What Makes a Good Runner?
Peter Thomas '77 knows a thing or two about running and coaching. We asked him, and some of the runners he has coached, to weigh in on the intangibles that turn an average runner into a good one, a good runner into a great one.
by Stuart Kaufman
Peter Thomas '77, KSC's resident running guru and coach of the cross-country and track teams, has a lot to celebrate. Now in his 25th season as coach, he guided the Owl women to their 10th consecutive Little East Conference championship last fall and was named the LEC Coach of the Year for both men's and women's cross-country teams, the first LEC coach to earn both honors in the same year. During his long tenure at KSC, Thomas has produced hundreds of elite runners, scores of All-America athletes. During the 2010 indoor track season, junior Allison Chamberlain finished second in the 800-meter race, becoming the track program's 100th All-American. Cross country has 46 All-Americans so far. There's no magic formula – but a lot of accumulated wisdom to put to use.
Mental toughness. Is running mostly physical, or mostly mental? "As far as I'm concerned, running is about 70 or 80 percent mental," said Thomas. "It's overwhelming mental," concurred Tom Anderson '88, a three-time All-American at Keene State, who broke the New Hampshire record for five miles (24:59) when he was 35 years old. "If you worry about the competition, you're not thinking about yourself and your performance. It's about you, not about them." The ideal runner must endure the rigorous practice regimen and have a passion for the sport. Anderson takes it a step further, adding luck, a good coach, and a training plan.
Motivation. "Everyone has a trigger that makes them want to perform, and as a coach I need to find that trigger," said Thomas. "Sometimes it's impressing parents or a boy or girlfriend, and sometimes it's overcoming one of life's many adversities." He often tells the story of Marc Heilemann '96, a back-of-the-pack cross-country runner for the Owls, who, after deciding not to run track, suddenly showed up one spring day in Thomas's office. "Marc told me he wanted to be the best runner that he could and dedicate himself to the sport," Thomas said. Thomas later found out that Marc's close high school friend had died of leukemia. Dedicating the rest of his college career to his friend, Marc developed into a top varsity runner at KSC.
Food and rest. You are what you eat. Fast food won't make you run fast. Good nutrition and adequate sleep are essential.
Passion. Thomas has coached several gifted runners who wanted to take it to the next level. Mary Proulx '03 and Mark Miller '03, who combined to capture nine national championships and 25 All-America awards, offer some worthwhile advice. "A good runner needs to listen to her body," said Proulx. "You need to know when to push harder and when to take a break." Miller added, "The biggest attribute an athlete needs to be a great runner is passion."
Challenge. According to Gary Gardner '94, a former Owl runner now serving as the head cross-country and track coach at UMass Lowell, an athlete always needs to be challenged. "Coach Thomas never let us be satisfied and always put a new challenge in front of us to keep us motivated," said Gardner. "That's how I improved from being a below-average high school runner to someone who represented the country at the world championships."
Drive. Most coaches will tell you that asking an athlete to go out and run – especially long distances – isn't an easy task. Thomas: "It's hard to make your body go faster. Some kids think they can turn it on a couple of weeks before race day. But over a long period of time, it's the runners who consistently train hard who come out on top." Added Jenn Adams '08, a former Owl All-American and national champion, now serving as an assistant at RPI, "As a coach, your job is to make them better runners, but they have to have the drive inside them."
Focus. Keene State runners have to be a special breed. Without the creature comforts of a track, the Owls must be strong enough to handle distance and distractions. "At Keene State, good runners plan their day, what they eat, and their weekends around running," said Haley Lydstone, a sophomore from Bedford, New Hampshire. "They are not shy about snow or rain. They can feel pain and run through it, knowing that the end of a workout or hard run is more rewarding. They will perceive an injury or time off as the worst possible scenario."
When Thomas thinks about all the athletes he's coached over the years, he is as fond of the runners who worked hard just to earn a spot on the team as he is of the gifted ones who make up his long and impressive list of cross-country and track national champions (20) and All-America winners (146). "Looking back, I've been fortunate to have kids who wanted to push their limits and work hard," Thomas said. "I learned something from each one of them."