christensen. Yet they all note the contribution Christensen and the Stillwater program had on making the sub-4s possible. The program laid the foundation that contributed to their future success. Perhaps more importantly it taught them things about discipline, hard work, setting and achieving goals that has served them well not only in the sport, but in life.

They were and continue to be part of the Stillwater "family." “None of them could break 60 for 400 in the ninth grade,”said Christensen. “They were certainly good. Stronger, 3,200, 5K strength. We worked long and hard on their speed.” Christensen would have them run legs on the sprint medley or four by 400 relays.

“Used to love to have Luke (Watson) anchor the sprint medley relay,” Christensen said. ‘I had Ben Blankenship anchor the four by 400. Not because he was the fastest, but because I knew he would go after people. I knew it would pay dividends.”

The objective of these moves, Christensen said, was to “put these kids in a position to develop their speed capacity ... I’m a big believer in really running fast ... What works for older athletes doesn’t necessarily work for 15-16-year-olds.”

To maximize speed,Christensen’s program focused on quality over quantity. One way to get that quality was lengthening the rest between each interval, Christensen said. Many coaches approached workouts by cutting the rest time between intervals as the season progressed. The runners were not only running with less rest, but were also attempting to run faster. Christensen approached it with the goal of running faster and increasing recovery time from seconds to minutes. The objective being to see how fast you could run, not how fast you could run when you were tired.

“The purpose of a coach is not to tell you how much to run, but how much to rest," Christensen said. And there was “the secret workout,” as it became known at Stillwater. Right before a meet, the objective is not to run a workout that will destroy you, Christensen says. “We’ve done the work to get to where we want to be,” he said. There’s a tendency among distance runners to always want to squeeze in a little extra, but what we would do is have them run a lap at their race pace and have it feel easy.”

This boosts the confidence without tiring out the athlete. After the prior workouts of running at speeds faster than race pace, it feels comfortable to run a lap at race pace. The foundation has been laid, the confidence stoked, and the athlete should be ready for the challenge of the race. "Every mile we do has its purpose," Christensen says. He takes much of his training philosophy from two British coaches, Frank Horwill and Peter Coe. Both were avid proponents of the quality over quantity approach.

But the coach who set Christensen's career path was his high school coach at Lakeville, Jack Strommer. Christensen's best friend was hit by a car and killed while he was doing a training run at night. “That’s something no 17 year old should have to go through,” said Christensen. “(Strommer) got us through it. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a teacher and a coach just like him.”

Christensen became a science teacher, just like Strommer, and a coach. But he didn't stop there in "paying it forward." Christensen not only coaches at Stillwater, but is also very active in the USATF coaching education program. He gives presentations to other coaches and tries to pass on his knowledge and passion for the sport. Coaching he says “is not a job, it’s a passion fueled by the kids."

It's that passion that has played a big role in keeping him at Stillwater. He’s applied for college coaching positions, turned down one he was offered, but has stayed with what he loves. A more practical reason for the decision was that a move onto college coaching would have been a step down in income. Breaking into college coaching is, for the most part,having to break into a highly stratified system. You start out as an assistant making around $15,000 a year, said Christensen and work your way up the ladder.

Far below the salary one makes as a teacher, especially one who has been in the job for 32 years. As Christensen notes, he’s lived his whole life within about a 100 mile radius, grew up in Lakeville, went to college at Gustavus, and then moved to Stillwater. He’s been fortunate enough to travel around the world by being selected for various positions on USATF national teams, but home is still Stillwater.

With each passing year, the Stillwater family continues to grow. If a member is lost, the family rallies around and provides support. When Jon Francis, a member of “the magnificent seven,” the number one ranked team in the US in 1997, who died while hiking in Idaho,the Stillwater family created a half marathon to help raise funds for a Foundation set up in his memory.

“We’re really proud of our alumni,” says Christensen “(From their accomplishments) we can say this is what it takes to be great around here.” The alumni come back during the summer and train with the kids on the team. It becomes an incubator of sorts. “Success breeds success,” says Christensen.

“I get a lot of pats on the back. I got to take two US teams to World XC championships. What other high school coach gets to do that. I owe it all to them. I lived every big race they ran. If I wasn’t there, I was on the phone with them soon after they finished talking about their race ... It’s been exciting.”


Jacob said...

Great series! What about an installment on Blankenship though?

jdf said...

All four runners and their coach were asked to be interviewed for the articles. Ben chose not to be part of the series at this time.

Jim from MN said...

Well written, Jim! It's great to see these Minnesotans continue to excel during and AFTER their HS and College careers.

Chad said...

Great series, Jim. Thanks for sharing.

T Ritz said...

Great story on an incredible coach. I feel blessed to have been coached and mentored by Scott at Stillwater from 1982-1984. We are all proud to tell people we were mentored by one of the best leaders in the country. It 's not about running, as much as it is about life. Scott coaches these boys on life success principles; goal setting, commitment, work ethic, persistence and positive attitude! His enthusiasm and passion is contagious, and most important he leads by example! Sincerely, T. Ritz