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Inside Lane: How Ed Eyestone Trained the BYU Cougars to Their First NCAA XC Title

Olympian Ed Eyestone, who has won the NCAA national XC title as both an athlete and a coach, shares lessons in training, race strategy and coming back from time off.

For the past three years, the entire NCAA has been staring down the backs of the Northern Arizona University men’s cross country program. But this November, as the Lumberjacks chased their fourth consecutive NCAA XC team title, the BYU Cougars interrupted NAU’s grasp at history with a momentous run of their own to claim the program’s first-ever team title. The team win capped a steady rise for the Cougars, who placed fourth in 2016, third in 2017 and second in 2018. 

BYU head coach Ed Eyestone, a two-time Olympian in the marathon, is now the first person in NCAA history to win the men’s individual NCAA cross country title as an athlete (1984) and the team title as a coach.

We talked to Eyestone about how the Cougars finally got it done this season and learned about some of the unique challenges of coaching at BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) and where most students serve a two-year mission term.

Ed Eyestone at NCAA XC Championships
Photography by Nate Edwards/© BYU PHOTO

Believe the Impossible

“What we emphasized this year was, the naiveté of believing that it’s possible, being dumb enough to believe that you’re capable of doing things that other people don’t think you’re capable of doing. And I think that [mentality] ultimately was the thing that carried the day.”

Easy Summer Miles

“I think the last few years we’ve done a good job of not getting too carried away in the summertime. We don’t introduce anything close to tempo pace until a couple weeks into August, so it’s mostly mileage and strides and things like that. We’ve been very good at being able to avoid injuries. A lot of being able to deliver at the end of the season is being able to keep your horses healthy on the starting line when it counts for the championship portion of the season.”

Not Every Race Matters

“We’re also very good at realizing that the meets really don’t matter that much until you get to the championship portion of the season. For BYU, the only ones we really care about are the conference meet and the national meet. And, you know, the obvious thing that I think is not any secret, is that regional meets don’t really matter for anything other than qualifying.

When you’re in the Mountain Region and you’ve got perennially three of the top four or five teams in the nation, you’d be kind of silly to knock each other out eight days before the national meet. We make sure that we’ve scored enough points early in the season that we can go into the regional weekend [and] just use that as a further preparation week.

This year, we knew that we could probably get fourth [place at the Mountain Regional] and be fine because we got enough points [to qualify for nationals]… this year, we just said, ‘the regional is nothing more than a semi-final.’

But everyone’s nightmare is you try to get too cute with it and you end up not making it to the national meet.”

Win the Race That You’re In

“We basically had three things to work on:

Our number one goal was getting out well. Some of that was based on starting position and some of it was based on the weather conditions, knowing the course would deteriorate and, you know, the muddier it gets, the more difficult it is to make up ground. It’s easy to get discouraged. I think since your purchase on the ground is a little bit more tenuous, it’s harder to move up late in the race like you might do on a track or on a course that’s not muddy.

The second third [of the race] is to maintain and move up.

Then over the last 3K, we always emphasize finishing strong and in particular, winning the race that you’re in. We’re not going to have a pack of seven guys together with 3K to go, but rather there will be various packs that you’ll be running in. Identify that pack, make sure you win that race that you’re in. In [Conner] Mantz’s case, he was going to be in the lead pack and he was going to try to win that race overall, or at least finish top three, which he ended up doing.

We knew Jake [Heslington] and [Daniel] Carney were going to be probably in the same kind of position, running close to each other. If they could gather themselves and battle to win the race of the people around them in the teens or 20s, and then [Brandon] Garnica and [Matt] Owens do the same thing to win the race for 35th or 40th—all those things added together, we were going to score less points than we did last year [when] we ended up second. That’s the part of me that really felt, as we crunched those numbers, that, ‘hey, we could be low 100s [points],’ and if you finish double digits, then you’ve got a very good chance to win, particularly if somebody else has an off day.”

Ed Eyestone with the NCAA XC team trophy
Photography by Nate Edwards/© BYU PHOTO

Long-Term Planning

“I started coaching in 2000. It had been kind of hit and miss even making it to nationals. When I first came on, the first thing I wanted to do was make sure we got to the national meet every year.

As a coach, you have a five-year plan because by the fifth year, you can have all your people in place that you’ve recruited. I think four or five years in, we got fifth place, but it took us until 2011 to finally get on the podium. Since 2011, we’d been on the podium a number of times… so I think we’ve gotten to the point where, yeah, we’re a consistent top 10 [team] in an okay year and we should be on the podium in good years. In those very special years, hopefully we’re able to fight for a spot towards the top.”

Easing Back In: From LDS Missions to NCAA XC

“These are not areas where you would typically think, ‘this is going to be conducive to running,’ and they don’t run [while on missions]. Most of them get back in the summer and it requires, usually, that first semester of just trying to get some of the extra pounds off.

You can imagine if you take a two-year break, it has to be kind of slow to get back in. They’re carrying more weight than they normally would be, [so] you have to be extra careful. If they’re 20 pounds overweight, their muscles, tendons, ligaments just aren’t as strong as they used to be. A 70 mile-per-week kid before his mission can’t just go 70 miles again. You have to gradually bring him into it… you have five years to get in four years of eligibility, so we’ll usually redshirt.

A rule of thumb, at least initially, is, ‘how do you feel running three miles?’ Or sometimes I’ll give them a time goal, it might be 20 minutes every other day. After a week back, [we’ll alternate] hard days and easy days. The difference is, rather than a 15-mile hard day, or 12-mile easy day, with these guys, it might be 3 and 5, with a 7-mile long run on the weekend. That would be two to three weeks [back from mission]. They’ll be as high as 30 to 40 miles per week when school kicks in. Over the course of the first semester back, they’re able to get approximately to their [mileage from] before the mission.

Maybe as important as getting aerobic training back and strengthening ligaments and getting used to the pounding is feeling part of the team. The key is to get [the guys fresh back home from missions] totally back in, immersed in the culture by coming to all the workouts, doing the mileage. The top group’s running 10 x 1000m and the [post-mission] group would do maybe two or three, or maybe they’re just running their mileage around the perimeter of the field

Coming out to the track or the trail, the team is seeing them go through the process [of getting back in shape] that the majority of the guys have gone through themselves. [They’ll offer encouragement], ‘don’t despair, be patient with it.’ It serves as motivation.”