Today we chat with one of the coaches of Christian Brothers Academy (defending Nike Cross Nationals boys' champions), Chris Bennett. He ran at CBA in high school for long time coach Tom Heath who is still a teacher and fellow coach. Following high school, he ran for the University of North Carolina before joining the Nike Farm Team in Palo Alto in 1999. The CBA boys are currently ranked #1 in the country by xcnation.com, Milesplit and Marc Bloom/Running Times.
1) What was your own athletic experience in your youth? Favorite sports?
I was the fourth of five kids so I was constantly surrounded by sports. I played everything growing up. My favorite sport in middle school had to have been basketball. I also was lucky to go to a school, St. Leo the Great, that was a part of a Cross Country and Track League. So, I had exposure to running very early. I ended up running for CBA form 1990-1994 and then for the University of North Carolina from 1994-1999. I ran 5 years for the post collegiate Olympic Development Nike Farm Team in California from 1999-2004.
2) Who were the coaches that had the biggest influence on you and what did you learn most from them?
Percy Rajani, Tony Avallone, George and Rosemary Kochman were my middle school coaches at St. Leo the Great. It was not an intense situation by any means. Rather, their greatest gift to the kids taking part in the running program was that they legitimized the sport. They felt it was every bit as significant as baseball or basketball. After middle school I lucked out. In fact, I bet I have had better coaching than just about anyone else in the world! Which also means I have no excuses for my performances! I had Tom Heath of CBA as my HS coach. I went to North Carolina and had Joan Nesbit-Mabe (1996 US Olympian), Jerry Schumacher (current Oregon Track Club Elite Coach), and Mike Whittlesey (current Kansas coach). I then moved to Palo Alto, CA and ran for the Nike Farm Team for 5 years. During my time training as Stanford I had Jeff Johnson (Nike), Vin Lananna (Oregon), Frank "Gags" Gagliano (Georgetown, OTC), and Dr. Jack Daniels as my coaches. Just an amazing group of people. I hit the jackpot when it came to my coaches. Anything I have not stolen from my coaches I learned the hard way. I made every possible training mistake an athlete could make. But, I learned from the mistakes and I feel there is no reason for the athletes I coach now to have to make the same ones.
3) What led you into teaching and coaching? Who were and are your coaching mentors?
I knew I wanted to teach and coach during my junior year in HS. I went to CBA. My history teacher, Jeff Matson was/is a brilliant storyteller. History is the story of people and the great and terrible things they do. He made it exciting and fresh. And most importantly you learned about yourself during his history class. That is why the subject is so important. Tom Heath was my coach at CBA. I hated running. Intensely hated it. Or so I thought. What I actually hated was my own laziness. Distance running is not kind to lazy people. He was able to get me to work. Through that work I was able to see the how incredible the sport is. I found I never really hated running. In fact, I loved it. I loved the effort. I loved the fact that you don't train to hurt less you train to be able to hurt more!
4) Did you coach at any other schools before Christian Brothers? Highlights?
I never technically coached before CBA. But, I was the guy on the team that loved to BS with the coaches. I was the one who talked about the races the entire long run. I was the one who always believed in my teammates and I could do great things. Basically, that's a coach. So, I guess I was training to be a coach while I was training as a runner.
5) How long have you been teaching and coaching at CBA? What do you teach?
I just completed my 5th year at CBA. I teach World History, 20th Century History and AP Human Geography.
6) What was the state of the program when you first started at CBA?
The XC team had just finished 6th at the NJ All Group State Championships in the Fall of 2006. I was actually living in NC then and came to Greensboro to watch the team race the 4xMile at Outdoor Nationals in June of 2007. They ran horribly. I believe they were 2nd to last. I started the following September.
7) What changes did you have to make?
I didn't do much that first XC season. I basically watched Mr. Heath. There is so much more to coaching than knowing great workouts or even having experience as a runner. I had run 3:43 for 1500m but that is not going to help a 16 year old who has no confidence because he did not train over the Summer or the senior who did train over the Summer and can't put it together on Saturday. I helped when I could and learned who these kids were. After XC, I was able to really coach. You have to know who the kid is presently. Soon, you will see indications of who they can be if they commit. I train that kid. I train the potential.
8) What are your expectations for your runners during the summer?
The harriers need to build a base sufficient enough to handle the work we are going to ask them to take on from September to December. That means they need to get stronger in every possible way. The Summer, really training in general, is your insurance. Little injuries, sickness, periods of zombie running are going to pop up from time to time. The consistent training you did during the Summer gets you through that. The stronger the foundation you have the tougher it is to get hurt and running fast is dependent on staying healthy.
9) How often do you meet your runners?
They meet each other every day. We meet 3 times a week and I run a group long run with another local coach every Sunday that they all go to. We'll get close to 200 kids from all over NJ for the Summer long runs. Including the long run I see the CBA guys 4 times a week.
10) What does a typical training week look like for your runners with a Saturday Invitational?
Every single run has a purpose. Every one. So, we'll do a long run, we'll do something resembling a tempo once or twice a week, we'll do a modified interval workout once a week usually as well. We are a strength team. That does not mean we are not fast. I just believe that speed comes from strength. Besides, there are so many ways to get fast that don't involve 20x200.
11) Morning runs?
Absolutely. Morning runs cheat the system. Great way to get mileage without the exhaustion.
12) What changes as you get closer to November, the state meet and Nike Cross Nationals?
We sharpen. From a physical standpoint I'm sure it's not very different than everyone else. I imagine the most important change for us is the mental one. Our storyline changes. If our season was a movie Championship season would be the part of the movie you stay in your seat for no matter how bad you have to go the bathroom. The guys on the team know it's Championship time. They know that legends are made in November and December. They know because we make sure they know.
13) Tell us a little about last year's XC season and the national championship.
I remember watching Arcadia on the stage lift the NXN trophy over their heads. We had just finished 5th. We were a few points out of 3rd. Arcadia crushed us. I saw them up there and we went home and improved every single thing we did. I did not think about that moment until we were up there a year later holding the trophy ourselves. I walked off the stage and said to myself "if we want to get back up there we will have to improve every single thing we do."
14) How important is the track and field season to the success of a cross country team?
It's incredibly important. Your track times are as meaningful as your name. I know that. I also know that training dictates results and sometimes you don't get the chance to race to your fitness level for any number of reasons. But, track affords a coach to really see the type of fitness an athlete has attained. Regardless of the track times the coach has to adjust the athlete's bar according to his/her fitness and not their PB's. Sometimes it can be tough to convince a teenager that their races are not good indications of the athlete they have become, that they have in fact improved far more than their race times would attest to.
15) What advice would you give a coach who has goals of taking his or her team to the Nike Cross Nationals?
Realize that it is a process. It will take time. Depending on the state of the program it could take years to build to a point where you are challenging for a spot at NXN. That knowledge can be daunting but it can also be a relief. Also, respect the fact that these fours years that the runners give you may be the apex of their careers. Treat it as such. It is an incredible amount of work. But if you ask your kids to work hard for you then you better be working even harder for them. And until they believe in goal, until they believe in themselves it is your job to believe in them.
16) What is the size of your school and team? What kind of experience do most of your runners have before high school?
Our freshman team has between 25-30. There are no cuts for frosh XC. After freshman year we have cuts for XC. We will typically have around 21-25 Varsity XC runners (soph,juniors and seniors). The frosh did most of their running around soccer fields and basketball courts growing up. Our greatest advantage is that the sport of XC is legitimized by us. We don't treat XC as a secondary or peripheral sport at CBA. Actually, it's the opposite. We treat it, and as a result it is viewed, as the most important sport at the school.
17) What do you feel has been the biggest change in high school running that has elevated the competition to a whole new level?
I'll give you a few reasons. The first is the internet. The kids are able to compare themselves to each other regardless of location. There are amazing sites that highlight the elite teams, individuals and races. All of this motivates the kids to train. The addition of NXN has also helped improve the sport dramatically. You now have a legitimate team national championship and anytime you can get the best of anything into a room together great things tend to happen. Lastly, I really believe that a number of the coaches that ran during the Dark Ages of Running - the 90's saw first hand what did not work when it came to distance training and changed what they were doing.
Thank you very much for your time Chris! AJC