Where Your Dreams Become Reality
In case missed it, LetsRun.com co-founder Robert Johnson was named the men's distance coach at Cornell University at the end of the summer. He thus left his brother, Weldon, without a training partner and departed for Ithaca, NY. Don't think that Weldon was too devastated to lose his training partner as Weldon had learned of late that perhaps identical twins shouldn't live together after college. Plus, Weldon tends to live in fantasy land and thinks he's the defacto coach of Cornell as he speaks regularly with Robert and thus he can take credit for their success without having to do any of the work.
Anyway, we get a decent amount of emails from fans of the site (and followers of the training philosophies espoused by the site) asking us about how Robert is doing in his first year of coach at Cornell. LetsRun.com also gets another group of emails from high schoolers or parents of high schoolers who have questions about the program. Thus to kill two birds with one stone, Weldon decided to interview Robert and present the interview here for everyone to have as reference.
Weldon: How have things been going at Cornell? How do you
I derive a great amount of satisfaction from what I do. This may sound a bit corny but the way I think about it is my job really is that of dream maker. It's my job to help people achieve that nearly impossible dream they have in the back of their head and I take that responsibility seriously.
You can think of track negatively as just a stupid waste of time where you're teaching people to run around in a circle fast or you can think of it as the highest embodiment of mankind - the ability to dream and accomplish one's dreams.
I mean I know that for most serious runners, running is what makes them tick. It's something they are thinking about in the back of their head consciously or subconsciously for much of their waking moments, and it's my job to help those dreams, that inspire them on a daily basis, become a reality. I mean that's pretty important. Unless they're falling in love for the first time, I'm sure it's the #1 thing on most of their minds for most of the day - the thing that's constantly floating back there, moving from the subconscious to conscious part of their brain.
Weldon: What made you want to get in coaching? Was it something
you were thinking about for a while?
The first is I was tired of seeing just seeing incredibly talented people who were close to me - primarily yourself and my college roommate and best friend, Chris Lear of Running With The Buffaloes fame (who also was a 4:09 high school miler), being so incredibly frustrated with their running in college. I mean both you and Chris, although you both enjoyed some modest success, never came close to achieving your collegiate goals. It just seemed that you guys either ran poorly when it counted most (yourself) or didn't improve a whole lot from year to year (Chris). To see people work so hard and yet not achieve their goals made me want to do something about it.
The second reason was that I knew there was a much, much better way to train. I mean having had the opportunity to train under John Kellogg in high school - where everyone got better from year to year - and always ran their best when it counted most, and having seen everyone close to me struggle at times made me come to the conclusion gradually of, "One, my god there is an awful lot of wasted talent out there, and two, John's philosophy and knowledge really is something special."
Then after college when you went back to training under John and had just an absolutely magical transformation - from an unrecruited mediocre collegian with a 30:13 collegiate best (10k pr) to one of the nation's best and Olympic hopeful with a 28:10 - and I finally got healthy and popped out a 2:23 marathon under John's guidance, I almost felt like I owed it to the sport I loved to get John's knowledge out there.
I mean that's what made us start the website - to spread the training gospel - although now I sort of want to keep it a secret.
What are your goals for the program?
On the first day of practice, I had a team meeting and talked about my vision for the program. I said the goals are the same each and every year - to win the Heps in cross-country and make nationals. However, those aren't really my goals at all for the program - that's the bare minimum starting point.
I almost think it's almost an embarrassment that there are so many teams that are just happy to make it to nationals. If you're going to the show, you might as well perform well. I think the men in the Ivy League have been underachieving for far too long. It seems like the teams for the last decade have been sort of happy to get to NCAAs and come in 25th or 30th. To me that is underachievement.
Just to get to NCAAs isn't all that great of an accomplishment. You need to perform well when you get there.
Now, what does perform well mean? I think the winner of our conference should be in the top 10 in the country most years. I mean our league is arguably the deepest league in the country for distance running. There are a lot of strong teams. This year, we were the only conference in the land where every team was ranked in the top 10 in the NCAA regional - so the winner of the league should be pretty darn good.
If you look at the women in the Ivy League, more than half of the time in the last decade, the top women's team has cracked the top 10 at NCAAs. So it's certainly doable on the men's side as well. If anything, it should be harder to do on the women's side than the men's as there are so many more scholarships to compete with on the women's side.
That's my goal - to build a consistent top 10 program but I certainly won't be content to stop there. If you're a top 10 program, your goal should be to get on the podium (top 4) in a good year, then once you're on the podium, you're obviously going to shoot even higher.
Now obviously the stars would have to align magically for the ultimate to happen - to win it - but I think the #1 mistake programs make is they don't aim high enough and after a few years the coach is willing to the let the guys or girls settle for mediocrity.
Do you really think you can build a top 10 program in the
Top 10 seems intimidating at first glance but if you actually break it down, it becomes much more doable. Do you know what the numbers 15, 81, 106, 132, and 147 have in common? That is the finishing places of this year's 10th place team (Iona) at nationals. That certainly doesn't seem unreasonable.
If you have one stud getting all American and then four others
in the top half - you're banging on the door for top 10. If you
have a really good group, you've got a chance for the podium.
Without athletic scholarships, isn't recruiting a problem?
If you work at recruiting, you should be able to get talented kids. I mean distance runners tend to be pretty smart kids so a lot of them are looking to get the best education possible and Cornell is one of the top academic institutions in the country. So the #1 thing we have to offer is you can't beat the academics. Being a top school academically helps way more in recruiting than does having a few athletic scholarships.
As for finances, I think people don't realize that most people can end up coming to Cornell for less money than what it would cost to go to school somewhere else on an athletic scholarship. The need-based financial aid that we offer ends up being better than an athletic scholarship for the majority of recruits, especially on the men's side as there are so few scholarships out there. So if you can get one of the best educations in the country, without breaking the bank, why wouldn't you choose Cornell?
I have it a lot, lot easier than most coaches - including some of the powerhouse programs. The only thing most coaches have to offer a kid is a limited number of partial scholarships to a not so good school. Here we have unlimited number of need-based aid scholarships to one of the finest universities in the nation. It's a very advantageous situation to be in.
At Cornell, you might not get the 8:45 2-miler or 4:05 miler very often, but in a very good year you maybe could bring in five 4:10-4:15 or 9:00-9:20 guys and a couple of stud half-milers.
How did the cross-country season go for you?
Cornell hadn't won the IC4a championship in 81 years - admittedly when we won it last it was the national championship, but now it's sort of the NIT tournament for Northeast cross-country - so it was a pretty good start for us.
However, the most important thing for me personally wasn't our finish or placement in any particular race. It was just to see the training philosophy implemented on a large scale and to see it work almost exactly as I anticipated, which was reassuring to me.
Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
Looking back at it, I guess my only grounded fear was that of implementation. So it was satisfying to successfully implement everything, have the guys buy into the philosophy and then enjoy some success as now I've eliminated the .5% of doubt I had and realized that there are no catches.
I mean I can remember my very first meeting with the guys and telling them that being successful at distance running can really be defined rather simply.
Three things define success:
1) you have to stay healthy as otherwise you can't achieve any of your goals.
2) you want to run faster than you did the year before and
3) you want to run your best at the end of the season when it counts instead of at the beginning of the season.
If you do those three things year in and year out, you're going to be very successful as a program. And we accomplished those goals to an amazing degree this first year. In terms of staying healthy, we were actually a little bit lucky during cross as injuries are just a part of distance running to some extent. We started the season with around 20 healthy bodies and we ended the season with 19 - the only injury that we had was a freshman got some shin splints and another guy was found to be anemic. Everyone else on the team who started the season healthy ended up getting in the best shape of their lives and running faster than they had before - man for man. The only two guys who hadn't PR'd ran PRs in their last races of the season which was rewarding as I knew they were the only two holdouts. I don't know if a lot of other teams across the country could say that - that everyone got faster and everyone stayed healthy.
Lastly, we certainly ran our best at the end of the season. At the beginning of the season, we simply weren't a very good cross-country team. We got absolutely trounced in our first meet of the season by two teams who we ending up defeating rather handily in our last two meets of the season.
We improved as much or more so than anyone - just not a lot of people realized it as we started a bit behind where I'd like to be but that's a bit understandable. I wasn't hired until the end of July and my top two seniors both were coming off some pretty serious injuries and didn't really get to do much over the summer and the summer is crucial to cross-country success.
What about indoors? How did that go?
However, indoors was an amazing time for us. We (Cornell) captured our first indoor Heptagonals championship (the Ivy League schools + Navy) in 25 years by really stepping up to the plate as a program, rising to the occasion and upsetting Princeton. So that was an amazing, amazing day - one that I'll remember for the rest of my life as it was very special to see an entire track and field team rise to the occasion on a single weekend. It's great to be able to say that you're the men's distance coach for the number one track and field program in the Ivy League currently.
Contributing to the winning effort was special as coach Taylor - our head coach - has proven how quickly hard work and good coaching can change a program. This is only his 4th year at Cornell and he's taken the team from dead last the year before he got here to 1st in less than four full years.
If he can do it in track that quickly, it means that it can be done in cross-country - even a little faster.
Team accomplishments aside, I enjoyed indoors personally a great deal as I really enjoy working with the mid-distance guys, and indoors really belongs to the mid-d guys. We have some pretty talented mid-d guys who form a great group with a lot of synergy so it was a lot of fun to work with them and have them be successful. My top guy - a junior - just missed the school record in the 800 by .01 (although it ended up being a moot point as he got DQ'd for tripping a guy) and my best freshman broke the 22-year old freshman record in the 800. Another guy PR'd and scored in the 1,000 at conference , and my top miler PR'd and scored at conference by running 4:09, so all in all they did pretty well.
Being a 10k/marathon guy myself, you might find it a bit surprising to hear me say that I think the 800 is the most exciting race in track and field. So working with the 800 guys is exciting just because of the nature of the race, but I also enjoy it because you're working with guys with a whole different set of talents.
Distance wise, I'll admit I was a bit concerned that the whole
indoor season I'd be worried about whether or not I was hurting
my distance guys' long-term development by working them out/racing
them too early, but that ended up not being the case. I think
that's where the majority of programs get themselves in trouble
- they burn the candle a little too hot indoors and are cooked for
outdoors. I think we found a nice happy medium of where you still
race indoors but do so in way a way that prepares you for better
things outdoors. I didn't over-race the guys and sort of used
the early races as the hard workouts to prep them for the end of
indoors/beginning of outdoors, and it turned out very well as they
still ran well indoors but didn't burn themselves out. My
top senior came in 2nd in the 5k at conference and our DMR came
through with the 3rd fastest time in school history at conference
and both of those performances were instrumental in our team victory,
so it was very rewarding and a lot of fun.
What about the beginning of outdoors?
I don't want my guys to be intimidated by anyone. I think the guys made an important statement to some of the younger guys on the team as well as to future recruits - that hey, Cornell isn't going to take a back seat to anyone unless they earn it.
I'm looking forward towards the rest of outdoors. I'm hoping we'll get a couple more NCAA regional qualifiers at the Penn Relays and then the focus will shift to the conference meet as it would be great to win both indoors and outdoors. Hopefully, it's half as fun as indoors as that was amazing.
It should be a real good team battle.
Looking ahead to the future, it seems like Cornell will be
very strong in track but how will you guys do next year in cross-country?
How has the recruiting gone?
We're losing four guys to graduation who at one time or another were in our top seven. Actually, all of them were in the top 5 at one point. Additionally, my top runner - a sophomore - is going to take the year off to explore some things. He's very talented and wants to really make an impact at the NCAA level so that extra year certainly will help him do that as he's probably a year away from being a real beast. When he comes back, he hopefully will be at the All-American level.
So you hear that and you're probably thinking, "A rebuilding year" or "They're going to be awful".
My response to that is I don't believe in rebuilding years. We have a good nucleus to work with. My two co-captains, one who will be a junior eligibility wise and the other just a sophomore, both were steady rocks this year and in our top 7 every single race. And my 4:09 miler - well I guess I should call him a 4:07 miler since he ran 3:49 for 1,500 - sort of saw a light bulb go off in his head this year near the end of cross (Editor's note: After the interview was conducted, the young sophomore dropped his 1500 time another 3 seconds to 3:46). I think now he realizes if he works hard over the summer and truly dedicates himself, that he should be a very good cross-country runner. I mean anyone that fast should be good at cross if they work at it - especially him as he was actually a two-miler early in his high school career. Plus we hopefully we'll be getting a guy back who was one of the top two or three freshman in the league last year but hasn't run all year due to a weird knee injury from a year ago. He's back to training a little now so that gives us a good nucleus of 3-4 guys to work with.
Thus you're looking for a combination of 1 or 2 guys on the team currently to really step it up or for a couple of freshmen to come in and have an impact in year one. That's certainly very reasonable. I mean we've done pretty well in recruiting. There are a bunch of guys coming in - many of whom will be pretty good in a couple of years - and I expect a couple of them to come in as freshmen and challenge for a spot in the top 5 if not higher. Time will tell.
A lot will depend on the summer. My favorite quote about cross-country is one I'm sure you're familiar with as our high school coach made it up, "Cross-country is a summer sport that's played out in the fall." If the guys really work their tails off, we should be fine for next year. The goals remain the same - to win the conference and go to NCAAs.
Realistically, I'd put the state of our cross program as the following. Next year, I'd hope to make NCAAs. In two years, I expect to make NCAAs and will be very upset if we don't make it as we'll get our top guy from this year back and we should be a real force. If we don't make it the year after that, when all of the talented young guys I have on the team now are seniors, then I'll offer coach Taylor my resignation. Maybe I'm on crack, but that's the year I dream about getting top 10 for the first time.
I think one of the biggest problems with this world is that far too many people are afraid of failure. They don't set ambitious goals as they are afraid they might fail and as a result they never push themselves and never end up accomplishing anything. I'm not one of those people. I told the guys in our first meeting, "If I'm going to be a collegiate distance coach, I'm going to be a good one - and by good I mean one of the nation's best. If not, then I'll just go use my Princeton economics degree, make a lot of money and be miserable working some business job I don't like."
I mean it would be far too easy for me to say, "Oh I didn't get hired until the end of the summer so I was behind on recruiting so this year doesn't count" and push everything back a couple of years. But that's not acceptable. I mean the one word of advice you gave me when I took the job was, "Robert, please don't have a five year plan. I'm sick of hearing about schools with continuos five year plans."
I agree 100%. I'm trying to instill a sense of urgency to get things done; otherwise, people become complacent and never accomplish anything.
As Robert Kennedy once said, "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."
We currently have a very small but good young nucleus of guys to work with at Cornell. In the years to come, I'm going to have a lot more to work with thanks to recruiting, which I work very hard at. But you only need to have 5 guys to be successful in cross, so if things go well for us next year, we should be a good team. It's just that we don't have a lot of room for error. We need to hit close to 100%, whereas a lot of teams tend to hit less than 50%.
Is there anything about coaching that you don't like?
Recruiting is something I actually enjoy as you get to talk to people about running but filling out paperwork isn't my cup of tea.
The other aspect I don't like is all of the b.s. that goes on between coaches. I mean it's unbelievable how much people lie to get someone into a decent heat in a meet. I mean you take someone's PR, drop it by 5 seconds and they still end up in 8th heat of a race. It's ridiculous.
There was a race the other day where guys hadn't run within 25
seconds of my guy's PR in the steeplechase and yet they ended up
in the first heat but my guy was in the second. Another of my guys
got rejected from the Penn Relays 5k, yet he'd most likely battle
for the win in the 2nd heat of the 5k. If anything, he should
be in the elite section and yet he gets rejected and now we have
to appeal the decision.
The only other aspect that sucks is having to tell someone they're not getting into the school or having them tell you they aren't coming, but hopefully you can sort of do some pre-selection and avoid too many recruiting situations that progress to that point. If I'm doing my job correctly, I shouldn't have to do that.
We constantly are getting asked here at LetsRun.com for advice
from high schoolers on what they should be doing to become successful
distance runners. What advice would you give them?
So my general advice is to build a base by doing lots of relaxed running with 1-2 days of strides and 1-2 days of light threshold running. Don't expect yourself to be any good until you've done that for at least 6 months - maybe even a year.
Run more. There are a ton of kids who come to college just totally unprepared for the increased workload and they likely end up getting hurt freshman year. I don't know what these high school programs are doing as all the other sports tend to practice for an hour or two a day, but the vast majority of high school distance runners do nothing close to that amount of work. I mean if you just get yourself where you run about an hour a day on average - not every day, just on average - that ends up being close to 60 miles a week. But it seems like a ton of senior distance runners aren't even close to that, yet they come to college and try to train like collegians and they end up getting themselves hurt. Surprise, surprise. So I'd say try to get yourself to where you can run close to an hour on a lot of days and get your long run up to 1:30.
However, that being said, I think the most important thing I can say about building up your mileage is to BE PATIENT!!! It may take you a couple of years to get to that level. One huge mistake that high school runners make is they jump their mileage up suddenly. Gradually build it up. I was constantly injured in high school as I wouldn't run over the summer and then I wanted to star for three months in the fall. There are no short cuts.
Running isn't a three- or six-month sport. It takes a year-round commitment. If you can only run 30 miles a week without getting injured, then run that amount for 6 months and then think about increasing it. After you have an injury free block of 3 or 6 months, you'll likely be able to run a bit more.
Having said that, I don't necessarily think young runners need to be running year round in 7th, 8th grade, even 9th grade. Do other sports, have fun. If you're good in 9th grade at track, then maybe think about giving up your other sports and doing it year round in 10th grade. But it's got to be fun and something you enjoy. If you don't enjoy running, then don't do it, as the sport requires just too much work for it to be worthwhile unless you enjoy it.
Of course, in high school, I don't think either one of us realized that we loved running. We thought we hated running but just liked the competition - so maybe the love of running is an acquired taste.
My last advice is of course - come to Cornell. I mean you can't beat the education, we have amazing facilities - perhaps the best of the East coast - we have an amazing trail system, we're the reigning indoor Heptagonal champs, and we compete in one of the nation's top distance conferences.
Actually, maybe I shouldn't say that, because by saying, "Come to Cornell" that's probably some sort of NCAA illegal recruitment violation that I don't know about. I'm kidding - but with all of the arcane rules - maybe I only think I'm kidding.
Is there anything else we missed?
As for times you need to run, the answer is there is no set time. It's just so hard to predict how much people will improve. I mean look at our high school team. Sometimes, the unrecruited 4:30/9:35 guy like yourself who only ran track senior year ends up being better than the 9:12 guy, as was the case with our highschool team. I mean heck you've got a great shot at the Olympics next year.
There are a lot of other successful walk-on stories out there. If you look at our team, both of our cross-country co-captains for next year were walk-ons. People just have to understand that to succeed at the division one level you're going to need to be willing to work extremely hard and even then there are no guarantees. Bust your butt over the summer and go out for the team. If you get cut, so what? You'll at least have tried and gave it your all instead of sitting there fat and obese at age 40 wondering if you could have been a division one athlete.
Of course, the faster you run the better it is for you in terms of being recruited and helped out with admissions. One tip I'd give to high schoolers is to really look into applying early at their #1 choice as it certainly helps with admissions if the school they are considering is real selective.
As for how much mileage do we run? It totally depends on who you are, how much experience you have and what events you do. Again, the #1 goal has to be to stay healthy. During the cross-country season, on any given week, we had guys running anywhere from 50 miles to 120 miles. It really totally depended on the individual and their experience. The pure 800 guys sometimes would only hit about 40 and there are one or two 800 guys who train with the 400 guys.
It's kind of funny as it seems all I've been doing the last two or three weeks is telling the guys to drop their mileage. It's now time to run fast.
As for the training "philosophy", I have to sort of laugh at that one as coach Taylor is always making fun of guys for asking about our coaching philosophy - as he says it's only distance runners who ask about "the philosophy."
My response is that I'm implementing a progressive-periodized training approach that stresses aerobic development. Progressive in the sense that you do more over time as the seasons and years progress. Periodized in the sense that you are stressing different things at different times of the year with the goal of peaking twice a year - once in cross and once outdoors.
The umbrella hanging over the whole program is the fact that running is a predominately an aerobic activity - even the 800 - so the more aerobically fit you are, the faster you are going to be.
That being said, the one thing we never forget year-round is some type of speed work. But we keep it alactic most of the time.
However, the training really does vary according to event group. The same principles apply, but the guys do a lot of different stuff, especially this time of year. I mean the 800 and 1,500 guys' workouts aren't even all that similar this time of the year. For example, last week, I think I had sent out via email 6 or 7 different workout schedules.
Well I guess that just about does it?
So I sort of assume that's the plan but I've never asked you about your intentions. Am I an idiot? I don't think so. Maybe it won't work though as I'll be used to having total control and will be like a mad dictator unwilling to share power.
Editor's note: (Wejo refused
to answer the question since many assume his career is already over
now that he is no longer good enough to pace women).
I simply tried as best I could to honestly lay out my ambitious goals for the program.
In saying that I think we can be a top 10 program nationally
and the # 1 team in our league, I didn't mean to disrespect anyone.
The top teams in our league have set the bar pretty high.
I just hope we at Cornell are able to go even higher, and in the
process, spur the whole league onto greater accomplishments, so
there are 3 or 4 teams in the top 20 most years.
(Editor's note: He's already sounding like a coach with the b.s. in that last statement)