Thursday, March 29, 2012

Catching up with St. Joseph Notre Dame coach, Tony Fong...

Today we chat with St. Joseph Notre Dame coach, Tony Fong (picture and some of the information below courtesy of  This past cross country season, Tony's boys XC team finished in 3rd place in the highly competitive Division V race to gain their first podium finish in school history.  That followed their 2nd. NCS title in school history as they soundly defeated the Div. V juggernaut University team.  For his team's accomplishments, Tony was named East Bay Cross Country Coach of the Year.  Tony has been coaching at St. Joseph ND since 1996.  In 2011 he completed his 100th. marathon and is still an active competitor.  

1)  What was your athletic experience as a competitor in high school and college?  What sports did you play?  Highlights?
I started running in high school at Newark Memorial High School.  It was a surprise to me that my name was on the list for students interested in cross country before my freshman year.  My parents had their own business back then and it was their way to keep my brother and I at school for a few extra hours.  It was a great experience running both cross country and track and field.  I learned a great deal about running from Jack Roach our coach and our freshman class in high school was ranked top 10 in both NCS and STATE.  We had 3 runners that could all run under 4:30 for the mile on the team (all Freshmen!).  After high school, I studied at CAL Berkeley but did not run on the team but continued running with the cross country runners. After college, I ran competitively with a local running club, first with Tamalpa in Marin (coached by Mike Fanelli) and later with the West Valley Track Club (coached by Steve Ottaway and Jack Youngren).

2)  What led you into coaching?  What else do you do besides coaching (ie. what pays the bills?)
Prior to coaching at the high school level, I coached adults training for marathons and helped with coaching runners who joined our West Valley group.  I also helped with local organizations coaching runners at both Team in Training and Team Asha (both groups who raise funds and awareness for local charities).  In 1996, I was recruited by Chris Williams (now coach at Dublin High School) to help out with the cross country program at St. Joseph High School.  This was my first experience at the high school level.  Along with coaching, I work in the biotech industry.  I started as a bench scientist at Cetus Corporation doing cancer research and after 7 years, I now manage a sales team that sells products and services to researchers and labs worldwide.  Being in sales offers me the flexibility to start my day early and get to St. Joe's for practice by 3:30 (makes for a long day during cross country season).

3)  What was your first experience coaching and what did you learn from that experience?  What were some of your highlights there?
My first experience coaching was with ONLY marathon runners and I took in all the coaching I gathered from my own coaches and during the early 90's, there was a running boom were you saw an increase in participation in most races.  After having already run many marathons, I was asked to help out with some of runners taking on the challenges of running a marathon, helping to put together training schedules, and helping with the weekend long runs.  After coaching hundreds of runners, I learned that you can't just have one training schedule for all runners but rather you have to personalize it for each individual.  Some runners will work with higher mileage, some will work with speed work, and others may need more rest days.

4)  When did you first start coaching at St. Joseph Notre Dame?
My first year at St. Joe's was in 1996 and Chris Williams had already pulled together a core group of runners.  We finished 2nd at NCS that year and made it to the state meet.  I really didn't have a plan that year as I was putting together workouts at the beginning of each week.  I certainly didn't think about peaking for state and for me, the first year was about figuring out high school cross country.  I had the team running way too many invites and ran all the league meets as if it was the league championship.  If I had to do it over again, I would first develop a plan for the year and then I would plan for races and workouts.

5)  What was the state of the program when you started at SJND and what changes did you institute to get the program headed in the right direction?
The team had a tremendous amount of talent and the goal for them as well as most high school programs was to make it to the CA state XC meet.  I did not have to  change much as far as training rather what I did most was spread out the workouts so that there was a balance for both recovery and peaking during the end of the season.  The team did hard workouts the day before meets and the mileage increased from week 1 to the end of the season.  I added interval workouts on Tuesdays (also Thursdays if there was not a meet).  I would have them do one long run on the weekend (up to 12 miles).  I built up their mileage from 30 miles at the beginning of the season to around 75-80 a few weeks before the end of the season.  I also added a more structured summer training schedule mostly for the varsity runners.

6)  Since your days as an athlete to now, who have been your coaching mentors?
I have learned much from my coaches in high school (Jack Roach and Jack Marden) and have to this day continued to ask for advice from the coaches from West Valley (Jack Youngren and Jacob Michaels).  I am also fortunate to have many excellent coaches in the BSAL (Bay Shore Athletic League) that have helped me with sound training advice and becoming more familiar with high school logistics and rules.  This includes Jeff Rogers and Dennis Mohan from St. Mary's, Doyle O'Regan from Piedmont, and Peter Brewer from Castro Valley (now at Northgate).

7)  Your boys made the podium this past season by finishing in 3rd place in Division V.  Tell us a little about that team and the road to the podium.
Last year's team was indeed one of the fastest and best team I have coached in my high school coaching career.  I believe that having kids buy into the team concept is one of the toughest challenges coaches face each season.  Individually for athletes, some have the talent to run fast, some need to put in extra training and some like to run on their own.  Kids (like adults) have their own goals and priorities and if for one season you can get them to buy in on a specific goal which in our case was to make it to the podium at state. This will help to get them to train together and work as a team. With the help of team captain Nick Ratto, the kids worked hard over the summer (as a team) and did not over train during the season.  They really supported each other during their workouts and every member of the group would help push each other during the daily workouts.

8)  Who have been your more note worthy runners that you have coached and what were some of their accomplishments?
Several of my former runners have gone on to run in college:  Alex Mason was an outstanding middle distance runner and he was my first runner cross country that won NCS his senior year.  He ran for Fresno State and held our school record for the 800 (1:55.91) until it was broken this year by Ratto.  Neil Rodrigues was another of my outstanding cross country and track runners.  Like Alex, he ran at the state level in both XC and Track (3200) and still holds the 2 mile record (9:22) at St. Joe's.  Neil also ran in college for Washington University in St. Louis.  This year, Ratto, Gabe Arias-Sheridan and Louis Rodrigues all have a chance to set school records from the 400 to the 3200.

9)  From your perspective, what are the keys to being a successful distance runner?
After 16 years of coaching, I have seen hundreds of kids come through the cross country program.  I have seen kids start with a mile time trial that is over 7 minutes and they end of being the star of the team. I have also seen kids run under 5 minutes on their first time trail and they never get any faster.  There really is no secret to long distance running: you have to work hard, listen to your coach, set specific goals and do what ever it takes to get there.  I always have the team run a timed mile early on in the season which helps structure the workouts specific to each person.  You can't have everyone on the team run 65 seconds 400's !!  No matter what they run for the timed mile, I document all the workouts, training runs, and race results.  This is a great way to help track the progression of each runner on your team.  I have learned over the years that you will get that one runner that will be a state caliber runner but unless you get 5-7 fast runners it will be difficult to make it.  My most successful runners have been middle of the pack runners that have learned to run the hard days with 100% effort, relax during the recovery days, and focus on the long runs(with hills) on the weekend.

10)  What are some of your key workouts in cross country?  In track and field?  For 800?  1600?  3200?
I have specific work outs for specific reasons.  For endurance, I have the kids do long tempo runs of up to 15 minutes, for leg turnover I have the kids do triangles, for VO2 max workouts the kids do tons of 400's with minimum recovery.  I can't emphasize this enough, most cross country season are only 10-12 weeks long (from day one of official start of school to STATE) if the kids don't have the summer base mileage it is nearly impossible to start hard track workouts in week one without your kids getting injured.  Workouts for the 800, 1600, 3200 are much different; 800 runners do lots of hill repeats, strengthening, and short intervals. Milers will combine the workouts of the 800 and 3200 runners.  The 2 milers will do longer runs on their easy day and do more tempo workouts (mile repeats) during the week.  On the weekends, the 800 runners will do an additional track workout while the miler and 2 milers will run hills and long runs.

11)  What is your advice for a young coach taking over a xc program?
As a coach at the high school level it is so important to start with a key core group.  You will always have that one fast runner (and if you are lucky a few) but over time you want to have enough runners from year to year to have a chance to make it to the state level.  Make it fun!!  Running 5-10 miles may not be what kids have signed up for.  Running a few local invites and fun races will give the kids something to look forward to each season. From the teachers to parents to their classmates get as many people involved in your program.  This year we had the volleyball teams and basketball teams drive up to the state meet to cheer us on.  We have alumni events to get the school and parents excited about the season. Take time to post results on the school web-site and always try and get results in the paper (this is great publicity for the school and kids love to see their names in the paper).Take a look at the middle school running programs and get involved with the local running clubs as this may be a great resource for incoming freshmen.  Spend time doing non running stuff: Go to see a movie together, have a training run that ends at In-N-Out or Jamba Juice!

12)  Anything else you would like to add.
Over the years I have seen an increase in all cross country and track programs all over the bay area, from youth programs to the high school level.  I would tell all of those that are involved in any running program spread the word, volunteer your time at local races, support other sports at your school and ask them to support the track and cross country programs.  We may not have the glamour of football, basketball and baseball but at the high school level, college level, and as adults we have a chance to run in a race almost every weekend.  At the very least running cross country will help you get into shape and condition for all sports.

Thank you very much for your time Tony!  AJC


Anonymous said...

great interview! but i think it is time for an interview with Nick RAtto!

Anonymous said...

Every morning in Africa.....

Anonymous said...

...and we all at St. Joe's thank you very much for your time, Tony!!

Anonymous said...

A great coach and a class act. The kids and parents at St. Joe's are lucky to have Tony Fong as their coach. All thanks and praise coach!

Anonymous said...

A class act all the way! St. Joe's is lucky to have him!

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