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The advent of Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) in 2004, the showcase event in high school distance running, not only elevated cross-country to its rightful place in the running landscape but coincided with the emergence of Fayetteville-Manlius of upstate New York as the most dominant team in the sport. It was that season when Bill Aris became head coach of both boys and girls at Fayetteville and started experimenting with bold, new ideas on how to enhance high school runners. Aris’ methods and philosophy, adapted in part from the “Stotan” principles of the legendary Australian coach Percy Cerutty in the 1950s and ‘60s, clearly took root.
At NXN, held every December in Portland, Oregon, the F-M boys since 2004 would accrue the best aggregate podium-level team showing of any school, and the F-M girls would win 11 of the last 13 national team championships—most by huge margins. One year, 2010, the F-M girls triumphed by an inconceivable margin of 59 seconds per girl in the 5k race. Another year, 2014, the F-M boys and girls swept the national titles—the boys by the largest victory margin to date, the girls with a record-setting 11-second spread between scoring runners.
Amazing Racers, published by Pegasus Books in August, tells the story of how these remarkable athletes from the Syracuse area, and their coach, a former marathoner, upended conventional practice by probing the teenager runner’s body, mind and soul. Here’s a taste:
By 2004, high school cross-country had come far since Aris began started coaching as a Fayetteville-Manlius assistant in 1992. Increasing media exposure showed that some of the most formidable athletes in any sport were cross-country runners, and that year-around running along with weight training and other supportive exercises were required to compete with the best. Cross-country was getting some overdue respect. Why mess with it? Because, Aris said, it could be even better.
After reading Percy Cerutty and other texts on group dynamics and sport psychology, Aris felt an opportunity to create a New Athlete transformed from good to great, from normal to extraordinary, who would become the template, at Fayetteville-Manlius, for a re-definition of the runner. The teenage runner, with enhanced physical, emotional and spiritual powers, would now stand as the model athlete, the athlete supreme.
That was his goal. Aris, then 59, would start by throwing away the coach’s favorite tool, the stopwatch, and train the runners with spontaneity, creating workouts as he went along. He would write nothing down, have no preconceived notions, no schedule, no system, as it were, only his instincts to tell him, as he sized up the boys and girls, what would stimulate their hearts and minds and muscles on that day, at that moment.
A typical summer practice at the squad’s primary training site, Green Lakes State Park, preparing for the fall cross-country season, was a three-hour event, starting in the heat of the day at 3 P.M. (because many an early-season meet had hot weather). Molly Malone, who competed on four NXN championship teams, from 2006 through 2009, and was a national caliber track runner as well, recalled how she experienced it:
- Arrive in mandatory sweat pants to keep warm even if it was 85 degrees.
- Gather at the oak tree at the corner of the Frisbee gold course and wait for Bill to start talking.
- Listen to him talk.
- Keep listening.
- Oh my God, we’re going to be here forever.
- Holy shit, is this over yet, it’s gonna get dark.
- Wait…actually…keep talking… if it gets dark I won’t have to run.
- Ugh, Bill’s stopped talking, time to do 5 minutes of barefoot drills.
- After barefoot drills, 10 minutes (which felt like an hour) of rigorous core work.
- WOW, WE HAVE TO RUN AFTER ALL THAT?!
- Go out and run until you’d rather be dead.
- Go home and eat the entirety of your fridge.
- Fall asleep by 9.
- Wake up the next day and repeat. Try not to cry.
Whether purposeful or not, Aris took on the aura of a prophet. In his speech and carriage and body language, he could convey an idea that, among the F-M runners, would acquire a Talmudic caress. Let it be spoken, let it be done.
“Bill would walk around at Green Lakes up above us on a hill carrying a big stick, like a staff, as tall as him,” said Heather Martin, who could outrun most of the country after Aris converted her from a sprinter to distance runner. “With his bald head shining in the sun, he looked like God walking around.”
From Cerutty, Aris learned to decry “schedule addicts,” insisting that running should be “play,” a view advocated by running philosopher Dr. George Sheehan, the cardiologist and best-selling author who excelled in competition well into his 60s. Cerutty said that when the athletic endeavor—running—is fashioned in a “routine, scheduled” way, “we depart from the natural, the joyous, the exhilarating.”
Aris felt, the harder the run, the more exhilarating. As the F-M runner Owen Kimple, the nation’s sixth-fastest 1600m runner in 2006 at 4:07.71, would say later on, “Coach had a specific workout style that I’d never seen or heard of anywhere else. He would never tell us how long the total workout would be. We would never know if the end was near till Bill gave us the signal by calling ‘finisher,’ always the most difficult and grueling part of the workout.”
That little bit of Cerutty mischief alone would have profound effects. Not knowing when the training was over, athletes ran each segment hard—harder, what they were capable of—instead of backing off to save something for the end or bowing to fears of not finishing. Suddenly, the boys and girls were running at a new level, swept up by an accretion of delicious detail, and a zest for more.
Every workout would have elements of surprise. Aris was the chef cooking up a new dish, with new ingredients, but not based on a traditional recipe—all to serve the human need, and certainly the teen-age need, for newness, variation, excitement. No runner would be limited by what they thought they were capable of. Aris would never limit an athlete by yesterday’s workout, yesterday’s definition of success.
As one of Aris’ more precocious young ladies, Katie Sischo, a three-time NXN all-American, told me after one of Fayetteville’s national championship victories: “I’m never going to say that I’ve fulfilled my potential because I’ll never know if that’s the case.”
Sischo could have been speaking about her coach as well. Once Aris stepped away from conventional coaching, he not only began to redefine his runners but himself and who he was as artist, scientist and philosopher-guru. Aris’ canvas of ideas, instructional strategy, of motivation and inspiration, had no end point. There was no way to stop. All day long, Aris thought: How could I make it even better?
Imagine getting up every morning and meeting eager young runners who, in time, felt everything you felt, who wanted to run as hard as you could ask them to, who made one breakthrough after another, not to garner some trophy but for inner peace, same as you, and a sense of giving to others in the spirit of selflessness, just as you taught them. You would never stop thinking about those moments of grace when the whole world seemed right.
When Bill Aris said, “What if?” again and again, he could not know what pearls he would find in the young runners and how his discovery would lead to a quest for something thought to be unattainable: a boys-and-girls team sweep of the national high school cross-country championships. #
Footnote: The success continues; Fayetteville-Manlius started the fall 2019 season with runaway victories for boys and girls at two upstate New York invitationals and is preparing for the Oct. 12 Manhattan Invitational Eastern States Championships events at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.
Excerpted from Amazing Racers: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Team and its Revolutionary Coach by Marc Bloom. Published by Pegasus Books. © Marc Bloom, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
Marc Bloom was the editor of four national running magazines: The Runner, Nike Swoosh, Runner’s World’s High School Runner, and Harrier Cross Country, which led to the start of Nike Cross Nationals and other events. Marc has written for The New York Times and been a senior writer for Runner’s World and Running Times. The recipient of numerous journalism and lifetime achievement awards, and a life-long runner, Marc is a coach for the cross-country team at Princeton High School in New Jersey. Amazing Racers is Marc’s tenth book.