Friday, December 14, 2007

Catching up with Palo Alto coach Jeff Billing

Today we catch up with Palo Alto boys' Cross Country and Track and Field coach Jeff Billing (seen here standing on the left next to his uncle, Amby Burfoot). He has been teaching and coaching at PA since 2004. During his short tenure, his teams have won two varsity league championships including this past season's title as his boys upset Mt. View and Santa Clara to win the SCVAL El Camino crown. Burfoot, for those of you that are not aware, was the 1968 Boston Marathon winner and is the Executive Editor for the magazine Runner's World. You can read his account of Jeff's effort this past year at the Manchester Road Race (in Connecticut) as he ran the race for the 16th consecutive year at this link.

1) How did you get your start in running and describe briefly your competitive time in the sport?

I would have to credit my family for getting me started in the sport. My father, who after a college baseball career decided to start distance running, fell in love with the sport and became a sub-2:45 marathoner. Both of my uncles from my mom's side (Amby & Gary Burfoot) were star high school runners - Amby went on to have a great college career and eventually won the Boston Marathon. On holidays like Thanksgiving & New Years Day, while other families might watch football, its running events that have always been central to my life. (On Thanksgiving Day its the Manchester Road Race in CT. On January 1st its the "New Years Day Run & Swim" that starts at John J Kelley's house and finishes *in* the Atlantic Ocean.) My dad has done each of those for over 30 years in a row... every year of my life and then some!

As for me, I guess I officially started running in 6th grade when I joined the middle school XC team. I ran every fall season from then till my grad year of college - 12 years in a row. I didn't start out as someone who *loved* running - the love I have now for the sport started small but has steadily grown, and continues to grow. In high school I ran because I was good at it and the coach & the team were fun. My PR's are from indoor track where I ran 2:06, 4:40, 10:07 for 800, 1600, 3200 respectively. I was actually a much better baseball player than runner, so throughout high school & college I played ball in the Spring.

2) How did you get your start in coaching? How long have you coached at Palo Alto? Did you coach anywhere else before Paly?
My last year in college I was pretty sure I wanted to coach running at some point. I remember asking my coach to sit down with me before the XC season and show me how he plans out the training for an upcoming season. Then, when I graduated I moved to California to work for Oracle, and immediately started coaching... Little League. It wasn't till I left Oracle and got a job teaching that I wound up at Paly. This was in 2004. I had never coached running before and got to help out with both girls and boys teams working with Paul Jones, Paly's long-time coach who still coaches the girls. In 2005 I was given the Boys XC team and we won the Leagues that year riding a 1-2 punch of Scott Himmelberger & Francis Reynolds. The boys hadn't won leagues in 15 years, so that was pretty cool to do it my first year as head coach.

3) Who do you consider as your coaching mentors?
Man, there are lots of people I would say are my coaching mentors... I'll pick two: The first person has to be my father. For his first 25 years he wasn't a runner. Then he trained for a year, ran a 3 hour marathon, and he's been a runner every day of his life since. He simply loves the sport. Thats the most important thing I think a high school coach can bring to the table - arrive at practice every day excited to share this great activity and lifestyle with young impressionable human beings.

The next would probably be John J Kelley. He was Amby's high school coach. At the time he was also the top marathoner in the country - he competed in two Olympic marathons. He and his wife Jessie were like grandparents to me as I became an adult. I never saw him coach, but I've talked with so many people who ran for him about what he was like, what it was like to run for him. It was never a chore. It wasn't about doing killer interval workouts. It was a balance of running slow, running long, definitely running hard... but all the while learning about each other, learning about yourself, learning about the Earth. Finding meaning in what you were doing, forming bonds with the people you're doing it with.

4) What are the advantages to being a teacher on campus at the school you coach?
I can't imagine coaching somewhere that I wasn't teaching. What I love about teaching & coaching is the bonds that are formed: between me and the kids and between the kids themselves. I think being around the kids in different environments increases our mutual respect for one another. I realize that their world has many more things in it than running. They realize the same about me. I also love seeing packs of the kids hanging out at school together, especially when they're kids who hadn't really been friends before they joined the team, and now are inseparable.

5) You have a famous uncle. Can you tell us a little about him and any influence he may have had with your running and/or coaching.
Amby was a great runner. He's an outstanding writer. People have heard of Amby Burfoot, and he's my uncle - thats always been pretty cool... What goes way beyond all that is that he's also an incredible uncle, father, husband, brother. His role in my life is pretty much beyond words. His values are unwavering. His compassion for others and tenderness with his family are things I've witnessed my whole life. They've shaped who I am and hopefully the type of father, husband and uncle I will be.

As a runner, his biggest influence was the answer to the question every young runner asks: "Amby, how do I get faster?" I asked him when I was barely a teenager. His reply: "Jeff, when you're on a run, and you see a hill, run to the top, then run down the other side, then run back up again!"

As a coach, he has really helped me working with Philip. He's been a sounding-board for all the ideas that I have to work with this tremendous talent, and he's been a constant voice in my head reminding me that, for young runners, less is more. The key is for it to be fun, consistent, and for improvement to be gradual but steady. You don't do amazing things in one day, one week, one month or even one year.

6) Describe your expectations of your runners during the summer. Is there a team camp?
Over the summer, I expect the boys to do a little more than they have done the previous off-season, the volume is pretty individualized. What I try to set up, and what we succeeded this summer in setting up, was to have a regular time every weekday over the summer where the kids know when & where to meet if they *want* to run with their teammates. We had a pretty steady core group this summer, and we also had great alumni representation as we have 4 boys running competitively in college right now. We don't have a "team camp" tradition, but this year we spent 3 days camping out in the hills with a group of 15-20 people. I hope that might stick as a tradition... we'll see what the kids do with it.

7) Where does your team do most of it's training around Palo Alto HS?
Training from Paly is sub-optimal. Its really hard to find soft surfaces, which I think is really important. The boys do lots of runs around the Stanford campus, many runs include the hills of "the dish". We occasionally go to the Baylands to run and also occasionally get to the course at Crystal Springs or to Rancho or Huddart.

8) In regards to your training program, are there key workouts that consider important to your team's success?
The training program is heavily focused on aerobic threshold training, with long-term goals. My goal as a coach is to create life-long runners. Winning a league championship is neat, running a fast time is cool, running in college is awesome... still loving running and being able to run when your 60 years old is truly incredible, and probably means you've lived a much happier & healthier life. If you want specifics, We follow a Jack Daniels training philosophy. On top of the threshold running we regularly do repetition work, we call them "Smooth 2's & 4's" where kids run mile pace for 200-400 meters over and over again with as much rest as they want. We just focus on having good form and feeling graceful over the ground. We do most of the above on grass or the "mulch" trail near the Stanford track. The last 6 weeks of the season we bring in traditional intervals - mile repeats, sets of 800's, ladders up & down. We try not to over-race, especially with our top runners, and I think we've been pretty successful the last 3-4 years of having our top runners in their best form at the end of the season.

9) Looking back at this past season, can you mention a few team highlights?
This season was a special season. I had 20 seniors, an incredible group. We spent 5 days in Hawaii, every minute of that was special. Beating Gunn in our annual "City Championships" was certainly a highlight. Winning the League meet as huge underdogs on paper was incredible. The speeches made during our Captain Elections were quite memorable. Our banquet was awesome. But honestly, the thing that touched me the most was the "Thank you" card that the seniors gave me just a few days ago. The things they said... well... they made me realize just how special this high school XC experience can be.

10) Have you caught yourself thinking ahead to next year's cross country season yet?
I think as soon as the CCS race ended, I started looking forward to next year's race. We had a stomach flu that went through our team the night before the race and we had to sit out our #3, #5, and #6 runners. #3 and #5 I was expecting big breakthroughs from. We had a great race plan and a great vibe all week, and I really felt like we were going to win. As I watched St. Francis have the race we had dreamed of having, and then as we missed states by 12 points with runners 1,2,4,7,8,9,10 I couldn't help but start looking forward to next season. It'll be interesting though... with Philip & Charlie coming back we can run with anyone up front. Skyler, our #3, was in great shape in November, but never got a chance to show it. After that we're thin on paper. But I've got a list of literally 12-15 guys who could give us what we need. It'll be interesting to see if any of them take the opportunity and go for it.

11) What advice would you give to coaches that are just starting out with their careers?
For new high school coaches, I think you have to decide what your philosophy is. A coach from back home in CT who I have the utmost respect for was all about having a really small team and giving them tons of attention. He weeded out people who weren't going to help his varsity team. He kept 7-10 guys and made them FAST

I sum up my philosophy in my seasonal speech to the boys where I tell them my 2 goals for them: (1) to have tons of fun and (2) to get really fast. I tell them that "fast" is a relative term. It means "fast" in November relative to what you could do in August. My philosophy is to accept anyone who is willing to work *hard*. The more the merrier. We have grown in #'s every year I've been at Paly, and the group as a whole has taken it more & more seriously. This year we had 60 boys.

I think both styles have their merits - a new coach has to choose where his or her priorities are. What type of experience are you looking for? What type of an experience do you want for the kids?

12) Anything else you would like to add.
No, I already said too much.

Thank you very much for your time Jeff-AJC

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Jeff Billing will not be returning to Paly next year. Check out what some of the students had to say about him at this link:

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