Thursday, May 30, 2024

Catching up with former Livermore HS and Villanova runner, Becky Spies

Today we catch up with former Livermore HS and Villanova University runner Becky Spies. In HS, Spies posted bests of 2:07.25 and 4:45.11, which still stand as the 4th and 6th fastest times in NCS history, respectively, for the 800 and 1600. She was 2-time CA state champ in the 1600 in 1990 and 1991. In cross country, she finished in the top 10 at the state meet three times including two 2nd place finishes in 1989 and 1990. The photo on the right is from her junior year in high school, leading Deena Drossin from Agoura, who went on to Olympic marathoning success as Deena Kastor. At Villanova, Spies was a 4-time All-American runner, 9-time Big East champions and helped her team win multiple NCAA cross country team titles. She is one of only three Villanova individuals to be named a Rhodes Scholar and was inducted in the Villanova Hall of Fame. You can learn more about her in this Sports Illustrated spotlight LINK from 1995. Spies's son, Sebastien Swaine just completed his freshman season at Peidmont HS with bests of 1:57.07 and 4:18.58. 

1) How did you get your start in running? What other sports did you participate in aside from running? What were your track PRs going into HS? I come from a track family. My father ran at San Ramon High School. I have two older siblings who ran track (my sister Jessica ran mostly the 400 and 800m at Livermore, and my brother Brennan ran mostly the 400m at Bellarmine). My mom is, I think, also a stealth runner. Somehow I remember her beating me to most of the mile markers during cross country over the years! 

I played soccer mostly as a kid, but I ran CYO track starting in either 2nd or 3rd grade.  My brother was running CYO and he was my babysitter, so off to practice I went. I ran the 100m. I was not a sprinter. In 4th grade, I tried the 400m and 800m and found a bit more success at the longer distances (not last). By middle school, I was still physically small and too technically unskilled to keep playing competitive soccer. I did a few workouts with the high school track team at Livermore and with a club in San Jose but I developed a tibial stress fracture and did not run for at least 6 months right around the end of 7th/8th grade. I don't remember my times very well- I think I may have broken 230 or 240 in the 800 in middle school and I had not run very many 1500s.

2) What were some of your high school cross country highlights and proudest achievements? I had a really solid freshman year in NCS and had a pretty good run at State, but I was behind a lot of other freshmen in the nation at that time by a long way (think Melody Fairchild and Deena Drossin). My sophmore year I didn't run high school cross country. I was proudest of my junior year in cross country, where Deena Drossin and I were 1-2 at the State meet (she outkicked me in the final 250m at Woodward Park). I made the Kinney West team that year and finished 11th at Nationals. I was very excited to be running pretty well at that level. I went on that same year to run on the US Junior National World Cross Country team in Aix Les Bains, France,  and what could get better than that!  The actual race at Worlds wasn't my best but I was blown away to wear a US uniform and run in an international competition.

3) What were some of your high school track and field highlights and proudest achievements? I love the track. I loved to go down to Arcadia and Mt. Sac and run against some of the best national and southern California competitions. Of course, I really wanted to do well at the State meet, so those moments are seared into my memory. My big three that I look back on now are 1) my fight for 3rd in the 800 at State as a sophomore year (I actually kicked!), 2) winning the mile at State as a junior and 3) then winning the 1500m at US Jr Nationals as a senior in high school to compete at the Jr Pan American Games. Making a US team and traveling is FUN! :)

4) What do you remember about your high school training? What do you feel like really worked for you? What do you wish you did differently knowing what you know now? There are training logs somewhere, and my long-term memory is very fuzzy. I remember I ran low mileage (5 miles was a LONG run for me) but my interval workouts were pretty fast! I don't remember doing "tempo" pace work on the track as much, in the way programs do now at lactate threshold levels (at 10k to marathon pace).  My interval days gave me a lot of confidence that I could run fast- run the paces that my coach asked me to do. My coach, George Gilbert, was pretty knowledgeable at the time, though, and I think I was well-trained in high school and deliberately kept at a low mileage; I was fortunate to have a lot of success. The 'science' of training has advanced quite a bit in the last 30 years. I think if I could go back and change anything, I think I would still try to undertrain on the mileage side in high school (plenty of time to add mileage later in college/as you mature into the sport). I probably would focus on having a more holistic approach to the sport, spending more time on active stretching/activation exercises/calisthenics/yoga, nutrition, etc, and honestly spending more time on mental prep and visualization to help with transitions in competitions (moving from local high school to regional/national and international competitions). My coach/coaches tried to introduce some of that, but honestly I never fully developed those strong routines during my competitive years. 

5) You ran at Villanova. What led you to decide to attend Villanova and what other schools were also considered? Villanova has an incredible history (established success) on both the men's and women's sides. Also,  Villanova, as a University on the whole, championed the cross country and track teams. The women's team had an amazing group of female middle-distance runners (NCAA XC champions) there that I admired, and they were all hard workers. The team was small and intimate, they met for workouts and runs together basically every day, and, despite all of the individuals there pursuing their own successes, there was a strong sense of team unity and family. Coach "Uncle" Marty also seemed a good balance between humor and having fun. I can still remember him smiling and telling us to "watch out for the leaves" when we would head out for a tempo run in cross country or smiling and laughing and telling us to slow down as we ran intervals on the track.  With the teams he cultivated, no one needed to be told to pick up the pace and he knew that was not what we needed as athletes. So I guess I was attracted to that feeling of a running family and the high bar for success for the entire team balanced with just a touch of humor and ease.

For running, I looked very closely at Wisconsin as well as Arkansas and Oregon. At the time, these schools had great coaches, excellent teams, and traditions. Peter Tegen had recently graduated Suzy Favor at Wisconsin and I admired his coaching, Tom Heinonen had a tremendous reputation and of course (like Villanova) Oregon has a rich track/cross country history,  and Lance Harter had just moved from Cal Poly (so much success) to Arkansas and had a tremendously talented recruiting class from my year (Deena Drossin, Sarah Schwald, Nicole Teter to name a few). I looked at nondivision 1 programs too at the time, but the opportunity to earn a scholarship as the 3rd kid in my family was too big to overlook.

6) What was your transition like going from high school to college? When do you feel like you finally adjusted and started to race to your ability in college? I had a tough transition to college. A lot of people told me they thought kids from the west coast would not transition well to the East Coast (weather, culture), but that was not it. Looking back, I think the Jr Pan AM games were late in the summer, and I did not get a solid mileage base for cross country (especially since I came from a particularly low mileage high school base). I also caught mononucleosis at the end of that first semester, lost a lot of fitness, and just didn't recover quickly.  So my freshman year was a wash and I just didn't bounce back easily my sophomore year.  It took me more than a year to get back to a decent level of mental and physical fitness to compete, and I really did not start to feel like "my running self" again until my junior year of college.

7) What were some of your college highlights and proudest achievements? I was generally happy and proud of my junior year. I cannot name a specific race, and I don't think I really had any standout performances on the track, but I felt "good" running again, and it was fun! That felt like an achievement. I had never been to Penn Relays and could not possibly understand Villanova's special relationship to it until I was running there. It is special. I visited in the last few years and had a chance to walk along a long hallway dedicated to our Penn Relays wheels and some of my strongest memories of races come from those relays at Franklin Field being cheered on by that crowd- definite college career highlights to be able to anchor a winning Penn Relays team and these are some of my favorite photos from college. For any single race, I am probably most proud of my 3rd place at NCAAs in cross country my senior year, because of that special combination of team and individual success. Don't get me wrong! I absolutely love the track- and would much rather lace up for a mile than a 5K!   However, I don't think anyone was betting I would be in the top 3 that year in cross country, and there was even some talk that Arkansas would break our team title streak, so that day/performance my senior year felt particularly sweet.

8) Did you compete post collegiately?
 If so, what did you do? I did compete post collegiately- it started out as for fun. I was in Oxford for two years after college, so I joined the Oxford University track and cross country team (an entirely different system there) and the British Miler's club! I was mostly training myself at first. Eventually, I met the famous and lovely Bruce Tulloh and his even lovelier wife, Sue. "Barefoot Bruce" was coaching my former teammate Nnenna Lynch, also a Rhodes scholar and he invited me to train with them. I felt pretty good running cross country but I was sluggish on the track and had a few health issues while trying to finish up my master's thesis. I headed back to California and medical school at UCSF after two years and was very fortunate to have John Evans (at New Balance in Boston) agree to coach me from afar, but he was probably frustrated at my lack of full-time commitment to professional running. For me, it was hard to balance training and medical school! I did not have a training group, though I was fortunate to have a friend (Polly Plummer St. Geme), former high school teammate Ahmik Jones (who was also at UCSF med school), and a boyfriend to run with from time to time! I ran some road races, ran on some US Ekiden teams (which were a blast) and I was able to run the short course World Cross Country championships in 1999. Ultimately I wanted to run in the Trials on the track (childhood dream) and I was happy to qualify for and compete in the 2000 Olympic Trials in the 1500m, but I knew I could not compete at the level I wanted to without taking time away from my medicine and I chose not to do that. 

9) Who are the coaches that had the biggest impact on you as a runner before, during and after high school? What were your biggest lessons from them?

Barney Stocking (I believe he coached at Amador Valley High later). As my CYO coach, he made track fun for me as a little kid and opened my eyes to the sport.

George Gilbert, my coach during high school, is talented and just crazy enough to take me on, a stubborn teenager that I was! He had the biggest impact on me as a runner. You grow up with your high school coaches, literally, and he gave me the confidence to think of myself as a competitor on a bigger stage. 

We had some amazing coaches at Villanova. Marty Stern was my main coach, followed by Villanova alum John Marshall (800m Olympian in '84), and current head coach and former Villanova legend Gina Procaccio came on as a graduate assistant when I was there. Marty taught me control- not to overwork. We ran together, as a team, 2 x 2 on the track, controlled. I only had a year with John, but he helped me begin to think of myself on a higher level again. And Gina Procaccio is pure grit! She is a straight shooter and she expected toughness.

Now, when I can, I run with Laura Schmitt at her Thoroughbred club and studio. Laura is a valuable friend and highly successful coach of Redwood High School fame for many years. Laura is trying to teach me to run under the more current training philosophies... and I love to constantly ask her what "tempo" is and then push the pace! We have so much fun in her training group and I am so happy to be doing tempo work on the track after many years away from it. She exudes positivity,  love, and the pure joy of running, and I try to hold onto that. 

10) Your sister Jessica still holds the NCS record in the 800. What was her impact on your running career and what did you learn from her? My sister is 9 years older. She was my idol! and always will be. I chased her through time but just could not catch up. Unfortunately, she stopped running in college but she is so talented. We became close when I was in college and she was just so supportive of my running. I learned to be grateful to keep going from her when I was having periods of setbacks during and after college.  And now my son likes to tease me when he hears her name announced with track records at meets and not mine! ;)

11) You are now back in the high school scene with your son competing as a freshman. How has cross country remained the same and what are some of the changes you notice from your high school days? It has been quite a few years- so again my memories are pretty fuzzy of high school cross country! Well, I do know the course at Woodward Park has not changed! that and the consistent exuberance of kids in their first mile of a cross country race! The first rather superficial thing that struck me coming back was how participation seems healthy! It is impressive to see invitationals with thousands of runners there, and I am happy to see many kids out there in the sport. I find the depth of talent on both sides now to be so deep now- and certainly the times are impressive.

12) What advice would you give a talented high school girl with aspirations of competing in college and beyond? Take your time. It is great to run fast in the early season but remember you want to run fast at the end of the season, and you do not have to find all of your success in one season. Give yourself time to build consistency in your training and life. For most serious college athletes and professional runners, their careers are built over more than a decade!  You can rush yourself into injuries and illnesses. Do the daily, incremental work and stay dedicated to your goals.  Watch the professionals run. Like any sport, you can learn from their races and tactics. Use races and workouts to practice different things- can you go out fast and hold? Can you go out slower and kick? Can you practice surging?

From my time in the sport (from pre-high school to beyond), I saw the most success from women who cultivated their love of running and persevered through bumps in the road, avoiding defining success by just the podium or a clock. Those successes come, but they are byproducts of a love of and dedication to the sport. 

Thank you very much for your time, Becky. AC

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