1) What was your athletic experience like in your youth? What sports did you play? Highlights?
I imagine my high school experience as a youth (some might call that period the Neolithic Age), in the days of yards, not meters, involved conflict and defiance, much like the antihero Colin Smith in Alan Sillitoe's short novel, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Basically, its about a teenager who winds up in an English borstal for committing a robbery, but experiences a kind of self-revelation while training for a long distance race against an elite English prep school. At the end of the story, he's on the verge of winning the race but stops one meter short of the finish line and let's the top runner from the elite school pass him for the victory. It's sort of an antithesis to the Prefontaine mythology. The conflict involved my stepfather who was in the Dodgers (Brooklyn) farm system, but whose career was ended by the war. He was actually pretty good: he once batted against Hall-of-Famer Warren Spahn and went 2 for 3 with a walk. He, of course, wanted me to play baseball- I was a fairly good pitcher. The defiance came from quitting baseball to run track- it became psychological warfare between him and me, but that's another narrative. So, I ran cross country and track, although I did cross country more for conditioning. We trained in a very large park, so there were many venues to choose from, and I could run alone and into a dimension where no one else existed- kind of like Melville's dark November of the soul. During track, I ran the 100, 220 or occasional 440 (which I loathed) and was anchor for the 4x220. I loved the exhilaration of running fast. Track opened a threshold between the inner and outer worlds, a void within a void where nothing existed but the beautiful experience of speed, a kind of nothingness that I loved but certainly couldn't get from baseball. Track functioned as a complement to all the reading I did. Highlights: the best was our team winning the City Championship and the 4x220; another involved a personal 220 battle between myself and a runner from another school. I couldn't beat him in our dual meets, but finally at the end of the season in which he graduated, I got him.
2) Who were the coaches that had the biggest impact for you and what did you learn from them?
My high school coach had a profound influence on me as a runner. He was surly, gruff and goading, but also understanding and compassionate. He emphasized form and technique as a means to speed regardless of the distance of the race- a lesson that has never left me. I began coaching due to the instigation of Doctor Peter Grimes when we formed the San Francisco Cheetahs, a USA Track and Field youth division team with kids from the ages of 6 to 16. They were an excellent team; one year the midget girls (ages 10-11) came in second at the Junior Olympics Nationals. Eric Wright, who went on to play in the NFL, was on our team. I picked up a lot of insight about coaching from Peter, who was a great hurdler himself, missing the Olympics by just hundredths of a second. He still competes at Masters. I have great respect for the coaching of Frank Horwill, Peter Coe and the Hungarian, Mihaly Igloi.
3) What do you do besides coaching?
Besides coaching I write- I have had several book of poetry published; and I'm a small press publisher. I print fine press books, mostly poetry by people I have a high regard for, on letterpress. I have studio space in Berkeley where I do the designing, printing and binding. Louise, my wife, often does illustrations for the books.
4) Did you have any coaching experience before University HS?
As alluded to above, I started coaching a youth team with Peter Grimes when my son was in elementary school. It was a wonderful experience with kids of all ages from all over the city. It's amazing to think back on those 10-12 hour track meets, and wonder how we ever got through them with our sanity intact. Well, maybe we didn't remain sane. When my son graduated from middle school, I thought I would stop coaching. But, at the time, University's track team was understaffed; and as good a coach that Jim Tracy may be, he couldn't be everywhere so I volunteered to work with the sprinters and jumpers. Happily they hired me as an assistant coach and I trained the sprinters, hurdlers and jumpers. There were a number of great highlights: being able to coach my son and watch him excel; when Emily Davenport set the BAC record in the girls 300m hurdles, having the girls win an NCS title with just 5 athletes, to mention a few.
5) You were an assistant coach at University HS for how many years? What did you learn from that experience?
I was at University for six years. What I took away from my experience there is quite simple: realizing the importance of trying to enable each athlete to fulfill his or her potential at whatever level that might be. Winning is fabulous, but the personal achievement is what is most important. I learned that as a coach, I wanted each athlete to feel that I thought he or she was important to me regardless of ability. I realized that I might have a large influence on their lives and I wanted track to be an experience they could integrate into their lives. And I found that the way to do this was to treat them as young adults, to respect their feelings and to try and have them respect themselves. I learned that as a coach my approach had to be a relaxed but intense one. I never yell during training and rarely get angry, it's not in my nature. One year during an after-season party, one of the kids called me the zen coach- I loved the moniker and have always cherished that moment.
6) What was the state of the Urban cross country and track and field teams when you took over? What changes did you make?
Mary Schaezlein was Urban's coach at the time. She was an outstanding distance runner in college and had wanted to develop a track program at Urban, something the school never had had. We had known each other for quite awhile, ever since she ran Cole's Running Shoe Store and was selling running shoes to my son and our youth track team. She was aware of my work with the Cheetahs and University and I really wanted to work with her- we truly complemented each other. During my first year there, the team grew from 5 to 21 athletes- it felt like a major success even though it was a small team, small even for the BAC. The change we made was to emphasize strengths: we had good distance runners and a great middle distance runner. So, in spite of being small we focused on being successful with whom we had, while simultaneously letting the kids experiment with different events so that we could discover what their talents were. It's something that's still done in spite of always having a small team; we try not to fixate on a specific event for an athlete at first. Mary, unfortunately, has since left to devote herself more to her son, but we have a great coaching staff with great expertise: Rob McDaniels, former DIII All-American in the 110 hurdles; Anna Lee Mcgregor, an outstanding 400m sprinter in college, who still competes- she was fantastic in the coaches 800m race at the San Rafael Twilight Relays; and Drea Carter, another outstanding sprinter, who unfortunately had to compete against an athlete in high school that you may have heard of: Alyson Felix- thus, she was always second. We have great camaraderie and it rubs off on the athletes- we have worked very hard to develop a strong bond between the athletes and I believe that it has contributed to whatever success we have achieved.
7) Tell us a little about Cole William's 2011 Track and Field season. What were the expectations before the season and what do you feel were the keys to his success?
Cole had a sensational season in 2011, one of the best an 800m Norcal runner has ever had. It was a dream season in many ways, anchoring sensational 4x400 and 4x800 teams and coming in fifth at the State meet, so close to the title in what is considered the second best 800m meet ever run at State. Cole's issue with iron deficiency was the main reason we stayed away from the 1600 and focused on the 800. He had had two frightening experiences during both his Junior and Senior years in Cross Country in which his body shut down and he wasn't able to stand or walk for 45 minutes after each of those races. He had two similar experiences during his college Freshman year in Cross Country- he was actually hospitalized after the second incident. Our expectation was to win the Meet of Champions and to make it to State finals in the 800, pure and simple. The keys to his success were passion, endurance, determination and natural ability.
8) What have been some of your other highlights and accomplishments at Urban?
I believe that athletes accomplish, not coaches- in my view, coaches contribute, contribute probably 5 to 10 % to an athletes achievement. There are so many highlights- they would form quite a compendium of the histories of Urban's track and cross country teams. I'll try to limit the list: Cole winning the MOC title; our boys 4x400 being the first BAC team to go under 3:30; the 4x800 boys team being ranked 25th (I think) in the nation in 2011; Halle Heiden's 2:16 in the 800m; the boys going 1-2-3 in the 800m at NCS two years in a row; last year's girls 4x400 team coming so close to the BAC record; the joy of watching Molly Carleton win the 400m in the very first race she ever ran in her life, breaking 60 seconds as a Freshman and going undefeated until the Meet of Champions; Cole Larsen coming back from a debilitating injury to win the 800m at NCS; winning the NCS boys xc title in 2010; the girls coming in 4th and 5th in cross country at State in 2009 and 2010; Emma Lehmann's tenacity and 8th place finish in xc at State. One of the things I've been happiest about during my years at Urban is having Jordan Clark drop 8 minutes off her 5k time between her Freshman and Senior years. I would love to mention all my athletes in some way, but I'll stop here.
9) Your athletes have had a great deal of success in the 400m, 800m, and 1600 relay. What do you feel are the key workouts for the 400 and 800?
I'm not sure there are key workouts: it's more like the development of musical motifs with space for improvisation, sort of like Arvo Part's fur Alinda where different musicians play the same piece with subtle, almost intangible variations. I like to use mixed intervals, focusing on speed endurance and speed development. I tend to think of the 800m as a sprint, so I often use similar workouts for 400/800 runners with modifications adapted to individual runners. I try to individualize as much as possible, within limitations, in order to respond to strengths and weaknesses. We do a lot of core work with a moderate amount of strength training. There is an emphasis on form and technique during training, rather than a mere focus on numbers. In a sense, it begins in cross country- most of the runners transpose to track. I watch stride length, footfall (very important), closing and surging speeds to anticipate what a runner may need during the track season, and what could be appropriate events. The way a runner's foot hits the track gives me an idea of what events he or she will adapt to. I also have a visual sense of what a runner's form should look like, so I attempt to adhere to that with all my runners as much as possible, but with variation allowed for physical type and tendencies. I approach form the way the Budapest String Quartet would approach playing a Beethoven quartet- the ideal was to have it sound the same each time they performed it- rather Old World but commendable. Ideally, I would like all my athletes' form to look the same. I do love the 800- if I could find a wormhole in time, I would go back and make it my event.
10) Urban competes in the Bay Area Conference. Tell us a little about the league and why do you think so many top athletes have performed so well from the Division V league.
The BAC is comprised of teams from schools that have less than 500 students each. It has two leagues, East and West, which, beginning this year, compete individually. Both leagues will compete together in the BAC Championship in order to advance athletes to the NCS Class A Championships, but will still maintain separate scoring. I believe the BAC is successful because of passion and intensity: we have athletes striving to excel, proving that they can compete with athletes from larger schools, and we have excellent coaches who are addicted to the sport and who possess an excellent knowledge of track and field training. While coaching may contribute only 5 or 10 %, that percentage is obviously crucial and I believe we have some of the best coaches in the State, and what they have achieved with so few athletes available is remarkable.
I think it important for a young coach to approach the sport with an ardent and purposeful intensity that enables her or him to impart a passion for track to the athletes. Enthusiasm is infectious. Always remain within yourself and not try to create a "track coach" persona because the kids will see through it. Learn as much as possible about the science of the sport when trying to structure a program. Adapt to your athletes, don't try to force them to adapt to you. I would emphasize that it's not necessarily about winning but about the growth of your athletes as individuals and about infusing them with a sense of self-respect and self-worth that will carry them through life. And one thing is definite: it's not about you, it's about them.
12) Anything else you would like to add.
I think I've blathered enough. Thank you for the graciousness of this interview- you know that I was extremely reticent about doing this, but I feel truly honored that you asked.
Thank you very much for your time Bill! AJC