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Inside Lane: Behind Arkansas Women’s Dominant XC Season

The Arkansas women national-champion team shares details on training priorities, key workouts and race-day strategy.

The University of Arkansas fields one of the most storied track and field and cross country programs in NCAA history for a reason—their men’s and women’s teams have earned a combined 46 national team titles, including 11 men’s NCAA cross country titles. But it wasn’t until this November’s NCAA Cross Country Championships that the women’s team earned their first fall crown.

Seniors Katie Izzo and Taylor Werner doubled as the team’s low sticks in third and fourth place, respectively. But right behind them, a trio of women from BYU crossed the line in fifth, sixth and seventh place. The teams’ fates weren’t sealed until the bitter end, with the Razorbacks winning their first title over BYU by just six points—96 to 102.

With the victory, Arkansas secured the triple crown of indoor track, outdoor track and cross country national team titles in one calendar year—the first women’s team in 33 years to do so, and second team ever, alongside Texas. Arkansas is also now the second program in NCAA history, alongside the University of Oregon, to win all six national championships: men’s and women’s cross country, indoor and outdoor track.

Perhaps just as impressive as the win itself was the Razorbacks’ consistency throughout the year. The women entered the fall as the top-ranked program in the nation and never fell from their perch, earning wins at the SEC Conference Championships and setting a perfect score of 15 points at the NCAA South Central Regional Championship.

Katie Izzo Arkansas XC
photo: Arkansas Athletics

Rebuilding the Ringer

Key to the Razorbacks’ big year was the addition of a major talent: Izzo, who joined the team as a graduate student after earning her degree from Cal Poly.

The California native had a promising if tumultuous career as a Mustang, and it came to an unexpected halt in 2016 when she broke her leg during the NCAA West XC Regional. She had a titanium rod placed in her leg and wouldn’t race again for a year and a half.

Head coach Lance Harter, now a 30-year veteran at Arkansas, was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cal Poly for mentoring the women’s cross country and track and field teams to 13 NCAA DII titles during the 1980s and 1990s. He still keeps a close eye on his former program and soon became aware of Izzo. When she was interested in pursuing a graduate degree in sports management, it made sense to come to Fayetteville.

Izzo ran 16:08.32 for 5K to place 20th at the NCAA West Region Preliminary Round last spring in her last race as a Mustang. This year as a Razorback, she’s already run 15:13.09, the second-fastest indoor time in collegiate history.

Harter attributes Izzo’s astounding improvements to Arkansas’ medical team and specifically, Mark Hinton, the athletic trainer who works exclusively with the women’s track and field and cross country programs.

Izzo had a muscle imbalance in her legs due to the titanium rod, which most of her physical therapy was designed to correct. The daily routine included basic core work, short arc extensions and flexion work, while Hinton would also regularly evaluate her stride.

“[Katie] was a physical mess when we inherited her,” Harter says. “But our medical team was able to put her back together really quickly and obviously, talent’s come into force.

“I was really concerned about her mechanics. Her training format previous years was 20 miles a week. She would break down because her mechanics were so messed up. It’s kind of like having a really high performance car but you got a bad wheel. If you drive that wheel really hard, you’re gonna break down and then you’re laying on the side of the road… Once she had equality in both legs, where they were equal in strength and mass, we tried to even her out to make her more effective and more efficient.”

Harter also created a specialized training plan for Izzo that emphasized low mileage and lots of cross training.

“Every resource you could possibly get ahold of,” Harter says of Izzo’s cross-training methods. “Lots of water running, she was on the bike, elliptical. Anything you could possibly do that didn’t cause any pain.”

Arkansas Women 2019 XC Team
photo: Arkansas Athletics

Minimizing Injury Risk

The original plan for the 2019 cross country season was to redshirt both Izzo and Lauren Gregory, who was also recovering from a serious injury. But once Izzo was back on campus, she was enthusiastic about contributing this season. And when Gregory saw the potential of this year’s team to go all the way, she was all-in as well.

A huge part of Harter’s job is creating individualized plans that minimize injury risk for a crew of women who have been through almost everything. Werner became one of the nation’s top runners last year after overcoming a back spasms caused by a car accident. All-American Devin Clark, the team’s No. 3 runner in Terre Haute, has had an on-and-off career over the past five years due to heel spurs, which caused plantar fasciitis and seemingly unrelated issues like sore hips or sore knees due to kinetic chain connections.

Harter actually met with Nike shoe designers recently to create a prototype racing spike that could circumvent Clark’s heel spur to prevent chafing and pain.

Due to various levels of potential injury risk, the women all have different mileage goals. Werner tops out around 60 miles per week, which makes her the highest mileage of anyone in the program.

Harter says he has perhaps a bigger emphasis on lower mileage and keeping runners healthy because Arkansas has a smaller margin for error. Many universities specialize, focusing their scholarship dollars on sprints and field events, or exclusively on the distance program. Arkansas, however, is one of the few well-rounded, elite track programs.

“We’re trying to do all three [seasons], which takes a lot of luck and talented athletes but we have very little room for error,” Harter says. “For example, last year we had a really good team but unfortunately, Lauren Gregory froze up and was unable to finish the race. She was our No. 2 runner and we don’t have resources to be able to cover that situation.”

Arkansas women's team NCAA XC
photo: Arkansas Athletics

Key Workout: The Twist

One of Harter’s signature workouts is simply called “the twist.”

As seen on a Workout Wednesday for FloTrack this fall, the women are assigned to run 5 x 1K with “a twist.”

On the day the workout was filmed, the twist was adding a full mile—but it could be anything extra tacked on to the end of a hard session. Depending on the time of year, the twist might be 1200 meters or 3 to 4 x 400 meters.

“Let’s be honest, coaching, especially with a group, is calculated,” Harter says. “You’re trying to be as accurate as you possibly can. The twist gives the coach some freedom to figure out which athletes—‘Hey, they’re done, that’s enough’—or others might be able to do one more or a spin off of it, and that’s why we’ve incorporated it into our training history.”

A key workout that the Razorbacks return to several times over the course of the season is called Walmart Hill, an 800-meter incline named for its position behind a local Walmart. The team will run four times up the hill and three times down.

“We take a short recovery on top and work on the downhill part of the hill,” Harter says. “I’ve always felt people misstep by not rehearsing good downhill running because it’s an opportunity to shut the energy expenditure off and still cover the flow of the competition, so you’re actually getting somewhat of a mental rest.

“The way that Terre Haute is designed, there’s some places where you get a chance to relax a little bit and still stay in the hunt.”

Race Day Roll Call

Race day in Terre Haute hasn’t changed much over the years. In November in central Indiana, it’s usually freezing, it’s usually raining and it’s usually pretty miserable.

When conditions are rough, it helps to know your teammates are right next to you hurting just as bad. That’s where “roll call” comes in.

“Devin has created this thing called roll call where they get to 1200 or a mile and she’ll go, ‘Here, I’m here!’ And they all answer and you know we’re in a position to reinforce each other. That’s disturbing to some of the opposition.

“That’s one thing that Katie really fed off of, the team was just so close and so caring, it was a really special experience. What’s cool for me as a coach is when you have a new person, especially of her caliber, remind the team, ‘Hey, this is really special.’”