Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Catching up with Wilcox coach and CCS Time Comparisons wizard, Walt Van Zant

Today we chat with Wilcox HS coach Walt Van Zant. This 2020 season, Coach Van Zant will be coaching the Wilcox HS Cross Country team for the 37th year. He was chosen as the CCS Cross Country Honor Coach in 1996. Along with his excellent coaching, Van Zant has also contributed to the section with his yearly Comparisons and CCS Predictions which he started in 1998. The voluminous work that Coach Van Zant puts into both lists is tremendously appreciated by many coaches, athletes, and parents and we all hope that we can have a season starting in December so that he can start crunching those numbers once again. A broken wrist definitely did not stop him last year as he continued to share his work with all of us.

1) What was your own athletic experience? Highlights?
I attended St. Ignatius HS in San Francisco, graduating in 1957.  I had a job selling newspapers on a corner in the Haight-Ashbury district for several years, including my freshman year.  I got an academic scholarship at the end of my frosh year.  So, I quit my job and decided to go out for XC and track.

St. Ignatius did not have great XC teams or distance runners when I was there.  So, I was able to become their #1 distance runner by the end of my soph year.  My best mile time in high school was 4:45.  That was the longest event that we were allowed to run in the old days.  Milers were also not allowed to double.

I had a scholarship to attend USF but at the last moment, I decided to attend San Francisco State because USF did not have a track team and SF State did. That was one of the best decisions that I ever made.  I enjoyed my 4 years at SF State.

My event at SF State was the 2 mile with a best time of 9:56 in my junior year.  I won my share of dual meets in both high school and college.  I was our top 2-miler in my soph and junior years.  Two outstanding runners transferred into our school for my senior year – Bill Morgan and Ray Batz, who were much faster than me.  I did not train with the SF State track team during my junior and senior years because I had a job at the post office.  I squeezed training time in between classes.  All of our meets were on Saturdays.
Running wise,  the most significant part of my life was joining the West Valley Joggers & Striders (WVJS) in 1969 (George Sakkestad photo above). I frequently ran with Ken Napier (4:11 miler on a dirt track and a great guy to be around) after work each day for many years and met and ran with many other good runners, all of whom were great guys and gals to be with.  After I had Achilles tendon surgery at age 39 to remove a heel spur that had slowed me for about 5 years, I trained well (had 60+ mile weeks for at least 2 years and had 40+ bests of 2:11 for the 880, 4:46 for the mile, 10:27 for the 2 mile, 2:45:57 for the marathon, and 6:43 (8:03 per mile) for a 50-mile race(age 47).  A few weeks later, I ran the first 25 miles of a 50-miler at 7:00 pace and then crashed but still staggered to the finish.  A few weeks later, I injured my ITB and was unable to run the Western States 100-Miler – a fortunate stroke of good luck because the temperature can get up to 100 degrees during this race and I do not like heat.  I still run 5 times a week at a pathetic pace at age 81.

2) Who were the coaches that had an impact on you? What did you learn from them?
In high school, I had 5 different coaches in 6 seasons (3 XC and 3 track).  They were nice persons but I now know were not knowledgeable about distance running.  I doubt that I ran more than 10 miles in a week and I did not run in-between seasons.  So, there was not much impact from those coaches.

I had several more coaches in college at San Francisco State.  Walt Bohem was the best coach (had him for one year).  He was one of the top distance runners in the Bay Area for several years and was the best coach that I had.
In summary, I had one outstanding coach – Walt Bohem and I learned a lot from runs with Bill Morgan and Karl Griepenburg. (Editor's note: Karl's son Bjorn ran at Petaluma HS and I interviewed him in 2008 which you can find at this LINK.)

3) What was your main profession and what led you into that field?
I planned to become a forest ranger when I started in college but after taking an aptitude test during my freshman year, I changed my mind and decided to become an accountant.

My first and only employment was with the IRS – first as a revenue agent (audit tax returns, starting with individuals and working up to large corporations), then I worked as an appeals officer (attempting to settle cases before they go to court), and finally, I became a manager of appeals officers.  I also got my CPA certificate while working at the IRS. When I got my job with the IRS, it was strongly suggested that I stop running because I was so thin (6-2 and 135 pounds).  So, other than an occasional run, I did not start running again until I was 30.  Incidentally, don’t become an internal revenue agent as you will become very unpopular with your customers.

4) You started coaching at Wilcox HS in 1984. How did you end up coaching at Wilcox and what was your experience during that first year?
I live 3 miles from Wilcox HS.  All of my daughters attended that school and I attended most of their XC and track meets.  My oldest daughter, Becki, graduated from Wilcox in 1984 but just before my 2nd daughter started high school in September 1984, the Wilcox coach transferred to Santa Clara HS.  So, I took over the Wilcox job with the help of a very good runner in our club – Carol Stroud.  Neither Carol nor myself had any prior coaching experience. We just used the workouts for our runners that we had been running ourselves except that we lowered the mileage. I also in subsequent years attended many clinics for track events and distance running.  I also received helpful tips from Hal Daner of Gunn and Paul Jones of Palo Alto.

Our first few years were difficult.  We had very few girls and about 10-15 boys during the first couple of years.  The middle schools in our district had no XC program (and, still do not have a XC program) and I had no way of coming in contact with incoming students.  I think that during my 2nd or 3rd year of coaching that I went and talked to all of the PE classes and I talked to some of the track runners about trying XC.  And, at some point, I started visiting the two middle schools that fed into our school and got their PE mile times from their PE teachers.  I would then send recruitment letters to the sub 6:30 boy runners and sub 8:30 girl runners).  So, I gradually built up my numbers).  I was a believer in high mileage for my runners but most of the time was unsuccessful in getting them to even run 40 miles per week.  The late Homer Latimer (Leigh HS) was very successful in getting his runners up to 70 miles per week back in the 1970s and I believe that one year he had 10 runners break 10 minutes in the 2 mile.  He was also a great motivator and one of the top long-distance runners in the area at the time that he was coaching.

5) How difficult was it juggling working for the IRS and coaching at the same time?
Getting to practice on time was rarely a problem.  My boss let me start an hour ahead of time and leave an hour earlier.  When we had a meet, I would take an hour or two of vacation time.  Getting to Becki’s meets in earlier years was more difficult as sometimes I had to be in other parts of the country when I was in the large-case program.  My training dropped off a lot after I started coaching.

6) When do you remember starting the CCS time comparisons? What was the reason you started doing those? How much work goes into maintaining those lists?
I think that I started my comparisons lists in about 1998.  Prior to that, I made up a list for myself but at a smaller level.  I started my present system because sometimes I disagreed with the newspaper rankings.  I asked Hank Lawson (left with Walt in photo) whether he wanted it and he said yes.  I also decided to call it “Comparisons”.  I do put my comparisons in my ranking order but sometimes I make big mistakes and most of my rankings are judgemental.  So, in order to avoid wasting time arguing with coaches and parents, I just call it “Comparisons.”  Also, in recent years, I’ve sent my comparisons to some coaches before they are posted and ask them to vote for the top teams and to send their votes to Hank Lawson.  I do not want to see their votes.  As far as I know, Hank is the only one that sees the individual team rankings. Obviously, I see their cumulative votes and that is when I sometimes discover that I made a big mistake in my ranking.

7) What have been your primary resources in finding all the data? What is the most time-consuming part of putting the time comparisons together?
I look at Hank’s results, your results, results, and other posted results.  I try to do this during the week but a lot of this gathering comes on Sunday because of Saturday invitationals.  This is probably the most time-consuming task along with entering the top 7 times for teams on a worksheet.  If a team is obviously very weak, I will skip them.  Some teams have different top 7 runners every week, including some who are so slow that the coaches must be pulling them out of the classroom at the last moment in order to have a team.  Other teams, such as Bellarmine, have so many good runners that I do not know where to stop.  Their #50 runner or maybe even farther down on their list could make the varsity on a lot of teams.  Also, ranking teams at the division level takes awhile.  Another problem is when key runners are missing from a team.  Are they gone for the season or just for that week?  What do you do with teams that obviously loafed for a meet because the meet was a mandated meet by the league and the meet has no bearing on the league standings?

8) Along with the time comparisons, you have also done the CCS predictions before the actual races. First of all, how did you come up with the course conversions? After the meet is over, do you go back and compare your predictions to the results? For the most part, do most teams finish about where they were predicted to finish? Throughout the years, any standout individuals and/or teams that just crushed it at CCS?
As a general rule, I use the times run at the league finals and the CCS each year to come up with differentials between courses.  I have analyzed these times for several years and in general, these differentials have not significantly changed.  So, I keep using the same differentials.  If I know that a course was run on a hot day or a very rainy day, I ignore it.

I concentrate on which teams make it to the State Meet as compared to which teams I predicted would make it to the State Meet.  I compare how I do each year. In general, a high percentage of my picks make it to the State Meet.  Last year 19 of the 26 teams that I picked to go to the State Meet made it.  In general, teams run consistent with their league finals times at the CCS meet  So, I should have a high percentage.  There are always a few exceptions.  As an example, last year the Gunn girls ran much better at the CCS meet than at their league finals because they added two outstanding runners to their league-meet team.

9) As a coach, what have you learned from doing the data over many years?
A lot of times the data does not mean anything.  But, other times I can show it to my runners and show them that they have a chance to qualify for the CCS or State meets and show them what they have to do in order to make that goal.  Also, sometimes runners want to know what they have to do to do well in an invitational and the Comparison list will give them that information.

10) During each season, how many emails do you get telling you that you are under or over ranking their teams? Any "I told you so" emails after the CCS meets?
I seldom get this kind of email. But, when I do get this type of email, I will consider it in my next Comparison list.  I do not recall receiving any “I told you so” emails after the CCS meet.  One good friend of mine tells me that if I under-rank his team that he uses it to get them more motivated.  I told another coach who was upset that he did have a good team (because he did) that I thought that the other teams above him were better.  Sometimes, I just plain make mistakes.

11) If we end up having a season, how difficult will it be to do the CCS Time Comparisons this year? Have you started on your lists already?
I have not yet started on my comparison list this year because it takes a lot of time and I do not want to waste the effort for nothing.  Also, I am in charge of a running club and have a few things to accomplish very soon.  So, I will not start on Comparisons for a few more weeks.  My guess is that we will have a season.  I understand that some vaccination projects are onto their final experiment round.  So, I think that we will be ready to go by January 2021.

Thank you very much, Walt!

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