Where Your Dreams Become Reality
Greg Brock: The Man Who Always Expected Maggie Vessey To Be An 800 Meter Star
By Robert Johnson
(Author's note: On August 5th, I gave a call to Greg Brock, coach of US 800-meter star Maggie Vessey, to see if he'd be willing to talk to LetsRun.com about Vessey's amazing season. Now, calling the top people in the sport can be a bit nerve-wracking at times as some of them just don't get LetsRun.com and try to hold us personally responsible for anything ever written on the message board that is critical about them.
No worries with Greg Brock. He emailed me back a list of times he was available after writing, "I am a devotee of Letsrun and have been sorely tempted many times to comment to many mini-morons that you seem to attract. On balance, the positive outweighs the negative and your website has been my main source of keeping up with our fine sport."
After reading that, I knew that the interview would be great and it was. Below you will find a story that hopefully recaps most of it.
Brock is a graduate of Stanford University where he ran under
August 12, 2009 - When interviewing someone in the coaching profession, it's normally pretty easy to determine who is faking it. Greg Brock most certainly isn't faking it.
A 45-minute chat with Brock, which was supposed to be focused on his coaching Maggie Vessey to the world's #2 time in 2009, as well as shock victories at Pre, Rome and Monte Carlo, ended up covering much more, as Brock talked about psychology, past running and coaching greats, exercise physiology, Galen Rupp, Nick Symmonds and even Adolf Hitler.
Brock is someone who has an interesting mind and comes across as a rare coach who can explain and wants to explain why he does everything he does. Clearly this guy has acquired a breadth of knowledge during his life and his 45 years associated with the sport and it honestly was a real treat to converse with him.
Maggie Vessey's sudden rise to the top of the world 800 meter ranks has been one of the biggest and most surprising stories of the 2009 season. But to her coach Greg Brock, the rise clearly isn't sudden nor unexpected. If anything, it was long overdue.
Spotted Her Talent At A
Long Time Ago
"I watched her run a 400 in 56. And it was 28 - 28. Dead even. And I was like, 'Now there is your ideal 800 meter runner,'" said Brock. "(Later that summer), I had a talk with Maggie and her mom. And I told her if you stick with running, someday you'll be an 800 meter runner. And if you are really dedicated, you just might end up on the cover of Runner's World magazine."
So while to the rest of the of the world, Vessey's 2009 season is a big surprise, to Brock it's far from it as he recognized her talent at an early age. If you believe in fate, it seems as if the tandem were meant to be together as the facts show that within five-plus months of starting to work with Brock in February of 2008 (some 10-plus years after their initial meeting), Vessey had placed 5th in the US Olympic Trials.
In 2009, she's built on that success and taken it to a whole new level as she's earned victories over stacked field at the Pre Classic and in big European meets in Rome and Monaco. But the law of averages states that for every high there has to be a low, and prior to Vessey's great success in 2008 and 2009, there were the down years of 2006 and 2007. After a standout career at Cal Poly, where as a senior Vessey was the NCAA runner-up in 2:03.10 before getting 7th at USAs, Vessey signed a pro contract with Asics and joined the Santa Monica Track Club.
But Vessey didn't do well in Southern California. Brock calls her two years with Santa Monica as Vessey's "lost years" as she only ran one race of note and it was a poor one - a 2:11.57 800 in June of 2007.
A series of injuries basically wiped out Vessey's 2006 and 2007 and by the time 2008 came around, she'd largely been forgotten.
Brock, who prides
himself on tailoring his coaching to the individual, thinks it was a mistake
for the coaches at Santa Monica to try the cookie-cutter approach of thinking
that Vessey, who had only started to run the 800 as a sophomore in
college, needed to run more mileage to get better at the 800.
"Within 8 weeks (of the increased mileage), she ran a 17:20 5,000 but then got hurt. And then the rest of her time there was being hurt, starting again, getting hurt, that whole thing," added Brock, who said that at one point in Southern California that Vessey had a stress fracture in her femur.
Given the fact that Brock got 5th in the 1972 US Olympic marathon trials and was a high mileage guy himself who ran an average of 97 miles a week for 13 weeks prior to his senior year in high school, many people, including a lot on the LetsRun.com message board, had incorrectly assumed that the reason why Vessey had broken through under Brock's coaching was that Brock had improved Vessey's endurance by greatly increasing her mileage ("or cranking out the miles" as message board poster 'Graceland' said).
"I thoroughly enjoyed (those posts on the message board). It's always nice when people stereotype you and they don't really know much about you. I try to aim my coaching at the individual," said Brock, who added that during his first year of coaching in HS 35 years ago that he had 8 runners going at the end of the season and he had eight different workouts for them as they all were different."
"That's why the first thing I do (with a runner) is assess them and make some judgments really. Is she a 400/800 runner? Is she 800/1,500?"
"Then you try to tailor the training to them."
Brock thinks one of the biggest problems with most coaches is the training is coach-centered or program-centered instead of athlete-centered.
"It's not one size fits all. That's one of the problems we have is that people get hung up one type of training and everyone (if forced to) fit the mold and it doesn't work that way."
"(I'd) go a step further (with the college coaches). They recruit a bunch of good people. They work the hell out of all of them and the cream rises to the top," said Brock, who also mentioned that this last season was the first season he ever had an athlete he was coaching diagnosed with a stress fracture in the middle of the competitive season.
After a difficult two years in Southern California, Vessey's Asics sponsorship was canceled and she returned home to Santa Cruz "with her tail between her legs" after what Brock said was a "'psychologically devastating' experience which haunts her to this day whenever she goes back to Southern California."
With no sponsorship, Vessey had to live on a "shoestring budget to say the least." She moved in with her sister and sister's boyfriend and received a little financial help from her mother. "It wasn't real good for the self esteem. She felt real guilty," said Brock about Vessey's financial situation last year.
But by the time Vessey started to be coached by Brock, he said he had a lot to work with.
Prior to getting back into track training, Vessey needed to just regain basic fitness. She got out some of her old training logs and did some things herself and she also started seeing local trainer Charlie Parker, who had trained under Canadian sprint coach Brent McFarlane, who was Canada's head coach for the 2000 Sydney Games. Brock says Parker "really got (Vessey) going in some ways," as she had a nice cross training routine that used ellipticals, bikes and stair climbers, and had been doing some good drill work and strength training.
Instead of inheriting a totally out of shape and broken runner, Brock says he inherited an athlete who "had a really strong base in the fundamentals." And then there was the thing that had mesmerized Brock since the first time he watched Maggie Vessey run - her form.
"And her running form is absolutely gorgeous. I didn't touch it at all and I'm a fanatic about running form. I just thought, 'I'm not changing that. It's really good.'"
So what did Brock and
Vessey and start working on? Mileage certainly wasn't it.
"One problem with doing too much distance is that at a certain point, you deaden some of the sprint fibers and you lose your ability to sprint," said Brock before going off on a tangent that clearly showed that Brock knows a ton about the history of the sport and the science of coaching.
Brock spent the next few minutes teaching me about the history of interval training and how it was pioneered by Dr. Woldemar Gerschler in the 1930s. Once Gerschler applied intervals to his protégé, Rudolph Harig, the rest was history, as Harig lowered the 800 meter world record to a then-ridiculous 1:46.6. That mark set in 1939 wouldn't be broken until 1955.
Harbig also set world records at 400 (46.0) and 1k (2:21.5) before being killed in World War II - an indirect casualty of Adolf Hitler's insanity.
It's clear that Brock, an exercise physiologist himself despite the fact that his degree technically says ergonomics, admired the way the tandem of Harbig and Gerschler worked together. "They were able to blend the quarter miler speed into 800 meter ability and he was coached by a doctor," said Brock.
But when I asked Brock what he and Vessey been doing training-wise, Brock paid homage to two other coaching legends closer to home - the USA and the PAC-10.
Bowerman + Bush =
Vessey / "Gradual Adaptation To Stress"
Healthy for the first time since college, Vessey had a strong 2008 season. When healthy, Vessey had improved every year she had run the 800 and that downward progression continued last year. A 2:06.53 performer in 2002, 2:05.78 in 2003, and 2:03.10 in 2005, Vessey ran 2:02.01 last year and got 5th at USAs.
However, Brock really thought Vessey should have run faster.
"I felt that she should have run 2-flat last year," said Brock whose belief is supported by the fact that the 6th placer at USAs in the 800 last year, Morgan Uceny, ended up running 2:00.01 in London last year.
But without sponsorship and lacking an agent, racing in Europe after the Trials wasn't a real viable option.
Brock also wasn't afraid to admit that "some race anxiety issues" hampered Vessey in both 2008 and 2009.
With a solid 2008 under their belt, the expectations for Brock and Vessey were higher heading into 2009.
Goals For 2009 -
Take That Next Step
"When you get 5th in the Olympic Trials, the next goal has to be let's make a team. So that was the goal for this year - to make the World Championships team. And I always told her. As far as we are concerned in the track community, making a World Championships team is the same prestige level as making the Olympics. Now the greater society says, 'you are an Olympian, you are fantastic,' but the World Championships are the same level."
"And of course, Maggie just has to do everything the hard way," said Brock.
Make the World Championships team is indeed what Maggie has done. But she certainly didn't do it the easy way. After a shock win at the Prefontaine Classic, when Vessey was entered in the race almost as a field filler, expectations were high for Vessey heading into the US Trials. In the first round, Vessey literally ran 25 meters behind last place for the first 600 before kicking it in to advance to the next round. In the semifinals, she maintained contact with the field and at 500 easily made a move to front to advance to the final.
But in the final, Vessey inexplicably once again let the field get 25-plus meters ahead at 600. The "race anxiety issues" were raising their ugly head (Brock even admitted that Vessey's tactics "flabbergasted us"), but with her back against the wall, Maggie Vessey did something special in Brock's mind.
600 meters into the USA final, when the goal is top 3 and a World Championships bid, a year-and-a-half after she'd been forced to move in with her sister and her sister's boyfriend, weeks after shocking the world with a Prefontaine Classic victory on national television, and somehow Vessey had let herself fall 25 meters behind last with 200 to go. What do you do in such a situation? Brock feels most runners would have likely simply packed it in and let the anxiety take them over.
Back Against The Wall - She Does Something Special
In my mind, the situation shows perfectly that Brock and Vessey are ideally suited for each other. Whereas most coaches likely would have been irate that Vessey could put herself in such an inexplicably awful spot at 600, Brock instead focused on the positive.
"Where that last 100 meters came from, (I have no idea). I mean here is a person who should have just jogged it in for 2:04 and last place but she kicks it into high gear and at least got herself up to 4th, so she could put herself in the position to chase times in Europe," said Brock about Vessey, who needed to break 2:00.00 to earn a World Championships team spot.
In the end, Vessey's desperate kick ended up being just fast enough as it did allow her to chase times in Europe. And in Europe, Vessey did amazingly well. But yet again, it wasn't easy or smooth sailing.
In her first race, Vessey earned a stunning Golden League victory in Rome in 2:00.14. A week later, she was all set to race the Golden League Paris meet but while warming up, she felt tightness in her hamstring and decided not to race. A few days later, she wins again in Belgium and yet again she just misses the 2:00.00 barrier with a 2:00.04.
And then, as time is running out, she has her second bad race of 2009. In London on July 24th, with the end-of-July deadline for Worlds fast approaching, she is a total non-factor in a race and finishes 8th of 10 in 2:03.06.
Then, just like at USAs at 600, Vessey's back was totally against the wall. And yet again, just when it seemed like hope was about to be totally extinguished, Vessey came up with something spectacular once more.
Except unlike at USAs, when few (except LetsRun.com) noticed Vessey's unreal rally, this time the whole world recognized Vessey's magnificence as just 4 days after London, she ran what was then a world-leading 1:57.84 in Monaco.
"There's This Whole Understanding The Sport Thing"
They all resulted from a lack of sleep.
Brock Talking About The
Brock On Vessey's
Disaster in London:
For Brock, improvement in running is all about taking one step at a time and since he viewed Vessey as a 2:00 runner last year, her 1:57 isn't a total shock. The ground work for the world's #2 time, of course, began in the off-season. But for Brock, running fast isn't just about workouts or mileage.
"(One thing) that I think really helped was that (Maggie) started working part time at a sporting goods store and that gave her something to do so she didn't have to just sit around and dwell about running," said Brock. "She was able to put a little money in the pocket and see her self esteem raised a little bit."
So with a flexible job at Jerry's Sports in Santa Cruz (Vessey's manager there was/is local pole vault guru Joe Miyoshi and he was very flexible with her) and a grant from USATF, Vessey was able to relax and not feel guilty about being a bit of a financial drain on the family. And of course, after her Pre Classic victory, Vessey's financial fortunes changed as her agent Ray Flynn was able to secure her a sponsorship with New Balance.
But Vessey is a runner and no doubt many of you want to know her key workouts. When I got the courage to ask Brock about what workouts Vessey does and in what times, I was pleasantly surprised that he unlike most coaches didn't decide to brush aside the question.
"Well geeze, I hate to give away all of my secrets but I guess I'll tell you as I bet most people wouldn't understand how to use these workouts and most people would take them and just ruin an athlete with them as everything has to fit together," said Brock before describing his key Connector Workout as well as the last hard workout he's going to give Vessey prior to Worlds.
So then how do you something that is race specific without actually racing and just tearing people down??? This is an old Bowerman thing. You obviously know about the 40-30 drill (where an athlete runs 200 meters repeats continuously alternating them in 40 seconds/30 seconds). Well, when you have a half-miler of Maggie's ability, you maybe start in the fall with maybe 32-33 and then just add 10 seconds to that. So she'd run a 43 second 200 and then a 33 second 200 and then do that again. It's a non-stop half mile of running but with varied pace. Now that's a 2:32 half. You do 3 or 4 of those. That's a decent workout.
The goal is to start with 2 and to build up to four 40-30s or better. And this year, we are kind of playing around with 39-29 type stuff. Now given the base of that workout, occasionally you can do something different.
One time I had her run a thousand meters where the ideal was to 39, 29, 39, 29, 39. And she hit that very close. She ran 2:50 for a thousand meters that way. I think the way she got it, the fast ones were maybe just a shade slow and the slow ones just a shade fast but she was pretty much on it.
The workout I'm going to have her do this week - the last hard one before the World Championships ... I'm going to have her run an 800 going 39-29. Then a big recovery of 10 minutes. And then we'll just do a 600. We'll go 28-38 and I don't know if there's another 28 left in there but it'll be a sub-30.
That's the idea.
That's what I call a connector workout.
Can you see making a half miler do repeat half miles? There's something weird about running intervals (equal to or over your race distance). I know it's done at various times of the year. But there is something about that workout - the very active recovery.
There's even a physiological correlative to this when you push into oxygen debt, you back off just a little bit, your body learns to utilize the lactic acid for fuel, lactic acid plus oxygen is pyruvic acid and guess what? - we are right back in the Krebs cycle again. What happens is your body learn to create more enzymes that speed up that reaction of lactate back to pyruvate and when you do workouts like that, that's why its so effective."
Given the fact that Brock thought Vessey should have run 2:00 in 2008 and given her victory at Pre early in 2009, it's not a surprise to learn that Brock definitely thought Vessey was capable of breaking 2:00.00 once she headed to Europe. But for Brock, running is always about a "focus on the process," and as a result, the advice he gave Vessey prior to departing for her first true European campaign was all process-focused. 2:00.00 wasn't mentioned.
Vessey Heads To Europe
And take a chance is what Vessey did in Europe as she earned three different victories.
As Brock said, "And finally (pauses), she did it and found out that what everyone has been telling her all along (is true) - that the best way to race is to actually get in the race, engage (the competitors) and just do it."
As for her Monaco race, Brock was extremely proud of the aggressive move Vessey made passing basically the entire field on the rail on the backstretch.
The 1:57 Explained
In terms of racing tactics, it's clear that Brock has always been trying to get Vessey to run a little closer to the front. He doesn't think running at the back is a bad strategy, he just knows "you can't run 25 yards behind."
The type of racing Brock has tried to get Vessey to imitate is none other than Nick Symmonds.
Do What Nick Does
And in Europe, I've told Maggie the same thing. If you have to do it (create some space), that's what you are going to do. If you are ready to go and people aren't letting you, you just go through. Anything short of a felony conviction, they don't disqualify."
There is no doubt that Brock views Vessey as a tough athlete and he'd like her to race that way as well. Vessey "is very disciplined and focused" and a hard worker who is very hard on herself according to Brock.
The only elite athlete under Brock's coaching, Vessey "by and large" runs by herself, although occasionally Brock has one of his best high school boys help Vessey through a particularly "extra nasty workout."
Looking ahead toward Worlds, Brock has everything planned out prior to the World Championships. Because Vessey is an 800-meter groove, Brock thought it would be a mistake for Vessey to go two weeks without a race, so he had Vessey run a 400 at an all-comers track meet last Thursday, August 6th - the halfway point between Vessey's last race in Europe and first race in Berlin.
Earlier in the year, in her last race prior to USAs, Vessey broke her college PR of 53.82 by running 53.61 at Los Gatos. Last Thursday, Vessey ran 54.31.
Our initial interview with Brock occurred prior to the race and Brock told us he definitely wasn't expecting a PR this time. He just wanted her to get the type of effort that "keeps your lungs tough and everything flowing along."
After the race, LRC called Brock back to fact check a few things for this article and LRC asked Brock about Vessey's performance. Brock said he was happy with the 54.31, which Vessey produced from a standing start. He said Vessey was still a "bit sore" as she had gotten a massage two days in a row, including a full body one the day before the race. As a result, her told her he wanted her to go from a standing start and to run an "even pace" which is what she did as she went 27 - 27. "It's a very good effort and sets her up well for her next race," said Brock.
After that race, Brock has the one final connector workout planned and then Vessey will be off to Berlin.
As for the goals for Berlin, I asked Brock if he was worried if all the talk and hype would get to Vessey. After all, Vessey - until three weeks ago - was a woman struggling to make Worlds and now she goes there with the world's #2 time and as someone who earned three big victories this year on the pro circuit. Now there's a lot of chatter on the message boards about her medaling. But Brock didn't seem too worried about the hype influencing Vessey, as he says she stays off the message boards.
And when talking about what the goal is for Berlin, Brock proved yet again that he's not your normal uninformed coach who acts like he or she knows it all. Rather, he's full of knowledge but not afraid to admit what he doesn't know.
Brock On The Goals
I can honestly
tell you I don't know if she is out of gas this season or if there is more in
there. It is exhausting. The
travel is exhausting. The emotions are exhausting. Some people don't do well
with rest. I was an athlete if I took a few days rest it completely threw me
for a loop and consequentially I didn't take enough time between seasons. I
fried myself a few times.
"What I tell Maggie is always the same thing: 'It doesn't matter what the race is. I want you to focus on process. Not outcome. Just think process. And just do your very best.' The beauty of our sport is if we do our very best, you cannot be unhappy.
Too many people have unrealistic goals. I know people that could go out and run a PR but because their PR was higher than that or to beat someone, they would actually be crushed. Not me. All you have to do is ask yourself one question. Did I do my very best? And that's what I want her to do."
Vessey will undoubtedly do her best in Berlin in a few weeks. As for Brock, he won't be there to see it. He did secure a passport but coaching credentials were due on the 30th and it wasn't official that Vessey was going until the 31st.
But Brock has no worries that his absence will hurt Vessey.
"It wasn't in the cards this year. Maybe someday in the future. But this is going to work out well," said Brock, who didn't accompany Vessey to Europe when she went earlier in the summer either. "It's time for my high school program to get started and I want to be with them."
"And one of the things I try to do as a coach is I want my athletes to learn to become independent of me. I can't be there holding the fan in the middle of the race when that critical moment opens up. Some coaches tend to over-coach. And then when the athlete gets in a sticky situation, they don't know what to do."
"Maggie has done exceptionally well with everything she has had to deal with over there (already in Europe). Hopefully she is a little battle-hardened and tougher as a result of that."
Check back in the coming days for more insight from Brock. He gives us his take on Galen Rupp as well as the differences between coaching men and women.